This is my contribution to Rachel Held Evans’ MutualityWeek2012. To see the other incredibly wise people who have written about this, see here.
“But you can’t do that.”
I turned and stared at the boy who had uttered those words. I was seventeen and working at a Christian summer camp in Southern New Jersey. That fall, I was headed to university to learn how to love students better and was telling my fellow co-workers that I wanted to preach in the all-camp final service.
With sunblock dripping in my eyes and confusion clouding my soul, I replied “why?”
“Because you’re a girl. Girls teaching men is a sin. Everyone knows that.”
And with those simple words I would never forget, boundaries were placed upon my previous understanding of a boundless God.
“What do you mean they walked out?!” I shrieked.
I was twenty-one and in the college cafeteria after one of our mandatory chapel services. A brilliant woman had come that morning to teach us about loving orphans and vulnerable children in Vietnam and I had enjoyed every moment of her talk. My male lunch companion had just informed me that several of his male friends – upon seeing it was a woman at the pulpit – had walked out.
“Yeah,” he shrugged non-commitally. “It’s not a big deal, Kristen.”
“It’s NOT A BIG DEAL?!” I felt my temperature and temper rising. “But they walked out just because it was a woman!”
“Well, they’re just following what the Bible tells them to do.”
“The one we all read, Kristen. You can’t change what the words say. Stop being such a Yankee about it.” Yankee, you see, was many people’s shorthand at that university – located in the American South – for me when I was being opinoniated, or fiesty, or strong willed. If they weren’t such “good Christians”, I’m sure they would have just called me what they were thinking – a bitch.
“Like I said,” he looked me dead in the eyes, “it is not a big deal.”
And with those words I realized I had larger dragons to slay than I had ever thought possible.
In the past ten years, had I a dollar for every time someone told me that my gender limited me instead of empowered me within the context of the institutional church, I promise you I would not ever take out another student loan. Myself, my friends, my colleagues, my sisters: we have all been told we are “less than” for whatever reason. The comments were made by seminary classmates and college professors, by pastors in our churches and by authors we’ll never meet. Each hurt, though. I won’t deny that.
This conversation is incredibly emotional for anyone involved. We, as humans, put deeper value in religious language than any other. Thus, whenever God’s ideas about humanity are introduced into a conversation the conversation automatically becomes more intense. By the way, that is the foundation of most sociological studies of religion and language. But that’s why I like to pause for a moment and attempt to remove the emotion. As a sociologist, I am deeply interested in how religion shapes society and society shapes religion. Both of those things have logical trajectories.
I believe it is only logical to end gender discrimination within the Church. Which, by the way, is what is currently practiced in millions of congregations around the world. I’m not being dramatic, I’m being factual. Whether you feel it is backed up by Scripture or not is irrelevant. It simply is. The question – therefore – becomes whether or not you feel God is in the business of gender discrimination.
I don’t believe there is any evidence that God is. In the ancient Hebrew scriptures, YHWH is constantly shown as a deity of order and stability. In vast contrast to the origin stories of Babylon and Messopotamia, YHWH was never subject to fickle whims and YHWH’s actions were always bent towards the good of humanity. The ancient Hebrew people believed deeply that God was a god of order. So why are we so hesitant to embrace that now?
Of course, as with every other issue in Christendom, this one comes back to your interpretation of Scripture. Many other wise writers this week have tackled exegesis and I do not need to go into that here. But if you are someone who believes women must be subordinate to men within the Body of Christ, may I ask for your logic behind that?
Why would we allow participation based on reproductive organs and not skill sets? Why do we think God small enough to be limited by only creating women to bear children or clean houses? Why – and again, I ask for a clearly logical answer – am I – a woman with a first-class seminary education and a gift for public speaking – less qualified to preach than the gentleman sitting beside me with no formal training and a job as an accountant?
My hope for the Church as we move forward is that we begin to have adult conversations about this. This week is a great start and I hope it fuels more weeks like it. However, I also hope every congregation can discuss this. I hope young girls are taught to be strong women of valor first and foremost and to find themselves in Christ – whatever that ends up meaning to them – rather than finding themselves in their potential future husbands. I hope we can value other sacramental relationships other than marriage and other professions than motherhood.
May we find the deepest and widest definition of the Kingdom – one which represents the boundless and complete love of the God we claim to serve. May we allow people to be safe within our midst; their gifts encouraged and strengthened and not shunned. May we – as the Universal Body – be a place known for “yes” instead of “no”, hope instead of condemnation. May we celebrate the fullness of each gender, each human, each living beings as miniature expressions of the fullness of God and embrace each other as family.