I am a female.
I was born this way. It was God’s decision. Not mine. Not my dad’s decision; not my mom’s. God’s. I love being a woman. I do not want to be a man.
I am a Christian.
That was my decision. My father, since I was two years old, preached in the church of Christ. He and my mother were faithful partners during “his” ministry. My daddy baptized me in the spring of my tenth year. I remember being lead into the designated classroom that housed the baptismal garments. I remember pulling the white gown over my head, donning a white swimming cap, and sticking my foot into the icy cold water that flowed from a creek mural painted on the back wall. My small frame shivered and shook as the water enfolded me. I remember pledging my belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God then being plunged into the deep. As soon as my daddy lifted me out of the water, the congregation began to sing “Buried with Christ.” Somewhere in that song we sang, “Walking in newness of life I am free.”
I’m 12 and confused.
Two years have passed since being buried with Christ, two years since I had come out of the water ready and free (I thought) to serve with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength as Jesus commanded (Matthew 22:37, Luke 10:27, Mark 12:30-31). But I am confused. At church, a man leads the singing. My father preaches. The men pray. The men usher. The men serve communion. The women who make it to church sit quietly. Apparently it’s okay to open our mouths when we sing, perhaps because a man is leading us. I’m not quite sure why women must be silent except when it comes to singing congregationally. Some women never make it to church because they are at home preparing Sunday dinner for their husbands and sons who are participating in the worship service. The minister’s family (my family) would often be invited to eat the food these women had cooked while my daddy was preaching. They are good cooks and receive praise. Apparently, this is acceptable behavior for a female. Apparently, one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength had to be in a male body to be totally free.
I’m 14 and embarrassed.
It’s Sunday evening. Two men stand at the communion table and ask if anyone missed the opportunity to take the Lord’s supper that morning. The servers glance around the room. No hands are raised; no one stands. One man at the table whispers to the other man at the table. While the congregation sits rigid and gawking, the poor embarrassed man, the only person in the room who had missed the earlier service, with face red and beaten brow, stands at the table, prays, and serves himself. He communes alone. I want to jump out of the wooden pew that holds me captive and serve him, pray over him, offer him grace, eat with him. But I am only 14. I am a girl. I am embarrassed for him. And for me: What am I thinking?
Fast forward 40 years.
I’m still a female. I still desire to serve God with every ounce of my being. I’m still confused. And every now and then I still feel the pangs of embarrassment. If my dad were still living, would he lecture me for taking at face value Paul’s words that “there is no male or female in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). Would he rebuke me (as others have) for using my mouth to speak, to publicly praise God in corporate worship, to speak assertively against injustice? Would he tell me (as others have) that I am usurping spiritual authority and remind me of “my place?” It saddens me that he might. My sweet daddy has been gone for 12 years and yet his approval of me still holds me captive.
So I tremble as I write these words knowing full well the weight of them.
Christian women, such as myself, who were raised in male-dominated churches; who were parked quietly in the pews while boys half our age were allowed to posture in the pulpit; where newly baptized 10-year-old boys were removed from adult female-taught classes; where males of all ages were permitted to pray, preach, and preside; where God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were male figures, is there any wonder why a Christian woman’s response might be to submit herself to a spiritual man’s power even when that man abuses his power in sexual and/or non-sexual ways.
Is there any puzzlement why a Christian woman might submit to male authority, even when that authority goes against her own will, morality, and better judgement? In the most formative years of women’s lives, women have been taught to submit to male spiritual authority. Not out of fear for our lives. Much worse. Out of fear for our souls.
Despite Paul’s instruction that we are all equal in Christ (Galatians 3:28), men are more powerful; men are in charge, especially in the church where both sexes have been preconditioned to believe there’s a hierarchy of power: God first, man second, woman third. From the beginning of time, people have struggled with the myth that if a “holy man of God” strays sexually, then a woman must have done something in order for this to happen. It’s so easy to fall into the woman-as-temptress notion. But when a man holds a position of authority such as a pastor, he is in charge, not her. He is the one who went to seminary, took ethics classes, and was taught what is and isn’t appropriate behavior with congregants. So when a man in charge loses his way, abuses his power, and sexually violates a female congregant who is preconditioned to bow down and kiss the holy man-pope’s ring, it’s an abuse of authority that has everything to do with power and control, not sex.
I marvel at our devotion to make excuses for an offending male pastor and our enthusiasm to make a female congregant the scapegoat. From a young age, women are taught, expected, and morally obligated to submit to male authority. When she is abused through that authority, it’s becomes her fault. The paradox is astounding.
“Women are attracted to holiness . . . Clergy have their congregants believing they are holy, trustworthy, righteous, upstanding, and chosen by God” (Warren). Trust does not have to be earned by a pastor. With clergy, trust is automatic, tacit, implicit, instilled in a person from a very early age. Whereas in normal male/female relationships, trust must be earned.
Jesus recognized the potential danger of holy authority and its concomitant trust. Thus, he issues a warning: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves (Matthew 7:15). Jesus understood it’s not easy to spy a wolf masquerading as a sheep. The imagery here implies intention and deliberate deception. The wolf gets up in the morning, puts on the sheep face, dresses in his woolly suit, and for all intents and purposes appears harmless. His harmless manner draws in his victim. The victim, trusting and unsuspecting, props open the gate. By the time sharp teeth are exposed, it’s too late. The wolf has devoured his prey. The wolf’s final insult is to suggest that his prey somehow asked to be devoured; the prey is to blame. The deception is complete.
Jesus understood what it meant to be a responsible man with power in a male-dominated culture. He was a realist and the one True Prophet. He understood that with great power comes great responsibility. He understood that authority has the power to “author” people into life or destruction. And Jesus, by choosing his own destruction on a cross, chose to author all of us into Life.
Liberty, Patricia L. “Why It’s Not An Affair”
Warren, Peggy. Educating to End Abuse. Dispelling Myths: Adult Clergy Sexual Abuse. May 2007.