Of the Church But Not In it
"The Church is the last bastion of sexism in the whole of our society." I might have expected such a comment from a female student or a frustrated new Christian, but I did not expect it from a woman who went on to tell me proudly that she had been a Christian for 73 years.
"I worked for 20 years as a secondary school teacher," she continued, "and in a staff room of 60 men and women I never once felt that I was treated differently because I was female. But it is a different matter in the Church. Every denomination I've been in - and I've tried nearly all of them - it's been the same. In the Church I am for some reason inferior, along with all the other women."
Not everyone is prepared to be as vocal.
When I began researching the '90s Women Talk About Their Place in the Church article in this issue, I found that women with whom I had discussed the topic over many years - all of them people who had once had plenty to say on the subject - were now silent: "I don't want to talk about it", they said one after another. "It is too painful."
Some, exhausted after years of battling, were stoically resigned to putting up with the status quo: "I'd rather not get into that - what's the point - nothing is going to change."
Others were not prepared to risk another round on what has become for many an emotional roller coaster. "The whole thing just makes me so angry that I prefer not to discuss it any more. I just don't know what to do with all the feelings that come up when I think about it. Anyway, what's the point of banging your head against a brick wall?"
Many women in the Church feel somewhat bruised and battle-weary. Just as a sea anemone which gets poked every time it opens will eventually stop opening altogether, so many women have given up trying to offer their giftings in the Church environment.
"I worship in a church which stresses body ministry," said one, "sermon preaching is not confined to the eldership alone. God gave me a sermon, but the ordeal I had to go through to get permission to preach it left me feeling stupid and insecure. In the end I felt that my sermon would have to be so stunning in order to be acceptable that I lost my confidence to keep battling for the right to do it."
It is eminently understandable that the result of such treatment is often a lack of confidence in the women who undergo it. I was particularly saddened by the way that so many of the women who wrote to me in response to my request for their opinions about their place in the Church, prefaced their contribution with a self-deprecating comment. "This is probably of no use to you, but . . ." was a common opening line.
The fact is that many women in the Church
do feel that they are inferior, and that they have little or nothing to offer. An important step in combating this, is for those in leadership to seriously ask themselves why so many women feel that way. It is not necessarily because they are incapable, sometimes it is because they are very used to being ignored.
One woman told me that she had been puzzling over why it was that she felt so fulfilled at work and yet so awkward and uncomfortable at church. She was amazed to discover that the reason was simply because at work she was treated like a person.
Her statement hit me like a sledge hammer. The Church is in a sorry place indeed if any one, for whatever reason, feels that they lose their person-hood when they enter its doors. Surely it is in church of all places that each should feel most cherished as a unique creation of God. There are no second class people - wasn't that the whole argument against slavery, racism and apartheid?1
But, you might be saying, how women feel has nothing to do with it. This is a Scriptural matter. It is merely a case of reading the Scripture and being obedient to it.
Not for a moment would I ever suggest that we ignore the Scripture. As a woman in the Church what I would ask is this: that we bring an open heart to the Scripture; that we put aside our own agendas and study it diligently; that we read the scholarship - and hear what those who approach the Scripture with wisdom and insight born of much study have to say.
And secondly, I would ask that whatever the decision about the roles of women in the Church - and our suitability or otherwise for leadership - that we be treated with dignity and respect; highly valued as fellow human beings created in God's image. For God chose to express his image through both men and women. He placed his gifting in both men and women and he taught us to love one another, as he has loved us.2