The Dilemma of a Certain Pilgrim: To Stay or Leave the Church

It is an uphill battle being an evangelical and a gender egalitarian. As an evangelical I believe Scripture is authoritative. As an egalitarian, I hold that the full equality of women and men is not a concession to be cleverly wrestled from Scripture, but the goal toward which its inspired contents actually point.

Why is the struggle for equality still so difficult? Lots of reasons, but one of them may be this. In most conservative evangelical churches, and in their largest theological society (the membership of which is about ninety-eight percent male), the “gender issue” is essentially an exegetical debate, an intellectual exercise, an occasion for sparring. There is not a lot of visceral pain, and there are never any tears. The bombs are dropped from high altitude.

But it’s a different experience at ground level where stuff detonates. I wonder if some of my conservative colleagues have ever really, deeply felt the kind of pain expressed by a young woman (let’s call her June) who wrote to me just this week. She is someone who loves Jesus, and really wants to stay involved in organized Christianity, but she faces a dilemma. Here are some excerpts:

“As a thirteen year old I walked out of my uncle’s sermons so full of anger that tears ran down my face. How dare he tell me to be submissive! He was quoting the very same passages [commonly cited in support of gender hierarchy]. He was also the same fellow who coldly disowned my mom when she divorced my father, who was bringing his family into deep darkness. It wasn’t the only time that I quietly and vehemently exited church. To a certain degree, my mom has been an understanding ear, but I have tried to keep the depths of my anger under wraps. Sometimes I have baffled myself at sudden reactionary outbursts.

“A few years ago, I sat outside my friend’s house in the car, on the phone with my mom. ‘Why the hell isn’t God a she too?!’

“My mom replied with the typical response, ‘Well God is neither male nor female.’

“‘Mom–the church calls God Father. How can I not see God as a man? He. Him. Jesus. Father. Lord. All of these pronouns attribute maleness to God.’

“Blankly she said, ‘Well . . . it’s never really bothered me that much.’

“Most of my strong-willed and highly intelligent non-Christian female friends shudder at Christianity. ‘How can you believe, June, after what Paul said?’ I have heard enough debates around what the Apostle Paul says to personally be assuaged to attribute it to contextual issues, but if thoughtful women are turned off by Christianity because of the likes of the church . . . .

“Sometimes I feel a little crazy. How long I have camped on the outskirts of Christianity! I don’t even know if that is the correct way to put it, because the core of my struggle is with the church. Well, maybe it’s the Bible too. As my sister said of the Bible recently, ‘It’s so old!’ I do find much solace in the Bible. Much substance and guidance, but I have also thrown it across the room in disgust. I recognize that my disgust comes from my own interpretations, which are rooted in a personal family history of male domination and ingrained approaches to Scripture.

“Some of my female heroes have been writers- brilliant minds, struggling with Christianity. For instance, Annie Dillard, of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is too smart for the Christian hullabaloo. But she seems to have remained on the outskirts, not fully committing herself to God life. You see, that’s the thing! I don’t want to live in-between, and half-hearted, and almost. I want to live a committed life or I don’t know . . . . I just hate to think of the rest of my life as a battle with my beliefs, wanting to live a devoted life, but not being able to because of my understanding of the community that I cannot live without will not accept the possibility of me as an equal leader.

“I don’t mean that I literally want to be a teacher or pastor, but the fact that I could not be turns me off from the very community that I need in order to survive as a follower. It’s beyond the church though . . . . Isn’t my belief in God to be my sword, my comfort, and my teacher?

“So what am I to do? I want to work this out! I have often thought of going to seminary, so that I might dismantle the ingrained understandings of scripture and expand my understanding through knowledge of surrounding history, interpretive techniques, and simply giving the time to foster this dying field. Going back to school would allow me the time to do this.

“But to what end? I do not see myself as a pastor. Truly, these issues run deep in me, and are not going away. This is a serious dilemma. Do you have any ideas for me?”

This is June being real, and she ends with a question. It seems to me that no one has the right to stab some Pauline texts with a meaty finger here until they have first felt holy outrage at the church’s track record, experienced a deep pang in their heart, and felt tears of remorse well up in their eyes. Job’s comforters were at their best when they listened and empathized. And Jesus was known to weep first before he set about correcting error and solving people’s problems.

[Comments are welcome, but please keep them to 250 words max]

12 Responses to The Dilemma of a Certain Pilgrim: To Stay or Leave the Church

  1. Joel Fieri July 12, 2008 at 12:34 am #

    Once again I feel the need to voice an opposing opinion. Questions – If the female wounds are so deep and so many bombs have been dropped (or whatever the metaphor) then why is church life dominated by women? Are Dr. Scorgie and the above postors unaware of the disappearance of men in today’s churches? The modern, feminized church is driving men away in droves. Look around at your next worship service. The statistics are grim; 60% or more of worship attendees are women, 25% of married women worship without their husbands, mid-week activity participation is 70-80% female, most church employees are female (with the exception of pastoral staffs), not to mention the prevailing worship atmosphere in evangelical churches emphasizing emotionally based praise songs and performances designed to appeal to women. And even though males dominate the clergy, any pastor knows that it is women who drive ministry, so their ministry strategies are designed accordingly.

    An entire ministry has emerged around the books (and concepts of) “Wild at Heart” and “Why Men Hate Going to Church”. Basically, Jesus sought out, discipled and commissioned men, and without men, churches will die or fade to irrelevance. Both men and women are blessed when men feel engaged in their churches.
    Women reading this would be well advised to take Esther Schaeffer’s post above. Specifically “It matters little to me that I might not be given a title or a privilege. I just want to serve Him who has done so much for me.”

  2. Kim Olstad June 17, 2008 at 9:41 pm #

    Speaking as someone who was raised in a churchbody that does not allow women in pastoral leadership, I can relate to “June’s” frustration. (I am no longer in any way affiliated with that group.)

    While it would not be stated in that particular denomination that women are “worth” less because this role is not available to them, it is certainly a perception that ever so subtly runs deep and becomes pervasive. In fact it becomes much more than a simple exclusion from particular functions: the message becomes for young men and young women that women have less intrinsic value all around.

    Certainly there are opportunities to serve in that atmosphere if one is willing to accept the role of “less than”.

    It has taken me years to understand the damage caused by this demeaning stance within my own soul.

  3. Dawn Lindholm May 29, 2008 at 3:44 am #

    “June” is not an individual of one but of a massive group of followers. I am researching women who have graduated from seminaries and how the church has/has not embraced them. It is a heart-breaking project.

    Sue Monk Kidd has written about her spiritual journey away from Christianity. Many in the evangelical camp shout warnings to stay away from her writings. But she is asking the questions a lot of women are asking. And if the church continues to ignore the questions there will continue to be an exodus of women leaving church. These are not only Gen X or Millennialists, these are boomers!

    The soul wounds are deep.

    I struggle to stay within the church. I struggle to encourage others to stay. I am beginning to believe that the insitutional church that is in buildings on Sundays are not hospitible “sanctuaries” for the soul of many women. Could it be that it is a healthy faith that calls us outside anything that looks and feels like a corporation with secular power struggles?

    As my husband says repetatively, “It is all about power. Those that have it want to keep it.” Jesus came with a type of power that reached out to the marginalized, the broken and the sick. Jesus touched the soul wounds of women in the 1sr century… and he continues to do so today. Despite what organized church does to them.

    I live on the margins of “church”, but isn’t that where Jesus had and continues to have the greatest impact?

  4. Taeler Morgan May 15, 2008 at 4:13 pm #

    You are spot on in your assessment of damage being done with disregard for the pain caused and that is why it is important to tell the stories of women like June. Not as an act of dredging up bitterness, but in recognition of the fact that women are still limited in their ability to serve God’s church to “the best of their ability” (that being the full use of whatever gifts God has given you). Instead they are asked to serve the church only to the extent that some other person thinks they ought to have been gifted in the first place.

    The harsh reality is that, even in denominations where women are fully ordained (like the PCUSA), I have still walked into women’s bible studies only to be told that my husband is the CEO of our partnership and my “job” is to help implement his decisions. This contradiction is what frightens me most. The idea that our young women are being taught by the secular world that they can use any and all of their gifts to be an Officer, President, even CEO, but they are asked to conceal or disregard their God-given gifts once they enter the “sanctuary” of the church. Do we really want women to have to fake-it just to go to church? That kind of call for inauthenticity is precisely why Gen X and the Millennials are making their own Exodus –from the church.

    Healing happens after an illness is diagnosed. Will we allow ourselves to bleed into anemia just to avoid admitting we are wounded?

  5. Scott Wildey May 12, 2008 at 10:47 pm #

    Thanks for writing this.

    I also wanted to say that I think the metaphor of “bomb dropping” at high altitude is an excellent word picture that I will probably borrow 🙂

  6. Esther Schaeffer May 12, 2008 at 3:15 pm #

    I read with interest your article and the comments. I wonder why no women have responded? I do not think that egality will ever be reached until heaven. As much as we hear Christ’s words about the greatest ones being the ones who serve, it is seldom played out in our churches. But I love Christ’s church. With all of its problems and sin and misunderstandings. And I will serve His church to the best of my ability. I have many opportunities to serve and no limit to what I am allowed to do, except as I limit myself in the role of service to which the Lord has called me. I often am baffled at women who say that they feel stiffled in the church and limited in what they can do. A person willing to serve will never lack opportunity. It matters little to me whether I am before a congregation of a thousand or a primary Sunday School class of five. It matters little to me that I might not be given a title or a privilege. I just want to serve Him who has done so much for me. I also love the Word of God. I don’t always understand it, but what a comfort it is to me, a guide, a shield, a refuge. I have seen the power of God’s Word at work as I have taught it in many different contexts. It repeatedly calls me to a life of humble service within the body of Christ. It is a call for all of us whether male or female. May the Lord help each of us serve faithfully together, with unity of heart and purpose, encouraging each other with the gifts that Christ has given us, to bring many into the Kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

  7. brian tallamn May 8, 2008 at 3:41 pm #

    I have had similar experiences with folks when they come across the teaching of Scripture that “God…by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain[s] whatsoever comes to pass…” They cry and a cut to the heart as they lay that teaching over the traumatic personal experiences which have marked their life. They ask questions like: Does that include my rape? Does that include my miscarriage? Does that include the death of my wife/husband? Does that include my comma and subsequent loss of voice? [All real questions, I assure you]. But the comforting answer of Scripture is not that God was sleeping, but that he never relinquished control for a second. In other words, comfort comes by faith and a renewed mind. Job’s friends were at their best when they listened, but God was at his best when he spoke. He has spoken on this issue and we need not be embarrassed at what he has said. “Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain; God is his own interpreter and he will make it plain.”

  8. Ken Badley May 8, 2008 at 1:46 pm #

    You give a quite powerful image of bombs dropped from on high by individuals who don’t see the damage on the ground.

    My own movement toward egalitarian thinking arose partly because God had so clearly given my own wife such gifts in understanding and teaching Scripture and in preaching. She does those things far better than do I, with more love for God, and with far stronger desire to search Scripture to hear God’s voice. To what other source could I attribute these gifts and desires than to God?

    Long after I encountered this living example though, I started to notice that many of those most adamant about enforcing those passages of Scripture which at first blush seem to limit women’s place seemed to ignore other whole swaths of Scripture without even blinking. I don’t refer here to the cavalier dismissal of the shellfish prohibition, but of major Biblical motifs such as caring for the poor or creation stewardship. How we do stand above the Word, declaring that this part (wearing tassels on our garments!!) is culturally conditioned while this other part — about women — is acontextual and applies at all times and in all places.

  9. Richard Pierard May 8, 2008 at 5:16 am #

    Thanks, Glen, for speaking out. My problem is with the concept of authority. When exercised by anyone, it almost certainly ends up being abusive. I wish we Christians could start being more like Christ, who taught us so much about love and humility. The danger of authoritarianism is amply demonstrated by the treatment our sister “June” received at the hands of “complementarians”. They are rapidly slipping into heresy by teaching subordination of Christ to the Father as the model of a wife’s submission to her husband. That is neo-Arianism if i have ever seen it. “June,” rest assured that there are many of us out there who feel that what has been done to you in the name of Christ is reprehensible. You are my equal in all ways, and God may call you even to preach his word, and I would recognize that right to exercise your gifts in this mannner.

  10. Bert McBride May 8, 2008 at 3:18 am #

    Glen, What is a country house painter doing writing theology? You make good points nevertheless. No matter which side we are on we have to take our stand with love, and if possible, empathy. It is true that authoritarian rigid fathers and elders can distort our concept of God, but that does not give us liberty to say therefore a scriptural principle can be set aside.
    I am struck by these phrases in your story: “Strong-willed and highly intelligent”, “It’s so old”, “too smart for the Christian “hullabaloo”. Who chose the names for God? The Spirit “itself”?

    I chaired the CMA Canada Board of Directors as we wrestled through this. I finally had to accept that there are intelligent, strong-willed, committed and good people on both sides. We have to respect each other and not call one side radical nor the other dinosaurs.

  11. Terry Tiessen May 7, 2008 at 9:38 pm #

    Sobering words, Glen. I hear you brother. As a puzzled complementarian, I have learned to step very softly when speaking about the complementarianism that I hear in Scripture at this point in my journey. I have learned to expect that in every theology course I teach these days there will be women who have been hurt by (often unintentionally) abusive male authority figures in their home and church. There will be students who feel God calling them to pastoral ministry and even some who are engaged in it already. I try to encourage them to speak frankly and I feel it my obligation to be clear about my own reading of Scripture. But, as on other issues where significant disagreement exists within the church (e.g. monergism/synergism) I try not to be triumphalistic. A year from now, I may be an egalitarian or an Arminian. I want to keep my mind and heart to the Spirit’s ongoing teaching as I read and converse about God’s Word.

    Thank you for reminding us about how important this is. We are not just dealing with exegetical and theological theory here. We are talking about matters fundamental to our human being as creatures in God’s image, either male or female.

  12. Bill Steinwedell May 7, 2008 at 9:16 pm #

    First of all, Dr. Scorgie, thanks for having a blog like this. I love your story, and your telling of it. Your questions have always made me think.

    I would first suggest to discuss this issue there is the context of the idea of hierarchy in the first place. There is no doubt the idea of different parts in our own bodies, as well as our ‘head’ being on top of our shoulders. At least to me there is little doubt of the concept of hierarchy in general common sense life (government and population), in families (parents and children), in schools (teachers and students), etc. There is also little doubt that Jesus is our head.

    Yet he washes our feet! The greatest among us, shall be the servant of all. And Jesus certainly prayed for our unity to be with the father as his unity was. So in reality, context of Scripture, and common sense there is hierarchy as well as unity, different parts, without differentiation as to importance.

    Maybe the concept cannot be right without God’s transcendent power, his Kingdom comes into our marriages and relationships, love which does not break even the bruised reed, washing one another’s feet!