How I Also Changed My Mind

I am a feminist because of, not in spite of, my Christianity. I was brought up in very conservative churches when it comes to the issue of women in leadership, Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism (Missouri Synod). The first female pastor I met was not until college at the Methodist church I joined. At that point, I was still opposed to the idea of female pastors, but it was an issue that bothered me in the back of my mind.

I remember as a kid how active women were in shaping my faith. Most of my Sunday school teachers were women. In the Lutheran church where I spent most of my childhood, my mom and other women were active, visual, important leaders in the church, even if they did not have official titles. My mom regularly spoke in front of the church. These were not "sermons" but were rather "comments" on the Scripture readings for the week. We were an unusual Lutheran church with a great deal of lay involvement, but my mom was one of the most frequent contributors. She also wrote regularly about different spiritual issues in our version of a weekly church newsletter. Men and women, including my mom and dad, led worship together at our Wednesday night Bible studies and sometimes even in church on Sundays. Even though I was taught that women should not be leaders over men, it is not what was ever illustrated to me.

Though my church was unusual in so many ways, I do not believe these experiences to be atypical of those in churches that deny women leadership. The reality is that women make up the majority in numbers and are more likely to be involved in serving than men, so I would be surprised to find a church in which women did not play critical, if unofficial, roles, especially when it comes to Christian education. As a teacher, I can assure you that this is a position of great authority. Growing up in the Church, my Sunday school teachers had a greater influence on my developing faith than any minister. Women shaped my faith in real, tangible, important ways, much more than men did. I believe this is why at the back of mind I always had questions about this area of doctrine.

These questions grew after I finished college. I was in a Methodist church that had a woman in a position of leadership, but she was an associate pastor and had very little responsibility in the areas of the church I participated in. I wish I could say that her example helped to change my mind, but it really made little difference to me. The issue was never really brought up in this particular church, maybe because they took for granted that women could be pastors, but I suspect more likely because they did not want to risk offending anyone with a different view. After college, I joined a Southern Baptist church, where I really started to consider the issue again, still not really changing my views, but still a bit bothered by them in the back of my mind. I struggled with the idea that God chose people for certain roles based on gender, that women were automatically disqualified, particularly when there were examples of excellent women leaders in the Bible like Deborah, Lydia, and Priscilla. I had difficulty with verses that claimed, "The sons and the daughters will prophesy," and "There is no Greek, nor Jew, no male, nor female." Still these questions remained mostly peripheral ones for me.

Towards the end of my time in the Southern Baptist church, I began to undergo a great shake-up in my faith. I was disillusioned with evangelicalism, particularly Reformed theology. I was angry about a lot of hurt I had experienced throughout my church life. I was ready for a change, and I began to question everything. I did not rebel, but I reexamined. Partly because of this, I moved to Houston and began attending an Emergent church (with decidedly Baptist influences that did not become apparent to me until later). I saw this as a place where I could stay plugged into God and other believers, but I knew it was also a place where I could ask difficult questions and be honest about my doubts and struggles. This transformed my life in every conceivable way. I met my wife and some of my closest friends. I rediscovered my faith and my identity. I learned to let go of past hurts and anger and began to find healing.

During this time, I also started graduate school in Literature. Feminism was one of the major components of my academic life, and I began seriously to examine the issue of women in the church. I had worked with women missionaries, been taught by women, had women lead worship in various settings, been counseled by women. The more I thought about it, women had played as critical a role, if not a more critical role, than men in the development of my faith, not to mention in every other area of my life. There was no denying for me that God had gifted women with just as many talents as men in every area, including leadership. All the old cliched excuses about why women were not allowed to lead began to crumble for me. I found them illogical, and more importantly counter to the redeeming spirit of God that sets captives free and empowers us as vessels of the Holy Spirit.

Two other concurrent factors led me to change my views, meeting my wife and starting to receive counseling to deal with some of my past hurts. I will start with the latter. Without mentioning too many specifics, there were some real hurts and issues I needed help with, and partly based on my wife (then girlfriend's) prompting, I started to seek counseling. As I dug deeper into the roots of these issues and began sharing them more openly with friends I trusted, one of the key issues that surfaced was that the majority of the hurts I had experienced could be traced back to places where people in the church, including myself, used religion and the Bible to justify demeaning, limiting, and often hurtful gender roles that are not Biblical, but rather cultural. I have never been the stereotypical alpha male, but subtly, I had been taught that the Bible wanted me to be. I could go on about this, but in short, I had been greatly hurt by inaccurate portrayals of manhood that were endorsed by the church. As I began the healing process, I started to question these gender roles and biases more earnestly. I had seen their destructiveness, and not only in my own life, but more and more frequently in the lives of my friends and family members as I began sharing my own story.

The other key factor in my change was my wife. When we met, she too was questioning some of these teachings. I remember talking about it on an early date and both of saying that we weren't sure where we stood on the issue of women in leadership, that it was an area we were both reconsidering. After we got engaged, we both became more certain that God did not intend for leaders and pastors to be only men. As she already mentioned, a big factor here was that all the patriarchal marriage prep materials we browsed were so irrelevant to us. We found them to be reductive and often just insulting. This is when we came across Christians for Biblical Equality. Their marriage resources were superior to anything we had seen before because it affirmed the importance and worth of both spouses. We had some very emotional conversations during this time. It was very exciting.

After marriage, we realized that our church did not give us good examples of Egalitarian marriage within its leadership (although many of the members were awesome and have continued to play an important role in our marriage and spiritual lives). LKH played a really important leadership role in the church, but any pastoral gifts she had would have to remain unofficial there. We eventually left this church, in great part because of some of these issues and some others. As we started hunting for new churches, we wanted to visit some that were led by women, without feeling the need to be in a denomination that ordained women.

Our church tour was the final step for me in changing my own views. We visited a great variety of churches (chronicled earlier in this blog quite exhaustively). When we practically stumbled into a small Methodist church near UH one day, the pastor was a woman. Her sermon made LKH cry and moved me deeply as well. It was one of the most powerful sermons I had heard preached in all of our visits. The Holy Spirit was clearly at work in so many ways; it was impossible to deny God's presence and blessing. That was the final moment for me. I knew I was wrong before without a shadow of doubt. We visited many other churches and ended up back at this small Methodist church again, this time with a different head pastor, a man (who spoke eloquently in favor of women in leadership regularly). The associate pastor and pastoral intern, both women, preached often, and the intern had clear pastoral gifts. It was such a wonderful place to worship, and I miss them often.

Now we are again in a small Methodist church, this time across the pond. The previous pastor was a woman. The circuit rotation features more women preachers than men. Women basically run the church's daily and weekly functions. It is all so seamless, a non-issue here. Women lead, and God blesses. Period. What more is there to say?

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Ruth said...

It was great reading both of your perspectives on women in leadership within the church. I consider myself lucky that when I started attending church (in junior high) it was at a Presbyterian church (PCUSA) that supported women in ordained leadership. I didn't know differently. Imagine my surprise when I moved to Texas and I was introduced to people and churches who believed that women couldn't/shouldn't officially be leaders in the church. I was shocked! I also realized that those people probably didn't approve of me holding a staff position as Director of Youth Ministries for a church. It was an interesting time for me, that's for sure. I was just glad to be working for a progressive church that accepted and encouraged the gifts everyone had to offer, regardless of gender.

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