Monday, February 01, 2010

by Naomi: I didn't go to church today

I didn’t go to church today. I just couldn’t drag myself out of bed to go to a place in which I usually feel frustrated at best and oppressed at worst. As I write this, I feel the need to include a disclaimer: I feel lucky to live in a place where I can choose which church I attend and still be attending a Church of Christ. And I love the people at the church I attend. The church I attend is more inclusive of women in the worship service than many others in town.

And inclusion in the worship service is important to me. But we have (in my opinion) a long way to go. Aside from women’s role, however, the use of masculine pronouns and imagery for God (in the bulletin, in the songs we sing, in our readings, in our prayers, in our sermons) is exhausting and exclusionary, for me. To collapse the ontological reality of God (who/what God actually is) with one of the many metaphors for God (Father, King, etc) is idolatry. It hurts me to see the church missing out on the richness of who God is (masculine, feminine, and non-gendered) without even knowing that it’s happening.

I used to love church. I looked forward to Sunday mornings, Sunday nights (except once-a-month it was small group on Sunday afternoon instead), Wednesday nights, and Saturday nights (youth group). I took notes during the sermons, spoke up during class, and my parents had to all-but-drag me away from church when it was time to go. For a few years my indoor soccer team played on Sunday mornings and I was torn; I didn’t want to miss church! But my team needed me. Luckily, my church had two services, so I would either go to the early service and change into my soccer uniform before I left, or I would pack church clothes and shower gear and shower in the church annex after my games so that I could at least make it to second service, or if I were really lucky, Bible class! I used to love church. 

Excursus 1: In retrospect, maybe part of the reason I was so drawn to soccer is because I was good at it and my skills were utilized there. In my youth group, the females were the most consistent members. When it came to “Youth Sunday” we did all of the planning, and yet, were forced to delegate everything we had planned to male execution. It was clear from an early age that I was born to be a leader, and since I couldn’t do that at church, maybe I played soccer instead? It feels good to be a vital part of a team, a leading force, a fully participating member.

I didn’t set out to cause trouble or to be a “feminist activist.” Even now, I don’t know if that’s how I would describe myself. Anyway, when I started asking these questions in high school, this was a frustration I had with Churches of Christ on par with instrumental music. It didn’t make sense, it was silly, but that’s just a part of who we were as a fellowship. As a Biblical Studies major in college, it was something about which I had strong opinions, but not something that bothered me in the weekly worship of the church. But the more I know, the more systemic and overwhelming it seems. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t notice some sort of patriarchal language or tendency in either the church or the classroom. In a few months I’ll be graduating again, this time with a Master of Divinity. But to what end?

Excursus 2: I am extremely blessed to be married to a man who is supportive, understanding, and “on-board” in this subject. Ironically enough, Jamey and I will have the same degrees. (Actually, his undergrad degree is in Poli-Sci, so I’ve got the one-up on him as far as longevity-in the field. If we’re being technical.) He wants to teach and does not actually like to preach. I think I would really rather work (preach?) in the church (although, I have no way of knowing since I haven’t been able to intern in a church) but will most likely end up teaching because that is a career that is (in a few places) open to me. I have often phrased it like this: “I don’t know if I want to teach because I want to teach, or because I am not allowed to preach.”

Sometimes, I wish that I could un-learn what I have learned, un-know what I have come to know, so that I could love church again. But I can’t. And I’m scared that I will never love church again. I’m scared that it will always be a struggle for me to get up and go, and most of the time I won’t bother. I’m scared that on the Sundays I do manage to go, I will always be frustrated with the oppression of women in role and language. I’m scared that I will have to find another denomination in order to be useful to the church.

And people ask: Why don’t you just leave? It would be a lie if I said that I haven’t thought about it. Jamey and I both have. But this (the Churches of Christ) is my family, it’s where I grew up, it’s a part of who I am. I don’t want to give up on it just because we don’t agree about everything. It’s like any relationship in conflict: If it matters to you, you should address the conflict and hope for resolution before you just give up. But this is a fine line to walk. A woman in an abusive relationship should not stay in that abuse just because “It doesn’t have to be this way; he might change.” At what point does conflict become abuse? I find myself asking, with the woman who contemplates leaving her abusive husband: Where would I go?

Beyond that, if everyone who is frustrated leaves, who is going to push for change? It may never happen in my lifetime, but I want to be a part of forming a church where my daughters can be fully included in the life of the church, instead of being relegated to secondary status.

I used to love church. But I didn’t go to church today. Maybe next week.


Unknown said...

I feel you pain... sort of. I'm a guy so I can't say I totally understand but I grew up in the CofC and experienced questions about instrumental music, the role of women, "mixing" items of worship, etc. I married a strong woman who was in the religion program at Pepperdine with me and was getting an education that would lead to no possible career in the CofC. This was in the late 80s. After bumping around in many CofCs over the years we finally chose to work for a church that was looking to make some serious changes. We would consider ourselves to be restorationists but have made some changes compared to the churches we grew up in. Instrumental worship, women praying, speaking & preaching (when we can talk them into it), and a very laid back atmosphere. The other CofCs in town won't speak to us...

I had the same questions about leaving the CofC (which although we haven't tried to do almost all fellowship is gone) but I finally decided it was God I needed to listen to rather than a bunch of people who I considered to be my family but was afraid wouldn't understand. It's been 10 years and things are going better than I could have dreamed. People who we never would've reached are part of my family now and I never (well... almost never) regret it.

I love your blog (found it somehow through the galatians gender justice website)... your writing reminds me of my wife. Just keep following God and you'll end up somewhere pretty cool. Sorry this is so long... your blog today struck a chord.

JJT said...

Ed, I'm glad you found my little blog and also glad to hear that gal328 is still useful to people (pretty soon it will undergo a bit of a revival, FYI). I can't take any credit for the wonderfully written post, though, as this is a guest blogger who originally posted this on her own blog (you can follow this link at the top to get there). Lately the best thing I've personally produced is "ode to my neti pot." Not exactly profound, though extremely sincere...

One statement that struck me on re-reading this (for about the fourth or fifth time) is this: "It hurts me to see the church missing out on the richness of who God is (masculine, feminine, and non-gendered) without even knowing that it’s happening." The caricature of troublemaking and self-aggrandizing women is completely subverted...the concern here is not simply that univocal male God-talk grates on us personally as left-out women, or even that the church is missing out on us and our gifts as capable leaders and pastors, but that the church is missing out on God! That is a statement from a true pastor--regardless of title or compensation or recognition.

(Naomi, I just found the post where I recorded to the best of my ability one of my daughter's bedtime theological musings, called "God is a big girl too." It might be a nice antidote for you to the overwhelming maleness of our liturgical God-talk. it's now listed in the women-in-the-CofC archives)

Unknown said...

I sometimes miss details... even if you didn't write this one i loved the ode to the neti pot... I like mine too.

R-Liz said...

JTB, Naomi and Ed—-I appreciate so much what you’ve expressed, and I hope you don’t mind if I ask you all a question:

I've heard several folks in this series say, "I want to stay within the CoC." Can you please tell me, what exactly does ‘staying within the CoC’ mean?

I read the following from Ed:
“After bumping around in many CoCs over the years we finally chose to work for a church that was looking to make some serious changes. We would consider ourselves to be restorationists but have made some changes compared to the churches we grew up in. Instrumental worship, women praying, speaking & preaching (when we can talk them into it), and a very laid back atmosphere. The other CofCs in town won't speak to us...”

There’s beauty in the CoC being ‘not a denomination’ so any church can do what they want to and still carry the title CoC. But we all know the CoC is still ‘kinda like a denomination’ and there are aspects to CoC’s that generally rhyme from one church to the next-—usually (and this is my take) communion every Sunday, baptism, non-instrumental worship, and (at least I think) a limitation as to what women can do. When you start stripping away parts of those, do you ever cease to be a CoC? Maybe a church actually starts to resemble a traditional Christian church, or a Disciples of Christ church?

And if other CoC’s in town disassociate themselves with your church, even though you also have a CoC in your title, does that at all affect that you still feel you’re staying within the CoC?

(To give Naomi and Ed some background on myself-- I was raised in a variety of churches, and my first exposure to CoC (and restoration churches) was when I attended Harding. I don't hold a special place in my heart for the CoC like you all may. But I still respect your journey and decisions. As someone who is currently at a crossroads when it comes to church, I really appreciate dialoguing with other folks on the matter, even though our crossroads may be different.)

JJT said...

Here's one way to answer this perennial question.

If you look at the wikipedia article on the CofC (which is sort of twisted fun) you see everything you'd expect to, as a way of identifying what is distinctive about our denomination. (As an aside, I use the word "tradition" as often as I do "denomination," as it's a nice equivocation that describes the reality without the potential of pissing people off quite so much...not that, really, people who might be pissed off by that are actually listening to me anyway...anyhow, back to the point...) Baptism, weekly communion, a capella worship, congregational autonomy, a quick passing mention of Stone and Campbell.

What you don't see mentioned explicitly in the article as a distinctive and defining belief or practice is anything regarding the role of women. Of course, exclusion of women from leadership is implicit in the bit about church leadership that talks about elders and makes the typical move to the "biblical qualifications" for elders. But there is nothing explicit.

This has always struck me as odd, since one of the doctrinal disagreements over which people are getting their britches in a snit is what we label "women's role," and people are willing to go to the mattresses over it. But no one would claim to be "disfellowshipping" or condemning others over a practice that is "opinion"--that is done only over something that is core. But if it's core, why isn't it part of this list of distinctive beliefs and practices?

Now, it annoys me that this is missing from this list of self-identified distinctive beliefs and practices. It should be there, because many people seem to consider this part of the sine-qua-non of CofCness. Sometimes I consider editing the article and putting it in there, if only to make someone take notice in order to take it back out.

And yet, there is also a sense in which it is a hopeful sign that no one who has contributed to that article has made the exclusion of women from leadership and public participation an explicit element of what defines us as a denomination. At some level, then, perhaps we're able to recognize this as something that can be analyzed as a practice not inherently linked to our identity as a church. Which means that there's the possibility of changing this practice of excluding women's voices in our assemblies and leadership without necessarily "losing" our identity as CofC...and indeed perhaps (dare I say) "restoring" it.

This is a small ray of hope indeed but I can't shake the conviction that the oppression of women is not a necessary aspect of CofC belief/practice. I would go further, even, and argue that there are resources within our tradition (such as Campbell's theology of eucharist and liturgical practice of it, which I've blogged about before) that provide a starting point for a specifically CofC theological argument against the exclusion of women.

Which means that, there's still something left to love here. And if you can stand it, room to stay and some work to be getting on with.

adoptingmama said...

I sit here bawling....
I just listened to your interview on halfthechurch....
This right after I just finished teaching a 'ladies only' bible class at our CofC building....
After I lead worship this weekend at a 'Ladies only' retreat....
After, last week (at a Kairos church planting lab) where I was able to lead worship with my husband for the first time because we were in a place that 'allowed' and 'encouraged' that...(I loved it by the way!)

Thank you for being a voice...
Don't give up! I know you don't know me, but I need you in our fellowship...We will hopefully one day change the face of this church tradition called the Church of Christ that we grew up with and loved. Maybe we are on the verge of a beautiful change. Thank you, for your passion and for your honesty! Bless you!

Lin said...

I've spent the last 2 years in Spiritual Direction over this same dilemma. Logically on every level, even after being a leader within CoC, I should leave, but something very deep is drawn by it and here I stay. Change by example is the only way I can do it. I model an inclusive, non-gender God from the pulpit or wherever I get the opportunity to.

I truly empathise with you and hope and pray that there is enough of us out there to begin to change the tide.