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    Women's Work

    Once a beacon of gender equality, is the Army still leading the way? February 10, 2015 by Colonel Bob Ward and Major Amy Reardon
    Filed Under:
    Opinion & Critical Thought
    In this new series, Colonel Bob Ward, who retired in 2013 as the territorial commander in Pakistan, and Major Amy Reardon, corps officer at Seattle Temple in Washington, U.S.A., discuss issues of the day.

    Dear Bob,

    I have a friend who, tragically, has abandoned his Christian faith. In a recent conversation about some social issues, he bitterly said, “The church is always 10 to 20 years behind the world.” His comment disturbed me. Could it be that “the world” outpaces the church in reason, understanding and even compassion? Such a notion is troubling. The church should be leading the way, not lagging behind.

    I have been weighing a number of issues against his statement. One of my concerns is the status of women in the church, particularly women in ministry. Initially, The Salvation Army led the way—a beacon of gender equality in a male-dominated world. Other Bible-believing churches clung to sexist interpretations of Scripture, even throughout the 20th century. As an extreme example, when I was studying to become an officer in the early 1990s, I was accosted by a Christian on the street who wanted me to know that I had no right to preach the gospel to any male over the age of five. The Bible forbade it, he said.

    Recently, however, the church has learned to understand Scripture in terms of its cultural context. Formerly hesitant denominations now feel free to ordain women. After centuries of squelching the spiritual gifts of potential leaders who happened to be female, the acceptance of women in ministry came suddenly, almost abruptly.

    “The world” had long since valued the contributions of women in the workplace. The church was catching up with the world.

    But The Salvation Army seems to have lost its way. When a woman is married and both are officers, Army leadership rarely sees the two as equals, and almost never considers a woman, however qualified, for a position of leadership “above” her husband. These inequities are not only at the headquarters level. Now that I am a corps officer again, I can't help but note how some of our leaders regard my husband as the corps officer and me as an underling. Many of our soldiers have been trained to think this way, too.

    Bob, do you think that women officers, especially those who are married, will ever be treated as equals in this Army?

    Amy




    Dear Amy,

    I am sorry that you feel frustrated, but glad you wrote. I see you raising three background issues here: first, whether the church, and by extension, The Salvation Army, should be leading the way in reason, understanding and compassion; second, whether we are acting accordingly; and third, whether being behind the rest of the world is a reason to abandon one's faith. However, what seems to be your real source of frustration is the apparent inequality of women officers, particularly married women, in The Salvation Army.

    I grew up with the writings of Francis Schaeffer, the founder of L'Abri. In his book, The God Who is There, Schaeffer observed that ideas are usually generated by philosophers, interpreted by the arts and then picked up by theologians, who inform the church. If his hypothesis is correct, and it sounds reasonable to me, then it is unrealistic to expect that the church would be at the forefront of intellectual development. While living in both sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, I saw a church that your friend would conclude was even further behind the times. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that the church is a large, millennia-old, international set of organizations with their traditions and dogmas. Like a large ship, it takes time to turn or change direction. We have seen change come to the church and The Salvation Army in our lifetime—attitudes toward slavery, other denominations and women. Our own attitude toward divorced officers and soldiers in ministry has changed significantly. My own experience is that most change within The Salvation Army has resulted because of a sustained push from both external and internal pressures.

    One of the contradictions of post-apartheid South Africa was that while elements of the church led the way to achieve justice and equality, others strongly resisted the change—even though agreeing the change was fair. They just didn't want to pay the cost of the change. Perhaps you and your friend see the resistance to change as being stronger than the forces of transformation. I know you deal with the issue of married women officers in the United States whose husbands receive the allowance on their behalf to mitigate the taxes. We dealt with this issue here in Canada a few years ago through splitting the allowances and benefits. I understand part of the United States' reluctance to implement this change for married couples was attributed to its prohibitive financial cost.

    I wonder if husbands and wives are solidly behind the changes that fairness and equality demand. Are husbands willing for their wives to receive separate, and sometimes more responsible, appointments? Are wives willing to sacrifice a more traditional role in the home for their calling as full-time officers? I would like to think so, and have heard various declarations in support of this choice, but suspect that congregational members observe mixed messages among their officers, and the policy-makers at headquarters.

    I am sorry your friend has too-high expectations of where the church should fit into life today. However, change does take place. Just this summer, the General Synod of the Church of England finally voted to permit the ordination of women bishops. I suspect change will only occur when people with vision and a sense of fairness and justice prepare the road on which the organization may more comfortably travel, or when they are forced to.

    Once again, thanks for writing about your concern. I would be happy to hear more from you.

    Bob




    Dear Bob,

    I both agree and disagree with you.

    First, I agree that there are officer couples who are not prepared for a more egalitarian situation. And you're right—it isn't just the husbands, it's the wives, too. Even though I'm busier as an officer than in any job I've ever had, our old-fashioned system gives me a long leash. No one would be surprised or put out if I stayed home to do chores, or if I spent a morning each week volunteering at my children's school. Many married women officers appreciate those freedoms and wouldn't want to give them up. Some married men officers build time in their schedules for these sorts of things, but it isn't as common and it may occasionally raise an eyebrow.

    You also mention that some couples aren't prepared to take separate appointments, or they aren't comfortable with the wife having a position with more authority. Right again! I am blessed that my husband respects my own call to officership, which I received long before I met him. When dating, we determined it was within God's will that we should serve him together. But my commitment to ministry was between God and me. I'm thankful that my husband encourages me to live out that commitment as fully as I can.

    Here's where I disagree with you: despite the fact that the church is an unwieldy, multi-limbed organization, I believe it should lead the parade in doing what is fair and right. Even if Francis Schaeffer's hypothesis is correct, it is unacceptable. Jesus demonstrated how to be at the forefront of justice. In the case of women, Jesus repeatedly treated them with the dignity that his society reserved for men alone. Think of the woman caught in adultery. She was about to be stoned as punishment, but no one suggested stoning the man with whom she was caught. The woman alone bore the guilt! What an enormous act of justice it was when Jesus told the accusers (likely all men) to check their own hearts, and only stone her if they were sinless. Effectively, Jesus was telling them to treat a woman with the same grace they'd treat a man.

    Jesus instructed us to continue establishing the kingdom of God here on earth. He even said we would do greater things than he had done. So as Christians we shouldn't fall behind the world in treating people as equals. Yes, that may be our history, but I hope it isn't our future.

    I think there is often more gender equality granted to soldiers than to officers. I don't know what struggles a family might have behind closed doors over the issue, but the Army doesn't bat an eye at women in key lay-leader positions. I hope we can achieve the same for officers.

    Amy




    Dear Amy,

    God bless you for your optimism. Jesus was also disappointed, even angry, with the religious leaders of his day, so working with a traditional religious organization is an age-old challenge. However, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were eventually able to lead the way to direction, purpose and a sense of social justice. We can see examples of compassion and justice at work at various levels of The Salvation Army. Who knows the specific issue or person leading to your friend's disenchantment with the church? I can only pray that when others see us at work where they live, they will witness a vibrant, compassionate Army at the forefront, showing them the way—not just an organization 10 to 20 years behind the times.

    Bob

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