About a year ago, I was sitting in my therapist's office, answering for her a question I've answered many times before, to interlocutors both hostile and friendly: "why do you stay? why don't you just leave?"
Let me back up a bit. My very first appointment with this therapist, where you go through all the basic obvious stuff like who you are and what's driven you to seek therapy, I felt compelled to begin with, "Okay...well, to understand me and why I'm here, I'm going to have to explain something else first. Have you ever heard of the Churches of Christ?"
So, it shouldn't have been surprising to this doctor--and she was a pretty good therapist, so I'm pretty sure it wasn't, actually--that when I answered her "why don't you leave" question, I started talking about issues of identity. After all, I had begun my answer to "who are you" with explaining that to understand who I am and what my "issues" are, first you have to understand something about my church.
So, I said to her what I've said to many people in various ways: how can I leave something that is my home, a community that has shaped who I am, a people who have helped form me into the person I am today (however much they may not like the result)? How do you "leave" your own self?
It's not that it's impossible to do. I've had a front-row seat to observe what it means and what it takes to "leave." And so I know, not just by my own instincts, that it means redefining who you are.
I came across an observation just this week, from a friend of a friend, that leaving the CofC was harder than coming out of the closet. Think about that for a moment. Yeesh.
My therapist was slightly confused by this strong correlation of personal identity and church. I have a feeling she refrained from suggesting this was slightly cult-like. When I insisted to her that I was not alone or unique in this--that everyone I know in a similar situation to my own expresses this dilemma in the same way, as an issue of identity, I think she was even more confused. It didn't make sense to her that my sense of self would depend on this community that was less than affirming of the entirety of who I am. It seemed masochistic, backward, undifferentiated, and problematic--and if this wasn't simply my personal hangup but a broader problem for other people like me, then something must indeed be systemically wrong.
I parse it differently. Yes, there's something wrong, something systemically wrong, in our communities that are producing identity crises in people. But what's wrong is parasitic on what we're actually doing right.
So what is that we're doing--both rightly and wrongly? What we're talking about is one of the main functions of the church, the process of spiritual and personal formation. In our churches, this starts with "Cradle Roll" and never stops--adult Bible study classes in your average Church of Christ are a huge ministry priority. Now, if you're someone who's seriously interested in the process of catechesis and spiritual formation then there are a million things to talk about, positive and negative, about how churches in our tradition go about this ministry and how it might be better. My point is simply that it happens.
Within this process of spiritual and personal formation, we teach something important and theologically fundamental, again and again. We teach people who they are. This begins in Sunday school with felt boards and internalizing the narrative of God's creation. Who are we? We are creations of God. It continues up through elementary school age classes on topics like baptism and even in youth group studies on topics like how to avoid backrubs from the opposite sex. Who are we? Baptized believers, the elected and saved, children of God, joint-heirs with Christ, ambassadors for Christ.
In a broad but real sense, we get this right. We teach people who they are. We teach that everyone is a creation of God, a child of God, elected and saved, baptized and gifted with the Spirit, joint-heirs with and ambassadors for Christ. We teach that this gift of beloved, sought-after, dearly paid for, identity is intended for every human being on this planet. We get this part right.
So what goes wrong? How could someone brought up learning that their identity is chosen, loved, cherished, elevated, and gifted by God end up in an identity crisis fostered by the same community that taught them these things?
Answer: that someone is female.
Here's how it happens. (This is not theoretical. Nor, I hasten to add, is it merely personally anecdotal. This is a pattern traced out in the multiple narratives here on this blog and at Half the Church.) It happens like this: we believe it. We believe what the church teaches us about who we are. We internalize it. It becomes how we define ourselves and our relationships, not just to the church, but to the world. It shapes how we envision our future, our goals, our entire life. It shapes our desires, our choices, our sense of vocation.
And one day, when we bring the gift of who we are back to the church who taught us who we are, we are told: No. No, that's not the whole story of who you are. Or, yes, but. Yes, these things apply to you because they apply to everyone, but. They apply, but they apply differently. Yes, you are a creation of God and a child of God; yes, you are elected and saved; yes, you are baptized and gifted with the Spirit; yes, you are joint-heirs with and ambassadors for Christ--but, despite all of that, here are the things that you can't do. Because although these things apply, they carry an implicit limiting condition on what they can mean...for a woman.
Identity crisis? You bet. Because it's not simply about roles. It's not simply about a list of do's and don't's. It's about what it means to be a woman in our churches: someone to whom all the adjectives of Christian identity apply--until you take them seriously in all their fullness. Most women in our churches learn the implicit conditional on their Christian identity--soak it up at the same time they soak up everything else, and, most women in our churches, I dare to say, don't recognize the theological limits it implies. Which means that it's just a handful of women who, believing these lessons so utterly and staking their identities on them so thoroughly, find this theological limitation and reject it as impossibly contradictory to all they've been taught in their church their whole lives about who they are.
Ever wonder, along with my therapist and they countless others who've asked me this question, why these women don't simply leave? This is why. They are bringing to the church its own teaching about who they are, and asking it, "weren't you serious about this? didn't you mean it?" Ever wonder why these women typically spend years banging their head against the altar, saying these things over and over, until finally if they leave, they do so with bloodied foreheads and weary spirits? Because they're coming back again and again to the church with its own message of Christian identity, asking the church to simply recognize its own teachings.
It's not a Messiah complex, no matter what my therapist (probably) thought. It's not altruism. It's simply inevitable. Rightly or wrongly, wisely or foolishly, at some level, we're returning to the ecclesial authority of our lives, seeking affirmation of our identity where we were first taught to embrace it as our own: creations of God, children of God, elected and saved, baptized and gifted with the Spirit, joint-heirs with and ambassadors for Christ. Isn't this for me? Or are you going to take it all back?