There’s debate swirling in Christian culture that seems like it began as a response to the #MeToo movement. The reality is, however, there are perennial versions of this debate, but in light of #MeToo it has once again been pushed to the forefront of our collective minds. In evangelicalism everyone is on the same page when it comes to abuse of women, whether physical or emotional. Thankfully, we all want women to be safe, whole, and flourishing. The debate heats up when we begin to discuss what it actually looks like for women to be whole and flourishing in the church.
The current cultural tremors surrounding #MeToo are rooted in sexual abuse and harassment, though I would argue that sexual abuse and harassment have their roots in the fundamentally erroneous conviction that women are inferior to men and are their support staff rather than equal in value and essence. As tremors are wont to do, their vibrations shake more than just the ground. #MeToo set off shock waves of awareness of places in which women find themselves on the wrong level in unjust gender-based hierarchies. Tremors are no respecters of structures or institutions. They reveal the difference between solid construction built on firm foundations and shoddy construction built upon one code violation after another. These shock waves are being felt acutely in the Church, and she has had to wrestled with abuse and misogyny within her own ranks. This conversation has caused other tangential debates and leave many (men and women) questioning everything we've ever thought about “a woman’s place.” This is a critical juncture.
Conversing, questioning, reimagining, and even, if necessary, restructuring are important if we, men and women, in the body of Christ want to joyfully image Him together in the world.
Questioning all we’ve ever known about women in the church involves a myriad of conversations. Two questions come to mind as I think about where to start. First, what does the Bible teach about gender? Second, what does it teach about the role of women in the church? (For an excellent detailed treatment of this topic, see Alice Matthews’ Gender Roles and the People of God and this video by Jen Wilkin.) There are traditionally two views that exist in the church when it comes to how to think about gender, specifically as it relates to marriage, and by extension, how each gender functions in the church. Complementarians teach that women and men are equal in value to God and yet have unique roles that are not interchangeable wherein men are the "spiritual leaders." Egalitarians, on the other hand, view women and men as not only equal, but think that their roles in many cases can be interchangeable and highlight mutual submission to one another (Complementarians also ascribe to mutual submission, though the expression is different). This type of binary thinking often creates more debate than dialogue between the "sides." While each camp has compelling points, both complementarians and egalitarians must deal with issues each of their positions pose. Having grown up in a staunchly complementarian tradition, I"ll speak most specifically to that vein.
From my earliest inklings of awareness that I might have a teaching gift, I have struggled to find where I fit in the church, and really, in the kingdom of God. My experience taught me that strict complementarian churches often don’t know what to do with girls like me. There was no training, program, or place for girls who have Biblical insight, a teaching gift, and fearlessness in front of a crowd. I loved most everything about the tradition in which I grew up, but that doesn’t mean I and other girls like me didn’t collect some unnecessary baggage pertaining to calling and function there. (Full disclosure, if I have to choose one side or the other, I still land on the complementarian side of what I view as a spectrum, but, again, this is a conversation of nuances.)
In the last year, the tremors in the church concerning gender and the #MeToo movement have created a dizzying array of issues including whether women can instruct men in church (or even church-like settings, such as seminaries). Further, many have asked whether men should read Christian women non-fiction authors and if reading them amounts to instruction. In an article, author Jen Pollock Michel poses the question, “Why aren’t men reading women writers?” In it she questions whether Christian men don’t read Christian women writers because of a particular theological stance (i.e. if a complementarian thinks a woman shouldn’t exercise any teaching authority oven any man ever, then for a man to read their books as a source of information would also be wrong), that men simply don’t know about any solid female non-fiction authors, or that men assume women aren’t writing “serious” books. Regardless of the reason, she concludes that when women read men but men don’t read women, the church suffers. Men miss out on the range of experiences and unique perspective of the Scriptures that women bring to the table. She says, “As long as the male experience is considered to be universal (and female experience alien), we’ll be missing a lot of good material for our preaching and teaching. More importantly, we’ll have a diminished view of God and his work in the world.”
That’s just it! Jen’s wording describes the experience many women in complementarian evangelical circles have in the church...our experience is frequently treated as “alien.” In fact, I was recently in a church gathering when the man leading the meeting said to audience (which included many young men) that women are so hard to understand and are “like aliens.” Too often in Christian culture at large, the female experience is labeled as the outlier, the foreign language unable to be decoded for full interpretation. While I believe it is most often unintentional, it has a sidelining effect, as if to communicate that any analogies or metaphors that are uniquely feminine are anomalies that should be footnoted with explanations such as, “this is how these words have been translated, but who can really know the full meaning, so we’ll skim over them and pretend they don’t add any force to, or change the meaning of, any passage in which they appear.” It’s as if when Paul writes about running a race, we must wring out every last ounce of sports-related meaning (maybe even stretching the meaning too far and taking too much license?), but when it comes to a metaphor about, for example, birth, it’s glossed over with a dismissive, “well, labor is painful and brings forth new life, and that’s the only meaning that can be teased out here.” Shouldn’t we at least pause, make eye contact with women who have delivered babies and ask them if perhaps their actual experience can uncover another layer of force, emotion, or meaning? She might, with her special perspective, be able to inform us of the full spectrum of labor and delivery; such as how her pregnancy feels like it will never end, how she knows before she shows, how the pain of childbirth begins months before the actual birth, how delivery forces a previously unthinkable vulnerability forcing her expose the most private parts of her body to a room full of strangers, how even in the beauty of new birth there is ugliness of blood and afterbirth, how the flood of oxytocin solidifies a fierce protective love in her heart, and how even through pain she nourishes her baby from her very own body. We might ask her to explain exactly why it is that she would never be able to forget her nursing baby (because the fullness of milk in the most tender place of her body creates such pain that, even though she may forget on some days to feed herself, she could never forget her baby’s most basic need), and how that can instruct us when we consider that God, like a nursing mother, could never forget us or fail to meet our needs (because, of course, He would meet our most basic need through the pain of His very own body).
Or, consider the conversation I had with a male friend who recently learned that David probably raped Bathsheba. He said, “It never occurred to me that she was raped.” I responded, “It never occurred to me that she wasn’t.” We, men and women, see very differently when we read our Bibles.
When my youngest daughter was born, she had strabismic amblyopia. Amblyopia is a condition where an eye, for various reasons, doesn’t develop proper vision. In many cases, there is nothing physiologically wrong with the eye, but eventually, the brain stops interpreting information from the eye, and the eye becomes functionally blind. By way of illustration, do this little experiment. Imagine what it would be like to have amblyopia. For the next few minutes, if it’s safely possible, cover one eye and do all of your normal tasks with the other. What you’ll instantly recognize is that your field of vision is diminished. You can still see, and you can probably even carry out your normal tasks with some slight adjustments. However, you aren’t able to see as much of the world as you can when you possess the faculty of two good eyes. Cover one eye long enough, and you begin to adjust to the impairment. After a time, you may even forget that you are only using one eye. Now, remove the cover from your eye. What do you notice? Hopefully, the world will seem as if it has opened up to you. I realize the analogy has limitations, but my point is, our bodies demonstrate the truth that we have two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two kidneys for a reason. We can live without one, but optimal function requires two operating together.
So, while women’s experiences and perspectives might feel foreign to men, they are not alien or unknowable!
Half of the church is sitting in the pews waiting to be asked to offer their perspectives in a way that edifies the entire church and glorifies God using the full spectrum of devices that he intentionally used to communicate with us about his nature.
As God-imaging men and women, we need to hear from one another about the uniquely male and female experience in the world. Just as believers from all parts of the world in every station of life need to be instructed by one another, we (the whole body) need to sit under instruction by both men AND women for the full meaning of the Scriptures to abound to the Church. When women are invited and empowered to participate in the church this way, when their knowledge is valued and heard by the whole body (both because of AND in spite of their gender), wholeness is actualized and everyone flourishes.