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Ghana Consultation on AICs

July 2001

The role of women in AICs

by Lynell Bergen-Dyck

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The request by our executive committee to teach about "The Role of Women in the Church" lead us to look at what Scripture has to say about women in general, and then also about women in church leadership. We also gave some thought to how the church over the centuries has interpreted these saying about women, and how that has been communicated in the African mission context. We made use of a chart which juxtaposes two seemingly opposing views about the role of women, to challenge people to deal with Scripture passages which they have previously ignored, or have not been aware.

Of course, the issue also plays itself out in the context of a particular culture, and so the question of what we do with Scripture that challenges traditionally held cultural beliefs inevitably arises. A tendency among all cultures, I believe, is to hold on tightly to those Scriptural messages that seem to verify what we already hold to be true, and to ignore that with which we are uncomfortable.

When I was asked to speak on the role of women in AIC's, I thought it a bit ironic that the newest of the newcomers to the work of teaching among AIC's should be giving one of the main presentations at this conference. I come to this presentation as someone who has worked with AIC's for less than two years; I am not a scholar in the field of AIC's, and I have not done any specific studies in the area of women in the Independent Churches. I come simply as someone who has begun to grapple with the issue, and done so in the context of our Bible teaching program in the Transkei.

My husband Brian and I took on the issue of the role of women in the church because our executive committee asked us to, and we were too new to know any better. We were asked to make a decisive statement on the role of women in the church, and though we knew that there is no decisive statement on the role of women, we agreed to teach this topic in the context of our second round of Bible conferences this year.

I say there is no decisive statement on the role of women in the church, but I do have, of course, my own firmly held and, I think, fairly well thought out beliefs on the role of women, which is to say that I know myself what I believe God is calling us to as daughters and sons of God. I have come to this position after considerable study, thought and prayer, together with many sisters and brothers throughout the Christian church.

At the same time, I recognize that my own belief is hardly that of the whole of the Christian church, and that there is a great deal of diversity, controversy, and division in the Christian church, and in my own denomination, over this issue.

The question comes up as to how one can then teach anything at all, if there is so much disagreement. Do we try to present all sides of the issue? Do we present our own viewpoint as the decisive one? Do we attempt to be somehow neutral, as if that is even possible, particularly because I believe with all my heart that God is not at all neutral, and that this is an important issue of justice, and that it is our duty to speak on behalf of the oppressed?

Recognizing furthermore that this issue is complex within our own culture, we weren't quite sure how to begin in another culture. There are few topics more culturally intrusive than those that deal with family life, and relationships between men and women.


o we took on this topic with a good deal of fear and trembling. At the same time, we were aware that this is an important topic in this time and place, and to discuss it in context of a Bible Study class would give people tools to work with as they grappled with all the change that is happening around them.

What I am going to present here today is roughly a summary of our presentations to our conference groups. My approach today is to out line how we came at this issue, and to think through somewhat, the responses we got from our students. I don't want to talk about what we presented, so much as how we presented it, and the responses we got from the people

Change and culture

This became the sub-topic of our presentation. How do we deal with change? Change is inevitable, but can be positive, negative, or just neutral. How do we evaluate the change that is happening around us? What are the criteria on which we base our evaluation: tradition, Scripture, personal benefit, community benefit, etc?

More particularly, how do we deal with change that seems to threaten the core of our culture, the sense of whom we are as a people. At what point does "the way we have always done things" become the basis for our actions, rather than the action itself being beneficial to the community, the church, the family?

Let me briefly explain the context of our Bible study. Four times a year, we run a Bible study on a particular subject, chosen in conjunction with our executive committee. Three of those times, we take our teaching to five different locations throughout the Transkei. Therefore, we presented this topic five times, to five different groups of Independent church leaders and members. We had between 19 and 28 students at each of these conferences. Members of our executive committee travel with us, providing the primary structure and framework of our conferences, while Brian and I primarily confine ourselves to teaching.

We began our teaching with a disclaimer. We mentioned three problems that became obvious to us as we prepared for teaching on this topic.

  1. This is an issue of culture, and we are not able to speak about what is right in someone else's culture. However, at the same time, as Christians, there are certain demands that are placed upon us that should rise above culture, such as love for neighbour. How then do we deal with the demands of Scripture that seem to challenge our culture, when at the same time we should know that Scripture does not condone any one culture over others?

  2. This is an issue of hermeneutics, on how we read and understand the Bible. We know that the Bible is also written in the context of a particular culture and time. And at times the Bible seems to contradict itself. How do we know what in Scripture applies to us, in our time and place, and what is specific to a particular situation, and should no longer be literally interpreted?

  3. This can be a very threatening issue, to both men and women. It can be threatening simply because it is change, and change is frightening. But it is also threatening because it touches us at the heart of our self-awareness. So much of whom we are in our world, or who we perceive ourselves to be, and how others perceive us, is tied in with our gender. Thus, it is very frightening to think about change in our gender roles.

We went on to speak about change within culture, and gave three examples of the way that change has been handled within a particular context. The first example was the change from an apartheid system to a democratic system. We talked about how it took both blacks and whites to bring about a relatively peaceful change, but that the change was threatening to people on both sides, but particularly the whites, because they had the power advantage with the old system.

A second example came from our own culture, where a group of church leaders took their people from place to place, trying to find a home where they could live in cultural isolation, and maintain their traditions and religious customs. Currently, that community struggles with a tremendous social breakdown, because change eventually overtook them, and they were not able to grapple with it.

The third story about change came from Nicta Lubaale from the OAIC, when he was making a presentation about AIDS to our leaders in Umtata. He talked about the tradition in his home community in Uganda, of widows marrying the brother of their dead husband. However, if the husband had died of AIDS, chances are the widow also had AIDS, and would give it to her new husband, who would give it to his other wife, etc. The good part of this tradition was that widows and their children were being supported. The bad part was that it was killing the whole family.

When faced with this challenge, the community leaders realized that their tradition had to change. The challenge was to bring about this change in such a way that the negative part of the change - passing on of AIDS from one family member to another - would be eliminated, without also eliminating the positive outcome of change - the care of widows and orphans.

The point of these stories was to communicate the inevitability of change, and the need for leaders to face it with openness and courage. South Africa is changing rapidly, because of the political changes, but these also result in social changes, legal changes which affect relationships within families, etc.

Furthermore, as Christians, we need to deal with change in light of our faith, and through the study of Scripture. We have a unique, and very important, perspective to contribute to our society as it struggles with all the changes that are occurring around it. We must neither run from change, nor embrace it uncritically.

Reality is, however, that whether or not we have a high level of Biblical literacy, we tend to look at those Scripture passages that justify our own way of thinking, our own culture, our own power. Those "other" passages, the ones that make us uncomfortable, the ones that don't seem to fit, we ignore. In fact, because others before us have ignored them, we may not have encountered them at all.

This, then, became the point of the graph that you see before you. We wanted people to see Scripture passages that they may never have seen before, or at least that they may have chosen to avoid. We wanted to challenge what we believed was a limited use of Scripture when it came to talking about, preaching about, thinking about, the role of women in the church and in the home (these two things being quite inseparable, though we did not directly address this).

Two Views on the Roles of Women

  1. "Hierarchical" View*
  2. "Liberationist" View*

The labels "hierarchical" and "liberationist" are from Willard Swartley's book, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women. No such labels were used on the handout sheets or in the discussions with AICs. They were added here to make it easier to browse this paper on the Internet.

We went through the graph, line by line, not stopping unless there was a particular response. I had promised that we would go into more detail on some of the passages at a later point. There were often pauses as people would dwell on what had just been read, and perhaps a quick comment or two, and then we would move on to the next line.

When the reading was done, there was time for comments. Many people were startled; they had never seen these passages before, and didn't know what to make of them. Only one man blatantly told me, "I don't care what Scripture says; I can't accept this in my culture." Others were quite enthusiastic, and proclaimed that "from now on, women will also be able to preach in my church." Usually, I cautioned them that their congregation would need to be taught, and would need to discuss together, before such a change would be accepted.

On the whole, people were thinking. Something new had come their way, and it clearly was making them pause. Life was not just going to change overnight, and indeed, for many it will not change at all, since in the privacy of their own thoughts, they will have agreed with the Bishop who could not accept these teachings. But even that, I feel, was an accomplishment. If people are challenged by Scripture to reexamine their lives, and then choose to go on with their lives unchanged, that leaves them with an awareness that they are not, at some level, being true to the gospel they are proclaiming.

Further thoughts, after the Ghana consultation

One particular comment at the consultation had to do with issue of methodology. Putting together a chart where one verse of Scripture seems to "oppose' another verse of Scripture can challenge the authority of the Scripture, and may lead people to doubt it's ability to speak to their lives. How can the Scripture be "true" if it contradicts itself?

I was aware of the risk that we were taking by juxtaposing these seemingly contradictory passages. However, there seemed also to be great risk in refusing to acknowledge the "other" voice of Scripture. We can make Scripture say what we want it to say - people on all sides of the theological coin do that. The challenge for all of us is to take seriously the whole of Scripture, and to be confronted by those passages that make us uncomfortable. It is important, I believe, that if we choose to ignore or somehow discredit a Bible message, that we are at least aware that we are doing so, and name it as such.

Furthermore, it is important for people to have the tools to work through Scripture, rather than simply being spoon-fed the "answers" to the difficult texts. It is neither appropriate, nor possible, to protect people from difficult passages or supposed contradictions in Scripture. If they are reading Scripture for themselves, or if others in their congregation are reading Scripture, they will inevitably come up against stories, sayings, or events that challenge their given modes of thinking about or dealing with the Word of God.

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