[This text was inspired by a series of pieces I wrote for Madison365.com and conversations with men and women whom I both love and respect.
In this text, much like in the articles and conversations, I don’t believe that I say anything deeply profound, particularly poignant or particularly new.
Alliteration aside, I simply say what I believe to be true: there must be gender equality, gender liberation, and an embracing of feminism in the church if the church is to survive in the coming decades.
And that kind of transformation will take the efforts of men and women who believe deeply in Justice. This is not a soft-shoe apology for women or their rights, they have been speaking just fine for themselves for centuries.
This brief offering is an effort to begin a very necessary discussion in the church.
When I was a kid and in elementary school, one of my very best friends in the world was called Chelsea.
I suppose Chelsea looked like most other girls in my school — tall, thin and lanky, with sandy blond locks that extended well past her shoulders down to her back.
She almost bounced as she walked, slue-footed, through the hallways of the school. Chelsea was smart, jovial, had no enemies, and was so popular, everyone knew her by first name. Like Liza or Cher. Or Madonna.
Chelsea was what our world called a Tomboy — a girl who enjoyed loud, noisy, rough activities normally associated with boys. She could run faster, jump higher and play harder than anybody in the school, boy or girl.
During recess, whenever our male classmates would hurl playground insults or microaggressions (of course, we didn’t have the slightest idea what a microaggression was back then), during basketball or kickball games like, “you throw like a girl,” Chelsea would always be there, quietly defying them with her intellectual and physical prowess.
While the kids in my school meant “throwing like a girl” as an insult, throwing like a girl in my school meant throwing like Chelsea. She was absolutely the best at everything.
One summer before school began, Chelsea was killed by a drunk driver. Her death devastated me, but Chelsea taught me my first lesson in gender equality and feminism.
My grade school years were full of similar lessons. I was small and black in a time where it wasn’t all that advantageous to be small and black.
No. When I was in grade school, hipsters weren’t ironically uttering phrases like “dope,” “baby momma,” or “fo’ shizzle.” There weren’t YouTube videos of everyone from newsanchors to soccer moms “hitting the dab.”
And Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift or Gwyneth Paltrow weren’t around to buy the bar with multi-platinum, multi-millionaire hip-hop artists.
My grade school days were, pardon the expression, dark times. I was one of only a few black students in my school, and as a result I was a convenient target for racial harassment. There was a small group of white boys who would wait for me every day after school and chase me home. Most of the time, I would be able to run home fast enough before they caught me. Other times, I wasn’t so lucky. On the days they caught me, they roughed me up pretty good.
After a few months of running home after school (this was all before helicopter parents. My mother and father demanded I fight my own battles), I got some help from an unlikely place. My cousin Amelia was fierce and fearless. And I don’t mean that the way hipsters and fashion bloggers use the terms to describe a fashion trend or an article of clothing.
I mean she was brave and bold and not afraid of anything. Although she was several inches and dress sizes smaller than me, Amelia literally fought my battles for me until I could figure out how to fight them on my own. When Amelia would see me running from school away from trouble, she would stand in toe to toe with my enemies, scuffling and fighting on my behalf.
My experiences with Amelia and Chelsea helped to lay the foundation for how I would later see traditional gender roles as fluid, and inform my impetus to challenge patriarchal constructs in our world, especially in the church. Fast forward to 2008 when I was ordained as a clergy in my communion. I was packed in a small anteroom with about a dozen ordinands, most of them women. A small elderly woman — a pastor —pac ed into the room slowly, deliberately. The pastor congratulated us, offered prayer and impressed upon us the sublime nature of the ceremony we were about to undertake.
At the end of her carefully chosen elocution, the pastor invited the women of the group to join the Women in Ministry organization within the communion. She explained that the women in ministry organization existed to encourage and support women who were clergy.
Later in the day, I was talking with another male clergy. Alarmingly in our conversation, he questioned the fitness of women for the pastorate. And perhaps even more alarmingly, he questioned the need for the Women in Clergy organization at all when there wasn’t a similar male clergy ministry. I was so shocked, all I could say was, “You know, history.”
History indeed. The church has a lot of remedial work to do as it relates to women in the ministry. The first Christian woman was not ordained in the United States until 1853, and the first women were not ordained in my communion until the mid-twentieth century.
“We must be ready to stand with women and assist them as they create leadership opportunities for themselves within the church, and not pout or lament “me too,” when they do. Do all lives matter? Yes, of course they do. But, right now we have a need to concern ourselves with the ones attached to women who have been devalued for far too long.”
This means over 200 years (and more than that for some communions) of churches in America were led solely by men. What’s more, there has been a troubling phenomenon of church officials using erroneous readings of certain Biblical passages and stories to subjugate women.
Unfortunately, because these untruths about Biblical passages have been repeated so many times without correction, I have to briefly take the space here to correct them. We all know that if we repeat something enough, even a lie, it becomes woven into the fabric of our collective reality. Like the lie of a white Jesus. Like the lie about Mary Madeline being a whore. Like the lie that women are not fit to lead churches.
So, it is our duty to unweave the lie from reality.
Feminism (and quite frankly women, generally) has always been met with great skepticism and incredulousness in the church. Since the beginning of the church, equality of women has always been seen as unchristian, worldly and radical. Church father Tertullian, noted, in a remark that is the mother of all backhanded compliments, that “Woman is a temple built over a sewer.”
And Clement, another church father, believed that women, by their very nature were weak, irrational, and good for nothing above producing children.
How can the church or its members endorse equality or see women humans entitled to respect, dignity and equality, when its leaders have spoken against women in this manner? What’s more, our church fathers have also told us that the Bible and God have naturally ordained for women not to lead in church. In fact, we call God a He when the scriptures say that God is all things.
Specifically, they have pointed to Eve’s origin as subordinate to Adam; Deborah’s assertion that it was most shameful that she had to step up to lead the Israelites when male leaders faltered; and passages in the Apostle Paul’s letters that assert that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.
For their part, these church fathers have been consistent. When they see or experience a phenomena in our culture they don’t understand, don’t like, or perhaps fear, they proof text, or pull Biblical passages out of context to support their fear and opposition.
But, pulling Biblical passages out of context may help construct a male-centric agenda, but it does little to discern God’s will as it relates to women in leadership in the church. If we look at the Scriptures in their entirety, we see a Christian God who values women and their leadership.
If we look closely at the creation narrative (Genesis 1 and 2), we see that God created men and women at the same time, equally and in the image of God. We also see God calling brilliant women like Vashti, Esther, Deborah and others, to lead and save their people, because of their brilliance and temperament, not simply because there wasn’t a man around to lead.
Further, while Apostle Paul made some specific statements about women designed to address specific issues in specific churches, women preached the Gospel and were treated as equals in Paul’s ministry. And the only people to ever minister to Jesus were women.
And that’s just among clergy and leadership. Men and women in the pew are treated differently as well. Women who have sexual relations outside of marriage, and especially ones who are single mothers, are generally scorned and marginalized. Pastors and the leadership of churches save their most condemning sermons, admonishments and private reprimands for them.
You know, that sermon or private counseling session saved solely for women that are designed to make women feel guilty about every aspect of their lives, but especially their pasts. The sermon and counseling session that calls on women to be “chaste,” “modest,” and pure, because if they do all of those things just right, they will find a husband that will save them.
Incidentally, it’s the same sermon series and counseling session men never receive. I know because I’ve never heard it in any church I’ve been to. In fact, what men hear is radically different than the call to be pure and chaste. No, what men hear are talks about how “boys will be boys and men will be men,” and how if we as men mess up, it is a woman’s fault.
In fact, I heard a woman in a congregation, in which their male pastor was dealing with sexual issues, say that the pastor would not have had any issues to struggle with if the women within the church wouldn’t tempt him with provocative dress and talk.
On the other hand, men who do the exact same thing — have sexual relations outside of marriage — are praised and groomed for leadership positions. I’ve seen it happen time and again in many churches.
An organization for women called Women in Ministry designed to support and encourage women is necessary and should only be the beginning of how we remediate past discrimination against women in the church. Now, I assumed that I wouldn’t have to explain all this to the clergy with whom I was speaking. He was a black man. We understand what discrimination and marginalization feel like. We know what institutionalized discrimination packaged to appear perpetuated by us feels like.
For instance, I am a member of a historically black Greek-letter fraternity (in all honesty, there is only one. But, I digress). And I was at an outing in which I was wearing a fraternity pin. After a woman discovered I was a member of a “black fraternity,” she asked me, “Why are there ‘black fraternities’? Shouldn’t there just be ‘fraternities’? What if there were ‘white’ fraternities?”
Yes. That actually happened. To have to explain why there must be organizations that support women in the ministry, is just like explaining why there are black fraternities.If there was no discrimination and marginalization advanced by the dominant cultures in either case, there would be no need for black fraternities or women in ministry organizations.
And further, to blame women for being industrious and organizing to encourage themselves in a male-dominated profession to remedy past and current discrimination, is both laughable and unconscionable.
I have been in the called ministry for almost a decade, and unfortunately conversations and experiences like the one I had with the male clergy after my ordination are all too common. I have been in the pastorate for a relatively short period of time, about three years. It is curious to me that women in the pews of many of the churches I have served outnumber the men by a substantial margin.
Women, from my experience, were the driving forces that made these churches function properly as well, serving in various lay leadership roles. And these haven’t been just any women. They have been among the sharpest, motivated, brilliant people I have ever met. Yet, while women outnumber the men in the church both in the pew and in leadership positions, I have seen a reluctance to women in the pastorate in churches. Even from women themselves.
A close confidant who was a woman in the ministry faced a significant amount of discrimination and sexism within the church at large. She had church members (some of whom were women) and entire congregations unwilling to follow her because she was a “woman pastor.” She was passed over for promotions within the pastorate while she watched her male colleagues receive those same promotions. And my friend was repeatedly admonished and characterized as arrogant, brash and overbearing for infractions men would have been praised for.
The notion of women not being fit to lead within the called ministry is foreign to me. I grew up in a family with three sisters, no brothers and a mother who raised me as a single parent after my father died in my teenage years. All of my aunts are strong, intelligent women who lead schools and run their own businesses. And until recently, I never conceptualized supervisors in my professional life being anything other than women.
Yet, I am acutely aware of the privilege I have as a male. My closest friends are women and I see them struggling with body image, and work-life balance, fashion issues, sex and professional pieces—issues that I have never had to struggle with. Issues that, quite frankly, should be alarming to us that we are still dealing with these issues today.
I have male privilege.
I have never had to keep my cell phone out in case I had to dial 911 because someone was following me. I have never had to worry about who was lurking in my parking structure after work to get me. I have never feared for my safety in any dark alleyway, first date, or nightclub (although, I probably should have in retrospect).
I have never been eviscerated on social media for what I wore, what I didn’t wear, or what I should have worn. My body parts have never been analyzed online, or discussed in a chatroom. I have never had to worry about being “too sexy” on my social media page.
I have never had to go to work, work hard, and get paid less than an incompetent counterpart. I have never had to worry about the right time to tell a job that I was pregnant. I have never had to determine whether I should wear an engagement ring to work, for fear of appearing too “high maintenance.”
I have never had to pretend that I was dumb in order to sell a product, learn a concept, or “land” a partner. I have never been urged to have children or be seen as incomplete because I do not have them.
I have never been called a whore or slut, a thot or thottie, a baby momma, or freak, simply because I exist. I have never been accused of using my body or sex to benefit myself or career.
I can wear whatever in the world I want outside my house and not be judged for wearing it (except by my mother). I can be assertive and aggressive without being a bad person.
I can drink beer from a bottle. I have never had a car sales person ignore me because I am a man. I have never paid for a meal, and had the server thank my wife for paying for the meal. I have never had a meal paid for me on a date, and then be expected to “put out.”
I can pee standing up. I can wear the same suit to work (Hey. Only God can judge me, right?) for an entire week, only changing my shirt and tie. Nobody has ever pressured me into wearing skinny jeans, a bra or make up in the morning. Nobody’s called me a bad mom for breastfeeding in public, for not breastfeeding in public, for not attending every single thing my kid does, or for nothing at all.
And, and, and, I don’t even know what yoga pants are.
Yes, I’m privileged.
And one day several years ago, after talking with my wife and my friends about all of the privileges I enjoyed which they did not, I decided to quietly attempt to give up all of these privileges for one week. All of them. Not for a gimmick, but to attempt to understand what gender oppression feels like.
I didn’t make it more than 72 hours. I couldn’t handle needing to be aware of my surroundings, or caring what I wore for that long. And, what’s more, I never truly felt what it was like to be a woman, because the world at large saw my maleness during that time period, and treated me the way I was always treated.
But, simply because men lack the ability to fully comprehend the magnitude of the oppression women face daily, does not mean we cannot be allies. Particularly in the church.
In fact, it should begin with men. We must challenge ourselves to think differently than our fathers and this world about women and gender. We must tell our sons early that women should be valued and equal in this world because of, not in spite of their womanhood.
We must bear witness in the presence of those who use off-color names, tell tasteless jokes, or hurl microaggressions about women, that we won’t stand for further oppression.
We must be ready to stand with women and assist them as they create leadership opportunities for themselves within the church, and not pout or lament “me too,” when they do. Do all lives matter? Yes, of course they do. But, right now we have a need to concern ourselves with the ones attached to women who have been devalued for far too long.
Women will continue to fight for equality, humanity and inclusion in the calculus of the business and leadership of the church. They will continue to fight for the church to see their womanhood as an asset rather than an annoyance.
But, in the same way my young friend and cousin made my fights their fights, we must be willing to do the same for women. We must make their fight for equality, our fight as well. All of us. Both men and women.