And so I come to the broader topic of women...a topic that is fraught with emotion and politics and theology and the age old battle of the genders. As a Christian, it's not considered acceptable to call oneself a feminist (at least that is the common perception, although not applicable to all within the faith). There are times where I have carried the label proudly. There are other times when I have struggled to find an alternate word, an alternate label that will have less tendency to send people around me running for the hills. I wrote a post on feminism several years ago (in a long abandoned blog). You can read it here. I think that age, experience, and a lot of travel in between the writing of that post and today have perhaps nuanced my opinions on this matter, but it is still a good foundational commentary on why I still call myself a feminist in Christian circles.
Living in the Middle East for two years, these issues were a part of daily life. Whereas the question of women's rights has become more subtle in America, it hovered like a giant pink elephant sulking in the corner during my time in the Arab world. I saw it on the faces of women at the shelter where I volunteered- abused domestic workers who had fled from physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers. I saw it in the culture, the head coverings, the difficulty that many female students faced if they wanted to pursue their studies outside the country, the stories of abuse when women are seen as property, and my own experience of harassment in public. I also saw it in the triumph and excitement as four women were elected as members of parliament- the first women in Kuwait to be elected as MPs. In the Middle East, the issue of women is still a whisper...there are a few who dare to speak loudly, but they are the exception.
In coming back to America, my first few weeks were filled with the wonder of being able to walk around my neighborhood at night without whistles and yells and cars following me. I went shopping and actually bought clothes that were sleeveless and lower-cut. I looked men in the eyes and didn't worry that the eye contact would lead to problems later. I was back in the land of equality! And then I started to notice the subtleties of gender, especially in Christian circles. I started looking for a church, and as I read through their sets of beliefs, I stumbled across items like this:
Jesus is the Shepherd of his Church and he has called, qualified, and gifted certain men to imitate Him in the delegated task of caring, guiding, and teaching His people.
Women play a vital role in the life of the church, but in keeping with God’s created design they are not permitted “to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12 ESV). Leadership in the church is male.
(Note that aside from this particular issue, the church whose beliefs include these statements is a wonderful community of Christ-followers and might become my church home, if I can reconcile this particular road block.)
I started visiting churches, and noticed how I could go an entire service and not see a woman on stage. Women could run the child care, could sometimes be part of the worship band (although rarely the leader), could be commissioned as a missionary; but at no point did a woman stand up to lead a part of the service. It is subtle, but it is there. When I go up to receive communion, I receive it from a man. There's nothing wrong with that, but am I really supposed to believe that if a woman handed me the bread and the cup in remembrance of Christ, it would be a sin? I cannot believe that. In Christian circles, we still live in a man's world. And if what we practice at home (read: in the church) is a message of inequality and starkly separated gender roles, then how can we presume to be the hands and feet of Jesus to a world full of women who have been neglected and abused, simply because they are women?
I do not presume to have an answer for all my questions. I wish there was a simple way to reconcile christianity and my questions about femininity. I see a stark contrast between the American church and much of the worldwide church. In America, I see men "leading" because they can. They have the power. In the worldwide church, I see women standing in the gap- leading in so many places where there are simply no men qualified to lead. I see women going into the world by the thousands- stepping out in faith to be the hands and feet and mouth of the church. I see women who are amongst the wisest and smartest theologians I have ever met, but who cannot stand up within a non-liberal evangelical church and teach what God has shown them. And for myself, a woman who is not gifted in children's ministry, I find myself wanting to participate in a church but having no easy outlet for my giftings of leadership and teaching.
Simply writing these thoughts has started my mind spinning...but I think this post is already long enough. Please feel free to comment, and perhaps that will get me working on a follow-up post. This is simply an introduction to my questions and struggles as they pertain to this issue. And remember, if you comment, be kind! I am not trying to start a gender war...I just think these are questions that need to be talked about. Out loud. In the context of our faith.