2007 was the year I got married. It was also the year I hit an all-time low in terms of my identity as a Christian woman. Having struggled for several years with other personal issues I had finally left them behind and was eager to get more involved in church now that I had a permanent base nearby and had 'settled down'. Going back full-time to the church that we'd only attended occasionally for three years was an 'interesting' experience. At the time there were only two young, married, childless couples in the church and although we tried hard, we found it hard to fit in with the older couples who were the same age as our parents and grandparents, or the couples a decade older than us who had young children. Aside from the friendship aspect of church, I was again becoming increasingly uneasy with male-only leadership and its implications for women who felt called to lead or preach. By late 2007 our attendance was again sporadic and unenthusiastic. In early 2008 our church network's magazine published an interview with Mark Driscoll and it made me so angry I couldn't stop thinking about it for days. Why? I won't go into much detail here but if you search for info on him you'll probably find out. Just as a taster, here he is explaining why stay-at-home dads are an issue worthy of church discipline (it's hard to 'respect' them as men, apparently) and this Facebook group gloriously details his most misogynist quotes. At the time I had just been a steward at the very first Million Women Rise march and it disgusted me to find out more about his views.
Since I was 18 I'd been attending various festivals and conferences put on by Soul Survivor, an organisation whicvh runs events for young Christians of all backgrounds and denominations. Something I'd always loved about Soul Survivor and its '18-30' incarnation, Momentum, is that you'd come into contact with so many different church groups, styles of teaching and messages over the course of a week. Women preach on the main stage there. They lead mixed-gender seminars. Looking back on personal journal entries from this time I can see I was incredibly worried that the meek, passive, docile, unopinionated stereotype of (complementarian) 'Biblical Womanhood' was just not me and that, not being able to change this, I would be forever on the outside when it came to serving God. It was at Momentum that I attended some seminars hosted by two incredibly inspirational women who changed my outlook on my identity.
Social justice is one of my passions and on arriving at Momentum I immediately decided I was going to attend a seminar called 'Global Women', hosted by Elaine Storkey. Thinking that I might be on to a good thing with Elaine Storkey, I decided to go to one of her other talks - 'Faith in a Pluralist Society'. I took away so much from these sessions. In her talk on faith and society, Elaine stressed the importance of people of different faiths working together for the common good and why state-imposed religion is a bad thing. In the other session she discussed women and poverty, gendered violence, maternal mortality, selective abortion/infanticide of female children and the environment. It was fascinating and I came away so happy to have heard such an inspiring and passionate woman speak. On returning home I looked into more of Elaine's writings online and found a great extract from one of her books which spoke to me so much. I could really relate to much of what it said about women being marginalised, given 'low status' jobs within the church and made the target of subtly sexist jokes from the pulpit (link at the end of the post).
The second inspiring encounter I had that week was with Jo Saxton. We'd heard Jo preach on the main stage that week and when I saw that she was hosting a seminar entitled 'Equipping Female Leaders' I knew I had to go. The seminar room was packed. Jo started off by explaining that the session was aimed at young women involved in/hoping to be involved in all aspects of leadership, whether that was in the church, the workplace, university or the home. She then asked us if we'd ever had a bad experience due to being a female who was gifted in leadership. Hands went up around the room. One young woman talked of how an elder at her church had told her she had a 'Jezebel spirit' because she'd told him she felt called to lead. Another told us that other women at her church had said she'd 'never find a man with an attitude like that'. The room was full of young women who had been hurt by words like this spoken over them to put them down.
Jo trains emerging female leaders - she'd heard a lot of this before. Over the next hour she talked about problematic theology and interpretations of the Bible which are often used to deny women rights within the church. The very first point she made was on the word 'helper'. That word which had worried me for so long. The word which is translated from the Hebrew 'EZER', used in the line The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18, NIV). In Jo's blog post on the subject, she talks about how this often makes women feel:
For some, the heartbreak just deepens with the feeling that women were set on earth soley to compliment, help, make a man look better. They feel as though it meant they had no contribution of their own to bring. At times suitable has been exchanged for lifesaver, one who brings out the best in their partner. Which doesn’t sound bad at all really. Unless you are single. Then what’s your purpose? Are you a nobody because you didn’t get married?Jo explained how the word 'ezer' is used many times in the Bible, often to refer to God as He helps people. At other points it can be translated as 'protector', 'defender' and 'strength'. Moving on to the word for 'suitable' - 'KENEGDO', she talked about how it translates as 'facing' or 'standing alongside' - as an equal. As I've seen it described somewhere else, a power corresponding to a man.
For the rest of the seminar Jo talked about issues within other books of the Bible. Another thing I took from this was her explanation of the Greek for 'submit' as it is used in the New Testament to refer to wives, which translates as 'behave responsibly, show courtesy, be united, have respect'. I came away from the seminar feeling as if a weight had been taken off my shoulders. For so long I had felt genuinely upset at the connotations of such words. To me they siginifed inferiority, silence, being restricted and belittled. I'd seen them mentioned in blog posts urging wives not to expect husbands to help with housework and childrearing 'because that's not his role', or articles denouncing the women's rights movement as 'contrary to God'. To see them from a different perspective made all the difference. In the summer of 2008 my husband (also an egalitarian) and I started attending a different church in our city. At first I was very unsure when it came to making new friends and connecting with people. I wondered if I would feel the same as I had before - like I didn't 'fit in'. Thankfully things are much different. Our church has women in leadership and management. Women preach on a Sunday to a mixed congregation. As I've got to know women in the church I see them being encouraged and raised up according to their strengths. As a couple and individually we've made a lot of friends with people of different age groups and I don't feel worried about speaking my mind, airing opinions or being myself.
I know it's not a requirement that your fellow Christians accept all your opinions but it puts me so much more ease to feel I can speak up about my politics, my convictions, my interests and my career and not be judged negatively. Over the past year the feelings I had in the past have virtually disappeared. I respect the fact that all Christian women have very different personalities but know that we may not always feel at home together - I don't think you can expect anything different. Unfortunately a lot of Christians have a certain view of feminist women - that they hate men, hate children and hate stay at home mothers/women who do not have jobs. This couldn't be further from the truth and it saddens me when I hear someone denouncing feminism in this way. I'm still outraged when I read certain blogs or websites or hear certain views being aired but my personal journal is no longer full of concern about how these could impact me. God gifts women in many different ways and I feel this should be acknowledged. In the Bible, there are many examples of strong women who lead, preach and are important figures. Whatever I may feel called to do in the future, it makes me happy to know this.
Elaine Storkey on women and the church
An article on Evangelical Feminism
The Council On Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a complementarian organisation which represents the opposite views on gender and Christianity to my own.