This is a post in our on-going series on Women in the Church.
As I wrote last week, I was at my in-person seminary intensive the past two weeks. While there, I met a woman who is about to be ordained a minister in my denomination. We were all sharing our stories and I told her I was raised a Southern Baptist. Having been raised in area where they have little to no foothold, she had only had one experience with a Southern Baptist.
She was working a table at a conference where an older gentleman carrying a large briefcase approached, telling her how excited he was about the next speaker–a “fellow Southern Baptist”. Not being familiar with the speaker’s work, this woman asked the gentleman what the work was on. He put his briefcase on the table, opened it up and pulled out a large tome, saying “this is his book, and it is wonderful.” He almost began to summarize its contents, but stopped short, instead pulling out a much smaller paperback, saying “but that book may be too hard for you to understand. Here, look at this one. It’s much simpler.”
He then realized he had no idea why a woman would be at this conference in the first place. He asked, “and so what do you do?”
She told him that she was at seminary studying for her Masters of Divinity.
This gentleman quietly put the books back in his suitcase, shut it, locked the clasps, looked at her, and solemnly said, “you know you’re going to burn for that, right?” And he walked away.
She just laughed.
Though I don’t think any of the men and women in my upbringing would have quite done what this guy did, I wouldn’t say there weren’t those that perhaps quietly thought to themselves the same thing. At the very least, there was this assumption pounded into our heads at every turn that “feminism”–indeed, any movement that sought to “empower” women–was one of the darkest forces in our society that had led to the breakdown of the family, masculinity, traditional values, belief in God, and “submission” to biblical authority.
In fact, my first experience of undergoing “biblical counseling” a few years back involved the counselor, in our first (and only) session, telling me that all my anxieties, insecurities, and compulsive behaviors were “precisely” because of a “prevalence of feminism” and a “loss of biblical authority” during my upbringing. And this was no stuffy old fellow; he was a single twentysomething fresh out of John MacArthur’s “counseling” program in California.
At my previous seminary, there were only a handful of women that were in the M.Div program, and though we were happy to have them, there was still a general sense among us guys of “why are they doing that?”. After all, they couldn’t ever get ordained in that school’s denomination.
In my current program, though, even though the denomination and seminary body itself have a full range of open-handed opinions about this issue particularly, there is a large swath of women in our program. Even more surprisingly, I’d say two-thirds of them are nearly 40 years old and older. These aren’t the (largely false) caricatures of the angry, angsty twentysomething female that just doesn’t like the word “submit”.
Now, as I’ve pointed out before, I’ve had to grow into my conviction that women belong at every level of church and societal leadership. And old ways of thinking die hard. Even as recently as a few years ago, this part of the blog post would be where I say something like, “and these women in my program are brilliant! They know their stuff and can go toe-to-toe with us guys any day.”
I used to think a statement like that was how I could “defend” my sisters in this discussion. But dating (and getting engaged to) a woman who comes from a long family of strong empowered women (she herself being one of them), being raised by a fiercely resilient and vocal mother, as well as being in this program with these women has all come together to change my heart in this.
These women don’t belong at the seminary or in ministry because they’ve “earned” it or even because they can do it “just as well” as generations of privileged males that walked before them have. They belong there because it is their right and dignity as human beings made in the Image of God. All the “proving” that needed to be done to validate their place in the Church and this world was done at the Cross of Christ.
These shifts in my thinking and feeling have come about because of the most important lesson that feminist thinkers, ministers, and fellow seminarians have shown and highlighted to me this past year-and-a-half or so: the human addiction to seeing the world through the filter of Power.
You see, in my upbringing, the disdain and mocking of women’s “empowerment” came from the assumption that they were trying to get “power” for themselves in the first place. When I used to try and defend a women’s place in leadership by saying they “deserve” it, I was in essence, trying to give them “power” that I feel I have and they don’t.
In this is the assumption that the basic principle at work in all of human relationships is Power: who has it, who doesn’t, and what’s done with it.
But what Jesus shows us is that living under his reign is not a matter of shuffling and redistributing one another’s stockpiles of Power. His calls to love and serve are not a call to transfer your wealth of Power to others without it. It’s to stop relating to others on the basis of that altogether. It’s to release your sense of Power completely.
Our world, our Scriptures, and our theological understandings and systems are so woven with assumptions of Power. They need to be undone and unraveled.
And that’s why, after moments like the past couple of weeks, I get so frustrated with all this “Women in Ministry” stuff. Almost every conversation about it remains in the realm of “Power”, and who we think the Bible gives the “right” (or if you’re a complementarian trying to soften your language–“responsibility”) to exercise it, and how we think they should. And no, I’m not talking about “servant leadership”. That still exists on the plane of Power, even if it’s under the guise of using your Power for the good of others.
If my fiancee and my classmates have taught me anything, it’s that human flourishing needs to center around Persons, not Power. It’s about dignity. It’s about honor. It’s about the Image of God.
We don’t need to “give” our sisters and daughters a voice and authority. They have it. We just need to listen and follow.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.