Several years ago I was introduced to the term “church wife,” a paradigm of a 1950s woman who does the main work of keeping a home or church running efficiently, but is never allowed a leadership role or title (head of household, deacon, ministerial staff, pastor) typically reserved for men. Even today, congregations everywhere are overflowing with “church wives.”

Last month, I saw an article in the Lexington Herald-Leader by Catholic activist Janice Sevre-Duszynsky in response to a recent Vatican ruling. Apparently Catholic priests “involved in the ordination of a woman will now suffer greater penalties than priests who abuse children. Anyone involved in the ordination of a woman will be automatically excommunicated… The new edict places the ordaining of women called by God to priesthood on the list of grave sins next to pedophilia, heresy, apostasy and schism.”

Last week, I stumbled upon a Lexington cable-TV broadcast of a Baptist church service. The choir loft was filled with women and men, young and old, all sporting modern clothing and stylish haircuts. Yet the women all wore head coverings.

The young pastor was preaching that day on “The Christian Home.” His sermon was mostly directed to the women. After a few minutes of astonished listening, I jotted down several quotes from his sermon:

·  “Ladies, you have an obligation according to the Scriptures to have a well-kept home.”

·  “Older women have a calling to teach younger women to submit to their husbands.”

· “Husbands, you must love your wives into submission; wives, you must submit to your husband until he loves you more.”

Patriarchy is alive and well in both Catholic and Baptist circles – and beyond.

Once again, we look to Jesus to help us understand what God really intended for human relationships.

Through the years I’ve heard numerous sermons based on the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10; John 11-12). In every one of them, the only person who always ends up looking bad is Martha, the one whom Jesus gently reprimands for not keeping her priorities straight.

I’ve always felt a little sorry for Martha. After all, she was just doing her best to fulfill the role that society expected of her – housekeeper, cook and waitress, all “wifely” tasks. For all we know, her sister, Mary, may have been a wandering airhead.

Nevertheless, Jesus elevated the social status of both Martha and Mary. We don’t know if other men were present every time Jesus visited in their home, but Lazarus was their brother and likely lived with them. And the disciples usually traveled everywhere with Jesus.

Hospitality to guests was (and still is) an important part of Middle Eastern culture. Society typically relegated household tasks to the women, while the men sat and socialized together in a separate area.

Jesus defended Mary on more than one occasion when she (gasp!) forsook her “wifely” tasks and boldly entered a roomful of men to be near Jesus. He invited her to have conversations directly with him and, in a culture that didn’t allow women to be disciples of any rabbi, he even made her one of his disciples. A “middleman” was not required for her to have a personal relationship with Jesus and become his disciple.

And Jesus freed Martha from the kitchen. He invited her to be daring, to abandon society’s “wifely” expectations of her so that she could have a direct, personal relationship with him and be his disciple, too.

The Scriptures don’t relate any of the men’s responses to Jesus’ bold moves. Perhaps they were too stunned to respond. I can just imagine them thinking, hungrily, “Now wait a minute, Jesus. If both Mary and Martha are sitting here talking with us men, who’s doing the cooking? Who’s going to serve us some tea?”

Jesus was willing to wait on his dinner as he taught important relationship lessons to everyone in the room – and to us.

To the men: The world does not revolve around you. It revolves around the kingdom of God. Your assumptions of superiority and entitlement are not pleasing to God. Let go of some of your power and become real men. You will be much happier.

To the women: Be bold but without malice in your hearts. I will give you courage to challenge those who try to stand between you and me, or try to keep you from following me. I am your teacher; you learn directly from me. I will lead you. Keep working to become all that God created you to be.

The “woman’s place” in church and home has long been an issue for societies. Despite Jesus’ influence, patriarchy continues to exist after thousands of years. At our current rate of progress, it may take another thousand years for all women to be fully accepted as equal to men in both church and home. That’s discouraging sometimes, but it doesn’t prevent us from pressing toward such a worthy goal.

Naomi King Walker is music/worship pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky. A longer version of this column first appeared on her blog.

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