(This is Part 1 of a series of posts this week on how i’ve lived out my own intersections within the church.)
People often ask me to share with them stories of how growing up, I went to a male dominated church where I, as a girl, received messages that women were to be silent and have their heads covered or something. They assume because I am a woman and a leader in the church that my passion behind advocating for women’s empowerment within Christian culture (and society in general) has come from early discriminatory circumstances.
That just wasn’t the case at all.
While I went to a historically Black Baptist Church, it was also a very forward thinking one. Women were in leadership and fully recognized in the church. My Pastor, Rev. Soaries, was a man who affirmed women in leadership. Period. So you see, women in positions of leadership was normative for me. Yes, there was the occasional traditional practice, such as the deacons being all male and any deaconesses wanting to be a deaconess needed to be married to one of the deacons- who were central to the church’s missional and service to the congregation.
There were always questions about how that worked exactly in regards to gender and roles. But other than that, I grew up with women wearing robes and sitting in the pulpit and preaching the word of God boldly and with power. I grew up with one of our women Pastors switching male pronouns for God in some of her sermons and in some of the traditional hymns and watching some of the members of the congregation awkwardly look around the room and others cringe, while doing so. But still…no one would respond much outside of that. Maybe someone would vocalize their concern with it, but we continued to move forward as a church.
Women in leadership was never this revolutionary concept to me; it was normative.
It really wasn’t until I went to a Christian leadership conference with my friend Sue that I had my first gender discriminatory moment. It was right before I went to seminary and was at a table with a group of people and when one man asked me what I was pursuing, I told him I was on my way to Princeton for seminary. He told me to read 1 Timothy verse…something. (I forget that passage that everyone loves to recite, among some others.) I was so clueless. I think he was trying to tell me my place as a woman? Then as the conference broke into sessions, I noticed all the women were in one room and all the men were in another. I was so confused. This was a pivotal moment for me. But at the time I just thought it was a cult conference of some sort. I didn’t realize this was how a lot of people within Christian culture were actually functioning.
As time went on and I grew up and became more exposed to various settings, I realized that, women in leadership was this debated, uncommon anomaly. It was so normative to me that I didn’t even see the urgency in advocating for it. It wasn’t until those newer unfortunate experiences, mixed with a few feminist theology classes and a few womanist books that I realized that this was a significant enough issue that I, as a woman, needed to provide some sort of voice for. Not only that, but why not seek to piece together the culture in such a way that other young girls could have experiences like I had in being able to see a woman in a position of power and think nothing other than “normal.”
So yes, on days like today when I visit a church that has a large congregation and a full staff of nothing but white males (i’ll address diversity in a later post), I cringe. And a friend brought up a good point today that many churches still sort of, forbid, women in leadership. That true. But it’s not to those churches that I have an issue with because I expect that (though I don’t excuse it). It’s the ones that are more “progressive” and adhere to the ideology that God’s spirit and gifts are poured out on both men and women. It’s the ones that preach a theology of becoming all things to all people so that by all means we may save some. They are the ones who have more of a responsibility to ensure that women are intentionally included and affirmed within their congregations. One of the ways they can do that is by making sure there are significant women’s voices and presence in leadership. When women are not there, it sends the message that the only legitimate voices in the church are male ones. And while many would argue that the message isn’t direct or that it’s unintentional, therefore not really a big deal, I would argue that the issue lies in the subliminal messaging which can many times, be more dangerous that the direct one. This is because subliminal messaging shapes the conscious. This can result in how some young girl in the congregation grows up to view herself and her place within the life of the church. Or even how young men view themselves and the women around them in the life of the church.
Honestly, I’m just really tired of seeing women and girls question themselves and their place in this world. I think that at the very least, women should be able to seek refuge and solace within the church. I think that at the very least, women should be able to seek refuge and solace within the family of God.
The beauty of seeing themselves represented.
The joy of discovering who God has called them to be within our family.
The peace in hearing their voice among the voices of their brothers, friends, husbands, and brothers.
It really should be normative, not revolutionary.