I’m not sure where to start other than the first place I remember asking the question: Why not women?
It was sophomore year in Dr. Thompson’s Paul and the Early Church class. We were assigned to write a five-page paper discussing our thoughts on the role of women in the early church. What could go wrong?
Well, as it turns out, everything.
I remember sitting at my laptop in a reading room in the library, struggling to type full sentences. I worked to get the words out, words I had known my whole life – submission, silence, order – as the question lurking in the back of my mind threatened to make itself known: Why not women?
I churned out a few pages of incoherent nonsense just to get the assignment done. There, I thought, I’ll never have to worry about that again.
Fast forward a year and a half: I’m sitting in a pastor’s office, nervously picking at a stray thread on my shirt. It’s distracting enough to keep me from crying, but not enough to block out the daggers I feel coming from the other side of the room. I can still hear his words, spit at me through a sarcastic smile: I’m sorry you feel oppressed.
I want so badly to explain that it’s much more than a feeling. I was ashamed for not being able to conform any longer to the theology of my youth – the theology that gave me a home for so many years. I try to hide my face, flushed red with equal parts embarrassment and anger, as I mustered the courage to ask: But why not women?
That year and a half – and the year that’s passed since that day in the office – consisted mostly of sleepless nights spent reading my Bible, books, blogs and anything else I could get my hands on, searching for answers.
Despite my best efforts, the more I tugged, the more the complementarian theology of my youth began to unravel. Questions about these beliefs were met with honest answers, from church leaders or other Christian influences in my life, but those answers came with a more cultural bias toward traditional ideas about masculinity and femininity (i.e. men are lustful and women are emotional), or with the implication that I just wasn’t taking Scripture seriously enough.
One person told me women shouldn’t have authority over men because it allowed men to be passive. Are women of God called to be passive? I must’ve missed that passage, I wondered, as I thought of women like Rahab and Esther. Another said my view of gender roles revealed how I thought about the Bible and the gospel, and I knew what that meant: You don’t believe men should be the head of the household? You think women should be allowed to preach on Sunday mornings? Well, you’re just not reading the Bible right. Maybe you should work on trusting God more. After all, this is His design. You wouldn’t want to go against His design, would you?
Embedded in the practical implications of this gender theology was a struggle to understand what it meant to be a “biblical” woman – and the toll I realized it had taken on my self-identity. I’d always been interested in sports and videography growing up and dreamed of a successful career in sports media; as a result, I didn’t have many friends who were girls in the first place – something the church found problematic. I was taught to value modesty above everything – but the boys next to me weren’t taught the same. I was a strong leader, and I loved writing Bible studies and teaching groups of men and women – but was never able to do so without a male co-leader by my side.
I hated jewelry, crafts and fashion shows, so I never quite felt at home at any women’s ministry events – and by the time we got to the sermon, it was always Proverbs 31, so I usually felt tempted to sneak out the back door. The girls around me were praised for their “gentle and quiet spirits,” while my opinionated and fiery nature made it difficult to feel like I was truly honoring the Lord. I wondered if God had purposely made me the way he had to teach me a lesson – that if I would eventually shut up, stop trying to talk shop with the men, and just focus on being more gentle and ladylike, I could somehow become more godly in the process.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with gentleness – it is a fruit of the Spirit, after all – but finding my identity in feminine personality traits turned out to be no match for an identity rooted in God himself.
As I searched, I fell more deeply in love with Jesus. The more I learned about his treatment of women, the more I learned about the letters of Paul and the Bible as a whole, the more I was convicted that male-only leadership couldn’t be God’s only design for us.
I finally felt at peace with who I was in Christ, an identity that stood free from any relationship to a man. Who I was in Christ had nothing to do with how feminine or submissive I was – I was simply his beloved, and my relationship with him made me a part of his mission of equality and reconciliation for all of humanity. I even ventured so far as to call myself what I used to consider the godly woman’s f-word: a feminist (more on that in a minute).
Although I’m growing in confidence in my identity, it’s still taken time to feel at home again in church. I ended up leaving that church – the place where I had been a member throughout college. I was fortunate enough to find amazing community at another church shortly after leaving, and a small group there that loves and accepts me and all my weird questions about the Bible – but the pain of leaving a church body is something that doesn’t heal easily.
Even in this newfound freedom, I still get insecure. I still wonder if it would have been easier to never have asked questions. I’m still learning what it means to be a woman in the church. I still struggle with the belief that my clothing could be responsible for lust, a catcall or an assault, even from a brother in Christ.
I worry that people make assumptions about my intentions or my convictions. I can’t tell you how many weird, concerned texts I get from people I haven’t talked to in years, as if they know exactly what I believe and why, or how many times people tell me they too went through a “feminist” phase in college – as if wanting equality for all people is just a fleeting college fad, like binge drinking or roller blades.
And yes, I do believe it’s important to call myself a feminist in addition to being a Christian – at least for now. I hope that term will be obsolete someday, but I think Sarah Bessey explains it best:
“As long as I know how important maternal health is, for instance, or as long as I continue to hear from women who have been abused and raped, as long as I know girls are being denied life itself through selective abortion, abandonment, and abuse, as long as brave little girls in Afghanistan are being attacked with acid for the crime of going to school, and until being a Christian is synonymous with doing something about these things, you can also call me a feminist.”
I fear people will learn I’m a Christian feminist and assume that there is no such thing – that my heart is hardened to the authority of Scripture. I worry that they’ll think I must be rebellious, or that I was raised without any knowledge of the Bible, or that I hate men and just want power for myself.
To those people, I would say: my heart is so far from being hardened. It aches for women who are oppressed and disheartened. It soaks in those feelings of inadequacy and shame created by cultural gender roles – especially when they’re presented as “biblical.” It longs for true equality in the body of Christ.
But still, in my inadequacy, in my anger, in my confusion: Jesus reigns, and therefore there is hope.
I see hope in the Scriptures: in Romans 16, where Paul commends the many women who have also helped to advance the gospel; in Philippians 4, where Paul recounts the women who have struggled beside him as co-workers in the gospel; in Acts 2, where women and men alike are entrusted with the precious gift of the Holy Spirit; in 1 Corinthians 12, where the Spirit allots spiritual gifts regardless of gender or any other factor; and in Galatians 3, where we see a vision of the gospel’s universal reach through Jesus:
“For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
I see hope in places like Bent Tree Bible Fellowship, which announced this weekend that they’re inviting women to share in every area of leadership, including as elders. I was overjoyed to hear the news, as JoAnn, who’s officiating my wedding, teaches there, and I know the Spirit speaks through her every time she preaches. Even though I can only attend services every few months while I’m in school, Bent Tree always feels like home to me, and now it does in more ways than one.
I’m still learning to see hope in my own life, and in the midst of a Christian culture that can at times seem dominated by patriarchy and rigid roles – but I believe God is continuing His work of reconciliation day by day.
I want to be ready whenever and however the Lord calls me to share in that labor – and I know I have a long way to go. I’m still a sinner, and there are so many things about me that could hold me back from fully following the Lord – selfishness, impatience and bitterness, just to name a few – but now, I can rest easy knowing my gender won’t be one of them.
If you’re interested in reading more about my personal journey, here is the independent study I did with Dr. Thompson.
If you’re interested in reading an article or book on this subject by an actual established author, you can find resources here, or check out Sarah Bessey’s book, Jesus Feminist.