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I grew up in an Assemblies of God church, a denomination of Christianity. Everywhere I looked, there was a man in leadership. A white man. A married white man with a supportive wife. And while there was never an official rule about women being — or not being — in leadership, American culture has sadly demonstrated time and time again that a rule doesn’t need to be official for it to be ‘rule.’
One thing I must acknowledge is that I approach church with confirmation bias: I expect present experiences to play out in a certain way because of how things have played out in the past. Confirmation bias is, in and of itself, not a bad thing. Confirmation bias enables you to bake a cake: you expect the present cake to turn out a certain way because of the cake you made in the past. However, when I apply that to the church, it’s problematic.
In short, my church confirmation bias means I expect the church to cater to me because of my male-ness.
I felt safe growing up in church because for me as a white, cisgender male, the church has always been a safe place. The church has always been a place where I could make friends, ask questions about faith and engage in whatever ministry I wanted. There was never anything that was off-limits to me. But that’s not been the case for everyone else.
There’ve been women who’ve walked with God, who’ve chosen a life of faith and wanted to pursue the calling they believe God’s given them, only to face opposition from men in leadership. The obstacles they face don’t come from people outside the church, but from men inside the church.
I look at the list of American megachurches (2,000 or more attendants) and all the pastors are male. Now, I personally don’t believe that a large congregation at a megachurch equates to success. After all, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” made over a billion dollars worldwide, and that movie was hot garbage.
However, it feels like we have to acknowledge the old framework before we can break it: The old framework is that a successful church is a large church, and successful churches are run by men. I don’t believe either of those previous statements are true. We have expand our imaginations in regards to both leadership and to the size of a church.
The Western Church has a preoccupation with numbers. It’s surrounded by capitalist ideas, and it makes sense that it’s been influenced by that corporate, “bigger is better” mindset. We’re falsely defining “Success” by how many people are within the walls of the church. Again, numbers are not an absolute marker of success. For example, a church could have ten thousand unaffected, disconnected people. And in contrast, another church could consist of fifty connected, loving, apprentices of Christ, and I’d argue that the church of fifty is healthier.
Currently, I attend a church that has an overwhelming number of thoughtful, fervent, loving women of God. However, the church I attend has only one female pastor on staff, and that’s about seven too few. The women have had less handed to them in regards to opportunities in church. If anything, it feels like they’ve had more taken from them. The women in the church have had to choose and fight for their faith more often than I’ve had to because they’ve experienced men—claiming to be acting on behalf of God—denying them opportunities to serve, speak and lead.
Furthermore, I have to also acknowledge that the predominant nomenclature of God as ‘Father’ affects people’s perceptions of God, as well as whether or not they potentially see themselves as part of the church. For example, to imagine God as female takes work for me because I was not raised to do so. I was raised to think of God as masculine, as a warrior who brought judgment to the earth. I was not raised to think of God as affectionate, and I was certainly not raised to ever associate ‘soft’ ideas of affection with ‘hard’ ideas of masculinity.
I recently read Stone for a Pillow, a devotional book by Madeline L’Engle, one of the greatest writers in my opinion, In the book, she refers to another writing where she referred to God as ‘el’, which is the first name the Hebrew people used for God, as opposed to any she/him/they pronoun.”I do not find it comfortable,” she said, “to limit God to the current sexual connotations and restrictions of the personal pronoun. Calling God She is just as sexist and limiting as calling God He.”
What’s required, writes L’Engle, is a broader imagination when it comes to God. In her mind, this is the God who made black holes and the ever-expanding cosmos, and we ought to treat God with the proper reverence and wonder. “In a universe which is becoming more and more varied as we discover more of the glories of the macrocosm and the infinite variety of the microcosm (are stars confined by gender? or quarks?), this preoccupation with God’s sex seems amazingly primitive. But then, I suspect that we are still a pretty primitive people.”
Lastly, here’s one more quote from L’Engle, from her book The Irrational Season:
One of the most pusillanimous things we of the female sex have done throughout the centuries is to have allowed the male sex to assume that mankind is masculine. It is not. It takes both male and female to make the image of God. The proper understanding of mankind is that it is only a poor, broken thing if either male or female is excluded.
I had to look up what ‘pusillanimous’ means. It means ‘showing a lack of courage or determination.’ Is that how we as a church want to be defined? If we truly believe in the church as the body of Christ, why would we intentionally not use half our body? Why would we pretend our entire right side didn’t exist? It takes everyone to make the image of God.
Asking “Is God sexist?” is such an important question. I would posit that God’s not sexist, but God’s followers certainly have been, and in some cases still are. I would put forth the idea that we who’ve explicitly and implicitly contributed to patriarchal systems in the Western Christian Church have much to lament. We must demonstrate penitence for that which we’ve done, and that which we’ve left undone.
I don’t believe God is sexist. I believe God cares for and speaks to everyone equally. I think we as a church have been sexist. I’ve been sexist. Biased. In my effort to pursue a new vision of what the church could look and sound like, I have to assess and break through old frameworks of how it was. I have to pray for God to give me theological and emotional imagination as it pertains to pursuing and enabling a church not bound by old sexist and misogynist models. Our past can’t be our future. The beautiful thing is that it doesn’t have to be.
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