in Christian Perspective
Kristina LaCelle-Peterson. Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
The problem with the women’s movement in the church is not that it has gone too far but that it has not gone far enough. This dilemma is not fueled by a lack of resolve or by short-sighted political aspirations. The problem is an absent ecclesiology. This void often leaves the women’s movement in the church with no choice but to turn to the political climate of the liberal democratic state for a framework for its efforts—the end of such efforts being mere equality. A more robust ecclesiology can, in contrast, recast the resolve of the women’s movement and thus deepen its political aspirations. As a result, appreciation for the unique nature of members of Christ’s body becomes the highest good instead of mere equality.
An example of this dilemma is found in Kristina LaCelle-Peterson’s otherwise exceptional book Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective. From the very beginning, LaCelle-Peterson invites “women and men to live out life together in ways that reflect what we say we believe”(13). In order to issue such an invitation,she sees her work as “part of a tradition [the Wesleyan or Free Methodist] that goes back to the early nineteenth century in this country and taps movements in the church that go back much further than that”(15). While LaCelle-Peterson is right to link this tradition to an “appreciation of all of the stories of women in the Bible”(231),such a form of appreciation lacks an understanding of the interpretive context offered by the sacramental practices of the church. As a result,LaCelle-Peterson can go no further in her argument in this book than to offer that “women and men are made equally in the image of God”(13). The problem with this argument, however, is that it does not go far enough. The practices of baptism and Eucharist demand that we see one other not only as equally created beings of a sovereign nature but also as equally created beings inextricably bound to one another as part of a larger body.
The target audience LaCelle-Peterson has in mind for her book is perhaps advanced undergraduate students as well as advanced laypersons in the church. If so, she does a thorough job of introducing these groups to figures who have made distinct contributions to how the church has come to understand the women’s movement. For example, in these pages we meet figures such as Mary Daly, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and Rosemary Radford Ruether. LaCelle-Peterson does not assume audience members already know of the importance of such figures. As a result, she offers brief introductions to them and to the significance of their work. In addition, she does a thorough job of presenting some of the current debates surrounding issues such as language for God, body image, and roles for marriage.
In addition to an audience comprised of advanced undergraduates and advanced laypersons, LaCelle-Peterson likely has evangelicals in mind. Evidence of her interest in such an audience stems from her choice of theological method. In particular, LaCelle-Peterson views her work as being comparable to efforts made by Catherine Clark Kroeger and Craig Keener. As “evangelical feminists” Kroeger and Keener “assert that the Bible, interpreted fairly, affirms women, and that the church’s teaching of women’s inferiority is a problem of sexist interpretation rather than a directive in the texts themselves” (21). A primary point of emphasis found in LaCelle-Peterson’s own work is not only to correct such misinterpretations but to also bring to light passages in the Bible where women have filled important and large-scale leadership roles. As a result, she marshals a significant amount of Biblical examples to support this point. In the end,she demonstrates that Scripture offers a high standard “regarding love and the just treatment of all human beings” (21).
In order to demonstrate this high standard, LaCelle-Peterson divides the eleven chapters in her book into four parts. These parts each focus on a particular challenge facing women and the Church. Part One opens by developing an understanding of women’s identity and how such an understanding stems from women being created in God’s image. This foundation eventually allows her to move forward and rightfully challenge prevailing understandings of body image. Part Two focuses on marriage. Again, she opens this section by developing an understanding of marriage rooted in the Bible, drawing on images found in both the Old and New Testaments. Her interpretation of these passages leads her to develop an understanding of marriage as a partnership defined by a spirit of mutuality. Part Three focuses on roles women are called to fill in relation to the leadership of the Church. Finally, Part Four explores the importance of language not only in terms of these roles but also in terms of how the Church understands God. As a result, LaCelle-Peterson is able to come to the conclusion at the end of her book that we are called to live “less artificially, less constrained by societal expectations and even church expectations and more according to who we are” (230).
While LaCelle-Peterson is trying to free the church “to be the church in this world, characterized by supreme love for God and sacrificial love for the other”(230),she never offers a full explanation of what she means by the church and thus what constitutes such a body. As a result, she finds herself continually drawing on the language of equality. In this sense, members of Christ’s body are viewed as sovereign beings worthy of mutual respect. Equality is not necessarily an improper aspiration. Given the unfortunate treatment of women in both the church and the larger public, equality is a marked improvement. However, the sacramental acts of baptism and Eucharist propel the church to go even further. The church is not simply a gathering of sovereign beings but a gathering of members whose well-being and very identity are inextricably tied to one another. The well-being of men cannot be advanced apart from the well-being of women. In the same sense, the well-being of women cannot be advanced apart from the well-being of men. In this context, the created distinctiveness of men and women does not merge with one another into a larger homogenized whole but becomes part of an appreciation for the diversity that defines the body of Christ.
In Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection (Oxford 2007), Beth Felker Jones makes a comparable argument concerning the body of Christ. In particular, she argues “We are reordered through the body of Christ when we participate in the ecclesial life of that body”(108). At the center of the church are the sacraments. Our participation in these practices comes to define our very nature. Jones thus goes on to offer that “Through baptism, communion, and other practices variously called sacrament or sacramental, we are truly bound to the only body that is properly called ‘holy’”(107). In the context of this body, the well-being of men and women become inextricable from one another. Equality thus proves to be an insufficient understanding of how the body of Christ is to order its existence.
On one level, Kristina LaCelle-Peterson’s Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective offers a comprehensive overview of the challenges and the opportunities facing the women’s movement in the church. On another level, the manner in which she formulates this overview proves to be insufficient. By identifying equality as her highest aspiration, LaCelle-Peterson underestimates the transformative nature of the body of Christ. When bound together by the sacramental nature of the church, men and women are called to appreciate the nature and well-being of one another. As a result, such an understanding would deepen the challenge which LaCelle-Peterson is rightfully trying to make to the church in her otherwise impressive book.
Todd C. Ream,
John Wesley Honors College Indiana Wesleyan University