Some female theologians argue women should abandon the Bible because its language and depictions of women are oppressive.
While Baptist minister Katey Zeh certainly sees that oppression in those pages, she isn’t ready to give up on scripture.
“I agree these texts are set in a very patriarchal context,” says Zeh, author of Women Rise Up: Sacred Stories of Resistance for Today’s Revolution. “There is still a narrative of very strong biblical women who found ways to beat the odds and survive and beat oppression.”
It’s precisely that narrative Zeh sets out to share in that new book, which is the culmination of years of research into the lives of biblical women usually overlooked in Christian teaching and worship.
Uncovering the struggles and courage of those women fortified Zeh on her journey from Methodism to, quite recently, Baptist life.
Zeh is a member of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she was ordained in February 2018. She is a veteran worker in the field of women’s reproductive rights and is open to wherever her Baptist faith and ministry may take her.
The women she has written about are showing her the way.
“They continue to teach me new things in what it means to work to end oppression.”
Zeh spoke recently with Baptist News Global. Her comments are included here, edited for clarity.
What attracted you, as a Methodist, to Pullen Memorial?
I was very entrenched in United Methodism, but I grew increasingly concerned about its lack of recognition of women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights.
I had heard about Pullen before and I had a little hesitation going to a Baptist church, but I figured it was worth a try. On my first Sunday (in April 2016) I felt there was something here for me, that it was the kind of community I want to be a part of.
Was there something specific that led you to that feeling?
I was sitting next to a woman I didn’t know and she asked me, “Is this your first time?” I told her yes, and that I was feeling somewhat nervous because I’m not Baptist. She said, “Well, honey, I’m Jewish.” I said OK, if there are folks here from other faith traditions, this is for me.
Why weren’t you ordained as a Methodist?
When I was at Yale Divinity School, I entered a very preliminary (United Methodist) ordination process but didn’t think this was what I wanted to be doing right now. So, I claimed my unique position as a layperson who had a Master of Divinity. I knew I was probably not going to be affirmed in the United Methodist system because I was working in reproductive rights, specifically. I figured I couldn’t be my full, authentic self in terms of what my calling was.
So, you were ordained after joining Pullen Memorial. How did that come about?
When I got to Pullen, a good friend asked me to do her wedding and it had me thinking about what it would look like to be ordained here. I had a preliminary conversation with (Pastor) Nancy Petty and she said it would be an honor for Pullen to ordain me.
What do you understand your calling to be?
I really felt my call to ministry while volunteering at a reproductive health clinic that performed abortion services. It came from walking through a line of protesters, who assumed I was a patient, and experiencing the violence of people of faith. I thought, can I be someone who looks different from people of faith who were being violent, and be an advocate for reproductive rights? That was the moment I felt called to that work.
In what ways are you living out that calling?
I currently serve as interim executive director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in Washington, D.C. In addition to my book coming out, I co-host Kindreds, a podcast on intersection on faith and feminism and living in the South.
The book. What inspired you to write it?
I revisited some of the stories that spoke to me in the past but also explored some I hadn’t given time and attention to, stories that aren’t presented on Sunday mornings or in our religious education. I wanted to give biblical women’s stories some breathing room with compassion and in a way that presents their full humanity. Sometimes the women are treated as secondary.
Do you mean secondary in our culture, or in scripture?
Well, I would say both. Women in the text often are not known by their names, or only through the male relative they have. But even in that patriarchal context there are very powerful stories about women that are not included in the lectionary or are usually just glossed over.
One woman you write about is Mary Magdalene.
It’s fascinating that she is the one (Jesus) chooses to reveal himself to. She shows up in her full humanity with her emotions and with her discerning spirit. I love that moment. It also shows the depth of the relationship they had.
Of the women in the Bible, is there one you especially identify with?
I identify with a lot of them but, personality wise, Martha of Bethany is the one I identify with most. Martha was working in the kitchen when Jesus was teaching Mary. I think Martha was doing ministry work when she brought her complaint to Jesus. What I love about her is she advocates for herself and is not afraid to challenge Jesus about what he does or doesn’t do. When Lazarus dies, she asks, “Why weren’t you here?” I love the model of that honest dialogue she brings. It shows a depth of relationship and friendship that they had.
You write about first noticing, as a youth, that the women of scripture are rarely mentioned in church. How did you feel in that moment?
I became very suspicious of the messaging I was getting as an adolescent, as a Christian and as a girl. I started questioning some of those evangelical messages and that led me to a more academic study of the Bible and the history of Christianity. It opened me up to the realization that Christianity had taken on many forms (beyond) what I had been taught. I hope my book is an invitation to ask some of those questions.