I recently shared a post on social media where I talked about releasing the story that God and Christians don’t really care about women. This is a challenging story to release because it's one many of us grew up breathing.
It felt very bold and vulnerable to state plainly that I haven't felt cared for in Christian communities as a woman. It felt like giving in, acknowledging the patriarchy had won a round or several. I was also afraid that folks who I know love me dearly and whom I love would read my post and see it as a breakdown in our relationship or connection. Perhaps I just don't know how loved I really am.
I live an incredibly privileged life. I have family (biological, chosen, and church) who all care for me deeply and would be on my doorstep in a heartbeat were I to need anything from a bill payed to dinner on my table. This love for me as a person, however is not the same as love, appreciation, or care for me as a woman. In fact I've often felt through my lifetime in the church that I'm loved in spite of my gender.
I have spent my entire life steeped in evangelical Christianity, in churches with male preachers. I can count on one hand the sermons I’ve heard devoted to the stories of women of faith. When there were sermons about women, it rarely applied to my experience, or the experiences of women I knew. Most men when attempting to describe women of faith, flatten their narratives nearly beyond recognition. Esther’s story gets boiled down to a queen standing up for her people, without examining her history of trauma or how she was forced to disassociate from her original identity and then reclaim her full self to fulfill her calling. Bathsheba is lucky to be a footnote in her own story of becoming the first matriarch (and we don’t hear about her history of trauma including rape, widowhood, and death of a child either.) Ruth becomes a story of seeking security from the accommodating Boaz. Sticky stories like those of Jael, Hagar, or Tamar often go untold. The story we hear most from men is the story of how Eve managed to damn us all to hell (literally.) I would need some additional hands to count how many times I’ve heard THAT story.
Listen. I don’t think this is purposeful. I do think it’s a product of our patriarchal culture, which assumes preaching about women (once every two years or so) from a male perspective is all women need to grow spiritually. The feminine attributes of God get downplayed too, whether from lack of male preachers identifying with them, understanding their importance, or both. The result, at least in my life, has been a deep cognitive dissonance between my experience of the Divine, the teaching I received, and the space my faith and gifts were given in community.
If you’re wondering why it’s so important to tell the stories of Esther, Hagar, Bathsheba, Jael, Tamar and more from nuanced perspectives, it’s because they are our stories. They are the #metoo stories that have lasted millennia. Sometimes I wonder how many male pastors get up in front of their congregations on Sunday mornings, look out over the faces of the women in attendance, and understand the trauma they carry. I can tell you every time I've had a chance to speak to a room full of women or girls, it's one of the first things on my heart and mind. I know every single woman in that room either has already experienced trauma because of her gender or unless we all do a heck of a lot of heavy lifting, she will.
I recently heard both Lisa Sharon Harper and Rob Bell reference the concept that the Bible was written by and for marginalized communities. This means the context of all our biblical literature is set on the stage of deep trauma. This can be a hard mindset to understand for those of us accustomed to the privileges of growing up and living in a country that's a nuclear superpower. As Christians we tend to cast ourselves as the people of God in Bible stories - even when we are living in a modern world empire, more similar to the Roman Empire than Israel. This is one way the Bible gets misread to sanction horrific acts of violence and oppression - it's read in the context of empire. I've become adamant that to understand our faith fully, we must listen to and uplift the stories and experiences of those who have been marginalized. This includes but is not remotely limited to women.
I didn’t even realize what a difference hearing nuanced portrayals of faith heroines made until I started seeking out other women of faith who were telling them from a female perspective. They cast new light on how God has championed, celebrated, and collaborated with women. These themes I couldn’t even trace in the versions I grew up with were suddenly clear as day, and so powerful. I could relate to them. It turns out, women tell women's stories best.
I shouldn't have to justify why women's stories matter. I shouldn't have to explain why representation in leadership matters, when little girls growing up in church see the stage and the altar as somewhere they don't belong as early as they can form sentences. The imbalance in some of our churches is so great that folks have no idea what they even could be missing. They have only ever known a masculine representation of faith. This is why it can be hard to believe the church cares about women. We are welcome, as long as we squeeze ourselves into the male perspective and experience of faith. We are welcome as long as we work hard - but stay quiet. This is not a whole welcome.
We all have our own concepts of how God sees us based on myriad factors, but when our formative experiences and teachings dictate our female legacy in faith is making a mistake that damned humanity, is it any wonder we might struggle with self worth, self trust, and our place in faith? Here's what I learned about being a woman at church: I must submit to men. I can't trust myself (because Eve.) I should be modest - if a man (because there are obviously no gay Christians, so it's always a man) looks at me and has impure thoughts, I am at fault. My worth (as a woman) is based in how useful I am to others and God. (Many women were also taught that their worth is based in their virginity.) Any aspect of self - what I wanted, what felt safe to me, what affirmed me, was to be thoroughly suppressed because our natural human state is depraved and evil.
Patriarchal Christianity magnanimously offers women a seat on the sidelines of our own religion and teaches us to blame ourselves when it doesn’t feel like enough.
If I sound angry, it’s because I am. I’m angry that when Rome accepted Christianity, Christianity married power. I’m angry that my faith tradition has been used as a tool of oppression, against so many marginalized people groups, and especially against women. I’m angry that women form over half the church but have so little space in it. I’m really angry that I had to break down so many barriers to believe in a God who wants me to value and trust myself. I wonder who I might be right now and what I might have accomplished if I didn’t have to spend years unlearning that first. I’m angry that an acquaintance of mine who preached a sermon about a woman of faith on International Women’s Day got chastised by her senior (male) pastor because some of the men in the church didn’t feel like they could relate. If this isn’t an example of Christian Patriarchy I don’t know what is. These men apparently can’t relate to text based on women of faith, but we women are expected to almost exclusively take spiritual sustenance from stories and experiences of men. Yeah, I’m angry.
I’m also frustrated by the apathy that accompanies so many discussions about where women fit in Christian communities. The “this is how things have always been, and most folks seem happy with it” logic. “But women are happy on the sidelines!” “The Bible says women should be on the sidelines!” “We have equal roles, they’re just DIFFERENT.”
Do you see why it might feel like, after 30 years, that women are not a priority of the organized Evangelical church? Do you see how it’s hard to overwrite decades of this messaging? Do you see how this space is pervasively male, even when there are more women than men sitting in the pews? Do you see how little space there is for feminine energy and experience?
Rewriting this story is one of the hardest things I’ve taken on in my life. There's no prescribed method, but I can tell you what I’m doing.
I’m listening to women - a whole lot of different women. I’m listening to their stories and experiences in faith and spirituality. I’m listening to their interpretations of scripture. I’m reading their books and buying their art. I’m following them on social media. I’m seeking out groups of people who also believe that women are a priority to God, and soaking it in. I’m building community with the goal of it being a healing and encouraging space for women.
I am learning as much history and context as I can, both of biblical times, so I can understand the Bible better, and the context of how we've come to believe what we do about what the Bible says. There are lots of folks who still believe that women shouldn't teach or preach to men, which is taken from a few letters in the Bible, sent to churches dealing with specific challenges. Understanding cultural context has revealed that we Christians have a history of finding verses that conveniently justify our social norms of the day - in the past that included things like slavery and burning those who were suspected to be witches at the stake. When we zoom in on specific verses without taking into consideration greater themes in our faith and how they were modeled by early Christians, we risk following this pattern. If we're following Jesus, who appeared first to women after his resurrection and tasked them with informing the men of what happened, a whole different understanding is available to us. There's also a biblical theme of "fruit" as proof of theology. Ya'll. The fruit of suppressing women in faith is rotten. The fruit of women co-leading is healing.
Maybe instead of shifting uncomfortably when this topic comes up we can start evaluating how we and our communities can celebrate and make space for women. I recently listened to an excellent sermon on Deborah by Jen Wilkin, and she said “Deborah was a prophet and a judge. How many of our churches would have a place for her today?” Well. How many of our churches would welcome and make space for Deborah?
What percentage of our titled church leadership is women? (If women are doing the work of church leadership without recognition and respect of a title, why is this?)
What percentage of female theologians and thinkers do our church leaders read and follow?
How many podcasts and sermons do they listen to that are led by women?
What relationship do we see between God / Jesus and women? How is that represented and expressed by our church leadership?
Does our church leadership recognize, call out, and make space for women to develop and use their gifts within the community?
How often do our pastors preach about women of faith, and is it inclusive of actual female experience?
How many of the articles and literature shared from church leadership are by women?
To my fellow women, who might be tempted to think this isn't such a big deal, that we aren't worth the turmoil it may cause for Christians to show care and acceptance to women, WE ARE. You and I are worth shifting perspectives and taking bold actions for. Not only that, but when we ignore the feminine perspective we all miss so much about God. Not to rewrite my book, but patriarchy limits and suppresses all of us. It's not just women who miss out. Let's remember, Deborah didn't just prophecy to women.
See, I don't just think that Christians should care about (or even celebrate?) women because it benefits me and other women like me. IT ALSO BENEFITS MEN.
Yes, for real. Just from a numbers perspective, if men in church leadership are cut off from half of the thinkers, theologians, and writers in faith because they're women - aren't they missing out? I know, I know it's not against the rules for men to read work by women, but my follow up question is how many do? If you're one of the three dudes who might read this, I challenge you to take a look at your reading list from the last year and count how many women authored the books you read. If you're a woman and you doubt me, ask the men in your life to do this exercise. Imagine if the preacher is going out of town for a weekend, and can petition the entire congregation for a sub, instead of chasing down one of the five men comfortable with leading a sermon? Imagine a Mothers Day sermon from an actual mother.
I know change takes time, but I get tired of waiting. One of the most beautiful (and one of my favorite) things about Christian faith is the capacity for integrated community. Even if we aren't there yet, maybe we can take the temperature of our own mindsets and those of our communities. Maybe we can chart a course towards full inclusion and whole welcome. Maybe someday we'll be able to say folks know we are Christians because of our love and celebration of women.