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Published Date: September 5, 2002

Published Date: September 5, 2002

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Signing Up for ‘South Central’: Why Our Family Chose a Traditional Church

Fly as you might, you have to land somewhere, sooner or later. Weeks became months as my wife, Trish, and I cruised the smorgasbord of Southern churches — the comfortable pews of conventional denominations; folk festivals spilling lots of latte-slurping Peter, Paul & Mary but rather less God; small, sad country independents whose land and members were dying in suburban sprawl; a church where we gritted our teeth as we passed the hyper-Christian greeters at the door, wondering what theology fuelled their hopped-up, wide-eyed grins. We moved on.

Now we’ve found a Southern fundamentalist church. And yes, we’re staying. We’re full members who have signed the roll, joined the groups and made friends. We take the classes, know the names and bring fruit salad to share at Sunday school. Let’s call our church “South Central.”

Staying here can be maddening, of course. Trish likes “Ms.,” but church forms offer only “Miss” or “Mrs.” God made “man” — “humankind” would turn ridiculing heads in Sunday school. And let’s just not mention God’s feminine side, shall we? We’ve never seen a woman asked to lead a prayer (though they are, naturally, asked to lead ventures involving baking, flowers or anything in a basket). The women of our marriage class do ask questions, but presumably under the guidance of their husbands.

The church’s leaders are all men: elders, ministers, instructors of anyone past pre-teen, anyone ranked higher than clerical or kitchen help. Each, moreover, “the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:12), actively engaged in the business of “ruling [his] own house well,” each wife duly reverent and submissive.

The truth these men guard and purvey seems perfectly and completely expressible in sentences, most short and seemingly simple — the kinds of neat sentences to which you learned to attach T or F truth-values in your college logic class. Each statement is literal, each scriptural line the companion of one well-contained meaning. For these men, perhaps the greatest fear and favorite defense is the slippery slope. Once we let in one metaphorical interpretation, the story goes, well, that’d be just the start. And then where would we be?

So what are Trish and I doing in this church? Reading scripture. Learning. Belonging. Sometimes making new friends who don’t quite buy it all, either. Too many times, Trish and I carried our Bibles into churches where scarcely anyone else carried one, where the Word was rarely quoted, save in glib Powerpoint presentations selling a take-it-easy approach to church and life. We wanted in — not only to a church where we liked the people individually, as we very much do, but to a church that takes its Bible study seriously. Mistakenly, perhaps, on certain points. But seriously.

How do we stand it? Part of the answer: the little clutch of good people we’re close to. The rest of the answer: a conspiracy of secret delight. My wife and I have something new to share — resistance. Trish asks more questions than is seemly for a woman at South Central, and some of the questions turn quickly to the sweetly tart comments she’s famous for. Like mine, her comments at times turn heads — but in her case garner nods of surprised agreement, gestures of gee-I-hadn’t- thought-about-that.

We delight, too, in the occasional quiet subversions of others. A woman can’t teach at South Central, save “under the guidance” of her husband, but Diana (the wife of a minister) got to teach the church’s first “Financial Peace” seminar. She dispensed accurate advice on investments and insurance — things men sell, after all, in this church — and she taught the Word on charity, tithing, generosity and Christ’s nature.

Diana betrays no conscious clue she’s subversive, but she is — deeply, by this church’s standard. For the first time, South Central Church has a woman teaching scriptural content to grownups, to men, reading its meaning for them. Better yet, the church doesn’t know quite what it’s done. Or what it means. We could go, Trish and I, someplace our views would be more visibly welcome, where Trish could be Ms., thank you very much, and “Brad and Trish” wouldn’t sound like “Brad and his car.”

But we’re here. By choice. Three of us, as least. Diana, who doesn’t know what she’s doing, yet does exactly what she knows to be right and says what she knows to be true. Trish, my wife and friend and intellectual colleague. And me, smiling inside at two wonderful women in my well-meaning church, at the ways they teach me, at the ways they act out the Word of God.

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