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When Being Human Becomes a Nuisance

On April 21, 2006

"I would have enjoyed seminary so much more if it wasn't for the women."

So were the words of a minister I was introduced to one day several years ago. Mindy and I were together, and both of us were introduced, but he looked right past her and ignored her "hello." She was invisible. He heard I was a Ph.D. student at a reformed seminary and wanted to know if I was enjoying it.

"It's been challenging," I told him. "But I'm learning from the best and I'm enjoying it. Where did you go to seminary?"

He told me, then added those words that have stayed with me for years.

Of course my curiosity got the best of me. “What was it about the women that ruined seminary for you?”

“The questions,” he replied curtly. “They interrupted the class with their questions.”

As the conversation continued, I learned that he saw seminary training as only for men. According to him, while it was acceptable for the men to ask questions—or even challenge the professor (perhaps even a right of passage)—it was a nuisance when women did it. They were to learn at home from their husbands, to ask them the questions.

At that time, I wanted to give him as much room as possible. I didn’t know the man all that well and wondered if he might just need some direction. Added to this was the fact that some people I knew attended his church. I needed to figure out the best approach to helping someone like him along.

Unfortunately, I never got to do this. Within little time I discovered that his problem went beyond a misunderstanding of gender roles. He really wanted his women silent. Women in his church were to receive communion only from their husbands and only with their husband’s permission. He started a blog seeking out every “feminist heresy,” which he seemed to see as the root of all evil. Women were infantilized, better “seen and not heard.”

He was not alone.

During a seminary class one day, a female student, one of the few at this seminary at that time, asked a challenging question. The professor answered and class moved on. A few male students behind me started talking when she exited the room after class.

“Why do you think she’s here?” asked the one.

“I don’t know,” answered the other.

I stood to pack up my things, watching and listening. There was a look of bewilderment on their faces. It was as if no one wanted to ask it, but they all thought it: “What would she do with a seminary degree? It’s not like she can be a minister.” Someone might as well have dressed up a monkey in a suit and sent it off to seminary.

There was a moment of silence.

“Maybe she’s trying to find herself,” said another student.

Ah, yes. Of course. They all nodded in agreement. She couldn’t possibly be there for the same reasons they were! If she was, then she was a feminist. Was she secretly working for the other side? There was a little Monty Python reasoning going on: if she weighs as much as a duck, then she's made of wood, and therefore she’s a witch!

Or maybe, like Dorothy Sayers once wrote, there is nothing in her shape that keeps her from wanting to study Aristotle. Maybe, God made human beings, male and female, to learn, grow, and improve themselves and the rest of humanity. Maybe he gives each of them a desire to pursue what they do best. Even more importantly, maybe God made her to learn about him and maybe she is human after all.

I like to imagine that these students went home that day and took a hard look at their wives or daughters or sisters, and asked themselves the hard questions. That’s just the optimist in me. But I know that there are plenty of men, like the patriarchal minister, that will spend the rest of their lives fighting women as seductresses eager to take a man down.

Why should any one be so intimidated by the other gender? Why is their “manliness” threatened by the humanity of women? Why do human beings, whether against another gender or race, feel better when they force silence and submission on another person?

The easy answer is sin. But when it comes to the complicated one—that is, why sin is manifested in this way—why do certain persons act in this way while others do not? I’m not sure why.

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