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.