This article is the third in a three-part series in response to the recent Twitter conversations on #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear, #ThingsBlackChristianWomenHear, and #ThingsChristianWomenShouldHear. Read Part 1: “3 Ways The Church Can Love Sexual Assault Survivors” and Part 2: Too Pretty To Pastor.”
We all know the schoolyard chant: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” In growing up, we learn that however empowering this phrase may seem, it is far from true.
We all bear the scars of careless words: some harshly spoken in anger, some spoken with good intentions but still just as hurtful. These words that wound also have the power to shape how we see the world and our own place in it.
Sarah Bessey started the hashtag #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear on Twitter, and it quickly gained momentum as women recounted the many hurtful words they have heard from the church. Evangelical women of color added their voices, stressing the dual experience of racism and sexism under #ThingsOnlyBlackChristianWomenHear. As I scroll through the tweets, I’m saddened but not surprised. I don’t know any women in the evangelical world who haven’t heard some variation of these words.
Women can share, but not preach. Teach women and children, but not men. Be pastors’ wives, not pastors. Be mothers, not teachers, lawyers, or doctors. Women’s bodies are inherently dangerous, so dangerous that men can’t be alone with them even in public places. Submit, submit, submit.
These words leave scars. Even when we reject them, when we proclaim that words can never hurt us, the wounds linger. They shape our opinion of ourselves: lesser, weaker, sinful. They shape our perceptions of what we can do: nothing that threatens men.
These words may not cause direct physical harm, which allows those who speak them to protest that they are not trying to hurt women; they are simply affirming God-given gender roles. But, even setting aside the ways in which complementarian theology can be used to justify abuse, this hashtag is yet another window into the lingering harm that words can cause.
Women are told they can be pastors’ wives, but are never affirmed in their desire to become pastors themselves. Their possibilities are being limited. And even those women who fight these words to become pastors find their battle continues, a constant drain on their time and energy.
Women are told they must submit to men, so they become more hesitant in their relationships and their careers, holding themselves back from situations where they might be seen as challenging men.
Women are told their bodies are minefields of temptation for Christian men, so they have difficulty viewing their bodies positively, sometimes even developing eating disorders and having trouble with physical intimacy even in their own marriages.
Words have consequences. They can hurt us. And like a bone that has been broken, healing can happen but the marks remain—even if they are invisible to the world around us. I have words that linger in the back of my mind. Words about womanhood that I long ago rejected still emerge on occasion to undermine my own sense of self and calling.
But if words have consequences, they can also be healing, empowering, freeing.
We can give ourselves new words, reshaping our narratives. Eshet chayil, woman of valor. Love warriors. Ezer, strong rescue. We can reclaim the apostle Junia and reject the notion that Deborah’s leadership was meant as an indictment of the men of Israel rather than an affirmation of her own character.
We can affirm women’s gifts in leadership and teaching, support women in seminaries, encourage women to take on roles beyond children’s ministry. We can affirm that our bodies were created good and that God’s creation vision is for partnership, not strife, between men and women.
We can commit, along with so many other women and men and organizations, to turn our scars into strength and change the words our daughters and granddaughters and nieces and students hear, to affirm their talents and their worth in the eyes of God.
These new words don’t have to be profound. A few weeks ago, my seven year-old daughter was standing in the pulpit after church, pretending to preach a sermon. Our priest walked by, smiled at her, and said: “You’d make a great priest!”
Those are simple words. In fact, I doubt that my priest thought much about them; he may not even remember saying them. And my daughter probably took them for granted, since we’ve certainly never told her that she can’t be a minister. But they nearly brought me to tears.
Words can heal. Even as my priest’s words affirmed possibilities for my daughter, they reminded me that God has not limited me or my gifts, has not limited my daughters or sisters or friends.
Out of #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear and #ThingsBlackChristianWomenHear, a new hashtag flowed: #ThingsChristianWomenShouldHear. This new conversation, initiated by Bronwen Speedie, held the healing, life-giving words that Christian women need. We should be speaking them on Twitter. We should be speaking them everywhere. To adults and teens, college students figuring out their lives, and seven year-olds pretending to preach.
Let us shout these affirming words so loudly that the harmful ones finally lose their power to hurt us.