The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), an American Protestant Denomination of the Christian Church, made news this week by taking steps to formally exclude females from any and all leadership positions. This follows an 8 to 1 decision by the nearly 10,000 delegates in their annual assembly in New Orleans to reject fellowship with several of its churches for having women as pastors or assistant pastors, including the famous mega-church, the Saddleback Church.
Most of the comments on social media about this regressive move by the SBC have been about the radical Christian nationalism that is "ruining" Christianity in the USA, or about how this supposedly "biblical" stand by the SBC ignores the prominent role women had in the very first Christian groups, including the original apostles and Paul's own converts.
I would like to reflect on a wider picture of women in religious leadership around the world.
In 2007, Sai Maa was granted the title of Jagadguru ("Guru of the World"), the first woman to receive this title in the 2,700 years of Vishnuswami lineage. So we can surmise that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to formal recognition and also that times are changing. On the other hand, there are famous female guru's of a lower rank, including Anandmurti Gurumaa, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, Karunamayi Ma, and Mata Amritanandamayi. Hindu scholars point out that there is NO barrier; both men and women cannot become gurus until they have passed beyond the stage of spiritual development where being male or female matters.
Sikhs are proud to have removed barriers to women in all roles. It is significant that several women are remembered as warriors and martyrs in the great battles with the Muguls in the 1700s. It would be hard to establish women's equality in Sikhism if they had not participated in the wars that are a central focus of Sikh identity. No woman, however, has ever been the top leader (guru). Men still dominate.
In Buddhism there are prominent women, but hardly any full-fledged monks and none at all in the upper eschelons of leadership. The arguments against women monks are two: (1) that women monks lapsed and only the Buddha can reinstate ordination of women; (2) that women cannot attain enlightenment, but through reincarnation can be reborn as men, so there is no no actual inequality of opportunity.
Islam has had a few national POLITICAL leaders, most prominently, Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto. However, the right for women to lead prayer services is overwhelmingly tightly held by men. The following are salient points: (1) Women were leaders in the early days. (2) Women can and should lead prayers in women-only mosques. (3) Women cannot lead prayers in mosques where there are any men. (4) Many countries in the West (including Turkey) have had women imams, especially after the turn of the 21st century.
Jewish groups (namely (for our purposes) Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed branches) have 3 responses to women as rabbis and cantors. Orthodox are not open to women in those roles. Conservatives are cautiously opening up. Reformed advocate equality.
Chinese traditional religions (largely Confucianism and Taoism, which are not mutually exclusive) make up 5 to 6% of the world's population. Women in Chinese traditional religions are also relegated to family roles, and in those roles are dominated by fathers and husbands.
Christians are the largest world religion, by far. For the most part (by percentages) women are prevented from leadership as priests and bishops. There are, of course female religious orders and women in limited numbers in other leadership positions. Protestants are divided on this, as well as on many other issues.
This brings us back to some general observations.
1. Almost all religions have female deities or divine mother-figures.
2. All the world religions honor and/or venerate some women as saints, scholars, and spiritual elite.
3. Cultural circumstances make a lot of difference as to how likely women are to become clergy.
4. The long arc of religious history has seen religions in which women were the dominant leaders diminish or disappear, while patriarchal religions have emerged in their place; it is too soon to see if the recent resurgence of equality movements will replace the millennia-long insistence that women are "unique" or "complementary."
The Southern Baptists, seem to be merely articulating what most religions practice, discrimination. The irony is, that women are the largest and most active participants in all the world's religions.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.