“Take a deep breath,” I told myself one evening as the latest swirl of scandals ripped through social media in a tornadic whirl. “This, too, shall pass.” But the news items just kept coming. Now it’s not just the political quagmire in Washington, D.C.; it’s seeing the horrors of incarcerated children at our country’s borders. It’s a celebrity calling a CEO a misogynist and racist slur (and her TV show getting cancelled). It’s the firing of a Southern Baptist seminary president (finally) after years of patriarchal and dubious preaching about women.
Thanks to the tireless work of Tarana Burke and #MeToo, the conversation in our society has finally mutated from cowed acceptance of patriarchal systems to a demand for civility and equality for all persons. As the stories of abuse and sexual harassment are finally told, there is not a single profession left untouched. It’s shocking. Or is it, really?
I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised at the demoting and then firing of Paige Patterson. As I reflect on our nation’s history, I see the patterns of misogyny and patriarchy impacting not just a denomination but a whole culture.
The precedent of marginalizing and disqualifying someone based on identity is not new.
At our country’s inception, we enslaved persons because of their origin of birth, discredited their innate humanity, and denied their personhood. Fast-forward to the 20th century and we know the shame of the “Jim Crow” era: lynchings, unlawful imprisonment, and unrelenting racial degradation. We’ve witnessed the abuse and murder of LGBT persons: Stonewall, the AIDS crisis, Matthew Shepard, and PULSE. These events have been excused and minimized by leaders of the religious right. To this day, a surprising percentage of people still believe that AIDs is a “punishment by God.”
The problem is that when you define everything with inviolable rules and religious laws, it’s very easy to start thinking of the world as full of only “good” and “bad” people, with yourself firmly established as “good.” When your religious dogma provides you with simple behavioral boxes to check off and iron-clad rules of social order, you don’t have to stop to consider the humanity of all those other people with different cultures, beliefs, and world-views. You just follow the rules you believe in, the rules someone made for you, and you think the people who don’t follow and believe according to those rules are simply wrong. It’s chilling. It’s commonplace. And it is pervasive in conservative Western Christianity. I am not proud to say that at one point in my spiritual journey, like so many others, I was swept up in it, too.
The (Not So) Divine Order
In my 20s, I started seminary as an engaged woman preparing for missions. When my pending marriage was called off, I was told by my elders that I did not “need” to continue with seminary since I wasn’t going to marry a man who was in ministry. There was no other reason for me to have extensive training in theology and biblical languages since women weren’t pastors in my denomination. It simply wasn’t biblical.
I believed them.
The many edicts set forth by the male clergy in my religious culture convinced me that there were specific roles for women in the church and family and that this was the “divine order,” which pleased God.
As a woman born with a heart for service, this affected me deeply. I learned to be a good Christian. I learned to honor and obey. I tried to be a woman after God’s own heart. And I thought I should submit to men’s authority. Worse, I felt I was sinning simply by wanting to use my God-given gifts. The culture of lies perpetuated by patriarchy and complementarianism cowed me into accepting these things.
But if this was really the divine order, why did the restrictions the church leaders placed on me feel so wrong? Why couldn’t I let go of the thought that it was exceptionally important to serve God using every gift God had given me?
The Test Results
That tug, that whisper of my own worthiness, refused to go away. And as it kept enticing and inviting me to do more, I wondered what I was doing wrong. What was I missing? Why couldn’t I be satisfied with my role as a woman?
At one point I took an online spiritual gifts test. The results informed me I had the gifts of “hospitality” and “administration,” as well as “mercy” and “faith.” The test joyfully offered the conclusion that I was perfect for children’s ministry.
There was only one problem. I didn’t enjoy teaching children.
Skeptical of such an uninspiring conclusion, I filled in the same answers, but indicated I was a man, not a woman. And my gifts became “leadership” and “exhortation” and “proclamation!”
I remember wondering, at the time, if the test was skewed. But I never mentioned it to anyone.
I eventually realized what I had been led to believe about women’s potential and about my own calling and purpose were very different from what the Holy Spirit was whispering, ceaselessly whispering, into my ear.
I had no female clergy role models, other than the occasional children’s “director” (not pastor, of course), but I heard Spirit whisper that I had stories to tell and sermons to preach. I heard and finally understood that I was an extrovert who loved to see projects come to completion and to get people energized and involved. I came to know that I wanted to help bring God’s wholeness and healing, and ovaries or not, I could do it!
I was one of thousands of young women growing up in the sixties and seventies who never went to seminary because we were told “women don’t do that.” But eventually there came a time when the still small voice of God drowned out the clamoring of male leaders and patriarchal culture, and I enrolled in seminary to pursue my Masters in Divinity. It took a long time; I was 48 years old!
During one the first evening sessions with women professors after I arrived at seminary, a wise woman laid her hands on my shoulders and prayed, “Lord, lead this woman into the full expression of your Calling on her.” Four years later, at graduation, she did the same thing, but this time it was for my anointing and sending out.
How many women have been prevented by misogynist religious cultures (like those found in the Southern Baptist Convention) from serving God as God intended? How many church communities have suffered under leaders who enforce repressive views of women? How many children have grown up being taught a distorted view of women’s abilities? How many people remain blind to all the ways the women around them are already serving as effective leaders, teachers, and preachers?
Not THAT Kind of Baptist
As an Alliance of Baptist pastor and chaplain, I frequently say, “I’m not THAT kind of Baptist!” Because, sadly, the Southern Baptist Convention leadership has given us Baptists a bad rap, by going out of their way to marginalize women and LGBTQ persons.
The SBC 1984 resolution on women in ministry specifically stated that women were welcome in “all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.” This was addressed again in the 1998 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message, which oppressed women even further.
Women deacons? Marginally OK. But never in leadership over men. Women pastors? The 2000 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message specifically forbade women from being ordained.
Southern Baptists, even when faced with the destructive outcomes of their misogynistic system, continue to shoe-horn the potential of all women into very limited roles based on a narrow interpretation of a few Bible verses taken out of context and out of their cultural setting. (On Christian Feminism Today there are several scholarly articles that help unpack these few Bible verses; start with the articles in the Christian Feminism Basics section.)
The words and actions of SBC denominational leaders, like Paige Patterson, are being exposed in an atmosphere already charged with painful memories, grief, and anger as women across the globe unite under the banner of #MeToo and #ChurchToo.
Victims who have for decades been denied validation and recourse, who were convinced they alone were to blame for the abuse and harassment they have endured, are finally being heard and believed. Their anger and frustration is boiling up after having been patronized and ignored for years.
Acknowledging their grief and anger, we ask:
- How does suppressing the full expression of women’s gifts serve God?
- How does alienating LGBTQ people from their families and faith communities reflect the gospel?
- How does mocking people in loving, committed same-sex relationships strengthen families?
- How does intolerance and the long-lasting divisions it creates promote spiritual growth?
- How does any of this illuminate God’s love?
We know the answer.
A (More) Divine Order
It’s human nature to feel better about yourself when you define yourself as “good” in a world divided neatly into “good” and “bad.” It also seems to be commonplace for people to reinforce those divisions by creating labels that obscure the humanity of the people on the other side of the divide.
It’s easy to take a potshot at a label, at a caricature of a human being. It is much harder to respect the humanity of someone with an opposing point of view and approach them with kindness, respect, and civility. Trust me. I know. I have had to watch my own words as I write this!
Progressive Christians like me find ourselves in a difficult position.
We are passionate about loving and serving our world. We can’t ignore our personal responsibilities to be messengers of peace and proclaimers of the Good News. But we are often frustrated and angry with the injustice we see being imposed in the name of God.
So we must walk a thin line, being careful to see those we disagree with as human beings, not anything more or less, but also be free to express our own truth. We are not the judge of another; that role belongs to the Divine One alone!
Scripture reminds us that followers of Jesus must demonstrate the qualities of the Divine, not stoop to maligning or stigmatizing others.
You know that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say love your enemies and pray for those who harass you, so that you may be children of your Mother who is in heaven, because she makes her sun rise on those who are evil and on those who are good, and sends rain on those who are just and on those who are unjust.” Matthew 5:43–45 (Divine Feminine Version)
We press on. We speak up. We declare the worth of each individual, created in the Divine Image, loved and welcomed and wanted in the Kingdom of God. Our righteous tears are known. Our tender hearts are healing. And for such a time as this, we pursue the greater good for all of God’s beloved.