Tuesday, June 5, 2012

my journey towards mutuality

Today I'm linking up with Rachel Held Evans in her Week of Mutuality, dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender. The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, Church, and society. Rather than digging into debate, I simply want to share the story of my journey towards egalitarianism. Later this week, I hope to post on 1 Corinthians 11 and on how I define feminism.

My parents have a beautiful, loving marriage of thirty-three years. Despite fairly significant differences in the way they approach life (Mom’s a vegetarian, for example, while Dad’s as red-blooded a carnivore as they come), they are loyal to each other in every way. They love and serve God. They make decisions together, and they treat each other with kindness and respect.

They are also pretty fierce complementarians. They believe that God designed different, but equally valuable, roles for men and women in the home and at church, that these roles are hierarchical, and that the truth about God and his church is best displayed in a marriage where the husband is a servant-leader and the wife submits to him as his helpmate. They taught me how to defend this position, and they taught me that it was the only legitimate interpretation of Scripture.


Buckled in the eighties minivan, we pass a church marquee. The pastor’s name, printed right there on the sign, in front of God and everybody, is a woman’s name. I mock it, the same way I mock Michael Dukakis with the neighbor kids in the backyard – that is to say, I mock it out of total ignorance. A female pastor?! Well, they clearly don’t believe that Scripture is God-breathed! Hope somebody leads them to Christ!

At Walnut Valley Christian Academy, we have a four-year class called Worldview. Spring semester, freshman year, we read Expository Preaching by Haddon Robinson. For final projects we prepare sermons. I am nervous, and overcome stage fright by imagining myself as Hilary Clinton (true story). I preach, to my co-ed class of ten, on Daniel, and Mrs. Fuqua gives me an A+.

Sophomore year I self-identify as a feminist. We study How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart, and we write in-depth papers on small portions of Scripture. I don’t want to be bored with the project. So I choose “that passage” from 1 Timothy 2. You know the one. “I do not permit a woman to teach, or to have authority.” I read the commentaries we have at home. I conclude that while some of Paul’s principles did seem to be cultural rather than timeless, the fact that he referred to pre-fall Creation order (“for Adam was formed first, then Eve”) to make his case seemed to indicate that these were in fact guidelines for all time. However, I decide that the way he combined “teaching” and “exercising authority” meant that the only role specifically barred from women was that of head teaching pastor. I feel my conclusion is a little arbitrary.

Meanwhile, I take on about every leadership position open to me in the church. I lead small groups of junior high girls every Tuesday night. I am a counselor on retreats. I exhort the whole youth group, boys and girls, about our besetting sin of materialism. I testify in front of the church (the mega-church) about the value of community. In college I join a similar church, but almost immediately I find the college group oppressive. There is a clear ladder of spiritual superiority, a clear moral mold. I ditch, and help lead the youth group instead. The first time I lead a small group Bible study for girls, my co-teacher looks at me amazed. “I think you have the gift of teaching,” she says.

I go to southeast Asia, and I see God do miraculous things. I begin to wonder if the gift of apostleship (church-planting) is open to women, because a new church is being born around me, in the middle of a spiritual desert.

Then a church from my hometown asks if I’ll send a video message for the Father-Daughter Banquet in February. It’s not my church, and I’m not sure why they’ve asked me, but I agree, and carve out time to record. I speak about the things I appreciate in the way my dad raised me, connecting his parenting to appropriate Scriptures, and encouraging the fathers at the banquet to imitate my dad’s example. I send the video off and forget about it.

Until a few weeks later, when I hear that things didn’t go so well. In fact, some men in the audience, some male leaders in the church, think my video was wrong. Not that what I said was wrong: but that I, as woman, said it to men.

I thought that's what they had asked me to do.

A little bit heartbroken, I kind of go, “to hell with it,” and keep doing the work God has put in front of me.


Despite all this, I never really explored egalitarianism until this year. Perhaps I was hesitant to make a fuss. But I’ve grown increasingly ecumenical in my theology, and a solid half of the people who mentored me spiritually in my twenties were egalitarian. We rarely spoke of it, this belief that hierarchy was a result of the fall, and that embracing the kingdom of God included embracing the mutuality of pre-fall creation, but it was clear in the way they lived. When we joined an Episcopal church, I felt I should be conversant with the theological arguments for women in leadership. I read How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership, and it was interesting. When I read Finally Feminist, though, my jaw dropped, because this was an honest, compelling way to understand Scripture, and one I had never heard.

Though I’ve always been a feminist, a part of me did not want the egalitarian case to be so convincing. I didn’t want to disagree theologically with my parents, especially on a subject that is pretty foundational for them, and for most of the Christians I grew up with. Beyond that, for me the freedom and fullness and possibility of egalitarianism is scarier, and harder, than the clearly defined roles in complementarianism.

But what interpretation is easiest for me to live with isn’t the best evaluative question. Which one is the truest to Scripture?

This is how I lean, now. I lean towards mutuality. I know, like any good student of expository preaching, that you can’t make a watertight case either way. Intellectually, though, I think Finally Feminist is the best interpretation of these scriptures that I’ve found, and it makes sense in my life experience, too. I’m wondering if it might be time to make a fuss about it.


Katie said...

This post makes me nervous and excited. I need to finish reading that Finally Feminist book.

I told E the other day that I feel like I am in the process of unlearning a lot of the ways I've been programmed to think for well, ever.

Sherri Hainje said...

This is an incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I applaud your bravery in speaking honestly about your beliefs knowing that many (including your parents!) don't agree with you. Last year I became involved in an organization called Christians for Biblical Equality International. If you haven't heard of it, check it out. Their level of biblical scholarship and care for women has been a balm for my soul. Thank you!

Sarah Bessey said...

Great post. When Stackhouse released Finally Feminist, I went to his lecture at Regent to hear about it. I was a little dissatisfied (as he rightly predicted) but you're right, it's a fair treatment.

Kelly Wright said...

Nice post Amy! It feels above my level of spiritual vocabulary, but I enjoyed reading about your journey. I too used to scoff at the female pastors ... now I go to a church that I love who is led by a female pastor! In all honesty, she seems like an angel. Breaking away from the strong, leading male pastors who I felt used to "talk down" to women, I find that I actually listen to her. Her gentle spirit and poignant messages don't feel so, I don't know ... overbearing! Thank God for female pastors.

Lisa W. said...

Hello Amy,
This is a convicting post. My heart has been a bit nervous to move forward on this path of egalitarianism, yet it is what I now believe to be the gospel hope for honoring gender. (Sherry and I went to the CBE conference together last year and I've continued to read and ponder.) I want to bravely wade into the deeper waters and am not sure what that will look like.

michellecwelker said...

Amy, I love your thoughts and honesty about your journey. Wish I could say that I took this issue more seriously before, but I am happy to say that my recent re-investigation has been rewarding. Need to finish reading Finally Feminist…

Ramón said...

This is good stuff, Amy. There is nothing that forces us to reexamine limits we've put on the Spirit's work through us than the birth of a church around us.
I'm glad the Spirit often ignores our self-imposed limitations and opens our eyes to what it means for the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. I also love that the modern language of apostleship is replete with wonderfully feminine terminology (birthing people movements, mother church, daughter churches, etc.)

May the Junias of our generation heed the call of the Spirit in their lives!

mollie said...

I don't think I'd heard that video story. Classic. Argh.

Finally Feminist is still on my list, though it's currently being trumped by the baby books I feel obligated but not terribly excited to read. Is that bad?

Elisabeth said...

This was interesting, thank you for sharing.