by Ellen Sims
On third Sundays we offer a contemplative service with guided meditations in lieu of a sermon. So I’m sharing this week a presentation I gave for Mobile’s Trialogue (a quarterly gathering of Muslims, Jews, and Christians) on July 14, 2016 on the topic of Women in the Abrahamic Traditions: A Christian Female Perspective
Ever since I was asked to share my experience of being a female Christian, I’ve been wondering how men would respond to the question “What’s it like to be a male Christian?” I doubt that would ever become a topic for one of our Trialogue gatherings. That’s because we presume the male experience is normative, even though in most churches the women outnumber the men.
My gender and my religion have so shaped my experience of the world that it is hard to see the world apart from those two identities and harder still to tease apart their influences. And despite the fact that I am now a pastor in a Christian denomination and congregation that are as gender-neutral and female-affirming as is possible at this point in human history, my religious experience began in a strongly patriarchal culture –and patriarchy still marks much of 21st century American culture.
Here’s a fact: All three Abrahamic faiths developed in patriarchal cultures where men held the power. Our scriptures were written by and for patriarchal cultures which primarily imaged God as male and in which the spokespersons for God were almost always spokesMEN. Over 1,500 years ago, 2000 years ago, over 3,000 years ago, women in the Middle East had primarily domestic, not public, responsibilities. Our sacred texts reflect the patriarchy of those times–even though we can find examples of heroic women who were prophets, queens, military heroes, and shining emblems of the faith. Scriptures also include religious teachings and laws that protected vulnerable women from injustice. The reasons patriarchal cultures developed in most major cultures can be explained sociologically, anthropologically, maybe biologically. The reason these gendered roles partially persist in many religions today has to do with the way religions image God, interpret holy scripture, and order their adherents’ common life together. A patriarchal religion is self-reinforcing. It takes centuries for non-male perspective to be heard and much longer to be heeded.
Christian faith is centered on Jesus Christ, who reached out to those on the margins and broke cultural taboos in befriending and teaching women. A woman was the first evangelist who believed and told others the good news. The early church named women like Junia and Lydia as disciples. Although we can’t classify Jesus as a modern-day “feminist,” scriptures emphasize his repeated efforts to care for the most vulnerable—which included women—and to affirm and even be corrected by women, as illustrated in the stories of the Canannite woman in the Gospel of Matthew and the Syro-Phoenecian woman in the Gospel according to Luke.
But I didn’t know any of that growing up here in Mobile as a Southern Baptist girl in the 1960s and 70s. What I knew was that the official lay leaders of our church were those elected to the board of deacons, and they were all men. The pastor of our church and all Baptist churches then were male. Women could vote in congregational meetings. Women could teach children in Sunday school and could teach other women. But men taught men.
When I started third grade, I began attending meetings of the Girls Auxiliary at my Southern Baptist Church every Wednesday after school. GAs was a Baptist-y version of the Girl Scouts where girls earned badges for memorizing scripture and preparing care packages for migrants working in Baldwin County. We heard stories of missionaries in faraway places. We even cooked foods from exotic lands to taste what real missionaries tasted there.
My brother and the others boys participated at the same time on Wednesdays in the counterpart group called Royal Ambassadors (RAs), a program to teach them to be ambassadors for Christ. They played football in the courtyard of the church. Every Wednesday. While WE memorized scripture and the names of the national officers of the Women’s Missionary Union.
The GAs had a coronation in the church one evening each summer in which the oldest teens in Girls Auxilary who’d advanced through all the steps in the program were crowned queens. The coronation began with the youngest girls, in white dresses, reciting the scriptures they’d memorized and receiving badges to signal they could move on to the next step in GAs. We all sang the GA hymn. Older girls read papers they’d written. The oldest teens, who’d completed the various steps toward coronation, processed down the center aisle of the church in long white gowns, like brides, to receive either a scepter (for the Queen with Scepter step) or a crown (for those attaining the ultimate Queen Regent title). I never got past the Princess stage. I think I wasn’t motivated by glamour. But I persisted for some years. While my brother and the other boys played football outside in the courtyard. Some of the boys in their late teen years came under the mentorship of the pastor and some of them became pastors eventually. I guess the rest became football players.
It never occurred to me that there was any other way to order the life of the church in Alabama in the 1960s. When I headed off to attend a Baptist college in Birmingham, my female Sunday school teacher said, with a knowing wink, “I predict you’re going to meet a preacher boy there to marry.”
That was not why I was going to college.
But she wasn’t all that wrong. I ended up marrying the son of a Baptist preacher. And I became a preacher. After a first career as an English teacher.
You can’t be a student or teacher of literature without learning to read critically. While retaining an appreciation for much of my Southern Baptist past, I came to read the Bible and my culture through a feminist lens. As young adults, my husband and I joined an aberrant Baptist church in Nashville that ordained women and eventually called a female as pastor. There I saw women serving in every leadership position of the church. There, just down the road from Vanderbilt Divinity School, we passed around current theology books like some congregations swap recipes.
But it was the birth of our daughter 31 years ago that really sensitized me to the ways some aspects of traditional Christianity might unintentionally limit my child. In subtle ways the language and images of Christian liturgy and leadership could suggest that women are not just different but less than men. Today I use inclusive, empowering language for humanity and varied metaphors for God, including God as mother.
I’ve been told that when I was four our pastor came to our house to go fishing with my father. I answered the door when the preacher knocked and called out to my father, “Daddy, Jesus is here!” Children make fairly literal connections between human representatives of the divine and the Divine.
When I became a mother, I wanted my little girl to see women leading equally with men and to know we can image God in a mothering role, to realize that her own body is as sacred as a male body. On Tuesday of this week my husband and I learned that our little girl, who’s expecting our first grandchild, is carrying a little girl. Our granddaughter will be named for my mother, Molly, who died this past year. My prayer for my granddaughter is that she have a deep sense of her belovedness, her boundless potential, and her responsibility to develop the fullness of who she is as gift to God’s good world. What a waste of the church’s resources it would be NOT to cultivate in my granddaughter all of her gifts.
It took me many years to hear my call to a Christian vocation as pastor over the cultural din of patriarchy. I hope my ministry at Open Table United Church of Christ is a way to turn down the static that distracts us from a sacred voice calling us ALL in loving yet challenging ways to be fully alive, fully ourselves, fully in service to God.
(I actually opened my talk with this satirical treatment of the topic on the ordination of women: