There wasn’t really smoke rising from the blonde head a few rows in front of me, but I knew her well enough to imagine it on fire. In Keli’s Southern Baptist parlance, what she just heard had surely gotten her knickers in a twist. The call came from the pulpit, for elders of our church, leaders of our faith, governors of our community. But although it was our church, our faith, our community, the call didn’t come for us. No, the call came for half of us. For the men.
Our church is one of those interdenominational startups that meet in rented rooms and lecture halls. By design, we gather in the heart of the community we mean to serve, at the old Tivoli Theater on the main commercial strip in town. The pews are rows of red-upholstered chairs that flip up when we rise for communion. The pastor stands on a make-shift stage in front of the movie screen, heavy curtains on each side, the supplies necessary for a church gathering allowed to remain backstage during the week. Once, responding to a coffee spill during service, the usher on duty walked in and swept it up as if he were interrupting a double feature. There is sometimes glitter on the sticky floor after a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
People have gathered in our church since its start in 2011, now filling half of the seats, a better turnout than the afternoon movie. Some come for the music, some for the message, and some for the bagels. While 85% of pastors say churches should be racially diverse, ours is one of the 13% that actually is. There are older couples, young families, singles, and students. We come from different socio-economic walks, and certainly different faith backgrounds. The choir sings gospel, Irish lilts, Christian pop, and hymns I love from my Catholic upbringing. There are folks dressed to the nines and those who just came in off the street. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. We are proud to try and prove otherwise.
The sermon that Sunday was on the Book of Acts: the spreading of the early church to Jewish and Gentile cities, Paul’s transformation, travel, imprisonment and certain death. We’re lovingly instructed by the pastor to grow deep, grow strong, and grow out in our charge to love and serve regardless of station or history. He directs our attention to a section of the weekly bulletin where, for the first time in our little church, we are to write the name of the man we’d like to nominate for the position of elder. We pray together and are dismissed, to go forth with our coffee chats and lunch plans.
Keli, her southern knickers still twisted, walks up the aisle, hovers outside my row and looks sideways at me. I smirk out a smile and tease “I wrote your name down.” She rolls her eyes and laughs, more guffaw than giggle. We are Joan of Arc, Lydia the cloth trader, the woman at the well as we walk up the aisle for the usual kid pickup and post-service potty break.
For women who desire to be a part of a faith community and consider themselves feminists, each Sunday sermon can bring up a difficult issue within their own spiritual lives. Some stay in the church they love, ask questions and seek reform from within. Some leave, feeling that their presence in the pew condones doctrine or policy with which they soulfully disagree.
Further compounding the struggle of women in the church is the broad spectrum along which feminist theology resides. Calls for equality among the religious naturally rose with the women’s movement in the late 1800s, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the publishing of “The Women’s Bible” in 1895. Over the next hundred years, the movement diverged. Today, theologians like Phyllis Trible of Wake Forest University Divinity School maintain that our understanding of women in the context of the bible has been obscured by centuries of male interpretation. They renounce sexism and advocate for more gender neutral language while working within the tradition of the church. For others, like feminists Mary Daly and Daphne Hampson, to be a feminist within the church is impossible. Even those who wish to reform from within will find their principles incompatible with a belief in biblical authority. They see the Judeo-Christian structure to be compromised to such an extent that it is necessary to leave it behind completely. Some simply call themselves “post-Christian”. Some call for the creation of goddess-centered worship in a new “Woman-Church”. Mary Daly, in her book Beyond God the Father, attempted to explain and overcome gender-centrism in Western religion but eventually radicalized, asserting that “women’s asking for equality in the church would be comparable to a black person’s demanding equality in the Klu Klux Klan.” She eventually called for a reversal of the sociopolitical power and women’s domination of men.
Religious feminists are caught somewhere in the middle. Of the women stirred by the call for male elders that Sunday in the theater, most willingly claim feminism. Some are even comfortable using the term “patriarchy” when talking about systems that maintain perceived inequities between women and men. Not many desire to subordinate men or use the term “phallocracy” when discussing the issue.
There is a bit of biblical irony in the fact that the call for elders came on the same Sunday our congregation was preached the story of the early church. Women were in powerful positions in the cities where Paul and his missionaries travelled to spread the message of Jesus. They were instrumental in convening communities and converting households. Lydia, a trader of purple cloth and a central economic figure in the city of Philippi, was baptized. Priscilla is noted as a fellow worker who risked her life for the mission of the church. Phoebe carried messages from Paul’s prison cell to the churches he had left behind, as did Euodia and Syntche, who were praised for laboring beside him. Women were also equally persecuted by those opposing the spreading of Christianity: “as Saul was ravaging the church, entering house after house, he dragged off men and women, committing them to prison.” These reports of journey and conversion center around Paul, who explicitly states that women may not serve as elders. Some say this directive was written for the time and is no longer culturally relative. Others look past what is written and take their guidance instead from how Jesus treated women. Many acknowledge the difficulty in denying what Paul instructed while still maintaining an adherence to biblical authority. One cannot doubt what is written in the bible and still be a believer.
It is said that women hold some of their best discussions in the ladies’ room, and I suppose we’re no exception. After picking up Keli’s three-year-old daughter from her Sunday school classroom, we park ourselves by the sinks in the theater facilities. We twist our knickers, we talk, we pray. We complain about how exhausting it is to continually fight for a seat at the table, but acknowledge that no church will get it all right. “There’s a high likelihood that the new place I’d take myself to would be just as likely to get it wrong, or to say ‘everything is right’, which is just another way of getting it wrong.” We’ve both looked for a diverse church where we can question and have disagreement and have found a place we love. Keli’s Southern drawl adds some spunk to her closing thought, “I know God is as pissed as I am about the church’s history with regards to women’s equality, and that he wants to use me to bring about change, not throw hand grenades.”
The women of the New Testament, at the well and at the tomb, were strong. The early church knew this, because the women stayed that dark Friday afternoon when the men scattered. We remember and look to them. Women of the church today are equally up to the task, those who stay and lift their voices and those who leave to find a new way. Keli’s daughter knows this, because she heard her mom talking about it over the bathroom hand dryer.
We pray she will remember and look to herself.