Sunday, April 28, 2013

There Is No Middle Ground for Women in the Church

Night Seesaw from Flickr via Wylio
© 2008 Peat Bakke, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

When it was time for recess in grade school, I usually made a beeline for the seesaws. I loved flying up and then dropping suddenly to hit the ground with a thud.

But I loved even more the challenge of keeping the seesaw suspended in mid-air with a playmate who weighed the same as I did. For some reason the gravitational stalemate gave me a sense of satisfaction.

Perhaps my fascination with playground physics was useful in helping me accept theological tensions such as the sovereignty of God and the free will of humans. I try to hold two seemingly contradictory views together in balance.

But it doesn't work for me as an evangelical woman with a passion for ministry in a church community.

There was a time I tried to keep both a hierarchical view of authority in the church and a freedom for women to use their Spirit-given gifts as they felt called by God.

I had started the journey of wrestling through the issues of a woman's place in the life of the church. But then I got caught in the middle where I was undecided how far I would go along the spectrum of beliefs about women.

I was certainly moving away from complementarian theology (women can only be teachers and leaders of other women; husbands lead, wives submit) which took shape during Bible college and was reinforced in my church. Years later I progressed to believing women could teach men and preach behind the pulpit.

But it was hard to cut the cord to nearly 30 years of believing the absolutist doctrine of ordained male leadership. Surely women could be truly valued and free under the authority of male elders. Godly male elders. Really really kind gentle male elders. And if they had a family, elders who loved their wives and daughters and therefore understood other women enough to pay attention to their voices in the community. (Hmmm...I could never figure out why single male elders were allowed despite the plain reading of 1 Timothy 3:2.)

I was trying to find a middle ground, that sweet spot on the seesaw that kept my complementarian theology balanced with my egalitarian heart. I even found a church that was trying to do the same thing with their "soft" complementarian position.* They really believed that it was possible for complementarians and egalitarians to worship and serve together in one community. I really wanted it to be possible too.

But after six years of disappointments, I quit straddling the fulcrum between egalitarianism and complementarianism. I lifted my foot off the one side and planted both feet fully on the side of full freedom for women and what I believed to be the real vision of the Kingdom. I couldn't run fast enough down the plank to search for a fully egalitarian church, one with women elders, which I found.

I love seesaws, but on the issue of women, the metaphor doesn't work. I cannot be an egalitarian and worship in a complementarian church anymore. And as moderate as a "soft" complementarian church may be, it is still a hierarchy with power vested in men alone.

Eventually my seesaw had to tip to one side or the other. I made the choice of which side with full integrity as I searched through Scripture and with discernment in how the Spirit had been moving in my life all along.

The middle spot is unsustainable on this issue. Gravity will win and one side will crash.

It will crash because theology and Bible interpretation has been and will continue to be a place of disagreement. In other words humans will always pick and choose what they want to believe and practice. Churches that try the middle spot will find that it is a place where theology is suspended or ignored or compromised. But it doesn't work for the long term because theology cannot be kept private when the practices of the church are public. A church cannot avoid practicing their doctrine of women. So complementarians walk out of services when a woman preaches and egalitarians grieve where women are absent or silenced.

It will crash because we are sinful. In other words humans are limited and fallible and will always struggle with loving well. So there is no such thing as truly benevolent male elders. Sin has distorted perceptions of women as well as perceptions of men. The only way to overcome sin's impact on gender relations is to distribute the power equally and create a leadership space where every voice has authority and choice to submit to one another. Without women in the room, hidden misogyny or damaging attitudes may not be exposed. As long as men hold absolute authority there is always the possibility for blind spots and an inability to hear women accurately. And maybe even the possibility of abuse. How can a church address justice issues in the world if it's not willing to address justice issues in its own house?

It will crash because we can't rid ourselves of our cultural influences and agree upon one lens through which we view and interpret the world or Scripture. In other words humans will always have their biases. But many biases have changed through the course of history. Much of God's will in heaven and the movement of the Spirit on earth is a mystery but if we pay attention to what He has been doing through time, we can glimpse the path we should take culturally. If God created male and female to rule together at the beginning and if there is no gendered hierarchy in the new heavens and new earth, then the middle time of the church should be an increasing transformation into what God intended and will bring about in the end.

The transformation may be slow, but it's unstoppable. And it's better understood in hindsight.

Luther's Reformation tells us that the church got it wrong at one point. When it comes to women, they have it wrong again. But I believe there's another reformation in the air. It may be hard to find evangelical, egalitarian churches now but I sense a tipping point ahead.

The seesaw has a slight tilt to one side. 

*The "soft complementarian" position is articulated by Craig Blomberg in his essay found in the revised edition of Two Views on Women in Ministry. The doctrine and its practice is established by loosening up on some biblical passages while holding fast to others. Women are free to use their Spirit-based gifts in teaching and preaching but they are excluded from positions that hold the highest level of authority in the church whether it's an elder board or a senior pastor position.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Faith's Menopausal Moments

CAUTION: Men may find this post offensive or confusing or possibly enlightening. Consult an older woman if counsel or education is needed.

I haven't picked up a feminine pad for a long time. I am so happy to be done with that aspect of womanhood.

During perimenopause my husband bravely accompanied me to see Menopause the Musical: Celebrating Women and The Change so that he could be better prepared to survive this stage of my life. We both got more information than we wanted.

As it turned out, compared to other women who have gone through menopause, I really had an easy time with "The Change." But I did have my moments of hormonal craziness. Unfortunately it landed during a time of spiritual craziness too. Not a good combination. It created a lot of bad memories, deep hurts and an unreconciled relationship.

But recently, because I love metaphors, I was able to reconcile menopause with spirituality.

I've been reading My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman just released earlier this month. Wiman wrote this after being diagnosed with an incurable blood disease at age 39. Last fall he received a bone marrow transplant. (You can read a CT interview with Wiman here.)

Since I am currently doing caregiving for my sister who just went through a bone marrow transplant, I was curious about how his faith fared in this crisis. I'm not done with the book yet but I have been touched deeply by his transcendent and life-giving words even as he was "standing at a cliff." Wiman poetically makes sense of faith even while we are insensitive to its latent presence.

I love this paragraph in the first chapter:
In fact, there is no way to "return to the faith of your childhood," not really, not unless you've just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some half-remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you'd been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life--which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived---or have denied the reality of your life.
I am in my fifties and I definitely do not believe now what I believed at fifteen which is about when I first responded to the gospel.

I have always loved change. And I have loved the process of growing and changing in my faith, my understanding of God, my spiritual perceptions and biblical knowledge.

What I haven't loved is the connection between pain and growing, between challenges and changes. (Insight into my weird brain: Immediately I saw the "lle" inside the word "challenge"  which, when removed, becomes "change." Then I started thinking of words that begin with those letters to further the connection. I came up with life and love emerge. I am so nerdy.)

At first I wanted to forget and move on from those painful, challenging events. But it didn't work. The more I tried to forget, the more the memories haunted me and the anger resurfaced like the bubbling of a backed-up sewer line in the basement.

Eventually I realized that forgetting was a form of denial and it was keeping me from moving on. So I quit calling them memories and referred to those experiences as stories, stories to remember, to tell and to submit to the healing presence of Christ.

My past stories have contributed to my "story in the middle" but this middle keeps changing because I haven't lived all my stories. I will keep changing as long as I continue to have faith in Christ and as Wiman points out, faith in life. I am on the other side of the middle of my years, but when it comes to faith, I am always in the middle.

Wiman used a masculine metaphor to describe what living a life of faith is not and the impossibility of going back to a childhood faith if you are really living and not in a coma. I couldn't help but think of a feminine metaphor to describe what living a life of faith is. At least in my experience as a woman.

Enter Menopause the Moment.

For me, experiencing change includes one or more of the following:

  • a shift in my universe (most of them are smaller than that, but some have been pretty darn hard)
  • imbalance (spiritual, not hormonal...or maybe both)
  • times when I feel like I'm going crazy (or I want to believe everyone else is)
  • anger (can I call them spiritual hot flashes?)
  • depression (I know I'm not alone here)
  • sleeplessness (I have my most significant conversations in my head at 3 a.m.)
  • irritability (this is an external sign that I am wrestling with God internally)
  • mental fuzziness (amazing how biblical knowledge, including a BA in Bible and an MDiv in theology escapes the synapses in my brain)
The more significant the change required, the longer the menopausal moment. The more significant the developing story, the longer it takes for me to process its place in my imaginary memoir.

But then the change happens. Sometimes it happens slowly. Sometimes it's instant. Almost always it involves an encounter with God. 

And the shift in my universe becomes a shift towards Christ. Towards repentance. Towards knowing I am beloved. Towards knowing others are beloved. Towards trust. Towards life. 

Each spiritual menopausal moment is an opportunity to move on and deeper into the life God intends for me.

Eventually the moment becomes a memory and the memory a story and the story a chapter in the memoir of my faith in God. My faith in life.

(If you think this metaphor was rather lame, wait until I write about "senior moments.")

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Why Patriarchy Keeps Women From Growing Up

My Daddy and Me

There have been many moments in my life when I thought or spoke these words out loud: I don't wanna grow up! I've said that even in my fifties.

It's human nature to want periodically to shed responsibilities and lean into others to tell us what to do, make our decisions or take care of us. When I'm really old and this becomes a possible reality, I wonder if I'll feel irritated or relieved.

Sometimes I want to return to being a little girl with her Daddy by her side, oblivious to the adult world.

But then I remember my Daddy. He worked hard as a parent to ensure I would fulfill my own adult responsibilities well. He did all he could to help me grow into a strong, self sufficient woman (maybe sooner than most kids if you want to read that story).

This meant he gave me increasing freedom to make my own decisions. This meant he kept loosening the boundaries around me and encouraging me to explore new territories on my own. This meant he understood his job as a parent was to nurture my inner strength so that I would step into the world without any sense of entitlement or inferiority.

My daddy wanted children badly but he didn't want children forever. He was committed to raising me to be a fully functioning adult, confident of my abilities to maneuver through life and confident of my standing as an equal member of the human race.

No one I know would suggest remaining in parent mode well past the normal formative years. No one would think this is healthy for anyone, whether the child, the family or the community at large.

But this is essentially what patriarchy does to women in the church.

When women are denied equal authority, equal responsibility and equal voice, they are being treated like children and are denied adulthood in its fullest sense.

When leaders have important conversations and make significant decisions without full representation from over half the church, then women haven't really grown up.

When women are barred from sitting at the table of leadership, they are being barred from the table of adults.

When men restrict a woman's sphere of influence or define the Spirit's calling in her life, they presume to be her "fathers" when she should have only one, her Heavenly Father. Never once have I heard a father dedicate his daughter to future male church leaders to spiritually guide her through life.

Patriarchy perpetuates a church culture in which girls never leave the watchful eye of a father and never really become adult women with full freedom and equal value or voice under Christ's reign.

Patriarchy is a problem for women. And it's a problem for the church because in reality without the full adulthood of women and full partnership with men, the church is crippled and adolescent. 

Voices are increasing in number as they expose problems with male-dominated church leadership. As a woman, I offer my voice, small as it may be, but determined:

I refuse to remain a child in the church or be treated like one. I am an adult!