After scratching the surface of this topic in my last post, Losing My Religion, I’ve spent some time talking with friends and thinking about this topic–being a woman in a patriarchal theology–in more depth. Additionally, of course, going back to the Bible to investigate what is truly being communicated.
But first, a back story. I’ve spent much of my life at war with myself.
ON ONE HAND
I grew up in a very affirming environment. My parents were wonderfully encouraging and always praised me as a comedian, writer, tender-hearted person and influencer. At church, I was often placed in some form of leadership the moment I was old enough to turn around and do so. As a grade-schooler, I volunteered in the church nursery. As a Middle schooler, I helped lead worship for 5th and 6th grade Vacation Bible School groups. As a High schooler, I occasionally helped with the Middle schoolers and was also dubbed a student leader.
Me being a student leader in high school is a saga for another time. In general, I was coached to “watch my influence”, since my attitude was incredibly contagious to others. I cannot tell you how that followed me throughout my life, or tell you how many times I’ve been classified as a “rebel-rouser”. Those above me either immediately needed me on their team, or tried to shove me down. Which, as a young person, is very confusing.
I became very self-aware about the parables of Jesus which challenged people to always invest their talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Stewardship is a major concept among Baptists, and I knew I needed to find a way to steward my gifts as a leader and influencer.
ON THE OTHER HAND
Baptists don’t have a ton of job openings for women. As previously mentioned, neither did my Bible college. In fact, they had less. My home church liked to joke about this “silencing of women” by tongue-in-cheek calling it “sharing” when a lady graced the stage at our church, but they still had many wonderful role models for me. Ladies who studied the Bible and ventured onto the missions field, even whilst single.
One of my mentors, Dr. Mary Wilder, became a surgeon in Portland back when it was unthinkable for a woman to do so. She even had a professor fail her solely because she was a woman. He’d be damned if he was going to see a woman graduate on his watch! She went on to turn down a lucrative job as a neurosurgeon and became a doctor for women in Pakistan. Since my mind goes blank and my blood stops flowing when I see blood, becoming a medical missionary was not an option for me, no matter how inspired I was by her life. I appreciate that Western Seminary brushed past “silencing women” in order to make her a professor in later years.
Bible college was rough. The very institution preparing me for a ministry career was simultaneously telling me I had no future in such a field, due to my gender. This, honestly, made me panic a little. I never felt like God was telling me to hush up, but my religious leaders were telling me this was exactly what the Bible teaches.
I tried to wiggle, but didn’t find much room. I had no desire to be disrespectful or insubordinate. In general, the men in authority over me were usually pretty cool and humble about it. Some obnoxious, male students, who were younger than me and also newer believers, were a different story, as they loved to corner me in the student lounge and question my salvation. I liked to make them all kinds of nervous.
I tried not to despair. I spent the next seven years working part time jobs with flexible schedules so I could still volunteer my time to serve the church. Hollywood video, Starbucks, a Martial Arts Academy, Peet’s Coffee, waitressing… While I enjoyed many aspects of these jobs, mainly the people I got to work for and around, I always carried a crushing guilt that I wasn’t fulfilling my potential. I wasn’t a good steward.
On more than one occasion, I tearfully cried out to God, “Did you make a mistake by giving me these gifts, by making me a leader, and then also making me a woman?”
In the fall of 2006, I had moved back to Portland for a year. All the kids I had grown up with at church had been consistently calling me for advice in the three years I’d been in California. I wanted to go home and help them not need me so much. I haphazardly started a college group that fall. Just a group of us, meeting at my house since we didn’t have any other midweek structure set up. I remember the first week, it was me and 8 guys. I suddenly felt in trouble as their 16 eyes looked at me to lead them. “Why me?” I asked, to which they unanimously responded, “Why not? You’re the oldest and the only one that’s been to Bible college.” I’m pretty sure when I did return to California the following year, I never told anyone I had started and led a group of guys while I was away. It had blossomed, in those 9 months, and by the time I left, was becoming much more, with a sort of committee of leadership. Under that leadership, it grew into what they renamed (from “CG” aka College Group) Sycamore and someone else will have to tell you how many new people started coming to our church, because of it, and how many marriages came out of it.
Now that I’m a full-time supported missionary, I see just how simple good ministry is, and just how insignificant titles are. We’ve all got to do the best with what we’ve got, and who knows what God can do with it.
In the summers, I’d usually come back to Oregon to work at a summer camp. There I felt alive. I was writing comedy sketches each week, I was leading teams and I constantly had a microphone. I don’t need to be ashamed of the fact that I am alive when I have a microphone in my hand. I used to be afraid to admit that, but not anymore. Public speaking is a major fear for a lot of people, but it isn’t mine and I think that’s significant. On one such summer, I got an old youth ministry colleague from California to come up and guest speak. I wasn’t sure what he was going to say when he saw me running a show. He nervously joked to my camp director that he had never seen this side of me and I must have been “hiding my light under a bushel all those years”. I wanted to punch him, but “haha good joke.”
Working with Youth With A Mission has been a breath of fresh air. It is way more empowering for women, and we are equally pushed to reach our full calling/potential. Finally, after ten years of looking for a reason, roaming through the night to find my place in this world, I found it.
WHAT ABOUT THE BIBLE HAND?
Good question. Many people glean their theology about women from the letters of Paul. Once again, I need to give a shout out to the Almost Heretical guys for doing a great series on gender. They’ve helped me navigate these passages with that podcast. Also, its wonderful to hear Nate speaking as one of my former fellow college students. He mentions how he always used to hear jokes about the “placement” of women, with zero push back. Knowing his new perspective, from a further study of the Scriptures, is all kinds of vindicating. Let’s jump in.
Paul wrote thirteen letters which were later canonized into what we now call the Bible. The letter to Romans has become a center-stage-star in the creation of Christian theology, because it was written to a general audience, of Jew and Gentile believers, whom Paul hadn’t met. These are his blanket statements. In relation to women, he doesn’t launch into roles, but he does send a few greetings at the end (Romans 16) to some women whom he calls fellow workers. Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Junias, Julia, Nereus’ sister, and maybe some other names here that I don’t know are feminine.
In Galatians, which is also a bit blanket statement-y because Galatia is a region, not a city, he says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28). I think this notion is expanded upon in some of his more specific letters to people he personally knows.
In First Corinthians 11, Paul goes into this speech about head coverings. He points out, in our (mostly translated by men) English translations, what looks like a hierarchy of headship. Man is the head of woman, Christ is the head of man, God is the head of Christ. Maybe a better translation is source. Woman was sourced from man’s rib. Men were spoken into existence by the Word of God, aka Christ. God is the source of His Word, aka Christ.
In the Corinthian context, women of nobility, and married women, wore head coverings. Prostitutes and female slaves were actually not legally allowed to wear them. Thanks Caesar. Not wearing a head covering reminded everyone that a woman was sexually up for grabs. They could get raped without consequence. When Paul tells them that every woman in their church is to wear a head covering, he is telling them to break the law in order for people to see them as honorable and off limits.
In the west, we look at that and take it as a subversive thing, when it’s actually quite the opposite. Think how even nuns, orthodox women and Muslim women wear head coverings. It’s large in part to show that they are honorable and off limits. In the surrounding chapters of First Corinthians, Paul is giving them instructions for meeting together and its for everyone to bring prophesy (teaching) in an orderly fashion, in order to give outsiders a correct opinion of God.
In First Timothy and Titus, Paul has been taken to be setting up church officials with titles. This could be a misunderstanding, if a church gathering is an orderly equal sharing of prophesy. The word deacon is the Greek word for servant and the word elder is the same word as older or elderly. Paul could have been setting up his expectations for the people in their communities positions. The lists of expectations for an elder and deacon are very similar, once again, ascribing nobility to the “least of these” and pushing elders to be good examples. Right next to those are expectations for women, older and younger, and you’ll see some crossover there too. Temperate, teaching what is right.
Another thing to note, is Paul specifically speaking to Timothy, who was in Ephesus. He’s got some pretty strong words for the ladies, but it must be understood in the context of their cultural tendency to synchronize with their culture (just as we also do) which was based around the worship of Artemis: the goddess who protected women during childbirth. Giving up Artemis, as many were doing (Acts 19), was making women afraid to have sex with their husbands and deciding not to remarry as young widows.
All to say, we need to watch how we allow our own culture dictate our understanding of the Bible. My study of this is not extensive, and I welcome questions as long as it comes with a genuine personal responsibility to engage with the the text and historical context as well.
The point is, Jesus was all about us choosing humility–the lowest seat at the table–in order to be exalted by someone else. I’ve seen some excellent examples of humble Christian male leaders, and a lot of very gracious ladies who have endured a lot of sexism in the name of complementarianism. I’m not saying women are good and men are bad. I’m saying, we need each other. It wasn’t good for Adam to be alone and it probably still isn’t good for Adam to do things alone. Let’s see if we can do better and stop oppressing women in the name of God.