I’m, in fits and spurts, working on a larger piece of work that explores and exposes some of the falsehoods I was led to believe as a child, either implicitly or explicitly, through Christian faith formation. Here’s a short piece for a chapter tentatively titled “Women are ‘Different'” Note: this is not a finished product, nor even a finished portion, just initial thoughts.
Today, on the day when we celebrate 50 years of women’s ordination in the ELCA (and predecessor bodies), I think it’s an appropriate offering.
She sat on a stool up by the blackboard, chalk in hand, religious text-book precariously balanced on her knees.
Every day started with announcements and the invitation from the disembodied principal over the intercom to stand and face the Stars and Stripes and recite the pledge of allegiance, hand over our hearts. Then, directly after those words, hands remaining on our hearts, we’d pivot just slightly to face the “Christian flag,” with blood-red cross over blue and white background, and recite a pledge there, too:
I pledge allegiance, to the cross
Of our Lord Jesus Christ,
And to the faith,
for which it stands.
With mercy and grace for all.
We were Americans. We were Christians. We were American-Christians.
We’d take our seats and, without fail, would start the day with Religion, the foundation of our schooling in that parochial school.
She sat up at the board and we all dutifully turned to the lesson of the day: ministry.
“There are different kinds of ministers,” I remember her saying. “Some work in schools, like this one, where they teach. Some work in churches as pastors. Some are Sunday School teachers and administrators. There are different kinds of ministers.”
I remember being onboard for this part.
“Men and women can be teachers and administrators, though the Bible is clear that women shouldn’t be over men when it comes to authority,” she said looking out at us. “And only men can be pastors. Men aren’t better than women, but women are just…different.”
My eight year-old brain can’t recall all the particularities of the lesson, but I remember being stuck and struck by that phrase: “And only men can be pastors. Men aren’t better than women, but women are different.”
Don’t you love that little word, “but?” It’s the word that people use when they want to sound generous but stick to their problematic opinion, right?
Like, “Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not sexist, but…” or the ever-popular, “I’m not a racist, but…”
Don’t cough or you might miss the remark that nullifies their qualifier.
I raised my hand.
Now, I think it’s generally true that most students assume their teacher doesn’t like them, especially in these early grades. But I didn’t have to assume; I knew she didn’t like me. I knew this because she rolled her eyes every time I raised my hand.
Especially during Religion.
“But Mrs. L,” I said, “I know women pastors.”
She closed her book, sighed, and looked at me.
“I’m sure you know women who call themselves ‘pastor,'” she said, “but God’s word is clear on this: they are not pastors.”
“But…” I began, and she held up her hand.
“You come from a different faith,” she said slowly, as if I had trouble understanding the English language, “and in this class this is what we teach. Women are different. Girls cannot be pastors. They can do lots of great things! They can be teachers, and administrators, and music directors, and can serve God in all sorts of ways! But only men can be pastors.”
“…we have a women pastor…” I continued. We did. She was an intern at our church at that very moment.
“Tim,” she said, “why don’t you go out into the hall?”
That year the hall and I became good friends, and not for no reason. I was a talker, there was no question about that. And I was known to get off topic and draw and couldn’t keep my desk clean to save my life, all reasons for which the hall was an apparent remedy.
But sometimes I was sent into the hall, especially during religion class, because I couldn’t believe the things they were telling me. Or, more rightly, wouldn’t believe them.
At least I didn’t think I did…
Fast-forward to middle school, a different place and time, where I met another woman pastor, an excellent preacher, a gifted theologian. I found myself not only admiring her, but encouraged by her.
But (see? There it is…), I also found myself saying things like, “Well, I think the pastoral role is generally best suited for a man, but you’re awesome!”
Patriarchy, beloved, is like a thief in the night, stealing those perspectives that make it impotent and replacing them with dead-end thinking and misogynistic memes.
He stared up at me, grinning from ear to ear. That’s not the first thing I noticed, though.
No. The first thing I noticed was how his wife sat by his side, her face downcast, not even looking at me.
“We’re so glad you’re here, pastor,” he said, shaking my hand with vigor. “It’s been years since we’ve been here. When that woman got here we decided we couldn’t come anymore.”
I took back my hand.
“Because,” he continued, grin never failing, “we believe what the Bible says about women.”
What does the Bible say about women?
The aged prophet Elizabeth has some thoughts, as she speaks into Mary’s heart, “Blessed are you…and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
The warrior Deborah is the only one in the book of Judges with enough guts to go up against Jabin’s army. And Queen Esther is identified as being made, “for such a time as this.”
We grin so much when we feel like God aligns with our prejudices.
And his wife. I tried to engage her in the moment, but when she looked up at me all I could see was a vast nothingness in her gaze. As her husband made her culpable to his disdain for women as religious leaders, I couldn’t catch a feel for her thoughts at all.
He withstood exactly two Sundays of my preaching before leaving in a tersely worded emailed huff.
It’s amazing for me to look back at my youth and realize that, although my particular church never taught me that women can’t or shouldn’t be pastors, Christian culture imparted it upon me, anyway. My teacher even went so far as to say, “Girls can’t be pastors,” which is either an indication of the age of the students in front of her, or indicative of her thoughts on gender and roles and the diminutive nature of females.
Is this peculiar to American-Christian culture, or Christian culture in general? I’ve not made heads or tails on it, but the issues feels as connected as those two pledges were to the start of my every-adolescent-day.
And it’s amazing for me to see how many still sit in the pews of congregations belonging to denominations who have ordained women for decades, and still think it’s an aberration of the call, and not the rule.
Just look at a contemporary list of so-called “outstanding preachers,” across denominations. You’ll be hard-pressed to find one with more than one or two female preachers on there. And how many women do you know who serve large congregations? It’s abysmally small, and this is not a result of ratios, my friend.
It’s a result of structure. I mean, look at that Christian pledge I was forced to recite. “King eternal,” does not leave much room for the feminine imagination, right?
The statistics are a result of thinking “women are ‘different,'” in all the ways that phrase is unhelpful.
Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if “Jesus of Nazareth” had been “Jean of Nashville.” What if the Savior had been Jean, or Julie, and identified as female? Would Jean ever be able to be, as the so-called “Christian pledge” says, “One Savior, Queen eternal?”
Or is the word “King” above less a description of Jesus (I mean, honestly, only Pontius Pilate calls him that, and not in a flattering way), and more a description of us and our propensity to equate male with all things powerful and godly?
Hell, what if God came embodied as a woman, and we all just missed it because we were expecting a man?!
Don’t say such things too loudly in the presence of the faithful, though. They have a tendency to invite such ideas into the hall…