Over the past two weeks, as a part of Missio Alliance’s commitment to Women, we’ve published a series called Band of Brothers. It includes reflections on a women’s role in Church Leadership as well as a case study of a male-driven church planting movement in Boston. You can read all the articles in this series here and an introduction to the series by Carolyn Custis James here.
Like many young men, I grew up confused about relationships with females. On the one hand, I grew up in a powerful matriarchy. My mom was a single parent who raised four boisterous boys alone. There is a common saying where I grew up: “Don’t Mess with Texas.” The James brothers modified that slightly. Our mantra was: “Don’t Mess with Mama.”
Our mother ruled our little tribe with absolute authority, but it was mixed with a great deal of compassion and love. She was a benevolent “matri-monarch.” The James gang, as we called ourselves, revered our Mother. She toiled working two (and sometimes three) jobs and I remember my sense of injustice that she had to work so hard. I had a sneaking suspicion that it had something to do with the fact that she was a female.
The patriarchal culture of Texas conflicted with what I experienced at home. Male leadership was assumed. It was not debated or discussed—it was just the way it was. Everywhere I looked, males were the ones wielding power. For me there was a subtle lingering confusion about the role of women. I didn’t know how to reconcile my deep respect for my mother and my experience of southern patriarchy —so I didn’t try.
I met Carolyn Custis (hereafter CCJ) in church and was smitten from jump street. She was not. I was from a broken home and the wrong side of the tracks. She was from what I called “lower nobility” as the only daughter of prominent pastor in Portland Oregon. CCJ was unlike any woman I had ever dated— she knew who she was, she was smart, thoughtful, biblically literate, theologically astute and much to my surprise, not particularly enamored with me. Already a seminary graduate, she could rattle off the kings of Israel as easily as I could name the members of the Rolling Stones. For me, this was a marriage made in heaven.
From the outset, I respected CCJ. Even before we married, I wanted to see her gifts thrive and to fulfill her calling. My cultural conflict about male and female roles was all but over when CCJ finally agreed to hitch her wagon to mine. Neither of us realized it at the time, but we began an adventure that would become a blessed alliance.
The first time I ever heard a woman preach was one rainy Sunday in Oxford. The preacher was a motherly deacon beloved by all. It was not a great sermon, but few Anglican sermons were. Officially, the Anglican Church approved female deacons but was debating the ordination of women. The Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals joined forces against the progressives to resist. But even among the more progressive Anglicans, it seemed that the church was still very much an old boy’s club albeit with a posh British accent.
You have to understand that British evangelicalism is different from the American variety. For Anglicans, the Eucharist is the centerpiece of Sunday worship, not the sermon. So, the fact that women preached Sunday sermons was not where the battle lines were drawn, rather it was consecration of the Eucharist that was held to be the sacred realm of males.
After four years, we returned to our native soil where I taught in a seminary. We were warmly welcomed into a church community that might be classified as high-church Presbyterian because of its unabashed Anglican liturgy. The pastor was a former hippie and student radical come to faith. Theologically, he was a conservative complementarian, but he retained a anti-establishment demeanor we found quite charming. As a seminary professor, I was soon recruited as an elder and things were going swimmingly until a rash of marital problems engulfed the church.
In the course of a single year, there were five divorces in a congregation of less than 300. With my messianic complex in high gear, I sought to rescue these marriages from the shoals of divorce. In each case the wife initiated the divorce, and in each case the husband wanted to keep the marriage intact. However, no matter how many verses of scripture I quoted out of context or how much emotional guilt I could conjurer, each wife refused to back down. I was an utter failure.
The most shocking divorce was that of a fellow elder, a soft-spoken man with a sterling reputation. His wife, on the other hand, was shrill and defiant. When the elders met to assess the situation, we already knew who the guilty party was. The meeting had just begun when the 21 year old daughter burst into the room and with tears streaming down her face, declared to the stunned elders: “I have to tell you the truth about my father.” It turns out appearances can deceive.
This was a watershed moment for me. Not only had I failed to rescue a single marriage, but I had failed to see the issues behind the issue. As I reflected on this annus horribilis, I realized that each of the husbands, having fully embraced a complementarian view of marriage, demanded submission from their wives and, in two cases, became physically violent when the wives did not submit.
It was becoming clear that behind these troubled marriages were false conceptions of marriage, of male-female roles, and of masculinity itself. These troubled marriages were false conceptions of marriage, of male-female roles, and of masculinity itself. Click To Tweet
Deeply burdened over these marital tragedies, I set out on a mission to understand the nature of the problem. I began by searching scripture, reading both complementarian and egalitarian books and asking questions. Before I knew it, I became a lightening rod for many other struggling relationships. One of the most heart wrenching stories was that of the wife of a respected leader. Her words still haunt me: “If I knew then, what I know now, I would never have married him.” A short time later, she took her life.
A sympathetic colleague warned me: “You will lose if you ask too many questions.” And so it was. Even though I was careful to avoid theological labels, I was unceremoniously “retired” as an elder. Although inadvertent, I had stumbled over an evangelical sacred cow—male authority in the home and church.
Crossing the Rubicon
As a historical theologian, I began to look carefully at the shapers of our evangelical tradition. Augustine declared that women “do not possess the image of God” except in insofar as she is joined to a male. For Tertullian, women are the “gateway to hell.” Following Aristotle, Aquinas saw females as “misbegotten males.” Calvin asserted that women were made in God’s image only in a “secondary sense.” Epitomizing the general historical consensus of the church, the reforming abbot, Odo of Cluny, defined women as saccus stercoris, which translates: a bag of shit.
Many modern evangelical patriarchialists would disavow such language, but like their medieval precursors, they still relegate women to the ecclesial margins. The tragedy is not only that they are captive to cultural norms of the pagan past, but that the gifts of half the church are all too often squandered.
I don’t know exactly when I crossed the Rubicon, but it was a process that began with my extraordinary mother, was galvanized by marriage to a remarkable woman, and was provoked by tragedies in the church and by my own quest for honest answers.
The journey continues. I am convinced that the deeper issues center on patriarchy and hermeneutics. These cultural constructs have shaped how evangelicals read their Bibles, which texts they prioritize and which texts they neglect. Only the Spirit of Truth can guide us to the truth that men and women need each other in order to accomplish the mission of God. Men and women need each other in order to accomplish the mission of God. Click To Tweet
On October 29, Missio Alliance is convening #SheLeads, a Summit of Women and Men seeking to reclaim the Blessed Alliance. Learn more HERE.