Old Wounds Reopened: Reflections on the Church and Women

As my pastor was preaching on anger earlier this week, in my arrogance, I was thinking “anger isn’t really my issue.” I tend to avoid allowing myself to feel anger, instead I tend to force myself back into whatever primary emotion is triggering my anger. Partly this is upbringing: in my childhood, I picked up the belief that nice Christian girls aren’t supposed to show anger. Partly I don’t want to lash out and hurt people just because I’m wounded. And then, as I’ve started working on a seminary project, I realized I am, in fact, angry these days. So maybe it was a sermon for me after all. I’m still not sure what to do with this anger, other than to unpack it a little. So here goes a post that’s a little angry, a little challenging, and a little wounded.

The project that triggered this adventure is a group presentation on gender roles for my Christian Social Ethics class. To be honest, I was so not excited to be assigned this topic. In my early 20s, I worked for Christians for Biblical Equality and was thoroughly immersed in the topic. Passionately.  Energetically. I lived and breathed this stuff. And then, I hit a wall. The world became bigger than this subject, and I needed a bigger world to move around in as well. So, the issue went on the back burner. I thought my i’s were dotted and my t’s were crossed. I felt resolution. I was done. No more emotional energy for the topic. In part, this is due to J. God sent me a wonderful gift in the form of my husband; his masculinity isn’t threatened by strong women, and he nurtures and encourages opportunities for me (and other women) to lead.

When I came back to seminary, I still felt aloof from the issue. I’d made peace with where I stood. If I have to give myself a label, so you get a simple picture too, I’m a Christian feminist. I’m increasingly okay with the label “feminist;” it doesn’t scare me anymore the way it used to. I don’t feel ashamed by it. For Christian theology nerds, you can stick me with the label “egalitarian.” Basically, I believe men and women are co-partners in the home, workplace, church and society, and that leadership ought to be based on giftedness rather than gender.

J & I’s Engagement Photo ca. 2004

What I also want to say is that I think submission only works healthily when it goes both ways. Paul encourages the church at Ephesus to submit to each other in love (Eph. 5:21). I listen to my husband and respect his opinions; I want to honor him in my choices. But, the kicker here is that my husband does this with me, too. This is not a one-sided exchange. We submit to each other.  I don’t lord it over my husband, nor does he lord it over me. When we disagree, we work hard to come up with a solution that satisfies both of us — not just him (or me). Mutual submission has kept us very happily married for over 9 years.

Back to the point, I knew where I stood, i.e. egalitarian, and I knew how to recognize churches and groups that won’t welcome my gifts because I’m a woman. I thought those darts and arrows couldn’t hurt me anymore. When I could see the injustice coming, I could at least (or so I thought) put up a shield to protect my heart. As I researched this project, I realized I was wrong. My heart hurts.

And it makes me angry. Working on this project is causing me to have to examine old wounds, and I’m learning that they haven’t healed up as much I wanted. As I read one author who preaches male headship and women’s submission to men, I had to exercise extreme self-restraint in order not to tear the library book to shreds. I’ve never wanted to destroy a book before now. I was incensed and nearly ready to walk away from the class and the project; it’s probably a good thing I need it to graduate.  I’m not going to name the author or the book; I don’t want to throw rocks. As Anne Lamott’s writing reminds me, regardless of how I feel about the person, that person gets to sit at God’s table, too.

Maybe it’s not just the project, other than that the project forces me to have to listen to voices that pour salt into wounds. Lately I’ve been battling the anxiety monster, working steadily to improve my self-talk (instead of rehashing repeatedly how awkward I was in this moment or that moment, just telling myself that I am loved), and trying to rest in confidence that I am God’s beloved. Somehow reading the other perspective on gender in the church threatened to rip that confidence away from me. Or at the very least make me seriously pissed about the injustice of it all.

God chose me and called me toward a particular vocation. Every time I run from it, circumstances converge and I find myself back on the path toward ministry and leadership. I have been hemmed in on multiple occasions. As I was reading yesterday, my sex suddenly felt like a curse instead of a gift; suddenly I was in a space of resenting the body that God gave me. The body I’ve been given suddenly was not enough for the calling I’ve been given just because it is not male. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be a man; I just suddenly felt trapped and cursed by being a woman.

Somehow being a woman means having to question God’s calling (and having others question your calling) in a way most men don’t experience. Particularly because I grew up in a context where women don’t lead anything other than children’s ministry. Well, at least not officially.

It’s frustrating to scan through job descriptions and realize I’m not qualified for a position because I don’t have a particular appendage. That’s it. I could be a perfect fit in every other way, but I won’t make it past the door due to my gender. In almost every other segment of employment in the United States, that would be considered discrimination, but in church, we just call it theological difference.

For me, one major issue with the male headship view is the core idea that women are to submit to men because Eve ate the apple first and caused Adam to eat too. This idea makes my blood boil; anger is too tame of a word. Partly because I think it takes away from Adam’s responsibility for his choice to eat the apple; partly because I think this parallels the misogynistic attitude that has been used to condone violence against women for millennia. That seductress made me lust after her, so I just couldn’t help myself. Somehow rape and abuse gets turned into being a woman’s fault. Men don’t have to take responsibility for their violence against women, because somehow women made them do it. I think that’s all a giant crock of poop. I don’t have a nicer way to put it.

On a related note, I’m tired of evangelical circles reducing conversations about lust into women needing to dress modestly and be mindful of how men might view them. This gave me a complex about the way I dressed for years. To be frank, it’s still there and a large part of why I love scarves and hoodies. Somehow someone else turning me into a sexual object became my fault. Why doesn’t the conversation involve taking responsibility for viewing women as sexual objects first — instead of humans made in the image of God? While I think modesty is a good thing, the problem here isn’t first how a woman is dressed, but whether I view her as a whole person with a story or as an object to be used for my pleasure.

I’m not out to say women are better than men, that Eve wasn’t responsible for her actions, or blaming men for the world’s problems. I just think both men and women are capable of leading. I struggle with the male headship claim that somehow masculinity is necessarily threatened by strong women leaders.  That just sounds like narcissism and insecurity speaking. Why can’t there be space for strong men and strong women in the Church? Does leadership have to be a zero-sum game? If women are leading, suddenly that’s ousting men from work and responsibility at a church? I don’t think it has to be this way. That sounds like the voice of fear instead of love. I think the Church’s mission is bigger than that. I sure hope so. I pray that Church becomes a place where we can value the contributions and leadership of both genders instead of seeing the other as a threat to our continued existence.

I’m struck by the conviction that God gives us gifts and talents to further the Church’s mission. God gives those gifts to men and women alike. And yet, the Church often asks women to squelch their gifts and to doubt themselves on the basis of their gender. We treat those talents as though they’re ours to chuck and disregard. I’m reminded of a song from the show “Nashville” sung by Sam Palladio and Claire Bowen called “It Ain’t Yours To Throw Away.” The chorus asks, “What if you’re just a vessel, and God gave you something special? It ain’t yours to throw away. ‘Cause every time you open up your mouth diamonds come rollin’ out, it ain’t yours to throw away.” And in denigrating women in leadership, the church asks women to disregard those gifts and talents that God has given.  In essence, throwing away the gifts God gave. I’m convicted in the last few years that ignoring my gifts and calling is no longer an option. These strengths are not mine to throw away; I’m a vessel to be used by God. God has given me value, and is bearing fruit with the talents I’ve been given. And in the midst of trying to live out that calling, I’m feeling wearied and agitated by a culture that continues to devalue the role and presence of women in the Church.

**Note:  When talking about Church in this post, I’m talking about the Church in terms of the broad Christian community rather than my home congregation.

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