I admit it: I’m tired. Tired of the perennial discussions about the things women aren’t allowed to do, or what a “real man” or “real woman” looks like, discussions that often invoke the descriptor “Biblical” as a way of trying to sanctify the speaker’s opinion. Listening to claims from John Piper’s Desiring God Pastor’s Conference that God gave Christianity “a masculine feel,” or that the music in a church should be led almost exclusively by a male – echoing concerns I heard raised several years ago by members of the PCA denomination after Keith and Kristyn Getty led the music for their annual meeting, and were criticized by some for the fact that a woman was allowed to hold a microphone and lead men in singing – I quickly realize that I no longer have any energy to debate those who hold to that position. Let them argue until the end of time. I have no doubt they will, convinced as they are that they represent God.
These conversations, of course, are not new. Most of the rhetoric I hear today is indistinguishable from the way my great grandfather, the Fundamentalist evangelist and author John R. Rice, talked about these issues. His book Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives and Women Preachers, written in 1941 and perhaps his best-known title, carried this subtitle: Significant questions for honest Christian women settled by the Word of God – making it clear that anyone who disagreed with him wasn’t honest and certainly didn’t care about the Bible, allegations that are very much a part of the rhetoric today.
“The pulpit is a place for the strongest men that we have,” he wrote, building his argument. “The preacher in the pulpit should speak with an authority that is absolutely forbidden a woman to exercise.” In a sermon Rice preached on the 7th of December, 1964, he claimed that “man is in God’s image in a sense that women are not,” and so, “a man is nearer like God than a woman.”
As an argument against this way of thinking, this kind of idolatry, I turn to the work of Walter Brueggemann, who, in an interview last year with Krista Tippett for On Being, explained the reason for the abundance of metaphors we find for God in the scriptures this way: “The Biblical defense against idolatry is plural metaphors. If you reduce the metaphors too much, you will end with an idol. So more metaphors gives more access to God, and one can work one metaphor for a while, but you can’t treat that is though that’s the last word – you’ve got to move, and have another, and another.”
In that same sermon by John R. Rice, later published in the booklet “For Men and Women,” in 1979, by his Sword of the Lord Publishers, he expands on his argument about the proper place for women:
“God bless good women. I am not blaming them. I am blaming you sissy-men, you panty-waists who have no conviction, no backbone, no character, no principle, no standards. You don’t live for God. You don’t have the convictions necessary to live for God. You don’t stand. You don’t have manhood enough. What we need these days in the matter of religion is godly men to take the place God assigned them in the church. Men, do you see how serious is your responsibility? If God is going to win this country, He must do it through men. It is a strange thing that people have got more sense in matters of government and business than in matters of religion. We would not elect a woman president, nor follow a woman in business, but we leave church work to the women! No wonder the Bible said, “The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8).
If one cares to try and place this kind of thinking in an historical context, I recommend Margaret Lamberts Bendroth’s Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present, as a good starting point. In it, she argues, in part, that “Dispensational premillennialism embedded the principle of masculine leadership and feminine subordination in salvation history itself and, perhaps more important, uplifted order as the highest principle of Christian life and thought.” Her thoughts and historical analysis are worth taking into consideration.
But as I said at the start, I’m tired. I’d prefer to focus on the good that is being done today, rather than rehash old arguments. To that end, let me turn your attention to another book, one that has some connection to this topic.
There are many reasons to commend Amy Frykholm’s new book, See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity, the exquisite writing and tender way she gives voice to stories from people who have been wounded by their childhood beliefs among them. The book is organized, rather brilliantly, I think, into three parts: Wilderness, Incarnation, and Resurrection, with Amy sharing three personal stories she has been told in each part, and ending with her conclusion, “An Alternative Ethic.”
I hope to devote more time in another blog post to some of the other stories she tells, but for now, I want to focus on what my reaction was to reaching the end of the book, particularly the last two stories. I happened to first read these stories the same week another evangelical pastor ignited a discussion after declaring that women are not allowed to take part in the public reading of scripture in a church service, because that would fall under the banner of teaching.
After reading the story Frykholm tells of Genevieve, a former prostitute rescued from the destructive path she was on through the work of Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest here in Nashville, and the last story, that of Becca herself, recounting how the sexual abuse she experienced in her childhood at the hands of a church leader shaped her and informs her ministry today, I found myself challenged by a reflection from Amy, after Becca asked her what she was giving back, in exchange for being told all these stories. “While seeking our own healing is good and necessary work,” she writes, “there is much more to be done. In concrete and tangible ways, we must be extending hospitality and healing to others. Telling stories is wonderful, but working to heal the rift in our church and our society that daily damages precious human beings is better.” This is work that requires all of us, male and female, and leaves no room for petty arguments about who is allowed to do what. God is made manifest in our actions, in our caring for the least of these, the broken and hurting around us, without regard for the sex of the one extending a helping hand.
When I reached the end of Amy Frykholm’s book, moved by the work that Becca Stevens is doing, I resolved that, in the future, every time I hear another pastor claiming that Christianity has a God-given masculine feel, or opining about women staying silent and knowing their place, however explicitly they articulate those thoughts, I will make a donation to an organization like the one Becca runs (Magdalene/Thistle Farms), helping women like her to live out their God-given calling.
This, at least, is a step in the right direction.