Friday, June 8, 2012

Screaming from the Pew

Today's post was inspired by Rachel Held Evans' Week of Mutuality.  From the moment I discovered Rachel's blog, I have felt less alone, as if I can sigh in relief and finally say, "Ah, there are other people like me out there. I knew it!"

I like to say that I came out of the womb a card carrying feminist. Now, technically speaking, that’s not exactly true. For starters, there really is no membership card and, as a newborn, I didn’t actually have enough of a grasp on gender roles to declare myself either way.

No, I wasn’t really born a feminist. Well, not any more than all children are.  Newborns do tend to consider their mothers worthy of endless love and respect, after all.  Maybe what I should say instead is that I failed miserably at getting the innate, universal tendency towards feminism beaten out of me so I don’t ever remember not having it with me.  But there was one defining moment that transformed my inherent tendency towards feminism into the real full blown thing, one moment in time when, though I was too young to have the proper words to name it, the glaring unfairness of inequality became something I could not overlook or reason away.  It was the first of many such experiences, a seed planted that burrowed deep and spread out wide roots that, over the years, have woven themselves into every nook and cranny of my thinking.

I don't remember how old I was exactly, but it was during that era of childhood when adults love to ask children what they want to be when they grow up, hoping to hear something fantastically innocent and frivolous like ballerina or pirate.  I remember that I had been asked that question the same morning in church, and I threw out whatever answer came to my mind at the moment.  Then as I sat in the pew next to my mother and brothers, listening to my father preach about God's love from the pulpit, I suddenly knew what I wanted to be.  Not some childish notion of a career, no fairy princess or astronaut, but what I really wanted to be when I grew up.

I couldn't wait to tell my father what I had decided.  I knew that he believed teaching people about God was the most important job in the world.  So that afternoon, while he was reading in a chair in our living room, I curled up next to him and made my announcement.  "Daddy, guess what?  I figured out what I want to be when I grow up.  I want to be a preacher just like you."

I remember how his face looked as he thought about his answer, like he was arranging the words in his mind before he let them out.  His pause was my first inclination that he wasn't as thrilled as I expected him to be at the announcement that I would be following in his footsteps.  When the words came out, though, they were worse than the silence.  "Well, honey," he said very slowly, "In most churches, women aren't allowed to be pastors.  You could be a children's director or something like that, but not a pastor."

The slight of it was, and is, the twofold rejection.  It wasn't just that my father was telling me that I wasn't suited for his line of work.  It was that God was telling me I wasn't as capable as my own brothers of telling people about Him.  What could be more destructive to the faith of a little girl?

Now, you have to understand that my father is a rare and exceptional man.  Never has he been a stereotype of masculinity.  He is strong and brave and an incredible spiritual leader, but at the same time he is a man for whom service is second nature, a man who has never been afraid to cry, either in front of his family or in the middle of a moving sermon.  More than once I remember him insisting on helping my mother with the laundry or the dishes so they could finish faster and both sit down together and rest after a long day.  He speaks of my mother with a level of love and respect that taught me, from a very young age, that the kind of love that "always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" does exist. And I just knew intuitively that if that kind of love did exist, then it could be out there for me, too. He taught me that I was smart and talented and tenacious, that I was more than just someone's future wife, that I could be a doctor or a lawyer someday if I wanted to.  I could be anything I put my mind to.

Except, apparently, a pastor.

For years, I believed that a biblical scholar like my father and the many churches who would not accept a woman as a pastor must be right.  After all, they knew the bible much better than I did.  They could lay out every verse that told women to be quiet, to submit, and to stand behind the people God truly intended to use to teach the world about Him.  So, for years, I tried to believe that what God intended for the world was for men to be dominant and women to be submissive, even though in my heart, I could not reconcile that kind of God with one who would also give us verses promising that "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)

Eventually, the friction of this seeming dichotomy was on the very short list of reasons that I took a break from the church for a decade or so.  It was also the first and most insistent item on my list to reappear when I finally walked back into the doors of a church.  Though I have become quite devoted to my big-hearted neighborhood church in the last few years, the fact that they referenced passages like Colossians 3:18 a robust six times in our first year of attendance has given rise to the fear that the next time I'm told to open my bible to Colossians 3, I might just find myself standing up in the middle of the sermon and screaming, "That's it!  If I hear that passage mentioned one more time, I am out!"  In my imagined version of this tantrum, I also slam my bible closed haughtily, which is kind of funny since my bible these days is an app on my smart phone.

Instead, when the "wives submit" verses pop up on Sunday, I look around me, scanning the pews for other churchgoers who might also be harrumphing and wishing they had a bible to slam. I keep telling myself that my husband and I can't be the only ones who are baffled by the doublethink required to advocate one hierarchical social structure while nonchalantly brushing away another (completely accepted in Paul's day) hierarchical social structure that appears four verses later.

Oh yeah, that part about slaves obeying their masters?  Well, that's easy to explain.  It's not that God thinks we should own slaves now.  But, you know, back then it was common for people to own slaves.  No, we shouldn't reinstate slavery because it's obviously wrong to own another human being, but this verse can still be applicable if you think about it in terms of a boss/employee relationship.

And yet it is apparently unthinkable that perhaps, just perhaps, the same could be true of the verses telling women to submit to their husbands.  It is unthinkable, and downright blasphemy to many folks, to imply that perhaps Paul was just trying to give some advice to alleviate a non-ideal social structure already in place, not prescribe the existing social structure of his day as the ideal to be followed for all time.

Truth is, I don't want to write this, and I certainly don't want to hit publish.  Though it seems glaringly obvious to me that the bible, taken on the whole, weaves a story that decries the idea of any one group raising themselves above another, this is a topic on which I am greatly outnumbered in the Christian community.  Writing this scares me because it has the potential to hurt and enrage many of the people I love dearly, but I believe that not writing this accomplishes the same thing as standing up in favor of gender inequality.  I believe keeping quiet is a tacit agreement that I think God intends men to be dominant and women to be submissive.

Instead, I want to say to anyone who may feel, as I did for years, that you can't be a real Christian unless you buy into the gender inequality line: you are not alone.  I am just down the pew from you, and though I may never get the nerve to jump to my feet and scream ENOUGH, I am going to use my voice in as many ways as I can to remind you that it is not blasphemy to question the modern day application of verses like Colossians 3:18.

It is my hope that one day we will look back on churches using passages like Ephesians 3 to justify the subservience of woman in the same way we now look back on churches using those same passages to justify slavery.  It is my hope that if I have a daughter or granddaughter some day, I will be able to tell her that she can be anything she puts her mind to, no exceptions.  It is my hope that she will be able to inherit a faith that welcomes her openly, equally, seeking to challenge her to live a life of love, humility and service, not because she is a woman, but because she is a Christian.

18 comments:

  1. One day you walked up to me in the high school room at FBC. You asked me how I would respond if a woman told me she felt called into ministry. I told you "I'd say she probably misheard God, since pastoral ministry is a male calling, and he wouldn't truly call a female to be head pastor in a church." Liz, I don't have a whole lot of regrets in my life. But I regret that answer. Not that I knew any better at the moment, since my life had been spent in conservative circles so it was the only answer I knew. But God, in his graciousness, whacked me upside the head 15 years ago and I've been a strong supporter of women in ministry ever since. And I'm glad I now serve in a denomination that recognizes the calling and gifting of people, not gender. I'm blessed by the many female colleagues with whom I share this ministry. But. . .I'm sorry I gave you the wrong answer all those years ago. Forgive me for being a dunderhead. And know that you're not alone.

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    1. I am clapping for you Dan. Your humility and boldness here is compelling. Thank you, even though your comment was not to me, thank you.

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  2. Liz, one thing I love about your blog is that you cause me to think and rethink the old, comfortable thoughts and ideals that come from my conservative background. I have always chafed at the direction that women can't be used in a way equal to a man when it comes to church. Not that I have ever had the desire to be a lead pastor, but why can't there be women deacons or administrators? Why do we say one passage doesn't necessarily apply because of today's culture, but another passage does? I guess that, while it bothers me, it's not a battle I want to take on. (Which is kind of sad in itself.) My prayer is that we could all be used to serve in the way that God has called us individually to serve him. You given me lots of food for thought! With love, Mom

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  3. I can't imagine two better comments to receive on this post. Thank you both. Dan, although yours was not by any means the first or the last answer I heard like that, yours is absolutely the first apology I've ever received on the subject. I'm happy to hear that you are ministering alongside some great folks called by God, and that many of them are women!

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  4. incredibly moving post and especially tear-jerking comments. Thank you Dan and Liz's mom for your honesty. Liz, it's not too late to become a pastor if that is what God called you to do, and is perhaps calling you still to do. many blessings, Emily

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    1. Thank you for that reminder that it's never too late to be called into ministry!

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  5. When Joe and I were with S.I.M., an international Missionary organization, we were in orientation and found out that at the time we were missionaries, 80% of the missionaries in foreign countries were single women and they held leadership positions. No one looked down upon them or criticized them for they felt that is where God wanted them and they filled a need in missions. Many of them led instructional classes on the Bible and in Seminary courses. In essence, they were "Pastors". God will use you for HIS purposes.

    Joe and Cheri Beck

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    1. You are right that many women have found mission work is a place that allows them to answer God's call and use the gifts He has given them. The series I wrote this piece for talks about that several times, and it is so amazing to read about the impact these women have made all over the world!

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  6. Thank you for this. You illustrate very clearly that though the male-authority position claims that females are still equal, the mind of a little child can hear and see that "you can't because you're female" belies that claim.

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    1. Yes, what a great way to summarize that realization I had at a very young age! Also, I LOVED your post on Galations 3:28.

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  7. Thank you for this, Liz. This is the first time I've read your blog (I found you via Rachel Held Evan's post), but I needed to read this. I grew up with my father and a few other people encouraging me to go into ministry, because we attended an egalitarian church, then I got involved in a different denomination and bough the arguments against women preaching or holding authority, hook, line and sinker. I still felt called to ministry but let myself be convinced it was wrong and that a woman couldn't be a pastor.

    I only started questioning the limitations on women very recently and now I'm wondering what I may have missed out on because I tried to squeeze into such a narrow role for so long. I'm still in a very "complementarian" church, so I have also been quiet about much of it because I fear just being told I'm wrong again.

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    1. Raine, we are also in a complementarian minded church, but we have decided that instead of shopping for a church that matches our view on this exactly, we will stay where we are and just be willing to speak out about gender roles and equality whenever it is appropriate. It comes up a lot in our small group and in conversations with people at church, so we don't hide what we believe on the subject.

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  8. You are not alone Liz. I know it feels like it sometimes, but I believe the egalitarian view of men and women in the Church is growing enormously. The Church has gone through so many reformations in its history (Earth as the center of the universe, divine right of kings, slavery, interracial marriage) and I believe the egalitarian view of men and women is the next one. As we find more and more ancient manuscripts, and learn more about ancient greek and hebrew, and learn more and more about ancient culture, patriarchal and complementarian views of scripture are losing ground. We need more women to graciously and lovingly speak out, as you are doing, and encourage other women in the fact that God values them just as much as he values men, and that He has given them gifts that have no gendered restrictions!
    Thank you for this post! Keep doing what you are doing!

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    1. Kate, I agree that I think we are on the brink of a shift to a more egalitarian view in the church. This series on mutuality, and Rachel's whole blog, has given me such comfort about not being alone and such courage to speak out and help others know they are not alone in this!

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  9. Liz, you said:

    I may never get the nerve to jump to my feet and scream ENOUGH...

    I bit my tongue for a number of years until I felt I'd had enough and by listening to sermons that marginalize women, I was giving the impression I agreed. When I had reached my ultimate limit, I began to quietly leave the auditorium when this erroneous teaching started from the pulpit. (and nary a sermon went by without some unseemly reference to women)

    At some point, I felt strongly that it was necessary to take a stand. I realize not everyone feels that way, but I was very comfortable making a statement in the way I did. As this attitude became more pervasive in churches, I stopped attending.

    Thank you for your post!

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    1. I think that one day I may feel comfortable leaving when this comes up in the service, but for now I am using it as an opportunity to initiate discussions about the references after church (when people often stand around and visit). Several times I have found that others were as bothered by the references to a patriarchal model as I was!

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  10. I found your blog post through an acquaintance who posted the link on Facebook. I'm glad I did. You are certainly not alone. This has been a struggle that I and the women in my family have faced for a long time, as well. I was lucky enough to grow up in a Catholic diocese that is known for being one of the most liberal in the USA. When I was a kid, our bishops got together and petitioned Pope John Paul to consider allowing women to be priests and to allow priests to marry. I know this is the exception and I have struggled to find another place where I feel comfortable with my liberal views. This is probably part of the reason that organized religion has so many detractors. In my understanding, Jesus was anything but closed minded.

    I think this acceptance or even blindness to the inequality in so many Christian churches is a sad but accurate reflection of what happens so frequently to women in this country and certainly around the world to a much greater degree. I think that the complacency adopted by young women today is a sign of how much work the women before us did, but it's also a sign of how well the reality of the situation has been covered up. Americans like to put on blinders to sexism and racism, we like to think it's behind us, but it's not. We're not only held down in church, but also in businesses, universities, politics, etc. I, like you, have struggled with how to fight this particular battle, but every once in a while I get the urge to shout out "LOOK AROUND YOU! Why is everyone OK with the fact that their mothers, sisters, and daughters are still fighting to get out of the shadows of men?"

    I think increasing awareness is the first step and I thank you for your effort here!

    Heather

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  11. I read this several days ago and am still tongue-tied. Er, finger-tied. Er. Neuron-tied. Yup, that's it! I cannot write a response that adequately conveys "thank you." So I hope you'll accept a simple, uncomplicated thank you instead.

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