Thursday, February 11, 2010

by CW: The One-handed Church

Our congregation’s women’s brunch last spring was bittersweet for me. As much as I loved the music and the message, the food and the friends, I couldn’t escape the painful reminder: We are missing so much by excluding women from public roles in our worship assemblies.

Who could listen to either of our main presenters and not acknowledge their spiritual gifts? These women are obviously talented speakers and writers, but God has also blessed them with supernatural powers to speak to our hearts, to encourage us, to strengthen us. Later that day, another of my spiritual heroes led us in our closing prayer, and I was so touched to hear her words as we together reached out to praise our Father. But our men, unless they happened to be helping out that day, didn’t get to hear those women’s words, and that’s a real shame.

Growing up in the Church of Christ, for years I just accepted that certain roles were only for the men. I was shown the “restrictive passages” (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2), and that was that. As I grew up and came into my own “owned” faith, I found myself drawn more and more to women’s Bible studies that gave me the chance to hear from those who were silenced on Sunday mornings. That’s not to take away from the many men who blessed me with their lessons, their prayers, their testimonies, but I cherished those occasions when I could learn from spiritually gifted women, too.

Years ago, I heard our minister’s lessons discussing which of our traditions may be gospel or cultural. That study and others turned up the volume on this question that kept resonating in my heart: Did the Lord really intend for His church to do its work with one hand tied behind its back?

Obviously, women are hard at work in His church. It is hard to find a ministry at my home congregation or anywhere that does not rely on male and female members’ time and energy. Rightly so, in our church we have no problem asking and expecting women to serve—with one notable exception. You would think that no one could argue with women serving, and yet our congregation only allows men to serve the Lord’s Supper. Even the strictest interpretation of those restrictive passages would still allow for women to participate in this way. (In fact, every Sunday hundreds of us women are serving when we pass the tray from the person on one side of us to the other, but somehow we’ve decided that a woman shalt not pass a tray whilst standing upright.)

But what about other types of service like reading scriptures or praying? What about making announcements aloud? What about teaching? We’re already doing that, too! In our small groups, in Bible studies and in our homes, women do all those things in the presence of men. Countless times I’ve been blessed to hear one of my sisters share her thoughts or her interpretation of a particular passage, and it’s been uplifting and encouraging. I’ve also heard women pray from their hearts and find ways to articulate our praise, our thankfulness, our humble requests. In those environments, are we no less worshiping God? Yes, it’s special when we’re all assembled in the Family Center on the first day of the week, but it seems strange to change the rules for that setting as opposed to other gatherings when we humble ourselves before His throne.

I have spent much time praying for God’s guidance with this issue, and I have struggled, wondering how much of my dissonance comes from my own ego: Who’s to tell me I’m not good enough to pass a communion tray? Why is what I have to say less important because I was born a female? How are my contributions to the work here not deacon-worthy? I have kept quiet, afraid that my objections were driven by my own pride and selfishness. But over and over again, I have felt the Spirit leading me to question our traditions, to speak up, to acknowledge that the cost of this silence is too great.

I don’t necessarily need to be the one in front of the microphone; I’m happy with my role tapping on keyboards and pushing buttons running MediaShout or the sound board. I’m so blessed to get to use my computer skills for the church’s work, and I can barely describe the joy it brings me to feel like a vital part of this family. But what about our women who are spiritually gifted speakers and teachers? What about our female prayer warriors? Shouldn’t they have the same opportunities to use their God-given gifts to serve Him? Not only would they be blessed to use those gifts, but we all would be blessed to hear from those women among us more regularly. At events like the women’s brunch, that fact is painfully clear.

God is at work in His church, and He is doing awesome things at our congregation! He has blessed us with so many capable leaders, but too often we have hidden some of our greatest resources behind the scenes or behind their husbands. We have squandered some of our blessings by silencing those He has gifted. For too long the generations before us ignored certain brothers and sisters because of their skin color. Looking back now, we can recognize that tragedy. How many more generations will have to pass through our doors before we recognize how much we’re missing by not utilizing the resources He’s provided? It’s time for us to reach out to Him and to those around us with both hands.

--Charis Weiss


Steve said...

I hear where you're coming from. And I sympathize ... I do! Acknowledging that as a male, my comments will reflect a certain naivete, I have to say this: The "public" assembly of the church really is only a small piece of the life of the church. (or at least should be) I too really want to see women participating more in that area, but like you said, women are, in many cases, the backbone of the day-to-day life of the church. The service. The encouragement. The edification. The prophetic witness. Women are leading, whether or not they're in front of a microphone.

I guess it's my tempered view of the public assembly that leads to some of these thoughts. I guess I come down on the side of "life is too short to try to change something that is probably never going to be the way we want it to be and might not be as important as many of us make it out to be." (sorry for that sentence) The short of it is that I agree that the church has a long way to go, but I wonder if focusing attention on getting women (or minorities, or special needs people) more "touches" at the mic in church is a proper allocation of our time? (given the immense socio-political crises in our world)

I realize this is part of your struggle. So I empathize. Those are my thoughts on the matter, though. Feel free to skewer me! =)

Steve said...

I hear where Charis is coming from. And I sympathize ... I do! Acknowledging that as a male, my comments will reflect a certain naivete, I have to say this: The "public" assembly of the church really is only a small piece of the life of the church. (or at least should be) I too really want to see women participating more in that area, but like you said, women are, in many cases, the backbone of the day-to-day life of the church. The service. The encouragement. The edification. The prophetic witness. Women are leading, whether or not they're in front of a microphone.

I guess it's my tempered view of the public assembly that leads to some of these thoughts. I guess I come down on the side of "life is too short to try to change something that is probably never going to be the way we want it to be and might not be as important as many of us make it out to be." (sorry for that sentence) The short of it is that I agree that the church has a long way to go, but I wonder if focusing attention on getting women (or minorities, or special needs people) more "touches" at the mic in church is a proper allocation of our time? (given the immense socio-political crises in our world)

I realize this is part of Charis' struggle. So I empathize. Those are my thoughts on the matter, though. Feel free to skewer me! =)

JJT said...

No skewering! But I do want to respond.

In one respect, I actually completely agree with your point that the public assembly is a piece and not the whole of the life of a church. Addressing the specific problem of the lack of women's voices in the public assembly, a.k.a. "women's role," is addressing only one piece of a larger problem. The larger problem might be better labeled something like "women's status," and this gets at the inconsistency of acknowledging that women are de facto leaders in our churches, without recognizing them de jure--leaders that are therefore uncompensated, generally unrecognized, generally underappreciated, and without any access or entry into the formal leadership structures of our churches, forcing them into the necessity of working around or indirectly through or against or in spite of those leadership structures. It's not just about the microphone time or the place behind the pulpit--although Naomi's and Charis's point about the church missing out on what these missing voices have to offer is an incredibly important one. It's also about the fact that the formal leadership structure of our churches intentionally and completely shuts women out, not because they aren't capable leaders, but because they are women. And this is a question of status, not "role."

If we can say "women are leaders, whether or not they're in front of the microphone," then I think the obvious follow-up is, "why the hell doesn't that woman have a microphone already?"

And to your last point--are there other social justice issues of greater scope and import globally? Sure. But how can we get people in our churches to take seriously the issue of, say, sex slave trafficking, if we can't challenge ourselves to confess to the denial of full humanity and equal status that happens to more than half of those who fill our own pews? And as a pragmatic point, quite a lot of those who might be willing to speak eloquently and passionately and persuasively about global justice issues aren't allowed a mike. So I don't see these things in tension at all.

Steve said...

Good points. I guess it really is all about context then, isn't it. When you're literally sitting in pews in a church building within a formal denominational structure every Sunday and week after week see a clear injustice being practiced, you want to do something about it. I get that.

Maybe I'm too far removed from the problem: living in good ole egalitarian Boston, worshipping in a house church, married to a quite independent woman who is way more prone to leadership than I am. So I'm willing to acknowledge that my sight on this issue is somewhat limited.

Injustice of roles aside, I do want to raise a tangential question: Why do we tend to elevate public, "microphone" leadership to the same level as the more private, "micro" leadership? I wonder if we've minimized the power of the quiet grassroots leadership that many women (and many men) are so good at. In my experience, this kind of leadership can be and often is more transformative than speaking to the masses from an elevated place, both literally and metaphorically.

Just a few more thoughts to skew— respond to.

JJT said...

I think that's true. Leadership is about influence, right, and lines of influence are often as invisible as they are visible. The thing I find important here is that there are lines of influence recognized as valid, and lines of influence being denied. So it's true to note that leadership is more than public visibility, and that women are leaders even if not public visible...but that sidesteps the problem that women's leadership is not validated in our churches as legit. We can get away with it behind the scenes, and as long as everyone participates in our church-wide convention of deniability about it, it's cool.

It's not about "recognition" in some self-serving way. It's about how this is an unequal arrangement, and relegates women's leadership to the hidden margin, where it is less effective. Just think about the pragmatics of a women in a typical CofC who has an insight about the church budget, or an idea about a ministry she would like to start and get funded. Maybe she has the leadership influence to talk it up and start a buzz and get people behind her, but in order to get the thing started, the formal leadership has to approve and create a budget for it, and she is outside that structure. Which means that there has to be a formal invite to an elder's meeting to make her case, or even worse, she has to delegate the task of making her case to some other male person. Which means that, no matter effective her personal leadership behind the scenes is, it is limited by the very fact of its hiddenness and marginality.

JJT said...

Or another example--women's leadership being relegated to the blogosphere! ;)

Steve said...

I sense the tide changing in both how we conceive of church and church leadership. The struggle today in the church is typical of many of the generational, modern-postmodern tensions we see in other places, like politics. In a sense, it is a dying institution that is not recognizing the public leadership of women. Nearly every church growth study suggests that most women leaders will long outlive the churches of which they are a part.

My hope and prayer is that those tensions give way to a new era of equality and that we also return to the drawing board on what constitutes a viable church.

I do take issue with your statement that hidden, marginal leadership is somehow "less effective." Especially among younger people (skeptical of hierarchies and institutions from the outset), this hasn't been my experience at all. In fact, it's the other way around. Again, back to the generational tensions.

Is it asking too much, maybe, for us to expect the 70+ crowd in our churches to suddenly acknowledge the leadership of a young woman in her 20s when all they've known is one way for so long? An example of this is that long after desegregation, my grandparents treated blacks differently. They weren't racist, per se, but they had looked at blacks one way for so long that not even a Constitutional amendment could amend their views of minorities. They'd probably even say that they agreed wholeheartedly with desegregation, but like they say, it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

Please don't hear me making excuses for people. I'm simply saying that seeing widespread progress in this area among our mainline, institutional churches (attended by people who've done things one way for a long, long time) is quite a lot to ask. I wonder if, like many are discovering in our missional church conversations, the best we can hope for (for a while) is slow, incremental change and a quiet revolution on the side.

jocelyn said...

I love following this thread and hearing the voices of men and women like Charis - thank you for sharing your experience!

In thinking about public leadership in our worship services (time at the mic), I think another important component to consider is the rhetorical message that women's silence in the assembly conveys to church members. If we believe that we are shaped by ritual activity (like weekly church attendance, sharing in the Lord's Supper regularly, devotion to prayer and Bible study and fasting), then we must also recognize that we are shaped by HOW we go about these ritual activities. The lack of women's participation - their silent voices and absent bodies - SAY something to us. Because women are absent in public worship roles, we teach (inadvertently, perhaps) that women's voices and bodies do not hold the same significance or rights as men's voices and bodies. And even if we do not articulate this notion from the pulpit, the message is still clear and dangerous. We proclaim through this silence that women are not equal to men and we reify false boundaries between the genders.

I don't believe this is a separate issue from the immense socio-political crises in the world. If we as a church undergo a transformation in how we view the rights of those who have traditionally been marginalized - both within our congregations and without - think about the deep impact this could have in our world. It's much less about women getting "face time" in front of the congregation than it is about recognizing and affirming the gifts that God has given to all His people and creating avenues for those who have traditionally been left out of the conversation to join in the ever-renewing Kingdom of God.

JJT said...

Yeah, it's asking a lot from people who have truly believed that to sit down and shut up is what the Lord requires, and have done so all their lives precisely as an act of faith, to reverse this and feel good about picking up a mike. I've seen women weep over this, because what they hear is not a message of liberation, but a message of condemnation. As if we're saying to them, you blew it and wasted your lives, thinking you were serving God.

I can't say everything I might like to at the moment because I *really* have to get out in the snow with my daughter before she spontaneously combusts. So as a shortcut I'm going to lift a paragraph from smth I presented at the WiM conference a couple years back on "priesthood of all believers" and how that actually undermines women's vocation to leadership...

"As women, when we step out in faith to answer the call to ministry within our churches, not only do we run into the obvious issues stemming from the uncertain and ambiguous status of women in our churches, but we also wake up the old antagonism toward professional ministry. Campbell’s radically democratic priesthood of all believers does, in a very real sense, open the door for anyone to answer the call to ministry within the church. But it does so by saying no to the professionalization of ministry. And so, as women, we may have also seen this radically democratic doctrine work against the recognition of our calls to ministry. Everyone is a minister; you are already a minister; if you want a ministry, go pick something and do it; there’s nothing professional about it. There’s nothing special about it. And if you want recognition of your vocation, your call into the ministry of a church…well. Counterintuitively, the doctrine that opens the door for anyone who feels called to ministry often slams the door on women. This is, in essence, what I experienced that first eye-opening year in China."

Maybe the answer to this, as you suggest, is reworking our theology of leadership and ecclesiology in a way reminiscent of Campbell's original radically democratic vision...but I'm skeptical of this simply because I'm convinced that any group eventually will, must, organize itself formally. The history of restoration movement itself is a marvelously ironic example of this. If I'm right then this means that eventually, the question of conscientiously organizing our power structures in an inclusive way cannot really be avoided.

And now, to the snow. Because my daughter is so perturbed that she now hates everyone and everything including the snow. :(

Vasca said...

Influential women are all around us; personally, I am a most influential one...not a mic person...thank God...but in so many other ways. I write, encourage, I project. I've no desire to be a public the pulpit, that is. I am constantly reaching out to use my influence for His good...whenever and wherever an opportunity presents itself.

My shepherd's are receptive anytime to anyone...male or female. Women are not required to 'go through' a male spokesperson. Their thoughts, ideas, projects are respected and dealt with very objectively and openly; including budget projections.

JJT said...

It's always good to be reminded that we shouldn't let ourselves be defined by the worst of our practices or examples--or define ourselves that way as if there weren't better examples among us. Thanks, Vasca. :)

But I'm curious--particularly because one influential experience for me was noticing the absurdity of importing our male/female roles into China house church practices--what if one of the whenever-and-wherever opportunities that came your way as an influential person were to require a (metaphorical) mic, or a literal pulpit? Would you use it? Or in other words, does whenever and wherever include the possibility of a pulpit, if that's the opportunity presenting itself? And if not, why not? This is precisely where the logic of our "priesthood of all believers" seems to stop short typically (and entirely inconsistently.)

Vasca said...

I've read your blogs for years...including posts from 'the China experince'...until then I was totally unaware of your unhappiness and disdain for/with the circumstances surrounding your time in China...miserable with those around well as your job situation.

Those elements usually create a general unhappiness. I'm sorry for that. Things change as do people. You were with us a very short time; perhaps if you had voiced your feeling/concerns you would have had a differet experience. Rather than being silent you could have shared your feelings...regardles of the responses you might have expected...perhaps a slap at outspoken females? Don't know because you stifled it...that was almost eight years ago.

Being open brings about change...and we all perceive change differently..

I'm old...I'e 'been around' in Chnese, Greek, German, every imaginable culture; each experience has been one of spiritual maturity.

I'm naive...but I try to keep up...from religion to politics. I find I'm nowhere near 'your ballpark'. But yes, I would have responded.

JJT said...

Oh dear. I do hope "disdain" is the wrong word. Frustration would fit. But also fear. I wish that we had spoken up, but--whether rightly or wrongly--it seemed like the potential fallout would be too damaging to take that seemed better to sit tight rather than risk the messiness of full disclosure, especially within a mission context full of new Christians unfamiliar with CofC internal doctrinal squabbles. So at that point, like so many people, our judgment was that unity and peace and tranquility among our small group was more important than making a case for gender justice.

And to be very honest, I found the year in Changsha much much different than that first traumatic year in Wuhan. I think we can chalk that up to being around some awesome and level-headed people. :)

Keith Brenton said...

Charis, from your writing alone, I cannot help but think you would be a blessing to both women and men by speaking to them.

And I can't help but wonder if our system of pulpitry is just completely skewed away from what believers originally did when they met to break bread, everyone was excited by the gospel that was for both genders, while circumcision and philosophy had been the men-only-club of religion before. Women prayed and prophesied, too.

How we have managed to stifle and suffocate that God-given joy!

I hope you will continue to write, if not speak, and bless many more people with a wider, freer vision of service among God's people.

"I will pour out my Spirit on all people ... your sons and daughters will prophesy ...."

Anonymous said...

Women were silenced in the early church for a couple of reasons: out-and-out misogyny and the simple (and incorrect) perception that women were intellectually inferior. Those points of view have no relevance in today's more enlightened climate. Something written in the Middle East thousands of years ago has to be taken with a grain of salt (or, to put it less pejoratively, open to interpretation and subject to revision).

JJT said...

Interestingly, one of the strategies of feminist theologians is to read the biblical text against itself--or in other words, right, "critically." But this is more positive than it sounds, simply because the critique of the text also many times originates within the text as well. This is what I think Ruether does, for example, in reading the biblical text critically through the hermeneutical principle of the full humanity of women--something she finds that arises from the biblical text even while there are instances of deviation from it...

I feel like reiterating that I don't think the answer to the formal leadership question, both in the narrow sense of visible/audible voices in assemblies, and the broader sense including our elderships, pulpit and educational ministry positions, is a return to Campbell's idealized vision of lay ministry. For one thing, as I'm in a church context which actually might be an example of Campbell's vision, it's hard to make it work. And one of my constant worries as a "lay leader" in my church is that there is an inconsistency in the spiritual food being offered to our community, and there's no way around that fact when your organization is structured (deliberately or not) without someone who can devote full-time attention and effort to the life of the church. And second, as one of my ACU profs is wont to say, you want your doctor to be trained and educated--why wouldn't you want your priest/pastor/preacher to be? And third, as I've tried to articulate before, de-professionalizing ministry doesn't actually help women articulate or realize their vocation to the church, but counterintuitively, in many cases, it functions as an argument against it. So I don't think less organization or less formality is the answer--but changing the structures we have to be truly inclusive.