As I walked out the church door that late summer Sunday morning, my heart was crushed and the tears flowed. This had been a special place where I had grown in my relationship to Christ, developed valued friendships and committed myself to serve. How did it come to this?
My background is framed with the blessings of wonderful parents who pointed me to God from the cradle, an education from a Southern Baptist college, a degree from Southwestern Seminary and a lifetime of involvement in church. I came to this particular church in its early stages. I was excited to help grow a new church in my community, and I was involved in a variety of ways.
This had been a time of spiritual growth for me too. After many years as a Christian, I had made the life-changing discovery that “Jesus Loves Me.” This truth had traveled from my head to my heart, which transformed everything about my relationship with Christ. I had a growing passion to encourage others in discovering the truth of God’s love. So why did I walk away from my church that Sunday morning knowing that my dream would never be realized there?
The chain of events seemed to start when the minister of education, knowing my desire to encourage others in discovering God’s love, asked me to teach a discipleship training class. I was delighted! I studied and prepared for the class, which was to start in January. When I returned from Christmas break ready to go, I was shocked to find the display promoting the class removed. When I inquired, the pastor said he had decided not to offer that class because he just didn’t think the time was right. The minister of education was apologetic, but I was never comfortable with the vague explanation. As I sat in the worship service that morning, I remember praying that God would help me to accept this disappointment and trust him to open other opportunities for me to teach.
Some months later, the pastor called to say he would like me to consider doing some counseling at the church. I am a professional counselor, so I was interested in the possibilities. As we talked, it became clear that I would not be counseling men. No problem, my area of specialty is children and families anyway. But when limits were extended to family counseling because the father would be present, I was dumbfounded. Needless to say, we were never able to iron out the details and I decided to let it drop. After all, there were other things I would like to do in the church.
In this small mission church, our small group structure was home cell groups of mixed gender, age and marital status. This variety in the groups was one thing that drew me to them. The Lifegroup I attended actually met in my home, as I was the hostess. When we learned that our leader and his wife would be moving, I felt God was opening an opportunity for me to do what I really desired — teach adults. The group was in agreement.
“You can’t teach a Lifegroup because women are not allowed to teach men,” said the pastor. “That puts them in authority over men. When women lead it makes men weak. I want the men to lead this church.” Being a Southern Baptist all my life, this was not a news flash. The growing intensity of this argument in the denomination had bothered me, but I was ignorant to the real impact. As I absorbed another direct hit, the pastor rushed to assure me that women are equal to men in God’s eyes. But, women are created to play a different role, a role of submission to the men’s servant leadership.
I was confused by the mixed messages all along, but now my mind and emotions were overwhelmed in a jumble of chaos. I wasn’t intending to wield power over anyone. I simply had a desire, a God-planted desire I believe, to teach. After all, the church bulletin had said for several weeks, “Pray that God will raise up new Lifegroup leaders in our church.” A man did not rise to lead, and the group was dissolved into other existing Lifegroups.
I tried to find my place in a new Lifegroup led by a couple. The husband was often out of town on Sundays though, so the wife usually taught the class. She was a good teacher, but this experience left me feeling more confused and hurt. Not only am I a woman, I am single. I wasn’t equipped with an instant co-leader. I perceived this to mean that my relationship with God was not enough, and I was incomplete without a man as my spiritual authority. How can God not be enough?
In talking with the pastor, it became clear that there was no place for dialogue on this topic. He implied that I was not a biblical Christian if I interpreted Scripture differently than the traditional hierarchical view. He implied that pride was the only reason I would want to teach. I doubted myself because I didn’t want to operate out of pride. The pastor was clear that it had become his passion to reconcile men and women to their proper roles, and if I didn’t agree maybe I should be “mature” enough to leave. Walking out the door that final Sunday, I felt anything but mature.
I don’t think I have ever known hurt to run so deep in me. This may not seem like a big deal to most people, but for me it has been crushing, reaching to the core issue of how God views people … women … me. All the time I tell myself to just let it go and move on. After all, I am a counselor and I should be handling this better. Right now, I am one of those unchurched statistics searching for a church, a formidable challenge. Egalitarian churches in my denomination are evermore scarce. I grapple with the possibility of leaving my roots, which has proven to be more difficult than I expected. I’ve also struggled emotionally, because with Sunday often comes a flood of emotions that make the church search very difficult. I will continue to seek my place in the body of Christ, and I know I will find the place God has for me. I struggle with hope because the story doesn’t end here.
On a recent spiritual retreat, where I met regularly with a spiritual director, the feelings of betrayal, hurt, fear and anger erupted. I had held these feelings in check for a long time in fear of giving the appearance of a bitter, male-bashing feminist. Regardless of the inequity, I know God wants me to take a stand for equality in love, not hate-filled rage. As my spiritual director embraced my story and me, she said, “The greatest antidote for anger is gratitude.” She suggested I make a list of things arising from this struggle for which I could be grateful. I admit I had difficulty starting my list, but as I reflected and wrote, the gratitude began to flow.
- I am so grateful that along the way, and not by accident, I discovered Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) on the Internet. It was a God-ordained moment in cyber space when I found that I am not alone in the stand for equality in the church. I am grateful for the many resources available through CBE that reflect equality, integrity and commitment to the authority of Scripture.
- I am grateful to have a better understanding of God’s word on the issues of biblical equality. In the beginning, I was ill prepared to define, much less support, my beliefs with clarity and confidence. I became like a sponge, absorbing truths of equality from Scripture and insights from the many articles, books and tapes available through CBE. Now I can more clearly define what I believe about gender equality with a firm biblical foundation to support my stance.
- I have a greater appreciation for diversity. I have visited different denominations over the past year, and I have come to appreciate faith traditions different from my own even though I may not embrace them for myself. I can allow others to believe differently and not feel threatened or defensive. This has helped me to take my unfortunate situation less personally and begin to forgive. As Peter Meiderlin put it: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
- How grateful I am for my parents! To have supportive parents who modeled equality in our home is a blessing I hadn’t fully realized. They believe in me and affirm the gifts God has given me. Never have they implied a limitation on how God may use me just because I am female. Gratefully, the inequality I saw in the church was counterbalanced by the equality I experienced in my home.
- I am grateful that God changes the hearts of people through his unfailing love and not by trying to impose rigid rules and roles. The traditionalist view has always been the unwritten norm in Southern Baptist life, but the current movement to try to set these rules and roles in stone will not restore families or change our culture. It will certainly not draw people to Christ. I know it was God’s love, not rules or roles, which changed my life.
- I am grateful that God is with me in the midst of the struggle. Daily I experience loving affirmation that God is enough. Me (a single woman) + God = Wholeness.
As I made these journal entries and more, late into the night, my anger began to soften and a sense of hope began to emerge in my heart. Gratitude brings forgiveness and this was just the antidote I needed. God is at work in my life, in CBE, in the church and in our world. My hope is in Christ, in whom “there is [now no distinction], neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, Amplified Bible). What a journey! I would have preferred a less difficult route but I’m confident there’s more good to come.