Thinking, Talking, and Doing: Reflections on Gender Roles in the Church

men in churchWritten by Anna Brinkerhoff

Anna is currently working on her Ph.D. in philosophy at Brown University. Born and raised the child of a campus minister in Auburn, AL, she received her B.A. in philosophy from Pepperdine University in 2015. Her philosophical interests lie in epistemology, moral psychology, and philosophy of religion.

 Confession: A few weeks ago, I snapped at someone I care deeply about. He and I were talking theology, I felt dismissed, and I responded in a condescending if-they-can-take-me-seriously-in-the-ivy-league-so-can-you sort of way. He called me out on it. And I’m glad he did, in part, because it gave me a chance to apologize. But also because it made me reflect on why I reacted uncharacteristically defensively.

Upon reflection, I figured out why: this summer, I’ve been listening to a slew of thinkers from the Calvinist tradition who preach a view known as conservative complementarianism. They contend that I should devote myself to a husband I don’t have, that I should defer to men in conversation (even if I’m smarter or better educated), and that it’s problematic for me to teach men about theology (even in written form!). Whether they’re right or wrong, and even if I don’t think they’re right, it’s belittling. And, in response to feeling belittled by them, I’ve developed a temporary sensitivity to being dismissed intellectually by Christian men. Hence why I snapped at one a few weeks ago.

This got me thinking: listening to Calvinists preach conservative complementarianism this summer affected me so much that it altered my behavior in at least one obvious and unsavory way. How much, then, did growing up in a congregation that practiced conservative complementarianism affect me?

My home congregation is a lovely congregation. It brims with smart, servant-hearted Jesus followers who taught me a lot and loved me well. But, as with many congregations in my tradition, and many congregations from other traditions in the Bible Belt, it severely limited the roles of women. Women did not occupy leadership roles. During corporate worship, we did not make announcements or lead singing or read Scripture. We did not say prayers. And we did not teach.

Upon reflection, I realized that my church background affected me quite a bit, personally, yes, but also professionally.

I want to share some of my reflections with you.

Reflection #1: When I began doing philosophy in college, I didn’t speak in class. I had things to say, but I couldn’t bring myself to say them. It’s something I agonized over: I was failing to meet an academic standard that I was expected to meet. In fact, I almost quit philosophy over it. Of course, my quietness in class stemmed from shyness and intellectual insecurities. But I think it stemmed, too, from a message that I internalized from growing up in a congregation that forbade the voices of women in corporate worship. Because, just like the philosophy classroom, corporate worship is a formal setting in which we talk about the most important things, about matters of heart and mind and soul. Growing up, then, I imbibed the message that, in formal settings, the most important things are talked about by men (and only men). People like me didn’t – and shouldn’t – speak about those sorts of things in those sorts of settings. That’s the message I carried with me into the philosophy classroom. And it’s taken me a long time and ample encouragement – much of which I’ve received from wonderful and affirming Christian men, including my father and my undergraduate philosophy professors – to embrace a different message: when it comes to the most important things, my voice matters, too. Even in formal settings.

Reflection #2: In grad school, I do philosophy with a community of non-Christians. Among them, it’s automatically assumed that my voice always belongs, that my voice always counts equally. I don’t have to fight for my voice to be heard. I don’t fear that someone will cringe or walk out when I speak up. I don’t feel that others are doing me a favor by letting me speak. My voice is welcomed, not just tolerated. In fact, my voice is required. And that’s liberating. Today, I find myself flourishing intellectually in a community of non-Christians to an extent that I’ve never before flourished in communities of Christians. I don’t know what that says about the church, but I don’t think that it says anything good.

Reflection #3: When I speak about important things in a community of Christians, I feel like I am representing all women. And I worry that, if what I say isn’t good enough, they might not ask a woman back again. What’s more, I feel that, as a woman, if my ideas are going to be heard in the religious circles that I care most about – which is important to me not because they’re my ideas, but, I hope, because they’re ideas worth considering – they have to be so good, communicated so effectively, and written about so clearly that they can’t be ignored. That, my friends, is a heavy burden to carry.

I share these reflections in hopes of making this point: your beliefs about gender roles in the church are important.

Beliefs that, when acted upon, affect many people in big ways are important. And how the church involves women, and how it restricts us, affects us (half of the church body!) in big ways. It affects us profoundly and on many levels: psychologically, and spiritually, and intellectually. It affects our minds and hearts, in our careers, and in our homes. Especially if they’re ones that tend to affect women negatively, then, your beliefs about women’s roles are worth thinking twice about. They’re worth talking about, and, perhaps, doing something about.

What does this look like? Here’s the practical, tangible, and specific.

  1. Think about it. Critically evaluate your beliefs on women’s roles.
    1. Read people who disagree with you. If you’re a conservative complementarian, “Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism” by John Stackhouse is a great place to start.
    2. Seek guidance from someone with formal exegetical training – a pastor or professor, perhaps – who can point out things you may not have thought of. With one eye on the cross, and informed by their context, re-approach troubling parts of Scripture.
  1. Talk about it. Nothing is going to change tomorrow unless we talk about it today. We’re all already breaking the no-religion-or-politics-at-the-kitchen-table rule this election cycle. So instead of bemoaning Trump’s latest gaffe, for example, let’s talk about something that’s actually worth talking about.
  1. Do something about it. To the extent that your theological convictions allow, take extra measures to include the voices of women.
    1. Ask us what we think, and listen to what we say. And then challenge our ideas, push back on us, and give us constructive feedback: it lets us know that you’re taking us seriously!
    2. Assume that we want to participate in theological conversations. It’s been my experience that, when the conversation steers toward theology, men assume that women don’t want to take part. I wonder what would happen if men started consistently assuming the opposite. My guess is that, with an increase in contributions from women, our theology would be richer, the brain of the body of Christ would grow bigger and brighter, and a sense of shared intellectual responsibility would foster unity across genders within churches.
    3. Appreciate that not all women are cut out of the same cloth: some of us have gifts that lend themselves to something other than attending nursery and organizing potlucks. Invite us to use those gifts – whatever they are – to do good kingdom work: there’s nothing more we’d rather do with them than that, and there’s nothing that hurts more than when we’re told we can’t.

After doing these things, you may end up even more convinced of your original opinions. But you may end up with a changed mind. Or – like me! – you may end up even more confused than when you started. If this is the case – if it’s unclear which one is the right view on gender roles within Christianity – I encourage you to err on the side of love and mercy in your practice. That is, after careful consideration, if you’re unsure about whether view A or view B is the right view, and view A is more affirming of women, act on view A.

Let me be clear about my goal in sharing these reflections with you: I’m not giving you reason to think that one view on women’s roles is true, or that another is false. And I’m not suggesting that you should believe a certain way. Honestly, I don’t know exactly what to believe myself! What I am suggesting is that these beliefs are important and that they need to be handled with care. After all, these beliefs are not merely abstract points of theological doctrine: they impact the daily lives and self-conceptions of many people in our churches. And so for the sake of your daughters, of your sisters, of your wives, of your friends, for Christ’s sake: think about it, and talk about it, and maybe even do something about it.

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7 thoughts on “Thinking, Talking, and Doing: Reflections on Gender Roles in the Church

  1. Jason Browning

    This is excellent. I became more aware of these types of feelings when I became a father of daughters. Of my 3 daughters 1 feels a call to ministry but she continually discounts herself from lead pastoring because “that’s not what girls do”. We have to create environments where women’s voices are heard and valued.
    One more angle on these reflections- perhaps this struggle of silence and value is a way to connect with Christ in His silence and struggle. No one was more equipped to speak, teach, or shepherd yet often times He chose silence. Since I’m not a woman I can’t say I understand these struggles but I do believe Jesus understands. Thank you Anna for writing this. I pray you continue to flourish among non-Christians.

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  2. Avivi

    Anna has done a wonderful job of parsing the issues without inflammatory rhetoric that so often accompanies this topic. I grew up in the same church tradition – even for several years attended the same congregation as Anna and know her personally – but I now attend a faith community that embraces women as full partners in mind, body and soul in all things including corporate worship. When she encourages “(with) an increase in contributions from women, our theology would be richer, the brain of the body of Christ would grow bigger and brighter,” and “Invite us to use those gifts – whatever they are – to do good kingdom work” – her focus is on Kingdom the Christ and it’s richness and and potential and not rights, dogma or standing ground either way.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this, Anna! I appreciate that the issues you raised are ones that (regardless of someone’s theological views on gender roles within the church) need to be thought about and addressed. While one may argue that men and women are called to different roles in the church, seeking out and including women’s perspectives and voices are something we can all work to improve.

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  4. Christopher Tracy

    You wrote an excellent reflection that teeters nicely along the line that separates intellectual rigor and conversational prose, Anna. Similar to the above commentator, Jason Browning, the recent birth of my daughter has created a fresh antenna for catching the harsh, unjust wind of gender discrimination (Simone de Beauvoir’s work: The Second Sex, has been the only parenting book I’ve read), thus instilling a greater awareness to right that directional wrong. As such, your post is helpful. Especially in the following section: “Reflection 2”.

    As a child raised in the Church, I grew up with the belief that the Christian Community, more or less, has all the right answers, does all the right things. Thankful that this rather naïve, child-like worldview has adopted a more adult, egalitarian humility (a more Christian humility through irony’s painful lessons), your experience that the non-Christian community of philosophy grants you greater conversational license has me offering a sad nod: nodding in agreement to its truth while lamenting that very fact. I see a correlation between your point here and the way I read the previous post written by Michelle Panchuk, “Trauma and Deconversion” , where, while speaking about religious trauma within the Church, she observes that a wounded participant within the religious community may find it difficult to love God while still loving the things that God loves, and thus identifying herself as a religious believer. As I understand Michelle, her point appears to be that a Christian Good can lie outside of the commonly accepted standard put forth by the Christian Community, while your point, again as it appears to me, proposes that your non-Christian philosophy community is better at practicing mercy towards women than the Church-the normative source of such mercy. As such, the Church should learn from the philosophical community to better live out what, I believe, our Gospel preaches. I write this to further point out how your post successfully emphasizes the need for this blog which seeks to further the incorporation of the two.

    Lastly, I believe your statement (“That is, after careful consideration, if you’re unsure about whether view A or view B is the right view, and view A is more affirming of women, act on view A.”) is the real gem for those more inclined to the apologetic side of Christian thought. By appealing to the belief by which women are more affirmed as the better choice when confronted with a changing epistemology, you, rightfully and applaudingly so, go beyond intellectual syllogisms to a more fundamental, and influential consideration. Should women be valued? If so, then its corresponding implication should be accepted. This way should better communicate the true issues at hand for those caught up in the peripheral, logistical issues of Church practice and better enable them to change behaviors in much need of revision.

    Again, well done Anna.

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  5. Seth Cain

    Well done, Anna. To my shame, as a co-host of this blog, I’ve just carved out enough time to read it carefully. (Please know that delay isn’t an indication of my interest in the subject or appreciation for your work here). Thanks so much for challenging us with care and rigor, considering a truly redemptive historical movement within Scripture has been lost hermeneutically on many because of what we are often guilty of trying to protect (unnecessarily, I might add) as people with a high regard for the authority of Christ in Scripture and the importance of tradition as “the living faith of the dead.”

    One small consideration: I would probably be a little concerned that saying “Calvinists” are those who are primarily responsible for “conservative complimentarianism” is too broad a brush. It seems you are probably referring to the Neo-Reformed movement which steers much of conservative Presbyterianism and Reformed Baptist circles. Though you’re not far off, there are many who espouse Calvinism (in my own Anglican tradition) who believe Christian ministry after earlier eras has become a necessary space for mutuality in the Western world, including women’s ordination. Just a consideration.

    N.T. Wright has an excellent short essay on the matter of women’s roles & ordination, which is included in his popular title, “Surprised by Scripture.” He recognizes this redemptive movement without whole-hog capitulation to cultural novelty and its dismissal / trivializing / deconstruction of Scripture’s trustworthiness that undergirds much of liberal theology, especially in the last 50 years. This is the slippery slope many conservatives are eyeballing as they consider gender roles. The hangover of “systematic” theology has left us with little sophistication or room for nuance.

    Lastly, it’s very sad to me that you’ve found most voice as a woman outside of the Church, considering the majority of the mature faithful, at least in America, are women. There are, indeed, more conservative streams of the faith that have made and are making increasing room for women in leadership as society as a whole has and is changing. Personally, I am so thankful for the equal voice women have within the church I pastor. We are far better for it, and I take it for granted that some of the most thoughtful and compelling input comes from the women. It doesn’t hurt that we we have a federal prosecutor among them on our vestry!

    ps. Here’s a helpful list of other prominent conservative theologians (warning: old, white men. Ha!) and their views in support of women’s roles, in a nutshell: http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/prominent-biblical-scholars-on-women-in-ministry/

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