For nearly 30 years, women of menstruating age in India have been banned from entering the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. That may change soon when India’s Supreme Court reviews the constitutionality of the ban.
Enacted by Kerala’s high court in 1991, the ban prevents women of menstruating age — 10 to 50 years — from entering the temple. According to tradition, the temple houses the shrine of Lord Ayyappa, a Hindu deity celebrated for his celibacy, and the presence of women of menstruating age would defile it.
The ban was lifted last year after the Supreme Court ruled that it violated the worship rights of women, but the ruling was immediately challenged by dozens of review petitions, and the state’s government is still forbidding entry to women. Whenever women have attempted to worship at the temple, they have been met by police and protesters.
I have written before about Sabarimala and its significance to the spiritual rights of Indian women. Sabarimala is the second-largest pilgrimage destination in the world, after Mecca in Saudi Arabia. More than 30 million Hindu pilgrims visit the temple annually.
The sad truth is the Sabarimala temple is but one story in the greater narrative of women’s struggle for their spiritual rights. Throughout history and to this day, women across all major world religions have been denied equal access to worship sites and barred from leadership positions they are qualified to fill.
For example, in many mosques women are segregated from the main prayer services and even denied entry.
In India, women’s right to enter mosques is also being reviewed by the Supreme Court. In France and America some women have taken matters into their own hands and founded their own mosques, though not without facing significant challenges. And in Saudi Arabia, women under 45 years of age who want to make the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca have to be escorted by a male guardian. Older women enjoy a modicum of freedom: they can do the pilgrimage with an organized group, but they still need a notarized letter of “no objection” from their husband, father, or son. Attempts have been made to even bar them from Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba in Mecca.
Of course, the Christian church is not exempt of committing this wrong. The issue of women’s spiritual rights has been a great blind spot in the church throughout the centuries. In fact, I write this as a bishop who believes in the ancient creeds and the tradition of the early church: we have allowed culture, instead of Scripture, to frame the spiritual rights and duties of men and women in the church. So much is evident when an influential author like John MacArthur says that Beth Moore, a popular Bible teacher, should “go home” and not be allowed to preach.
I wonder if we have forgotten that Jesus radically redefined — or better said, restored — the position of women as equal image-bearers of God in his kingdom? At a time when religious positions were largely reserved for men, women were not only a core part of Jesus’ ministry but also had an equal status as a disciple. The story of Martha and Mary, two sisters who followed Jesus, is an example.
The story is often used as an admonition tale about the danger of getting so lost in tasks that one misses the spiritual aspect of ministry, but it has a subtext about the position of women that is often ignored.
The Gospel of Luke says Martha bustles around her house preparing it to host Jesus and the 12 disciples, while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching. Upset that her sister is not helping her, Martha goes to Jesus — a significant fact since she could have talked directly to her sister — and, in front of everybody present, essentially asks him to put Mary in her proper place.
But Jesus does the opposite. He answers, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).
As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright explains, to grasp the full meaning of Jesus’ stunning response, we must understand the cultural context. Jewish boys who wanted to become teachers of the law would follow a rabbi and sit at his feet when he taught. By saying that Mary could sit at his feet, Jesus was affirming Mary’s full status as a disciple.
The argument that men and women are equal but have different roles in the church due to their gender rings hollow when we look at the New Testament. Didn’t the Holy Spirit fall equally upon men and women and gave both access to all spiritual gifts? A person’s role in the church is not based on gender, ethnicity, or even ability — it’s based on spiritual gifts. If a woman has the gift of teaching, then she should teach and not be hindered.
The New Testament has many examples of women serving in prominent leadership position in the 1st century church, including Priscilla, who with her husband Aquila discipled Paul’s companion Apollos, the four daughters of Philip the evangelist who were prophetesses and an apostle named Junia.
Having spent the past two decades advocating for the human and civil rights of marginalized groups, I have become convinced the most pernicious form of human discrimination in our would is not racial, ethnic, or religious. It is discrimination against women. It transcends racism, ethnic superiority and religious intolerance because it is present in all races, ethnicities, and religions.
To take it a step further, I believe that denying women their full spiritual rights is the underlying cause of the oppression of women in many cultures. If men and women are spiritually equal, then they should be equal in every respect.
I’m encouraged there are movements within Christianity to change this injustice. Pope Francis, for one, has been lobbying for women to be ordained as deacons in the Catholic Church. Over the past few decades the Anglican Church has worked to ordain women as priests. The Pentecostal and charismatic traditions also have women as pastors and even leaders of movements.
There is still a long way to go for giving women their full spiritual rights. But I hope that cases such as the ones before the Supreme Court in India will help correct this wrong. We cannot allow the cultural traditions of any religion to trample the fundamental rights and dignity of women as full humans.
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