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.

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