If My Body is Too Dangerous, Maybe Your Gospel is Too Small | CBE International

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If My Body is Too Dangerous, Maybe Your Gospel is Too Small

On November 20, 2018

Editor's Note: This is one of our Top 20 winners from the 2018 CBE Writing Contest. Enjoy!

I propped up the corners of my mouth in a smile when I saw the elder’s wife weaving towards me after Sunday service. Although I’d been attending the church for over a year, she’d never before attempted conversation. I was a youth leader and she had teenagers who weren’t allowed to participate, one of a few signals I’d received that she might not approve of me. Immediately, I was conscious of the new ring in my nose.

We didn’t have a policy on piercings, but I’d been asked to reinforce a dress code for the girls on discipleship training school or short term mission trips in the past. Shorts must not be too short. Tank straps must not be “spaghetti.” Midriffs must not be bared. I suspected that as a leader I might be held to an even “higher standard.” I could feel the color rising on my face.

“Rachel, can I talk to you about something?” she called as my stomach began to churn.

“Sure!” I chirped, my voice joining the list of body parts that betrayed me.

I don’t recall her exact words, and I don’t remember getting a chance to respond. She launched into an explanation of how I’d become a “distraction” to her son. She directed me to where her ten year-old sat several rows ahead of me, hands folded neatly in his lap. I’d never really registered his presence, let alone noticed him looking my direction. His mother went on, telling me her son’s thoughts towards me were “confused.” She needed me to reconsider my clothing choices. Angling her chin towards my ankle-length denim skirt, she inquired meaningfully, “Do you see where those seams point?”

At first, I didn’t understand. Her daughters regularly wore long jean skirts. But then it clicked. Mine had been reconstructed from a pair of jeans, the legs torn open and a fabric panel stitched between to convert it to a skirt. The material formed an upside-down “v” which, in her opinion, lured her son’s eyes, and apparently his thoughts, towards my crotch.

Openly crying, I couldn’t think of what to say except, “I am so sorry… I had no idea.”

This was my first and last significant conversation with the elder’s wife. As she left, I became aware of other (mostly older) women around me, who overheard our conversation. One woman patted me reassuringly on the shoulder. Conscious of the melting mix of snot and tears on my inflamed face, I took the quickest route out. I wished I could disappear and never come back to that “sanctuary” again.

Now, nearly forty, I can identify that feeling as shame, also known as “the hiding emotion.” In talking to other women who experienced similar in their churches, I’m most struck by our common sense of feeling erased. A woman’s acceptability depended on covering parts of herself, both literally and in a more abstract sense. Before even entering a room to do ministry, we were made to wonder if the presence of our female bodies would interrupt what God was doing. Would it distract? Would it confuse? Might it cause men or, in this case, young boys, to be led astray? But the erasure went far beyond our bodies.

“Your contributions are welcome,” church leadership assured us as they recruited us for children’s ministry or hospitality work. Women could teach, just not adult men. We could offer “testimony” from the front, just not preaching. Despite all the just-not’s, women were some of the most active members of the church. Time marched on. And when the church’s vision and ministry floundered, women offered their talents and ideas. In return, we received the cognitive equivalent of the old, purity culture side-hug; they gave us a nice pat on the shoulder but never fully embraced.

People began wondering exactly what was happening behind the locked door of the plane’s cockpit. It came to light that certain elders considered it spiritually dangerous for a woman to be present in the room while decisions were being made. It was never just our bodies that were suspect.

Many of us began to question a theology which asked women to bury their talents or even disappear altogether from certain elements of church life, especially when it was clear that our talents were desperately needed. Questioners were labelled “rebellious” and the elders and those who agreed with them left. Those of us who remained began re-building.

Fast forward to Christmas season, we had new pastors and new leadership. I was asked to give a sermon on how Mary might have felt at the birth of Christ. Studying to prepare, I learned religious people during Jesus’ time were also concerned about female bodies in ministry spaces. Women were considered unclean during their monthly cycle and after childbirth. By religious law, after Mary delivered a boy, she had to wait forty days before she could enter the sanctuary where God’s presence dwelled.

But, of course, Christ’s birth was revolutionary. Despite religious laws, Jesus—God and man—dwelled not just near but inside of Mary. He wasn’t afraid of her body or whether it might interfere with his ministry. Apparently, he wasn’t afraid of her ideas either, since we’re told in Luke 2:51 that Jesus subjected himself (other translations say “submitted” or “was obedient”) to this woman as her child.

Mary was the first to feel the Messiah’s physical presence in this world, the tiny kicks and hiccups of Jesus. They shared nutrition and oxygen. God-in-flesh passed through a woman’s body onto the earth and she nourished his body with hers through breastfeeding. This intimacy between God and woman would have seemed audacious. But between Jesus and Mary it wasn’t just appropriate, it was transcendent; a picture of the gospel, “God with us.”

In Mary’s Magnificat, it’s clear that she’d been given special insight into Christ’s purpose on earth. She wasn’t just an exception to the barriers placed between a woman’s body and God’s presence, Mary was the beginning of Jesus’ work of reconciling all people to perfect intimacy with God. When Jesus died, he proclaimed “it is finished” and then the temple veil tore, eliminating the barrier for believers to the very holiest of ministry spaces. Though Jesus has made us a priesthood of all believers, two thousand years later, the church continues to erect barriers between women and these spaces. Is this not contrary to the spirit of Christ?

If the church is Christ’s body and if God’s image is both male and female (Genesis 1:27), a fully-orbed church should be both male and female. In churches like mine, this was interpreted as dividing the labor between men and women so that men offered primary leadership, preaching, and spiritual direction and women served in the nursery and the kitchen and offered administrative support to the men.

However, in the Old Testament and certainly in the ministry of Jesus we see both men and women called to a spectrum of roles. Jesus sent Mary Magdalene as an apostle to the apostles and a Samaritan woman to carry the gospel to her whole town. Meanwhile, Jesus commanded his disciples to send the children to him; lovingly handled disciples’ dirty, calloused feet; and cooked and served breakfast for his followers after his resurrection. He was strong and gentle, assertive and meek, uncompromising and nurturing. Jesus, the head of the church, displayed both traditionally feminine and masculine traits.

How we experience life in our male and female bodies gives us a unique perspective on the gospel; Christ with us, male and female; Christ in us, male and female. When church leadership is overwhelmingly male, we miss out on the unique perspectives and experiences of female leaders. We risk obscuring the image of God as displayed by women. When we erase women from our ministry spaces, it becomes easier to erase the feminine traits of God from our theology. Equally important, when men are not represented in traditionally female spaces, like child care and hospitality, we miss a chance to image the full character of God.

Isn’t this what the world desperately needs; to experience God more fully in all spaces? Isn’t this how we are told we’ll know the kingdom of God is at hand; we will witness sons and daughters proclaiming the word of the Lord (Acts 2:17-18)?

The week I was asked to preach about Mary’s experience, I was elated. Honored. Humbled. But I almost immediately worried, of all things, about what I should wear. If a woman ever addressed a mixed crowd at our church, it had never been called “preaching.” Carrying the weight that word had been given, the event seemed to call for special consideration.

Usually, I’m a boho eclectic kind of girl but imagining myself behind the heavy wooden stand, I debated a suit. Would I appear too masculine in slacks? Would a skirt be bowing to culturally-dictated definitions of femininity? I wanted to appear as myself, not as Joyce Meyer who, for some reason, was the only female preacher whose wardrobe I could picture. I wanted to be wholly present—my real self, my entire self—before God and with my church family. And, for a second, I thought back to that denim skirt I wore in church more than fifteen years ago, to that desperate instinct to hide, and how contrary that is to what God wants for us.

As I prepared for that sermon, I was rooted in a deeper understanding of the how God honors women. It was not despite but because of Mary’s identity as a woman that God drew so very near to her. Yes, I approach God's Word from a female perspective, in this female form, with a unique set of experiences to apply. God put me in this body, and God also put me in the church body. It would be a shame, but not unprecedented, for religious folks to reject what God sends us because it comes in an unexpected package.

So women, like Mary, may we worshipfully bear the gifts and callings God has given us. And church, may we receive the gifts and calling of women not despite but because of the bodies in which they come, imago Dei.

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