Is there nothing wrong with the way things are in our churches? After all, not all women are asking these questions. Experiences in our churches and homes often shape how we view the world and what we notice or do not notice in our lives and even within Scripture. There are times when Scripture must break through our experience and speak new life into it and bring us to recognize those things that just aren’t right in life.
In this post I will be sharing primarily my experience as a female. You will hear some ideas from other women later. My upbringing has been very positive in this regard. Please notice the new experiences I was confronted with and pay special attention to what in the background seems normal. To many in Evangelical churches, the new experiences I describe may not seem out of the ordinary or perhaps you will think I am making a lot out of a little. Bear with me. I will get into more of the unintended consequences in the next post. For now, context is everything. Culture and assumptions of society and the resulting messages are hard to detect because there are assumed, not usually thought about. It is entering into a different culture or subculture when one usually notices these kinds of things.
Not every woman in the church will explain things the way I do. This could be because of genuine differing experience, or because of blind spots. Sometimes when people are consistently mistreated or not treated in an ideal way it is hard to see that the situation is not right or could be better—especially when they are taught that the way they are currently living is God’s ideal or plan. Many years ago if you had asked me if I was being abused I would have answered “no” even though further probing would reveal this was in fact the case. If you had asked me if the way I was treated in school by teachers was unfair, I would have said it wasn’t. Only in hindsight have I recognized that many things were wrong with the system and environment I was in and not with me. My environment enabled abuse in my home and constantly from other students. It also reinforced the idea that I could not learn unless special circumstances were present. I began to believe and act the part. All of this just to say, something can be very, very wrong with the way someone is treated, but they may not see it that way.
My Experiences as Woman
Growing up I did not face gender discrimination. In fact, at my church in Alhambra and in my home the ability for women to become leaders was not argued for, it was the norm. When I had questions my dad would encourage me to look into the Bible and sort through the passages with him. Even though he gave me his position he taught me how to read the Bible for myself and to arrive at my own conclusions while drawing from other people’s strengths. He would also learn from me as I learned from him. At church my questioning of ideas was only encouraged more and I was never made to feel out of place in many of the discussions the adult men were having. Women also regularly expressed their ideas and took initiative. Our assistant pastor was female. Nothing seemed odd or out of place on that account. I was not told it was ok. The issue did not come up in my environment. All of this to say, I never got the impression that anything was out of the ordinary. I never had a gender crisis or confusion over who I was as a girl or how as a girl I fit into God’s plan. I never thought of myself as acting or thinking like a boy or not being like a girl either. Boys were different from girls, but not over which was supposed to be more active, take more initiative or lead. Even now, my church in Santa Ana has readily funded my seminary education. However, many women in the church have not had my experience or upbringing.
I started to notice that something was a bit different when in an introduction class (special class to meet people and get situated) at Biola I realized I was the only girl. I hadn’t noticed at first since I was too busy engaging in theological discussions with my classmates much as I had always done at church. It was only when the teacher arrived that we all realized we were in this intro class because we were Bible majors. The first thought that occurred to me was: “That’s why we all started talking about theology!” Next I wondered why I was the only girl in the class. The reason did not occur to me. The reason also did not occur to me later for why some people at the school treated me as incompetent (read my stories about sexism). This was generally not the case, but looking back, there were enough “isolated” incidents to make them not so isolated. What also began to be strange to me was when I would hear backhanded compliments about how smart I was—smarter than any other women the person speaking knew. I also began to hear various people describe my own theological interests as masculine. One friend suspected I was just pretending to act feminine sometimes to cover up my masculine tendencies! At the time I had mentally dismissed him as a bit out to lunch since 1) I was a female and so probably was not pretending and 2) Nothing in my previous experience told me only men did theology and debated. I didn’t know it, but the experiences of other people were shaping how they saw me and how they read the Bible.
Environment Messages: You are not really feminine. You can study the Bible, but when you use it to engage us on a meaningful level, there is something wrong with you. You are not genuine or are not to be trusted. You are out of place.
It didn’t take long before I started to wonder why there were not more female Bible majors. Most of my friends who were girls loved almost every bit of theology I would describe and want to know more, but were themselves in other majors. I soon realized that many grew up in homes where the man was the assumed leader. Some never aspired to anything else within their churches because it was never presented as an option. One of my roommates with some regret and disappointment expressed that she was always interested in going deeper, but hadn’t seen the point since her husband would be her spiritual leader anyway. At the same time, my friend who was attending a Bible college was noticing that the boys there kept treating her like she was stupid and offering to “teach” her even though she was doing better than all of them. They also kept viewing her as mostly a prospective marriage partner.
It is natural to think of the man as the leader. This is not an option for you to consider. Spend your time doing something more worthwhile. You are more like a child that I am here to help.
In my classes I was being taught Complementarianism. They presented other Egalitarian arguments, but they were not very good. The passages they had us read seemed to be clear support as well and so I accepted a Complementarian view for years. However, I was bothered by some interpretations. I noticed that some of the arguments made would logically lead me to accept pro-slavery positions. It also seemed inconsistent with what Scripture taught as a whole and in principle. While my teachers did not provide sufficient answers, I still thought their interpretations made the most sense of the passages and could not imagine any better interpretations. After all, the Bible clearly taught that man was the “head” of the wife and that women should not “teach or exercise authority” over men.
Exclusive male leadership is ordained by God and obvious in Scripture.
After a while, living with this understanding and embracing it I began to feel increasingly more isolated. At the time, I did not view this as such a bad thing because I have lived much of my life isolated for other reasons. Still, the question I was asking at this time was: Who was going to be my spiritual leader? As I grew in my relationship with God and grew in knowledge of the Word my options started to become severely limited. Also, for the first time in my life I was also dealing with the idea that I was very smart (more so than some of my classmates) when I was used to thinking I was disabled and hoped to make average. When I would talk or debate people I would just see points they did not and after a while people were looking to talk to me and ask me for help in understanding various ideas—even one’s they had to introduce me to! My grades kept getting higher and I started to get an A on papers very easily. The very fact that I was not failing Greek was already beyond anything I had hoped for. Anyway, since I needed a “spiritual leader” for a husband, I wanted to be wise and pick someone who could actually lead me well, but I felt uncomfortable measuring people in this way and this standard made my choices much slimmer. Some of the guys I knew who were keeping up with me had deep character flaws. My friend from Bible College was having similar problems. I was caught by wanting to go deeper and deeper and to share what I knew, but also very much wanting to conform.
You are different. You are unusual. You are now separate.
After I was convinced of Egalitarianism by my dad and Dr. Pierces’ class, I changed environments again. Believe it or not, most of my experience at Biola had been very positive. This could in part be because my previous environments had been so bad for other reasons. At Westminster Philadelphia I noticed even fewer women around. Almost all of the women who were there were hoping to be better wives and mothers or be counselors. Many who were not, left even before I did or when I did (within a semester). Beyond being a minority again (which did not bother me too much at the time since I was still thinking very individualistically), the atmosphere of this place felt very unusual to me. For the first time there was always this strange tension every time someone asked what my major was. The tension increased when I said I was an MDiv and became nervously congenial once I said I only wanted to be a professor. This always happened. Only a few admitted of their own volition that they were worried I was there to be a pastor.
Your presence here (higher learning of Scripture) is threatening. You can’t be trusted if you do not fit into certain slots. I am in a position to question your motives and you are in a position to justify yourself. If you did think about being a pastor, you would be committing a terrible crime and would not be one of us.
I also started to notice women did not speak up as much here. The same was true at Biola. Many women would be extremely nervous. I was not nervous as much because I was used to voicing my opinions on theology at church and with my dad’s friends and was never made to feel out of place or suspicious. In addition, most of the time my class environment at Biola was positive. The problem of the environment in the classrooms was noticeably worse at Westminster and Trinity. At first I did not catch on that the issue was gender. I just noticed that my opinions were not so welcome often or that there would be an odd tension in the room. Many women here at Trinity have told me they feel uncomfortable and when I have heard them speak up in class they are usually nervous and/or have many qualifiers to go along with their opinion. Many women at Trinity (Egalitarian or Complementarian) have shared horror stories about how they were treated in class by students or teachers. One woman recently took a preaching class where the teacher listed all the things women could not do and thus singled out the two female students in his class. When a girl who was Complementarian meekly suggested that the things they could do be emphasized, her opinion was dismissed. When the other girl brought the issue back, they were made out to be disrupting the class. Another woman gave a sermon in class (she is very bright and speaks well) and one student spoke down to her as he only said what he felt she did incorrectly (his review was much more glowing for his male peers). No one came to her aid.
Your opinions are not as welcome or valuable. You are threatening. You are a disruption. You are more like a child and in need of my assistance.
In my classes I have not experienced anything explicit and have even found that the odd tension that is unique to women is less if I go out of my way to talk to classmates beforehand and be friendly. One of my male friends (whom I highly respect) who is generally respectful towards women, explicitly voiced this question mark in back of his head when it came to female students on campus. Being friendly is not a bad thing, but what does it mean when I have to be friendly to relieve tension and other students do not (many minority students have similar problems)? Consider the fact that when I visited a very wonderful and friendly church with three other MDivs, two of us were automatically assumed to be “helpers” of our male peers and even when it was made known that we were also students, nothing changed. What didn’t change? The men were immediately approached with opportunities for serving in the church (even in capacities that would technically be open to us women) and we were not. People just made pleasant conversation with us.
You have to show us that you are safe. We want your male peers. We prefer men. You have to make yourself an option to us. You are fundamentally subordinate and you exist to help men.
A tendency I have started to notice about me in my classes now: Even though I still speak up in class like I did before, I use a lot more qualifiers and apologies.
Next post: what are the unintended consequences of a system that favors male leaders over female ones—even just in the church and home?