“Delighted” would accurately describe my reaction to discovering Christians for Biblical Equality. I’m a man who knows something about marginalization and alienation — two themes central to CBE’s concerns.
I’m a Canadian man now resident in the American Deep South. My wife is American, originally Southern by birth, but at least as much northern now, by culture. Trish has been Christian — devoutly, thoughtfully, worshipfully — for many years. I’ve been a theist for about 10 years, a Christian no more than four or five, and I came to that belief not through church or seminary, but via the rocky, desperate road of addiction and recovery. I’m well educated in several secular veins, but a theological virgin. Trish reads scriptural circles around me, leaving me to hide under the covers with my flashlight, furiously absorbing Scripture and criticism just to keep up.
Yet the Southern churches we’ve attended have kept throbbing with a message that seems nothing short of bizarre — I am, they’re saying, to be the spiritual head of my household. Fact: I was and am unqualified. I was and I remain ill-equipped to “instruct” my wife, to “guide” her scripturally, to be her “spiritual head and leader,” to be the “arbiter,” “decider,” or “authority” in her spiritual life, to do, indeed, much that Southern religion wants me to do.
And I refuse the role.
If I am — as I’ve been accused of being — “unbiblical” in taking that stance, then so be it.
Much debate in CBE literature, and feminist forums generally, naturally centers on the marginalization of women by patriarchal brands of Christianity, and some on the marginalization of women who escape those bonds. Yet men of egalitarian bent are no less marginalized. Come Wednesday night prayer suppers at our former church, I’d typically get up, clear tables and pitch in washing dishes. The women of the church, to my surprise at first, found this variously amusing and (as one put it) “refreshing.” To my slowly dawning horror, I learned that the men, overall, found my behavior (to quote one) “inappropriate.” One member noted of the all-male board of deacons that “they talk about [me].” “Outsider” was one term used. “Liberal,” another term applied to me, was synonymous with radical, ungodly, and, it was eventually made clear, welcome only in the back pews.
Hitherto only an occasional churchgoer, I naively thought at first that what kept all those women silent in the back pews during Sunday school was some sort of collective natural demureness having an origin in Southern culture. I was partly right — it wasn’t merely the explicitly literal interpretations of isolated slices of Scripture that had achieved this effect. Just as the church remains arguably the single most powerful social force in American Southern culture, so the continuing attempts of so many Southern churches to silence women pervades the culture at large. Women in homes, organizations, classrooms and workplaces, I noted, had systematically been taught silence and deference as their default roles.
My mistakes: I listened to women; I joined them in debate; I wanted — very, very much — to be taught by them, to be taught, in my hunger for Christian learning, by any thoughtful person who might shed light. To exclude half the population from that role at first never occurred to me, and since that rude epiphany has seemed sheer madness.
We attended for a time a strange kind of “faux-liberal” church that sought to distinguish itself from the most brazenly objectionably sexist tenets of institutionalized Southern Baptism. Pastor and teachers — men, all — talked the talk of “mutual submission,” and it sounded good for about two weeks. Until, that is, the talk of women’s alleged moral and intellectual weakness slipped through.
In the cultural and religious American South, the man who allies himself with egalitarian causes is himself marginalized. The man who lets women speak is traitor to his gender, and to the existing order. The man who refuses presumptuous male complicity in anything from blonde jokes to sexist interpretations of I Timothy 2 is openly sneered at. Moreover, the man who — even at the most theoretical level — questions the canons of interpretation that bolster patriarchal reading of the Bible likewise achieves alienation. Intellectuality, in any stripe I recognize, engenders finger pointing in so many Southern churches. If CBE literature is up to date, there are no chapters in the Deep South. A few years living there has helped me understand why.
I need my wife’s spiritual guidance as much as she needs my own. It’s a moral minefield out there, and I want us to hold hands as we walk through. Trish is way too sharp for me to get away — even if I wanted to — with my waltzing in with a Promise Keepers pamphlet and an announcement that “Darlin’, I’m takin’ over.” We teach each other, support each other, walk side by side, and, as the two of us read Scripture, that’s what it tells us to do.