For the Rest of Us: On Not Fitting into Boxes (Part 2)

For the Rest of Us Part Two.png

I want to start this post the same way that I started the last one: “I am a liberal Christian woman with giftings that lean in the direction of teaching and prophetic wisdom, and that doesn’t always go over well in the church. I have preached to groups of men and women and have taught seminars on prayer. God equipped me with words for those situations beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I have been blessed to find community that is incredibly supportive of this and has challenged me to grow immensely in these areas over the past couple of years. But this has not always been the case.

 You see, I don’t fit into the tidy little box that much of the mainstream North American church has constructed for young Christian women…

…The church I grew up in was, and remains, quite conservative on many matters, including women in leadership. It was just a passive understanding that most people held. Even as a child and young teenager it didn’t sit quite right with me, as I had a sense that my gifts didn’t seem to line up with the church’s position on the role of women, but I never openly questioned it. After all, it was never said with any kind of malice, but it was stated as just a matter of fact. So I quietly wondered how I was supposed to affect change in my church community if my voice was seen as an unwelcome, unbiblical intrusion rather than a valued contribution. It was discouraging, but because I didn’t know any different, because I had never heard a woman get up and preach a fiery sermon on a Sunday morning, because I had never seen a woman allowed to be an elder, I thought that it was just something I would have to accept.”

A couple of weeks ago, I talked a bit about this concept in relation to my experience as a single woman in the church, and how that doesn’t fit very well with the traditional marriage-and-children structure that tends to be the accepted norm. I received so many wonderful responses from the people that read it, and it just affirms to me how many incredible people I have in my life, and how God is working to refine my missional calling.

This is the second part of the series, and it may be a little more difficult to read. My hope is that you read it even if (perhaps especially if) it makes you a little uncomfortable.

Back in January, I read a statement that John Piper released in response to a question about whether women should be allowed to serve as professors in seminaries, and was quite disheartened by what I saw. Now, I wasn’t surprised by John Piper’s obvious expression of his complementarian worldview (or patriarchal, if you prefer – the term ‘complementarian’ only came about a couple of decades ago when people started to realize that saying you believed in holding onto patriarchy, wasn’t cool); it’s a well-known fact about him. He believes that God’s design is for men to be the spiritual leaders and teachers, that this is how the world should work. But his words stirred up a lot of feelings and questions and past experiences that I haven’t been able to shake off since then.

In his post, Piper explicitly stated that “it’s not a question of competence” in reference to a woman’s capacity to teach and take similar leadership roles in the church, which is so problematic. Because every time a prominent pastor like Piper makes a statement like this, it undermines the work of so many incredible godly women. When “it’s not a question of competence” keeping women out of teaching roles, which indicates an understanding that they have the brains and words to be able to teach, what we are talking about is a question of which reproductive organs a person is born with – and that is blatantly sexist.

It still comes as a surprise to many that I am quite feisty and have no problem sharing my thoughts and voicing concerns when they arise. Because I present as quiet and gentle – things which are good and true parts of my identity – some assume that I am shy or unwilling to speak out, and it's caused quite a stir on multiple occasions when that perception has been broken. The truth is that I don't waste words; I'm not someone who talks just for the sake of it, but I believe that there is no excuse for staying silent on the things that matter.

This 'complementarian' worldview has meant that I (and countless others) have had valid concerns dismissed as whining, had my offers of help in ways I'm qualified criticized as an overbearing saviour complex. And I've been told explicitly and implicitly that I should speak less so that men can have the floor. It's caused hurt and meant that I've wrestled with my place in the church and parachurch ministries for years.

But over the last couple of years, God has taught me a lot about stepping out in freedom, and the ways in which his kingdom is radically different than the way we like to organize our earthly endeavours. He has been working hard on refining my speaking and teaching gifts, slowly but surely clarifying the calling placed on my life. He led me into an undergraduate history program, despite the fact that I never intended it as a field of study, and used it to plant me in community and build up an invaluable skillset in historical research and analysis.

Here's where I pull out that degree. The Bible is the inspired Word of God. Full stop. The Bible is a historical document that needs to be studied and interpreted with historical context in mind. Full stop. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. And when we approach the intersection where our theology meets matters that directly affect the lives of those in the church, it is imperative that we hold these two things in tension.

People lean on snippets from the writings of Paul to justify keeping women out of leadership positions in the church, but they forget that the context he lived and wrote in is not the context we live in today. Yes, the Bible is for us, but it was not written to us directly. We are not the first-century church in Corinth. So to jump straight from "what's on the page" to "how can we apply this living in North America in 2018" is often problematic and leaves out so much of the nuance that we have to consider. Questions about the cultural and social context, and the perspective and intent of the author need to be asked before we can jump to any kind of application. In the case of Paul, he was writing to address specific situations in specific churches, and also commended women who were prominent leaders in their local churches. But we have to take a holistic look at his life and ministry to understand his perspective and his true vision for the church.

Having just passed Easter, I've been reminded once again of the beauty that lies in Christ's ministry and the small decisions he made that honoured the dishonourable, the poor and vulnerable, the untouchable. The first people to see the resurrected Christ were women; they were the first preachers of the Good News, handed the responsibility to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had conquered death. In a time when women were not allowed to hold religious office, this was a groundbreaking moment that nobody could have imagined. Here we find this beautiful example of the ways in which Christ's life and ministry dismantles the status quo and reminds us that the divisions we create are not his heart for us.

It breaks my heart to see the places where we fall into the trap of believing that the reality we see is God's heart for us. And we do it all the time. Patriarchy was a result of sin, not God's original design for humanity, but because we have lived with its existence for so long, we start to believe that it's the way God wants it to be. But we cannot sit actionless in that mindset; it is dangerous to us all.

You see, I subscribe to the wildly controversial position that because men and women are both made in the image of God and are equally capable of knowing him, they are equally qualified to speak on matters of spiritual significance. I believe firmly that God has gifted us all uniquely to make up the Body of Christ in all its diversity, and that the gifts of the spirit are not limited to one gender or another. And I think that to disregard the teaching gifts of half of the body of Christ, or to limit them to only using them amongst each other, is damaging to relationships as well as theology.

In the aftermath of the Piper fiasco, I saw one tweet that particularly upset me. It said something to the effect of "if your 'calling' as a woman includes anything involving having teaching authority over men, then it's not from God." Oof. I understand the desire to hold fast to biblical truth – I will never dispute that for a moment. But to so brashly disregard the idea that a woman could have anything of spiritual value to teach a man seems archaic at its best. To suggest in this way that someone has completely misinterpreted what they believe to be the divine calling on their life implies that the person's entire relationship with God is misplaced, or worse, that they are a false prophet deliberately trying to lead people astray. And to have that spoken over you stings.

When I was growing up, my church held firmly to complementarian doctrine. Men were the preachers, the teachers, the elders. Women cooked for potlucks, decorated for Christmas, and sometimes taught children's Sunday School classes. But when these doctrines are just the norm, without any obvious anger or malice spoken into them, it makes it hard to step away from them. To grow up with everyone around you holding the same understanding, at least openly, that a woman's place is in the children's ministry (and not beyond) makes you question whether you're overreacting or just plain wrong when you start to wonder about your place there and how your gifts line up with the teachings of the church. That’s what it did for me, anyway.

This discussion might be making you feel a little uncomfortable, and some variation on "men and women are equal, but they're just different and have different roles" might be rolling through your mind. But before jumping into the comments section to share that sentiment, know that I've heard it all before. That's the doctrine I grew up hearing. And you know what it sounds a lot like? The doctrine of 'separate but equal,' just wearing a different hat, and segregation is fundamentally about reinforcing inequality, no matter what the explicitly stated intentions are.

“And the more I hear teaching from teams of godly men AND women, the more I fall in love with Jesus and the beautiful diversity that exists within his kingdom.”

I know that not every church, not ever ministry holds this complementarian view; it just happens that I've had some close-to-home experiences with ones that do. And the more I hear teaching from teams of godly men AND women, the more I fall in love with Jesus and the beautiful diversity that exists within his kingdom. I am so blessed to know people who speak the truth with love and conviction and who point me towards Christ, who are walking reminders that all of us must exercise discernment and wisdom as we step out into ministry, whether that looks like becoming pastors, parents, overseas missionaries, or stepping into a 'regular' secular 9-5 job. Because the reality is that we are in ministry wherever we go. Our lives are called to point to Christ with words and actions no matter who we are or what jobs we currently hold.

So let’s jump forward. The big takeaway of all this is not to simply stir up controversy and run away, but to create space for conversation. I personally believe that it's a no-brainer, that qualified men and women should both be given the opportunity to lead and to speak on spiritual matters. And I also know that I'm not going to change centuries of church tradition with a couple of blog posts. But we need to realize that our institutions can do a massive amount of hurt by insisting that first-century gender norms must be adhered to two thousand years later, without ever considering whether in our efforts to carry out the mandate of God, we have missed the point entirely. We need to be willing to wrestle through hard conversations. We need to take the time to realize that expecting everyone in the church to fit into an idealized family structure alienates those who have not yet, or may never reach that season of life. And for the love of all that is good, we need to stop assuming that every eighteen-year-old girl's one and only aspiration is to get married and have children.

And to the ones who feel like they don’t ‘fit’: regardless of how life in the church can sometimes feel, there is a place and a purpose for you - it's speaking God's truth in love. It's chasing after your Creator with abandon and opening your hands and heart to say ‘yes’ to wherever he leads. And it’s stepping boldly into your calling, into those places where your gifts can be used for the glory of the God who sees and knows and loves you fully.

Keep seeking. Keep loving. Keep trusting God. He’s the one who gives you purpose anyway.