In my post last month, I shared my confusion over my calling. I recalled wondering why, if the Lord had called me to preach like my father, did the Bible prohibit me from doing so?
Well, part of the reason for my confusion was that I received very mixed signals at home regarding the roles of men and women. My mother was strong and smart. As is typical of a pastor’s wife in a small church community, she worked just as hard as my father. In our home, she shouldered equally heavy responsibilities—cooking our meals, keeping the parsonage clean and tidy for visitors, imposing discipline on me and my sisters, and paying the bills. We considered her the backbone of our family. The only thing she couldn’t do was lead. I was left with a troubling question—if she was so capable, then why was she forbidden to serve as a deacon, elder, or pastor?
This confusion extended to my sisters and me. We definitely did not conform to stereotypical gender expectations for women. I was a “tomboy,” so to speak. Forget princesses waiting around to be rescued—not me. The boys loved pretending they were characters in Star Wars, so I would join them and we would blast our way out of a confrontation with the Imperial storm troopers. My middle sister developed a passion for math, majored in it in college, and now has a high-powered job that requires her talent for it. My younger sister became a computer geek. My parents never discouraged any of this. In fact, just the opposite. They always encouraged us to use our strengths and personalities in whatever way God called us.
The only exception to this freedom lay within the church. Once we stepped inside, we had to take a backseat while men ran everything. Although I never articulated it as a child, deep down, it didn’t make sense to me. This dichotomy would contribute to my heartache as an adult, trying to fulfill my call to preach without really preaching. Since I did well in school and had a passion for the Bible, I knew I was perfectly capable of attending a seminary. And yet, I wasn’t supposed to step out of the pew. So, I tried to find ways of preaching that didn’t involve the pulpit. This led to a great deal of frustration at God and my eventual choice to opt out of a relationship with him for a time. I was struck by the inconsistency of a God that would create me with a gift, but then expect me to remain silent and never use it. That certainly wasn’t a God worth worshipping, especially when I could find validation in the secular world for those same gifts.
Looking back now, I see that we practiced what some call “soft hierarchy” in our home. We paid lip service to biblical gender roles, but for the most part, didn’t follow them. We might be tempted to downplay it and think that’s not so bad. I know that I struggle with it myself. Officially, my denomination ordains women. However, the only female pastor we’ve ever had was a children’s pastor, and she was the first to go when, due to budget cuts, the church had to lay off some of its staff. On a more intimate level, I have seen individuals in our church use a curriculum promoting headship and submission in their Sunday schools. These are wonderful, godly people whose families look just like mine. Their daughters remind me of myself when I was younger—strong, smart, and confident. I too, have been tempted to dismiss “soft hierarchy” with a “well, it’s not that bad” attitude.
But then I think of my own wound. And worse, I think of my mother’s. When my younger sister got married, Mom and I got to talking one day. My sister was still in college at the time, and my parents would only support the marriage on the condition that she finish her degree. All of the sudden, Mom burst out, “I had to do it, because I know she’ll regret it if she doesn’t. I dropped out of college to marry your father. Then, I spent twenty years hoping I could go back and finish it. We only stayed in each church for two or three years, though, so I never had time. I hated it, but I knew I had to submit to your father and whatever God called him to do, so I just endured it as best I could.”
As my British husband would say, I was absolutely gobsmacked. This was the first time in my entire life that I had heard one of my parents use the word “submit” in a biblical sense. If you had asked me before this, I would have laughed and said, of course we didn’t practice hierarchy in our home. Yet my mother had just confessed to a deep wound that she had carried within her for most of her life, all because of a view that said my father should take precedence in God’s eyes.
I realize now that the effects of “soft hierarchy” can be very insidious. Indeed, it might even be worse in some cases than living in a hard-core patriarchal home. I have known brave women who escaped such homes and churches. They did so, because they knew there was something wrong with the view of God being forced upon them. I never did, however, and neither did my mother. Instead, we simply suffered in silence while living what looked like normal, happy lives to outsiders. Thankfully, our stories both have happy endings: after my father retired, my mother finished college and now enjoys being a teacher. I became a lay preacher in our denomination and have had the joy of seeing my parents, especially my father, change their attitude toward women preachers. I pray now for those other girls, the daughters in my church, that they will not find themselves living in the glass box of “soft hierarchy” where my mother and I once lived.