When I was five, my grandfather gave me a fishing rod. I practiced casting my line for hours in our long, skinny back yard using a rubber practice sinker. When a friend offered to take me fishing, I caught my first fish: a round, orange and yellow sunfish called a pumpkinseed. I admired its beautiful colors, then carefully smoothed down the spiny dorsal fin and removed the hook. As the pumpkinseed swam away, I wondered if it knew a few moments earlier I’d held its life in my hands.
I knew what it felt like to be under someone else’s control. My parents belonged to a fundamentalist church with lots of “rules.” From my childhood perspective, it seemed the leaders couldn’t be happy unless every person was under their control. Though we read the Bible and learned its stories and foundational truths, I felt shackled.
My fourth grade teacher said she thought the snake in the Garden of Eden had legs before God cursed it, because part of the curse said, “On your belly you shall go … “ (Genesis 3:14, NKJ). When I brought this up at our regular family Bible study when questions were permitted, my mother slapped my face and my father yelled at me for believing lies.
My teacher’s idea seemed to match what Scripture said. My parents thought I was challenging their authority. They seemed to feel that unless my every thought came from them or was authorized by them, I was automatically wrong. “Rebellious” was a term I heard a lot, but didn’t understand. That was the beginning of an identity struggle, especially as I tried to determine what God truly wanted for me as a woman. I spent most of my childhood feeling like the pumpkinseed I’d held in my hand, only the grip my parents and my church had on me didn’t let go. I had no hope of ever being set free.
At the same time, I felt such warmth both from reading the Scriptures and saying prayers each night before I fell to sleep that I couldn’t help acting on it. I’d wave my arms and sing hymns in our living room, mimicking the song leaders at church. I wrote fiery messages like the ones given by the ministers we heard on the radio. More times than I can remember, I was slapped for quoting Scripture, pretending to lead songs or writing inspirational messages. I tried to tell my parents I felt the call of God on my life but they insisted that since I was a girl, I must be mistaken.
Still, I was curious about how God could allow me to have ideas and questions and then say it was a sin for me to express or ask them. I read and reread the Scriptures and could find nothing to explain why a man could think and share those thoughts as teaching for others, and a woman could not.
I continued to struggle with this issue after I graduated from college and got married. At one point, pressure from some church friends caused me to say to God, “All right! If you really intend for women to somehow be inferior to men, I will accept it. If you tell me that somehow all I do will never be as good as what men can do, I’ll accept that, too. Please, just show me what you want me to be!”
Instead, he strengthened my identity with him as his child, and affirmed his work in my life by helping me publish numerous self-help articles, devotionals, children’s stories and concept pieces. He reminded me that while I was attaining my degree in theology at a Christian college, I sat in the same classes and had the same requirements the men had, even though the college administrators didn’t look at my potential as being the same.
At church, my husband and I never hid the fact that our relationship was equal. The heavy hand of control in my church had loosened somewhat now that I was an adult. Our relationship seemed to be only a minor irritation until a new minister came to our area. Within a couple months, he both encouraged me for how I was letting God lead in my life, while hinting that I could do much more if only there wasn’t “something wrong at home.” Both Michael and I asked numerous times what he meant, and always he’d say God would point it out to us if we really wanted to know.
As time continued on, people we had considered friends in our church began picking on little things. In a room full of playing children, our son alone was too loud. Michael’s hair wasn’t cut neatly enough. Any small item I forgot was blown out of proportion. At first my identity was shaken again. I’d literally thrown my whole life into the activities at church, and it was becoming clear the other members didn’t share the camaraderie I felt with them. After nearly a year we realized we simply weren’t on the same page in our religious viewpoints. Picking at every small imperfection was a way the church put emotional distance between us. By making us feel out of place, I think they hoped to force us to think as they did. I thought of it as “peer pressure, church style.”
About a year and a half after the new pastor arrived, one of the elders decided the men needed to assert themselves more firmly in the church and in their families. This resulted in the same “do-what-I-say-without-question” mentality I’d seen as a child. At the same time, I realized what the “something wrong” in our household was. When an elder said he felt Michael had “gender issues” because he wouldn’t “take control” of our household, that was enough for us. We explained that we felt we were all on God’s path toward eternity but we were not on the same place on that path. We felt God was leading us to seek another church, so we could answer the calling he had on both our lives. I admit I was pretty confused about why we were treated so coldly, and upset about leaving the only church culture I’d known, but I believed it was what God wanted us to do.
We felt we had left our former church as peacefully as possible. But afterwards, if we saw a member of our former church in the supermarket or video store, they let us know we were not good enough to talk to them. Several months after we left, an elder called us and accused us of saying things we never said. We hadn’t understood until that moment how strongly the church felt about the hierarchical roles of men and women. We had unwittingly hit upon an issue that they felt was a foundational block of their church culture.
God led us to an Evangelical Free church nearby and one of the first things we told the pastor was that we had an egalitarian relationship. He didn’t have a problem with that or with our membership in Christians for Biblical Equality. God also led us to Mars Hill Seminary, where I am presently seeking a master’s of divinity and a master’s in Christian counseling. The way has not been completely smooth since we decided to stand up for God’s view of equality, and though we’re sure we’ll still face the force of the gale, we will set our sails to steer us toward God.