Ann Evankovich is a member of the Bowie Church of Christ in Bowie, Maryland. After ten years as a high school English and Special Education teacher, she is enjoying the opportunity to be a full-time mother.
Why I Left the Church of Christ and Why I Returned
The two hardest decisions of my life were my decision to leave the Church of Christ and my decision to return to it. The tradition of excluding women in public worship prompted my heart-wrenching choice to leave the congregation that had been mine all my life. My reasons for returning are less clear in my mind, but more numerous.
I first began to feel uncomfortable with the role of women when I returned from college to participate in my congregation as an adult. Soon after I was married and graduated, I became deeply involved in many church activities, mostly relating to education programs. My husband, Tim, would shake his head at my busy-ness and say that I suffered from a genetic inability to say “No.”
My original discomfort was subtle. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what bothered me. In retrospect, there was no single event, but rather a series of events that pointed to a hypocrisy in our traditions.
For example, I was permitted to redesign our Vacation Bible School program. I wrote lessons, coordinated all adult volunteers, and advertised to the community. But I was not permitted to stand before my church family and make an announcement about VBS until after a closing prayer had been led. The message couldn’t have been clearer. God had to be dismissed from the room before my voice could be raised. Either that or the work I was doing was somehow less important to the spiritual life of the congregation than all the other activities that were announced.
One year, Tim and I were asked to coordinate our church retreat in the mountains. Part of that weekend included a Saturday morning class. Tim’s new business was so time consuming that I was the one who studied and prepared the lessons for that morning. Tim felt awkward that he was required to participate as a teacher that morning. But if he didn’t stand up there with me, I would not have been permitted to deliver the class that I had prepared.
The first time I felt genuinely angry came in a conversation with my husband. I had noticed how so many prayers in the Bible were offered with the speaker raising his or her face toward heaven instead of our traditional bowed head. I thought it would be very moving to have the congregation pray together with our faces pointed toward our Creator. I asked my husband if he would try this in his next opportunity as the communion orator. He declined. I felt cut off and then the anger began. I wasn’t directly angry toward my husband. I understand that he felt uncomfortable with trying out this new idea. Instead, I was angry that I had to ask at all. I would have to seek permission whereas any man selected for communion oration could share his thoughts without anyone’s prior approval. Like the man in the parable of the talents, I felt I had no choice but to dig a hole.
It was after this that I began to consider who the people were who were leading the worship service. I wondered what made their voices pleasing and mine displeasing. Certainly it was not spiritual maturity because many of the speakers were recent converts. It was not education because I had been trained as a teacher when some of the speakers had not completed high school. It was not enthusiasm because I have heard many men refer to their service as “have to” rather than “want to.” Divorced men and hungover teenage boys were more acceptable than I was.
So I began a new study of the scriptures in hopes of finding evidence that the Christian God knew me and loved me as a woman. I couldn’t believe that God created me spiritually inferior to all men. I couldn’t believe that he created me with a voice that was not to be used in praise of him. I couldn’t imagine a heavenly father repulsed by his daughter’s public confession of love, who would only allow his daughter to speak to him in private. I needed to know that the God of the Bible wanted me, a woman, to worship him. After extensive study, what I found in the scriptures surprised and delighted me. I became convinced beyond doubt that God had created me in his image for the purpose of worshipping him with all my heart, my mind, my soul and my strength.
However, my scriptural study brought me into conflict with the traditions that I had submitted to in my church. I knew that I had to make a choice. Should I stay in a church whose traditions were oppressive to my worship, or leave for a place that allowed me to worship God in freedom?
I was struggling with that decision when my four year old daughter made my choice clear. We were riding in the car singing the wonderful song “A Capella” by the group of the same name. My daughter said to me, “Mama, if I were a man, I could sing a capella.” My stomach lurched. I explained to her the meaning of the term and assured her that we were singing a capellatogether. But she clarified, “But I couldn’t do it like Daddy.” Her daddy is a song leader. At the age of four, she knew that she would not be allowed to use her voice in service to God and our church in this way. She has a beautiful voice. I had been willing to dig a hole in which to bury my talents, but I was not prepared to dig a hole for my daughter’s talents. My heart was broken. Two months later, I gathered the courage to leave the only church I had ever known.
This was the most heart-wrenching decision of my life. It really tore up my extended family, most of whom worshipped in the same congregation. My husband supported me wonderfully; he understood.
So we set out in search of the perfect church: the one that agreed with everything I believed. It didn’t take long to realize that this place didn’t exist. I could be church shopping forever if I left every time I came across something with which I disagreed. The search was depleting the spirit of my young family. I was denying my children the wonderful experience of worshipping with family. They no longer wanted to go. Our old church was home. I knew so many people there, had so much shared history with so many members. I left for one reason. I returned for many.
The strongest reason for returning, aside from my desire to worship with family and friends, was the congregational rule of the Churches of Christ. I do not have to argue against oppressive traditions with any remote convention of leaders. I just have to continue asking questions in my home congregation. This gives me hope.
I also love the deep roots that the Churches of Christ send down into the Bible itself. I have learned so much from our education programs and I’m grateful that my children enjoy the same opportunity. It was this very grounding in Scripture that gave me the tools to study and discover that God makes no distinctions between men and women.
I am still not completely convinced that by returning I have done the right thing for my family. Sometimes I feel like my return showed a lack of courage to start over. The pain of staying is constantly at my side. I have spent much time in prayer asking God to help me not let my anguish interfere with my worship. But every time I see five men stand around the communion table, I have to pray very deliberately that God give me strength. We have taken some small steps toward inclusion in our congregation. But I, of course, am still not satisfied. Freedom can never come quickly enough for the oppressed.
I worry that people are judging my motives all the time. One Sunday, for example, the collection plates were somehow left in a classroom. They were overlooked until the middle of the service when the five men around the table began to look around. I realized what was happening and dashed out to get the trays. Although my cheeks were burning, I walked right up to the communion table to deliver the trays quickly so that services could continue. After church someone said to me, “Well, Ann finally got what she wanted!” I can’t even offer a simple gesture of help without criticism.
At times I fear that my dream of inclusion in my lifetime is unrealistic. I pray that I can raise my children in the Church of Christ without teaching that one of them is spiritually inferior to the other. Perhaps, like the Civil Rights Movement, this change too will take generations of work.
King David had in his heart a vision to build a glorious house to honor the Lord. With all of David’s shortcomings as a husband, father, and king, he was still known as a man after God’s own heart. Even so, God forbade David the opportunity to carry out this lavish idea because of his warfaring past. God had used David to establish peace in Israel, a peace won with much bloodshed. The Chronicler tells how God chose David’s son Solomon to construct the magnificent temple. God wanted his temple to be constructed in peaceful times, not times of warfare.
David did not let this pronouncement quench his desire to glorify God. Instead, he gave orders within Israel and her surrounding kingdoms to gather cedars, stones, iron and gold for the construction. He appointed thousands of priests to oversee the construction and assembled skilled laborers from throughout the land. He conferred with Solomon, conveying the splendor of his dream for honoring God.
I wish I could be Solomon. I wish that my spiritual life was peaceful on all sides like the kingdom Solomon ruled. But I feel instead that God has put me in a position to battle for peace. I want nothing more than for my brothers and sisters in Christ to lavish our worship on God as one. But I may not get to experience this peace in my lifetime. I pray that I can be like King David so that I can gather materials for my children to build a new place to worship God.