My Path to Christian Feminism
by Gary L. Tandy
I grew up in a Christian denomination that discriminated against women. The roles that men and women played in the church of my youth were clearly defined. Men preached; women listened in silence. Men taught adult classes; women taught children’s classes. Women prepared the food and cleaned up the kitchen after church potlucks; men ate the food prepared by the women.
When it came time for leadership training, I and the other boys were instructed in preaching sermons, leading public prayers, and directing congregational singing. The girls were taught—well, I don’t know what the girls were taught, but it did not involve any public leadership roles. For years, although I noticed these differences, I really didn’t question them much. I suppose I assumed it worked like this in all churches. Looking back, I’m surprised it took me so long to figure out that something was wrong with this picture.
Those who didn’t grow up in a faith tradition like mine might well wonder how this state of affairs came to exist. No doubt some of these practices reflected the cultural values that were prevalent in the 1950s and 60s in Middle America. I don’t remember many women in my congregation who held jobs outside the home, nor do I recall too many women who had completed their college degrees. However, these cultural conditions don’t explain why many congregations of this same denomination continue to limit women’s roles in the life of the church to this day.
If you had asked a leader in my church why the roles of women were limited, he (the correct pronoun here since, of course, only men could serve as leaders) would have answered confidently that this is what the Bible teaches. You see, this denomination had adopted a hermeneutic (a method of reading scripture) that led to the conclusion that Paul’s instruction for women to keep silent in church assemblies was a universal rule that should be followed in the church for all times and all places.
My changing beliefs
My beliefs about the roles of men and women in church have changed radically from those days, but I’m also aware that controversies still exist in Christianity and that these issues continue to be debated hotly in Christian publications and blogs. For example, Rachel Held Evans has posted a very good series of articles on egalitarianism, and my friends Melanie Springer Mock and Kendra Weddle Irons have a lively blog called Ain’t I a Woman that regularly addresses the ways images in evangelical Christianity limit the freedom of women to live out their calling before God. I want to stand in solidarity with these women and throw my own small pebble into the stream of discussion.
Taking a different approach
What I don’t want to do is engage in biblical exegesis. That’s what I did in the early years when I first became aware of the “women’s role in the church” issue, as it was called. I tried to analyze and slice and dice all those New Testament passages, tried to understand what the Greek word for submission really meant, pondered whether it was elder Junia or elder Junius, and whether Phoebe was really a deacon or a deaconess. While interesting, those efforts often seemed to end in confusion and frustration. It just seemed impossible to arrive at any solid conclusion. And “scholarly” evidence could be readily found to support both sides of the debate. So instead of focusing on biblical interpretations, I want to share a bit of my own story and the process by which I arrived at my current views, identifying some influences along the way. Hopefully, my story might provide some insight into why people change their views on important issues like gender equality. Perhaps someone out there might even identify with my journey.
My personal story
Just to be clear, before I tell my story, here’s a quote that sums up my present position on the issue of “women’s role in the church”: “Decisions about who should do what [in the church] should … be made on the basis of individual gifts and not on the basis of gender—any more than we would automatically allocate tasks and resources on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, or class” (Van Leeuwen, Mary Stewart. A Sword between the Sexes? C. S. Lewis and the Gender Debates. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010, p.188).
The last part of this quote is significant for me. My real movement on this question came about when I began to see it not as an issue of biblical interpretation but as an issue of social justice. Specifically, I want to talk about two key transitions that led to my current thinking about gender equality, especially as it plays out in Christianity.
Relationships the key
First, my changing views on this issue came about not through intellectual argument, but through my experiences and my relationships in churches and in the workplace. When I think about my attitudes and opinions on the role of women in the church, my mind goes—not to books, not to seminars, not to Bible class discussions—but to people, both men and women, whose life and actions spoke to me.
One of the first people I think of is one of the most brilliant biblical scholars I’ve ever known. His theological degree was from Hebrew Union; but at the time I knew him, he was a practicing corporate attorney in Oklahoma. He was the one who first introduced me to the biblical questions and conundrums surrounding this issue.
But his actions spoke louder to me than his words. You see, for years this man spoke at my denomination’s gatherings, hoping to open peoples’ minds to more freedom for women in the life of the church. But he and his wife had three daughters—bright, capable, excellent public speakers. Ultimately, this man and his wife realized that their daughters would never be given the opportunity to use their gifts in their own church, and so he and his family left and joined a denomination that practiced equality in ministry for all members.
My views also changed because of the many wonderful, spiritually gifted women I worshiped with over the years: Carol, Suzanne, Wendy, June (I could go on). As I listened to these women share their hearts and spiritual insights in small group or Bible study settings, it began to dawn on me that they were prohibited from sharing those same spiritual insights with the larger congregation. This didn’t seem right. I began to wonder what we were missing by effectively silencing half the church.
A more recent stage on my journey has been my work at George Fox University. The Friends movement has a long history of equality for women in ministry, and even though my Quaker colleagues tell me that there are still struggles in many of their churches about women in leadership, I’ve observed a marked difference that occurs in a faith tradition that begins with the assumption that all members are equal in gifts and thus should share equally in ministry.
One of the characters in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead says that during the Civil War, he had to leave his Presbyterian church and “go sit with the Quakers” for awhile—to get away from the Christian patriotism and expressions of support for war in his own church. I’ve felt somewhat the same about my last three years, and I’m thankful for the change of scenery religiously that has given me space to reflect on what I feel and believe about women and ministry.
In my faith tradition, I also saw how the religious practice of exclusion influenced the ways women were treated (and mistreated) in the life of the church and in the workplace. Sometimes this manifested itself in subtle ways, sometimes more blatantly. At the religious colleges where I taught, women were not prohibited from teaching or chairing committees or achieving academic honors. However, because of denominational beliefs, there were certain things that female faculty members could not do that male faculty members could do. For example, a female faculty member could not speak in chapel.
At one college, a capable, theologically prepared female faculty member was asked to teach a freshman Bible course; however, enrollment in the course had to be limited to women because, obviously, a woman could not exercise a teaching role—at least in a “Bible” course. Never mind that other female faculty members were no doubt “teaching the Bible” to their male students in a variety of English, history, and psychology courses.
An academic dean at another college opened a faculty meeting by reading scripture and making some devotional comments. She was later visited in her office by a couple of concerned (male) faculty members, who suggested that, next time, she should ask a male faculty member to lead the devotional. Presumably, it was okay with these male faculty members for the female dean to craft a college mission statement, oversee the curriculum, and hire and fire faculty—just so long as she didn’t intrude on their sacred patriarchal privilege of reading and interpreting scripture.
I also saw how this religious stance played out in more subtle ways. I can recall several meetings where it was obvious to me that a female faculty member or female administrator’s ideas were being discounted—not because they were bad ideas, but simply because the person presenting those ideas was female. I’m not even sure the male faculty members and administrators were aware of what was going on, but it was obvious to me. I could see it in the way a male faculty member interrupted a female speaker in a meeting or the way he dismissed a woman’s suggestions without consideration.
As I look back now, it’s not surprising to me that such blatant and subtle discriminatory activity went on. After all, if you live in a religious system where women are silenced in arguably the most important hour of the congregational life of the church on a weekly basis, where women must accept proscribed roles and are relegated to teaching children’s classes and Bible classes where only “ladies” are present, and, further, where men are likely to be taught that the role of their wives in the home is to submit to their Godgiven male leadership authority, what would you expect to happen?
How Jesus treated women
Second, my views changed not only from my personal contacts and observations, but also when I began to look less at the Pauline texts and more at the way Jesus treated women. It became clearto me that, as we read the stories recorded in the New Testament about Jesus’ encounters with women, we notice that his tendency was always to move in the direction of more freedom of expression and more voice and more significant spiritual standing for women—and that this tendency was diametrically opposed to the cultural and religious assumptions of his own day. As a result of this fresh look at the Bible, I came to view the debate in terms of social justice.
Can we really imagine Jesus silencing a woman who wanted to pray or share a Bible verse? Can we really envision a situation where Jesus would advise a woman not to teach a man? Jesus was fully aware that women in his society were oppressed, and, as a result, he always tried to grant more freedom, more opportunity, and more dignity to the women he encountered. For me, this example of Jesus is much more convincing and much less confusing than trying to sort out the advice Paul gave to 1st century churches in texts that scholars admit are obscure.
Earlier I mentioned my friend the biblical scholar. He once posed this question to a group of church leaders: if a woman were to approach you with a request to share a prayer or a devotional thought with the congregation on a Sunday morning, what would you do? Would it be right to deny this woman the opportunity to share what she believes is her spiritual gift? Or would it be right to allow this woman to share? What would Jesus do? Would he more likely come down on the side of exclusion or inclusion?
Looking back, I suppose that was the day I became a Christian feminist.
It’s a matter of social justice
I mentioned that I now see women’s equality in ministry as a social justice issue, so here’s an analogy that’s been helpful to me. I’ve always admired the Freedom Riders who stood up for equality in the segregated South. While I realize that the black Freedom Riders were risking more in the struggle, I’ve always been impressed with those white Freedom Riders who chose to stand in solidarity with their black brothers and sisters, risking life, limb, and reputation because they believed in the rightness of the cause, not because it necessarily
affected them personally.
Perhaps it’s time for a similar freedom ride where men like me stand in solidarity with their Christian sisters: To stand against discrimination and oppression and misogyny in all its forms. To declare clearly and boldly that “there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Gary L. Tandy is professor of English and chair of the Department of English and Theatre at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. In addition to teaching writing (professional, technical, creative, and more), as well as British and American literature, Dr. Tandy has specialized in the work of C. S. Lewis and has published essays and reviews on Lewis’s work and Christian spirituality in The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society, The Christian Chronicle, Christianity and Literature, and Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal. His book, The Rhetoric of Certitude: C. S. Lewis’s Nonfiction Prose, was published by Kent State University Press in 2009. He last appeared in Christian Feminism Today when he reviewed Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s book, A Sword between the Sexes? C. S. Lewis and the Gender Debates for our Fall, 2011 issue.
Copyright 2012 by Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. Originally published in the Fall (September-December), 2012 issue of Christian Feminism Today, Volume 36, No. 3.