Rev. Dr. Katie Hays is the founding pastor of Galileo Church in Mansfield, TX; at the time of this writing she was co-minister at the West Islip Church of Christ with her husband, Lance Pape, now the Granville and Erline Walker Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Brite Divinity School.

Who Do You Say That I Am?

The basic word I-You can be spoken only with one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.

All actual life is encounter.
—Martin Buber, I and Thou

Many congregations among the Churches of Christ have entered into the conversation this website addresses. The leaders and members of these congregations seek to discern God’s will concerning women, men, and our partnership in the work, worship, and leadership of the church. I notice to my chagrin, however, that the question is still framed in terms of what a woman may do: “women’s role in the church.”

The phrase should be retired. It betrays our shallow obsession with doing rather than being. As long as the conversation about gender focuses on what women may and may not do—picking and choosing from among the jobs to be done, the roles to be filled—we will be distracted from the far more fundamental question of who, after all, we believe women are.

Renowned relational theologian Martin Buber asserted that human beings are created for relationship and do not become all of what they are meant by God to be in isolation from other human beings. How I wish someone would prove Mr. Buber wrong! How I wish that the secular American lie of self-reliance, self-actualization, self-everything were the truth! If it were, I would need no colleagues, no family, and certainly no church to affirm my full humanity as a perfectly imagined, lovingly created, surprisingly gifted child of God. I would not need to make myself vulnerable struggling for a change in my church family on this issue. It would be enough for me to know the truth about my standing before God, and in his good creation.

But Mr. Buber tells the truth. All the “thou’s” in my life, all the people I encounter over a lifetime, have a part in forming my identity, and I in theirs. Even as author and reader, we experience it. Here I am…and there you are, both of us becoming more (or less) fully ourselves the more we deal with each other. God made us this way: “It is not good for the human to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). It is true, but sometimes it hurts so much.

I recently spoke with someone who assured me that his congregation practices gender justice. “Well, paint me a picture,” I said. “What is your church like?” (I knew to be wary of those congregations that claim to be “progressive” because women are allowed to serve communion silently, or sit in the front pew with a microphone to amplify the alto line of a hymn.)

“Women do everything,” he said. “They read scripture, lead singing, teach classes, and occasionally offer their testimony in worship. They lead our ministry groups. They contribute in every way to the work and worship of the church.”

“That’s fantastic!” I said, getting excited. “And how did the congregation come to be egalitarian?”

“Oh, it was easy,” he said. “The New Testament clearly states that women must submit to their husbands. So women in our church can do anything their husbands give them permission to do, right up to eldership. They can’t be elders, of course, because no one can be over an elder, thus giving permission for leadership at that level. But everything else is open to any woman whose husband doesn’t have a problem with it.”

My heart sank. He was right—his congregation does afford rare opportunities for women to develop their spiritual gifts in service of the church. But he was also painfully wrong—what his congregation offers is not gender justice. It does not offer women the opportunity to become everything God means for them to be: fully human, created in the image of God; fully redeemed from sin by the blood of Jesus; fully endowed by the Spirit with gifts for the world and the church. Lots more chances to do things in church, sure, but not much more of a chance to bewho God means for them to be.

I felt the same disappointment over this congregation’s solution to the gender “problem” as I do whenever I hear of a congregation where women are “allowed” to do some tasks but not others. Should we not celebrate small victories, happily acknowledging that having women read scripture on Sunday morning is a step toward full inclusion? But step-by-step, partial inclusion is exactly the way that churches continue to say to women, “You are almost complete, almost equipped, almost worthy, but not quite. We have discussed it and decided that there are some more things you could be doing…but you just aren’t quite…”

I cannot express how much I wish it didn’t matter that so many are so willing to say that I am not quite…

The American individualist in me says that no one should have to depend on anyone else to become what God intends for them to be. But my heart tells me that Mr. Buber was right: “the concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me…I require a You to become I.” It humbles me to admit it. It feels like a terrible risk to give away so much power over my identity.

Thankfully there is one “Thou” who is faithful in all things. There is great consolation in how Jesus dealt with the women of his time. The surprise of his encounters with women, remember, had nothing to do with giving them liturgical, administrative, pastoral, or pedagogical jobs to do or roles to fill. The power of his witness to us lies in his way of being with them: his openness, his respectfulness, and his vulnerability toward the women in his life and ministry. He gained their devotion by treating them like the needful, beloved human beings they were, just like men, nothing less or even different.

So, for all of you followers of Jesus who don’t believe in, advocate for, and practice gender justice, and who are puzzled as to why the women in your life are hurting so much over this “issue,” please understand. We are not waiting to be given permission to do more things in church, although we will certainly celebrate when we are allowed to use the full range of our gifts to God’s glory.

No, we are waiting for you to look at us and see us for who we are. We wish it didn’t matter what you think, but it does. The conversation about “women’s role” will take about ninety seconds once you’ve slogged through the one about who we are in God’s eyes and in yours, and why there’s such a discrepancy between those two. “I require a You to become,” said Mr. Buber. And so I do. Who do you say that I am?