Ligia Crut – Perceptions on Women in Romanian Evangelicalism: An Interview with Danut Manastireanu

Ligia Cruț – The Romanian evangelical communities have always promoted the idea of discipleship, of the importance of spiritual formation, mostly done in small groups of young people or students. At a certain point in recent history, we also witnessed the formation of women discipleship groups. How did this become a priority for evangelical leaders in Romania? Was there some institutional structure promoting it or was it a local initiative?

Dănuț Mănăstireanu[1] – Let me first set the record straight. Discipleship—the personal formation under the authority of a mentor, is a model that predates Christianity and was adopted into the new religion from Judaism, being the main “mechanism” for the religious formation of new converts. Yet, it was abandoned to a large extent when the Roman Empire became Christian by decree, in the 4th century. In majority Christian contexts, discipleship continued to exist, to this day, almost exclusively in monastic communities.

Evangelicalism appeared on what is today’s Romanian territory in the middle of the 19th century, in the form of the Baptist faith, a Protestant tradition that was born in early 17th century. It was followed at the beginning of the 20th century by other evangelical expressions (Brethren, Pentecostal etc), evangelicals representing today about 2-3% of the entire population.

Now, in reality, as strange as this may sound, given its prominent place in the Bible, the practice of discipleship—as spiritual formation under the guidance of a mentor, has not been viewed as important by Romanian evangelicals until about 50 years ago, when the concept was reintroduced, in a modern form, under the influence of the Navigators—an American evangelical organisation dedicated to disciple making, which started working secretly in Romania in 1976 (I personally became involved with them a year later).[2] They are the ones who introduced women discipleship groups for the first time among Romanian evangelicals. Women groups were then largely disseminated in the country after 1985, through BEE (Bible Education by Extension), a consortium created in 1978 by more than ten Western Christian organisations working in Eastern Europe. BEE was dedicated to the biblical and then theological formation (in secret) of lay leaders for the Evangelical churches in the region, given that clerical formation was heavily controlled by the communist authorities. Women ministry was, from the beginning, part of the core BEE perspective.[3]

I need to add at this point that, because of the pressure put on them by the secret police, the leaders of the Romanian evangelical denominations, were opposed to the discipleship movement described above because it risked to destabilise the already fragile relationship between their communities and the communist regime. At the same time, however, they felt threatened by the growing theological competence and ecclesial authority of the younger leaders formed in the “underground”, which also included women leaders, even if they were not accepted as equal partners in ordained church ministry. For this, and other reasons, we have to clear, women ministry in itself, even if moderately encouraged, and most often ignored, even feared in some cases, has never been a “priority” for Romanian evangelical leaders.

Ligia Cruț – In many women conferences in Romania, some of the keynote speakers are American authors whose textbooks were used along the years as study guides for women groups in the country. One example is Linda Dillow’s book Creative Counterpart. Is there a connection between the women ministry in Romania and the activities of American Christian organisations working in Eastern Europe before 1989 and after?

Dănuț Mănăstireanu – As I explained already, the women ministry in evangelical churches in Romania is largely the result of the work of BEE, which included mission workers from such Western evangelical organisations like the Navigators, Campus Crusade, Operation Mobilisation, International Teams etc. The resources they brought together under the umbrella of BEE were almost exclusively from the West, even if large and dynamic evangelicals movements existed already in other parts of the world, like Africa, Latin America and Asia. These, however, did not have the financial power necessary for the dissemination of the training resources created in those regions, while, at the same time, they themselves continued to depend, financially and otherwise, on Western resources, especially coming from the United States.

To this, we need to add the situation on the ground in Romania. Evangelicalism, even if not new on the world religious scene, is one of the younger religious communities in Romania (which is why they are commonly labelled as neo-Protestants—a false and confusing misnomer). During most of its local history, evangelicalism, which recruited most of its membership from the poor and uneducated strata of society, was heavily persecuted. As a result, evangelicals tended to run most of the time in survival mode. Paradoxically, given the pervading atheist propaganda, things started changing during the communist regime, when the membership in these churches increased significantly and more evangelicals had access to education, including at university level. Yet, at the level of biblical and theological training, there were almost no relevant resources available for the evangelical communities. While the Orthodox community was pursuing quite serious theological education for over a hundred years, the theological schools of the evangelicals, besides being heavily controlled and restricted by the communist regime, were, educationally speaking, barely at high school level. Things started to change slowly, beginning with 1971, following a series of catastrophic flooding, when western organisations finally found the means to introduce in Romania Bibles and religious literature, mostly small booklets, printed in the West. Yet, the level of this material was quite basic. It is perfectly understandable then that what the BEE was able to offer was vastly superior to anything available at that moment in the country.

The book you mentioned, Linda Dillow’s Creative Counterpart, deserves a special comment. The book itself may be easily catalogued as reactionary, as it tried to counteract, from an extreme conservative position, the growing feminist phenomenon in the West, which the author perceived as a real threat. The way in which Linda tries to argue for the traditional hierarchical patriarchal structure of the family verges on heresy, as she postulates it on a supposed hierarchy within the Holy Trinity. Despite all this, the book was a huge step forward for a Romanian evangelical environment dominated by a pudibund spirit, because of the quite explicit way in which the author discusses sexuality. This created a real shock and was an eye opener for many in our context.

Ligia CruțThe history section of Priscila magazine mentions Miriam Charter as the brain of the activities destined to form evangelical women in Romania and Lidia Șchiopu as national BEE leader (an organisation which is still active in today’s Romania). Are Romanian evangelical magazines for women (Priscila, Lydia) autochthonous ‘mirrors’ of the American ideological and theological content or the American influence diminished and changed over the years?

Dănuț MănăstireanuLydia was the first evangelical women’s magazine published in Romania (in 1993), but it was just the Romanian mirror of a German evangelical magazine initiated by Elisabeth Mittelstaedt. In time, it started reflecting more and more the Romanian context and it included progressively more Romanian authors. But it continues to be a foreign magazine published for Romanians, as is the case with many secular magazines.

Priscila, created in 1999,[4]represents a very different case. The idea, born in the mind of Lidia Șchiopu, leader of the BEE women ministry in Romania, was created by a group of Romanian evangelical women involved in the leadership of the BEE ministry, my wife being one of them. As an expression of a foreign-born movement, Priscila unavoidably reflects the core teaching of the movement, including its hierarchical and patriarchal view of gender relations. Alongside it, however, the magazine reveals the pietistic spirit—meaning the individualistic and emotionalist attitude, that is characteristic to Romanian evangelicalism. So, what we have in the magazine is a mixture. And, of course, things are constantly evolving. Recently, a close friend who was recently invited to contribute to BEE women conferences, and who is committed to a softer version of egalitarianism, shared with me about the eagerness of the younger participants to hear a different perspective on womanhood—one that is still conservative and evangelical, but which elevates the dignity of women not as dependent on men, but as beings who share fully in themselves the image of God. I am hopeful that, slowly, as the older generation of leaders is handing in the baton to younger leaders, we will see more enlightened views developed in this community.

Ligia Cruț – The presentations made by Romanian leaders at evangelical women conferences seem to follow a prescribed pattern. They promote the idea of a domestic model in which a virtuous wife gladly accepts her (secondary) role in the hierarchy, and flourishes under the ‚shadow” of their supposedly benevolent husband-leaders. Is this kind of family arrangement rooted in the patriarchal tradition in Romania, or it is an import of the American complementarian perspective?

Dănuț Mănăstireanu – Let us first clarify some terminology here. American evangelicalism is divided between two perspectives on gender relations: complementarianism and egalitarianism. Both labels are in fact misnomers, which is symptomatic of the conceptual imprecision that dominates the “evangelical mind”.[5] Egalitarians are theological progressives, who argue that any hierarchy, especially in relation to gender, is a consequence of Adam’s fall, and thus needs to be eliminated in the light of the redeeming work of Christ.

The so-called “complementarian” position, which is held by more conservative evangelicals, argues for a strictly hierarchical order of reality—God, man, woman, children—which applies to both the family and the church, if not even society, and is supposedly part of God’s initial plan for creation, before Adam’s fall. It also includes very strict definitions of gender roles, men being called to be leaders and bread-earners, while women are meant to be wives and mothers, fully and gladly submitted to the authority of their husbands. Sometimes, as we have seen with Linda Dillow, complementarians tend to argue that this hierarchical and patriarchal view is a reflection of the supposed hierarchy in the Holy Trinity which, in some extreme versions also includes the strange idea of divine maleness (!?!). Such strange views have been declared heretical by the ecumenical councils of the Church in the first Millennium. Yet, given the low historical awareness of evangelicals, most of them seem to have no idea how consequential such theological misgivings really are.

“Complementarian” is a misnomer because anybody in their right mind, whether Christian or not, would agree that men and women are complementary to each other: genetically, anatomically, psychologically and in almost every other way. This is similar to the status of the idea of perfect equality of dignity between men and women, as rooted in humans being created “in the image of God”, which is held by both conservatives on the right and progressives one the left. So, again a misnomer.

The Navigators, Campus Crusade and the BEE, being very conservative theologically as organisations (even if there were individual exceptions among them) have consistently promoted in Eastern Europe the “complementarian” position. On the other side, this fitted perfectly in the traditional patriarchal structure of the family in Romania, including in the evangelical community.

Ligia Cruț – Sally Gallagher talks in one of her articles on the marginalisation of American evangelical feminism about the role played by evangelical institutions—denominational offices, theological schools, journals, which are generally dominated by complementarian men—in silencing feminist debates in this ecclesial tradition. Is there, do you think, a similar dynamic at work in Romanian evangelicalism?

Dănuț Mănăstireanu – As you well know, there are no feminist voices in Romanian evangelicalism, not even minority ones. That does not mean, however, that there are no feminist sensitivities among evangelical women in Romania, especially among those who have higher levels of education and who occupy positions of authority, professionally or in the business world. Yet, even within that elite group feminism does not have a very good name, which is probably true also at the level of the entire Romanian society. One of the reasons, besides the domination of complementarianism in the evangelical environment, which I have discussed above, may be the fact that the extended family is still a reality in the traditional Romanian society, and feminism might be perceived as a disruptive threat. This is, of course, just a hypothesis, which needs to be tested through serious sociological studies.

As to the role of the Romanian evangelical institutions and of their (exclusively male) leadership in the preservation of the patriarchal and implicitly anti feminist status quo within this particular ecclesial tradition, there is no doubt for me that this is the main cause of the current resistance to feminist ideas.

What is even worse, is that often women themselves, especially those in the older generations have incorporated to such an extent the hierarchical complementarian propaganda, that they seem to be even more fierce defendants of the oppressive patriarchal system that dominates this religious tradition. These women seem to really be affected by the Stockholm syndrome.

Ligia Cruț – You have never made a secret of your aversion towards the model of femininity that dominates Romanian evangelicalism. Has this always been your position, or you have gone through a “conversion” process which turned you into the feminist theologian that you are now?

Dănuț Mănăstireanu – I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical environment and I have incorporated initially much of the baggage that comes with it: a literalist way of engaging with the Bible, a religious exclusivist spirit, an obsession with proselytising, and also a hierarchical view of the family and of gender relationships, among many other things.

I had, however, the chance of meeting at crucial points in my life some providential people who challenged my perspective and made me change progressively, in very significant ways. One of the important areas of change in my thinking was related to gender. During my theological studies, in the early nighties, I have expanded my understanding of Christianity and I became more sacramental, more liturgical and more historically rooted than any version of evangelicalism would ever be, which prompted me to migrate towards the Anglican ecclesial tradition, which I joined formally, through the sacrament of confirmation, more than ten years ago, in the Anglican Church in Bucharest.

Even before that happened, I started wrestling personally with the issue of women ordination to priesthood, which was a settled matter already in the Anglican Communion. I found myself resisting this idea, on hermeneutical grounds. One of the basic principles for a correct interpretation of the Bible is the principle of “historical precedent”. According to it, if a theological idea or an ecclesial practice is new, and without a precedent in church history, as it seemed to me was the case with women ordination, according to that principle it should be viewed with extreme suspicion. Or, the apostles of Jesus were all men. Also, it seems, there was no precedent of ordinationsof women to priesthood in the history of the church, until mainline Protestants started practicing it in the 20th century. True, some women were ordained as deacons in historical times, both in Orthodoxy and Catholicism, but even that practice disappeared in the meantime.

As I pursued this line of study, I started to realise some things I did not know. According to the apostle Paul himself, Jesus had a woman apostle (even if she was not one of the twelve). Her name was Junia. There was also a couple that Paul mentions, Aquila (a man) and Priscila (a woman), who are both called apostles in the Bible. That was the first crack in my system. Then I discovered Augustine’s misogyny, and the way in which his gender theology was influenced by his life of sexual debauchery before conversion (which he more or less consciously blamed on women). When this distortion was coupled with his Neoplatonic understanding of reality, it became in the hands of this genius of the ancient world a powerful system which impacted the church to this day. From here to the obliteration of historical facts indicating that the ordination of women as priests was a practice of the early church is just a little step. After all, history is always written by the victors.

I could go on and on, as the process is continuing, but I will stop here. It is my conviction that the church has missed a lot when it chose to marginalise women in the life of the church. I believe the time has come for a removal of this injustice. And I am committed to make my modest contribution to this process, by supporting and encouraging women to have their voices heard in the church and in society. The world would surely become a better place if that happened.

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[1]Dănuț Mănăstireanu is an Anglican theologian living currently in Glasgow, United Kingdom. He edited, together with Dorin Dobrincu, a massive collective volume on Romanian evangelicalism, published in 2018 by Polirom.

[2] Dave and Sheri Grissen.One Life to Live. n.p., n.e., 2018. 264-303.

[3] Dave and Sheri Grissen.One Life to Live. n.p., n.e., 2018. 341-345.

[4] See, http://www.revistapriscila.ro and http://www.casapriscila.ro. Web. 06.03.2020.

[5] See Mark A. Noll. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994, where the author, one of the most respected evangelical historians, laments: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

NOTE: This interview is part of a doctoral research that my friend Ligia Crut has done during the last three years, on perceptions of the body and sexuality in Romanian and American evangelicalism. The purpose of the interview was to cover some areas that are too recent to be covered in analytical literature.

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