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It Runs in the Family

Lessons from generations of egalitarians

Mutuality: You grew up in different eras. How has the world changed for girls over the years? How were your experiences similar or different?

Lorry: The role of women was not a question—at least that I was aware of—as I was growing up. The suffragettes had won, securing women in the US the right to vote in 1920, only eight years before I was born, so I took the right to vote for granted. Women entered the work force during World War II—doing their patriotic duty—and I fully expected to have some kind of a job after finishing college. I was the first woman from my small Baptist church to attend college, and they seemed proud of me.

Hollie: William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We have come a long way since my grandma’s youth, yet so much of the patriarchy and racism that has shaped women’s lives remains with us today, albeit sometimes in new and different forms. My generation is in danger of taking those hard-fought gains for granted. The fight for equality may seem like ancient history—something inevitable rather than something that was fought for and can be lost. And the messages we get about womanhood and leadership in the church serve to confuse matters.

Mutuality: What were some of those messages?

Hollie: The messages I received in church about womanhood were marked with contradiction. Church leaders (usually pastors’ wives) would pull the girls aside to warn us about two-piece bathing suits or spaghetti-strapped tank tops. Later, just prior to marriage, I was pulled aside again—this time to be given a book about the importance of good sex. Overnight, my body went from shameful to the sole path to marital success. Womanhood seemed to have a lot to do with my body, and not much to do with leadership.

At the same time, I grew up seeing women in professional careers in politics or business. These women are admired and promoted, sometimes by the same men who tell us that these women’s gifts are irrelevant in a church. Even when women participate in leadership, male-dominated conversations often continue as if we weren’t there. This was difficult to understand, because the God I knew from the Bible didn’t seem likely to give a good gift and then ask that it be shelved.

Lorry: I didn’t have the same kind of role models Hollie had. I did not question that men were the leaders in the church—deacons, pastors, elders, Bible school teachers. And frankly, I never expected to serve in such roles. However, in time I became aware that God had given me a gift of leadership and administration. My husband recognized my gifts and encouraged me to use them wherever possible, even when the church did not.

Hollie: I couldn’t reconcile what I was being taught in church with what I read in my Bible and saw around me. When I saw successful professional women, I wondered, “What happens when a smart woman steps into a church—what physical or miraculous change actually happens to her brain—to disqualify her from using those same gifts? Does God veil her mind?” As I grew in my faith and education, I realized the injustices my grandma grew up with still exist, but in different forms. Now they may be even more dangerous than they were in her day, when at least people wore their sexism on their sleeves.

Mutuality: Were these the experiences that led to you explore questions gender and faith on a deeper level? Or were there other specific events that sparked your passion for gender equality?

Lorry: While I served as a missionary in South Africa, I was asked to teach at a Bible school. It was during that time that I began questioning whether it was biblical for me to teach men. Didn’t Paul say, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12)? I justified it because the mission leaders had asked me and my husband approved. It didn’t dawn on me at the time that this was actually a racial issue as well—it was acceptable for a white woman to teach black African men, but not white American men. 

I wanted desperately to find a biblical answer. I did not find satisfactory answers until years later when a friend introduced me to CBE. I read every book I could get my hands on, attended conferences, listened to tapes, took copious notes, and shared them all with my husband, who was beginning the journey.

I gained confidence as I learned that both Jesus and Paul blessed women who served—women like Mary, Priscilla, and Phoebe. I tried to ignore the remarks and jokes people made “all in good fun” about my feminism. When I was asked to become an elder at our church, a group of men conducted a write-in campaign to defeat me. However, the following year my pastor encouraged me to let my name stand again, and this time I became an elder. I’m pleased to report that recently when I attended a service back in that church, at least half of the elders serving communion were women.

Hollie: People ask me all the time how I became a gender activist. Honestly, I think I was born a feminist. As a child, my favorite books, such as Matilda or Harriet the Spy, featured strong women and girls. My childhood heroes were Amelia Earhart and Harriet Tubman. When I was ten, I rode my bike to the public library to read Ms. Magazine, even though I didn’t understand the articles. My parents are happily-married egalitarians. Gender equality just seemed obvious. Still, for many years I assumed that my faith and feminism could never be friends, and I felt like I needed to hide one or the other depending on where I was. When my grandma introduced me to CBE in college, I wanted to shout, “I knew it!” CBE was the first place I felt affirmed in my faith and my passion for gender issues. CBE showed me that not only are Christianity and feminism biblically compatible, but also that there is a rich history of evangelical and biblical women who can be our example and inspiration.

Lorry: Yes, a strong theological groundwork for biblical equality was laid as far back as Katharine Bushnell’s God’s Word to Women, published in 1923, and even earlier, by Quaker abolitionists and women preachers. And of course in the Bible! I recently taught a class at a church, and I spoke about the role of women in the New Testament. Afterwards, the irate pastor came up to me saying, “What right do you have to come into my church and open up a can of worms like that? You’ll leave and I’ll have to deal with it.” I suspect his congregation heard several sermons in the following weeks urging women to be silent and submissive.

Mutuality: Wow. The pastor’s response shows how powerful those simple examples from the Bible and from history can be. In what other ways do you see the movement for biblical equality empowering women in the years to come?

Lorry: CBE’s international outreach is crucial as women globally struggle with the issue. I taught a class on the role of women in ministry to a group of young men in India several years ago and left a copy of my book, Lessons in Leadership, with one of the men. To my surprise I received an email from him when I returned home. He wrote, “At first I disagreed with what you were saying, but after I read and studied more, I had to admit that I had not treated the women in my church with the respect I should, and I’ve apologized.” We’ve seen fruit like this around the world, but men still hold most leadership roles in churches. I believe as we pray for godly empowerment for men and women, we will see a groundswell of support for women in leadership.

Hollie: The movement’s future is as bright and vital as it ever has been. We serve a God who cares about every part of us. When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well (John 4), his interaction was remarkable not only because she was a woman, but because she was a despised Samaritan. Truly empowering the woman at the well today means caring for her whole self, not just her womanhood.

Some people are surprised to learn how much I focus on race and social class when I am a “gender activist.” As Audre Lorde has pointed out, we do not live single-issue lives, so we can’t expect complete justice (is there any other kind?) to come from single-issue movements. Of course, no single organization can champion everything, which is why building coalitions with others doing this work is integral for justice causes. Rooted in Scripture and committed to liberating women’s giftedness, CBE is a light onto our path.

Mutuality: It’s been said that large-scale change starts with the family. As a family with three generations committed to biblical equality, what advice can you offer to other egalitarian families trying to build a tradition like yours?

Hollie: My complementarian Bible study leader in high school had a profound effect on me when she said that Ephesians teaches us that wives must submit to their husbands, but husbands “only” have to love their wives. Marriage seemed like an open-and-shut case, until years later when someone at a CBE conference pointed out that Ephesians 5:21 (the verse right before that other one!) tells husbands and wives to submit to one another out of love for Christ Jesus. There are so many stories about women prophets, judges, and disciples, and even female imagery for God that simply don’t get taught or talked about. The next generation needs to hear about these things.

Lorry: That’s why it is so important that during family devotional times, when sharing stories about women in the Bible, parents point out those who were teachers and leaders, and especially how Jesus honored women—contrary to his culture. Simply put, the best way to raise children with a biblical egalitarian view is to model partnership and mutual submission, even to the point of explaining how you reach decisions by submitting to each other in love.

Hollie: Yes. My egalitarianism has been shaped most by the adults in my life acting it out, not just talking about it. Seeing my parents and grandparents make decisions together assured me that egalitarian marriages are possible. We build an egalitarian legacy when we live in such a way that the world’s patriarchy comes as a surprise to our children.

 

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What steps have you taken in your family, church, or community to pass a legacy of mutuality to the next generation? Share your ideas on Twitter, or blog about it and share your blog on Twitter, using the hashtag #mutualitylegacy.

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