In February, I published a comic strip. It was a sattire project – this strip is what I imagine a conversation around gender roles might look like if the ideas we hold internally spoke to each other openly.
In this piece I would like to look for answers to two questions:
1. Why write a comic strip like Fundamentals?
2. What is a better way forward for the church?
[First Question: Why write a sattire strip like Fundamentals?]
Ian Crohn suggested if you distilled the writings of the desert fathers down to one phrase, it would be “Wake up!” Sattire overstates its point for exactly that reason. It calls to attention, shakes, says “wake up!”
I don’t have a long career of writing, but I’ve published enough to know that gender issues and politics are two of the diciest subjects. If you enter these spaces, you will probably get a lot of views, but it will get uncomfortable pretty fast.
You might get called a heretic by your pastor, asked to meet for breakfast to discuss your work and encouraged to stop. Your best friends might be encouraged to disasscoiate with you. I’ve had the privelge of each of those. What I’ve found is that these conversations tend to only happen behind closed doors. I hate awkward tension, and I don’t want to stir up strife; however, I do think there’s some truth in Gloria Steinam’s words, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
So why write a daily comic strip? Why raise a gender issue for 28 days in a row? Because we need to wake up. David Dark likes to say, we become what we’re willing to sit still for. Speaking only behind closed doors is to say; yes, there are problems, but it would cost me (or us) too much to tell the truth about them. Our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters have recently found out just how much it may cost not to say anything.
There are those (even now reading this) who simply cannot speak up. It would be their ruin if they spoke out. But for me, it’s just uncomfortable. That is something of a privelge I recognize.
[Second: What is a better way forward?]
I’m a long time fan of The Holy Post podcast (hosted by Phil Visher, the Veggie Tales guy, and Skye Jethani). They’re often criticized for holding conservatives accountable and not saying much about liberals. Their response, and I think it’s a good one, is that these are our people. Sure, there’s a heck of a lot wrong with the left wing and liberal Christians, but that isn’t the Evangelical crowd – that’s not who we rub shoulders with on Sunday. That isn’t where we come from.
After writing this piece about gender roles in the Mennonite church, I received something of the same critque from a friend: you’re not really Mennonite anymore, so why does it matter what you have to say? Another friend, a pastor, responded, yes there are problems here, but so what? What do you suggest we do? I don’t attend a Mennonite church on Sundays. But that is where I was raised and spent my childhood. Those are my people. And maybe it doesn’t matter much what I have to say, but I know there are people asking these questions, even if only behind closed doors or in closed Facebook groups. My comic strip, and the five claims below are my attempt to open the conversation. It’s one I wish I could’ve had a long time before today. I would like to propose some ideas and offer another vision.
*if you’re reading this and have no idea what any of it means, then these aren’t your people 🙂
(1.) Women must be allowed to worship in freedom
Women are gifted by God (and who would say otherwise?!) But they must be allowed to fully exercise those gifts. As it stands in many church communities, only women with certain gifts are able to use them to worship freely. We should work toward an environment where women (married or not) are empowered to work, think, teach, lead, and follow as God has so called them. We should leave behind the days where women with the gifting to lead and teach are faced with the choice of stifling their calling or walking away from their local church family.
Some men will likely feel uncomfortable and threatened (pissed off even). In the Greco-Roman world where Jesus grew up, women were seen as impure, deformed males. Yet even here, a New Testament church emerges where women host church their homes, contribute from their businesses, teach, and prophecy. If this kind of freedom could exist among an oppressive and deeply sexist culture such as first century Rome, we in 21st century America have no excuse for operating as a church family in ways that keep women afraid of fulfilling their calling. I agree that some New Testament texts about women and their roles are difficult, and I don’t know what is meant at all places. Still, I don’t think there is any excuse for a church culture where women are afraid of fulfilling their potential because it will upset men of the church.
Many will agree with me here, but they will balk at action. They’ll take the stance of thosed who said in hushed tones that all people were equal but opposed integration because everyone else isn’t ready for it yet. I guess I’m tired of that kind of balking. I’m tired of women having to be afraid of upsetting men, of hestitantly asking permission to teach Sunday school or to say a few words between songs lest they step out of line.
(2.) We must share the load and the reward
I demonstrated at length in a piece how in conservative church communities there is often the desire to remain separate from secular culture in visible ways (like clothing). If a church sees this as a good goal, men and women must share in this together. What often happnes is that men put this responsibilty soley on women. While women wear clothes that distinguish them from “the world,” such as dresses, skirts, head coverings, etc., men enjoy the comfort of blending in. Men are permitted to dress exactly like those outside the church while women alone bear the responsibility of maintaining the difference. Either the goal of dressing to separate is abolished, or men must participate. In this way, I think the Amish community holds a better standard – men and women share the task. Men wear suspenders and straw hats so they too are separate from the world. I think the reason why we separate this task and give it to women is because of the following point below.
(3.) We must resist the sexualization of women’s bodies
The primary resistance to my position above will undoubtedly be “modesty.” In the name of modesty, women are asked to hide their bodies. Cape dresses are designed to de-form the female body. Why? So that it doesn’t serve as a temptation to men. It is because we have so sexualized the bodies of our sisters that we require them to design special clothes to hide their form. I am not an expert in this area, but I could go on. Perhaps it’s sufficient to say we should learn from what we’ve done: by requiring women to go above and beyond to hide their bodies (never wear hair down, never wear legged pants, never show belly/back even when swimming), we have created the reality where these things are “sexy.”
Men of conservative churches often sexualize women’s bodies (and are taught to do so from a young age). If you don’t believe me, read a book like Every Young Man’s Battle where women are described as temptations to male purity and the sastisfaction to men’s lust. Ironically, conservative Christianity often sexualizes women’s bodies even in ways secular culture does not. I have atteneded exactly three college/universities, and trust me when I say no one is blushing over seeing someone’s knees. Seeing a girl’s kneecaps or, God forbid, stomach is only percieved as “immodest” or “sexy” if we’ve created an environment where it’s forbidden. Hypermodesty creates the sexualization of women’s bodies. To get beyond this would require recongnizing the female form as God-given and something that neither men nor women need to be ashamed of. The requirments imposed by so many churches have no scriptural basis, but they have huge implications about how boys are taught to view girls, and how women are told to view themselves.
(4.) Women must be invited into decision making spaces
While it may be argued from some scriptures that women are not permitted to serve as a lead pastor, there is no legitamate scriptural precident for excluding women from committees, boards, or other gatherings of decision making. In churches where decisions are made by casting votes, women must be invited to participate in day to day decisions. Similarly, in deciding church will require, women must be part of the conversation. It is simply inexcusable that in many churches decisions about what women will do/wear do not even include women! The result is not husbands leading their wives in a familial setting. The result is men being more important than women. In conversations about finances, the vision of the church, ministry strategies, mission boards, church policy, teaching plans, etc., women must be invited to lend their gifts.
We must work toward what Katie Funk-Weibe calls an engendered story. I’m reminded of the words of the Psalmist,
Listen, daughter and pay careful attention: Forget your people and your father’s house. Let the king be enthralled by your beauty; honor him, for he is your Lord. (Psalm 45: 10-11).
(5.) Women must be allowd to live as to the Lord and not to men.
For too long, to be faithful has meant to live up to the measuring rod laid out by men of the church. Women mustbe allowed to set their eyes higher, on pleasing their Lord. Their worth, their bodies, their gifts, their place – these do not belong to the men of the church. They are holy and to be offered to their true, good king.
As discussed, if you want to get in trouble, raise gender issues. And after reading, some may say: He has a point, but I’m not ready to step on any toes.
It’s is an important issue, but we’ve got to go slow – we’ve got to avoid upsetting people.
This just isn’t a hill I’m willing to die on.
On the other hand, maybe you agree with me – this is a hill worth dying on. This is half the church we’re talking about. This is about who our sisters and daughters and mothers are told they’re supposed to be. For a long time, I was too afraid to say anything. I figured if this is the way things are, there must be a good reason. Or even if it isn’t ideal, it isn’t so bad. Or if it is bad, it isn’t that bad for me.
I guess I’m done with all those answers. This is not a tertiary issue. I’d say it’s a fundamental.
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