Opening the Door to Gender Justice

Sunday school class; Tahoka (Texas) Church of Christ; 1980-something. (I’m not sure about the year, but we had to be older than twelve. I know this because Dad was the teacher, not Mom.)

Dad says, “So my question is, why one verse and not the next? or the previous? How do we make distinctions in God’s word line by line? First Timothy 2:11 says ‘Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.’ And just a few verses up from that, ‘In every place the men should lift their holy hands in prayer.’ Well, I’m asking, which part have we got wrong? Which is it? Should we be lifting our hands when we pray? Or do women no longer have to learn in silence?”

My memory stops with the asking of the question. It’s probably safe to guess that there were no sufficient answers offered that morning, or in any such Sunday school class for a long time to come. The two or three students in class were just kids; my dad was giving voice to the first significant spiritual struggle he’d ever confessed, at least to me. But for me, it was the question that made the difference. It was the question that opened the door.

Sunday afternoon; Harvard University graduate school housing, 1987.
She comes into the world’s smallest kitchen with another load of dirty dishes from the table and puts them in the sink where I am washing. It’s her apartment, her and her husband’s, and I am enchanted by it. I would wash dishes all night just to stay here, near her, near them.

They are both in graduate school studying the things of God; that’s all I understand about their degree programs. His will prepare him for more study, maybe a Ph.D; hers will lead to (gasp!) ministry. In a (gasp!) church. She wants to preach. She does, in fact, preach. At the church where I go. At theChurch of Christ where I go. They sometimes give me a ride there, in their VW Beetle with the plastic Hawaiian leis around the stick shift. Sometimes she drives; sometimes he does. How slowly can I wash these dishes? How long will they let me stay?

Partly, of course, I want to stay because my own school life is coming apart. In the second year of my engineering coursework at M.I.T., I am coming apart at the seams. The schoolwork means nothing to me. The social scene is eating me up. The goals of my classmates are not my goals; their ways are not my ways. I have chosen engineering because in the ’80s, even in small-town Texas, we know that women can do anything in the world. In the world, not in the church. Here in this Harvard apartment, with the world’s smallest kitchen, I am learning another way. I’m pretty sure it is a better way.

The dishes all cleared, she joins me at the sink to rinse and dry. Don’t help, I think. Let me do this, at least, this one thing I know how to do. But she’s more of a talker than a dishwasher, anyway. So she talks, and I strain to commit each word to memory.

“I think you will not be an engineer,” she says. “Sometimes someone just has to tell you the truth. I don’t think it’s for you. Someone told me, when I was standing at a kitchen sink doing dishes just like you are now, that what I had picked was not the right choice. Someone told me it would be ministry, it would be preaching. I’m telling you, Katie-bug, I think it will be preaching for you, too.”

She calls me Katie-bug because I told her once that my mother calls me that and she thinks it’s cute. It usually annoys me but this afternoon it is the least of my problems. This preaching thing again-it’s not the first time she’s brought it up. It won’t be the last. It’s as if she found the door in my heart just barely ajar, and has stuck a crowbar in it to pry it all the way open, inch by inch. Thank goodness she’s so skinny. I’m pretty sure it will take a long time.

One full year, Abilene Christian University, 1988-89.
It didn’t take as long as I thought. On leave of absence now from M.I.T., I have carried the map of the better way I learned in the colorful, convoluted streets of Cambridge and Brookline to the pale, flat grid of Abilene. Maybe this map won’t get me anywhere here, though. Maybe I’ve reached a dead-end.

As soon as I got there in the fall someone must have scratched my name onto a campus bathroom stall: “For a good argument, call Katie at 676-xxxx.” I have to study harder, smarter, longer than my classmates in the Bible Department because the burden of proof is on me in every class, every conversation. I am learning both sides of the “women’s role” debate, committing every exegetical detail to memory. Sometimes my opponents don’t know their own arguments, which makes it awfully hard to argue with them.

Then, the spring: resurrection, even in Abilene. Dr. F– opens the socio-historical world to me; pushes David Balch’s dissertation into my hands. “You’ll need this,” he says. Dr. G– opens the Greek text in class but shares his Boston University papers on gender in the New Testament behind closed office doors. Dr. R–opens his preaching course to all who register, no strings attached. It’s almost enough to make me forget the ones who close their doors in my face; the tuition bills I can’t pay and can’t get a scholarship for; the lady who chases me to chapel every day so she can lay hands on me and pray-in front of God and everyone!-that I will be forgiven “for wanting to be a man.”

Oh, did I mention? There’s a boy in Abilene, soon to be a man, who knows his arguments, his Greek, himself. A boy, soon to be a man, who wants to know me, too. I decide against returning to Cambridge. There are places in Texas to be explored.

An autumn Sunday afternoon; New Haven, Connecticut; 1993.
Having sojourned in Texas for three years, finally cobbling together his-n-her degrees in Bible from the Institute for Christian Studies in Austin, we are once again in the northeast. “Once again” for me, anyway. It’s his first time, this Texan husband who cooks because I do the budget. Life is easier for me here. No one calls me “sweetheart” in the grocery store or the gas station. Enrollment at the divinity school is about even, gender-wise. Nobody much cares whether I preach or whether I don’t, which is nice.

Except at church. The “div school boys” take turns in the pulpit, drawing $75 a pop for sermons recycled from preaching classes and doctoral seminars. I’m allowed an active role in the church, too, building a campus ministry to Yale students and teaching every Bible study they’ll let me teach. But no salary, no turn in the pulpit. It’s a church living on the sickening edge of the gender justice cliff, tipping drunkenly back and forth, making everybody inside woozy with waiting.

“Woozy” is a mild word for how I feel. “Vertigo” is the name of the symptom for which the student health clinic can give me no diagnosis, no prognosis, no cure. I simply cannot stand up straight or walk a straight line. Nausea and dizziness make me cling to the hallway walls when I have to be out. At home I stay in bed. Reading is impossible. It’s worse on Sundays.

On this particular Sunday afternoon, we are in a job interview. Lance and I have, against good advice we now wish we’d heeded, applied to share the full-time ministry position at this congregation upon our graduation in the spring. The job was not advertised as being open for women. But maybe, we’re thinking, it’s time for us all to jump off this cliff together. The church is not convinced. This afternoon, the church has gathered in a member’s living room ostensibly to ask questions of us, whom they have known for almost three years. Here’s one exchange from that interview:

Church member to female interviewee: “This church is not strong. It will die if it gets any weaker. Do you know what will make this church weak? Do you?”

Female interviewee: mouth opening and closing like a fish, unable to formulate an answer.

Church member: gesturing with her finger, leaning toward female interviewee, “You. You will. You will make this church weak.”

The door slams shut. A friend mails me a card with a Far Side cartoon on the front: two deer talking in the forest, one with a red and white bulls-eye on his chest. The other deer says to him, “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.” The vertigo rages on.

A few weeks later, another Sunday afternoon; New Haven; 1993.
The phone rings. Lance will have to answer it; I am in bed trying to will the ceiling to stop spinning. I hear him murmuring “uh-huh, uh-huh,” then interrupting his caller. “Sir, I just want to make sure you understand. You know that my wife and I both want to be ministers? Not just me?” He says this about every thirty seconds into the phone. I don’t know what his silent, invisible conversation partner is saying; only that Lance keeps interrupting him. “Sir, excuse me for saying this again but I just want to be as clear as I can. My wife and I both are graduating this spring. We’re both looking for jobs in ministry.àUh-huh.àUh-huh. Okay. I’ll tell her. Bye.”

The door is wide open now. The silent, invisible caller is, in fact, an elder from the Cahaba Valley Church of Christ in Birmingham, Alabama. (“Where?” I will ask and be asked this incredulous question a million times over the next several months.) He has our resumes and our letter explaining that we will share a job, any job, in any Church of Christ where women can participate in work and worship. They have such a job to offer. He wants us to come to Birmingham for an interview.

How he got our resumes and letter is a strange story. It’s almost as strange as how a little suburban Church of Christ in the deep South became committed to gender justice and added roles for women’s full participation slowly, one or two a year, right up to the spring of 1994, the spring I graduated from Yale Divinity School and came to work for them with my husband. But those are probably stories for another time.

The door is wide open now, and cannot be closed. Though some will try.

A good four-and-a-half years; Shelby County, Alabama; 1994-1999.
Alabama is a funny place to live, at least for me, at least for now. The guy at the Citgo station on the corner calls me “Miss America” and “sweetheart” and looks at me everywhere but in the eye. But at church, in my office, on Sundays, during worship, in elders’ meetings, Galatians 3:28 is coming true. It’s a welcome reversal from the Connecticut situation. My “bummer of a birthmark” is fading, almost invisible.

Almost – story of my life.

One day a woman from church invites me to lunch, tells me she can’t be at our church anymore because I disappoint her; she thought with the addition of a woman to the ministry staff, things would be better, more equitable, moresomething. She hoped her concerns would be better represented now that there was a woman in the elders’ meetings. I’m overwhelmed by her need for me to represent All Women, be Every Woman. Does she know how differently other women in the church would ask me to represent them in elders’ meetings? The Whitney Houston song “I’m Every Woman,” a pop hit on the radio a few years back, keeps running through my head. I always hated that song; now it makes my bulls-eye birthmark flare up again.

Another day, a Sunday between class (which I have taught) and worship (in which I am preaching), a woman stops me in the hallway. She tells me she can’t be at our church anymore after many years because of family pressure. “As long as we just talked about it, it was one thing. Now you’re here, and I can’t be. I’ll be looking for another church, and it’s because of you.” Just like that. Knocks the breath out of me without touching me. I feel the bulls-eye birthmark brightening with heat.

Another day, another woman, an invitation to chat at her house. The conversation eventually comes to this: the politics of gender and power in church, or to be more specific, our church. “I’ll put it this way,” she says. “When you come into the church kitchen to say hello to the women who have gathered around the coffee pot on Sunday mornings, everybody’s nice. When you leave, it’s another story. You never want to be the first one to leave that kitchen on Sunday mornings.”

“You mean ‘you,’ like ‘One never wants to be the first one?’” I ask. “Or you mean me?”

“You,” she says. She looks happy to have made me squirm.

The thing is, I am learning, ministry is a conspicuous job. We say it’s about humble servanthood; we say we serve a priesthood of believers; I am but one of the many who are called to the ministry of reconciliation Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 5. But a certain amount of this kind of ministry is done up in front of the church, and when you invite people to look at you for a little while each week they don’t stop looking at you just because you step down from the pulpit. When you wear a bright red-and-white bulls-eye on your chest, i.e. when you are a woman – the first woman (so people think no matter how much Restoration history you bring up), the only woman (so people think and are probably right for now anyway), and not the perfect woman by a long-shot (indisputable!)-they look at you all the more. Ministry is a conspicuous job. A woman in ministry in a Church of Christ has perhaps the most conspicuous job in the world. At least in our small world.

When the door is wide open, people feel free to look right in. What can you say? You invited them to take their best shot. Don’t be surprised when they take it.

The exact same four-and-a-half years in Alabama, however, produce more lessons than just this one. How about this one: There are more people than just me for whom doors are opening, who are experiencing the wonder of looking out and vulnerability of being seen.

àLike the seventy-something man who had not been convinced by Bible study that women should teach and preach, but who demonstrated an unfailing commitment to unity in the church family he loves. He sacrificed his personal comfort in more ways than one to attend the first adult Sunday school class I taught, climbing the stairs to a stuffy second-floor room every week for an entire quarter to listen, learn, and argue. He honored me with his arguments: he didn’t want to argue about me, just the text and the often naive interpretations of a brand-new, fresh-out-of-school teacher. He complained about one of my sermons to the elders because of something I said, but not because I said it. In the moment, he drove me crazy. With time I learned to thank God that when he and I had our respective doors flung open and looked out, we found ourselves eye to eye.

àLike the elder who carried a rocking chair into the back of the auditorium every Sunday morning so I could breastfeed my newborn on either side of a sermon. The day I preached, heard a confession of Jesus’ lordship from a teenager I’d been studying with, wrestled with a stuck skirt zipper trying to get into clothes suitable for baptizing, ended up with a wet skirt anyway, and scurried to the back to receive a hungry baby while communion was being passed, this humble man laid towels in the seat of the rocking chair and around my shoulders, then gave us our privacy till the trays came around. If Jesus’ disciples had been nursing moms who endured a rainstorm on their way to the upper room, our Lord would have done the same. Drying off instead of footwashing; bread and wine shared around the needs of an infant; doors opened to expose whole new categories of service. When ours opened to each other, my elder saw needs in me I didn’t anticipate having; I saw gifts in him he didn’t anticipate giving.

Present day; Long Island, New York; for as long as it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us (Acts 15:28).
Another church family with a wide open door, many members of which are blissfully unaware that the door was ever closed (because they have backgrounds other than a Church of Christ upbringing), has welcomed us home. Coming home: that’s what it feels like every time a church says “Come, live with us and break bread with us and share your very best gifts with us.” I live a life built on that gracious invitation and built up by the lessons offered gently and not-so-gently by those who push, pry, pull, and otherwise contend with the doors God has opened in His people, His church. I have offered you my story up to now through these disjointed narratives. Let me now offer some lessons I’ve taken from living those stories and all the untold stories in between.

The first observation is the most obvious one and the most painful to admit: it will not be lost on the careful reader that the door-closing folks in these highly selective anecdotes have usually been women, and the door-opening saints have almost exclusively been men. I didn’t choose the stories by those criteria; believe me, if I’d thought to make a list before I wrote I would have employed a little affirmative action to avoid telling this particular truth.

Certainly there have been women in my life who have supported, prayed for, and given their assent to my ministry, and the ministry of all women who are so gifted. My own mother planted an obsession with the things of God in my heart and it was the woman at Harvard who showed me how to turn that obsession into a life of proclaiming God’s good news to God’s beloved people. Over the years I have registered every kind of reaction from women who learn what I do for a living, from joyful disbelief to righteous indignation. Perhaps because I assumed in the beginning that every woman would hear the message of gender justice as good news, I have been more deeply affected by those who don’t.

And certainly there have been men along the way who have belittled, condemned, and refused to allow my ministry, and the ministry of all women who are so gifted. Over the years I have registered every kind of reaction from men who learn what I do for a living, from joyful disbelief to righteous indignation. Perhaps because I assumed in the beginning that every man would hear the message of gender justice as bad news, I have been more deeply affected by those who hear it and respond to it as gospel.

Concerning women for whom this sounds like bad news: I have learned not to underestimate the hurt that the question of gender roles can stir up, for them and for me. It hurts them in part, I think, because my presence in the pulpit or behind the Lord’s table or at the podium carries an implied critique of the work they have tended to so diligently for so long. Is not keeping the nursery week in and week out a worthwhile ministry? Visiting the shut-ins; carrying casseroles to funerals; tending in every tangible way to the details of births and baptisms, illnesses and deaths-most or all of the actual pastoral care that happens in congregational life-were these not enough to offer the church if in our “real” lives we were talented enough to manage households, classrooms, consulting firms, banks, government agencies, and more? If we condemn the church for stifling the Spirit-gifts of women, are we also condemning the women themselves who conceded to the system, led singing from their seats, turned “elder’s wife” into an unofficial but powerful leadership role, and found exhausted contentment in the vast array of women’s work required by a church family?

The lesson for women in ever-expanding ministerial roles, then, is something like this: when you are the beneficiary of a Spirit-led sea change and doors begin to open for you, some of the people you find staring back at you will think you took aim at them-they think they are wearing the bull’s eye! The possibilities for hurt on both sides are great. Don’t be afraid to employ all the virtues for which women have traditionally been known: be gentle; be humble; be submissive; be wise. Don’t be afraid to employ all the virtues which have often been seen as men’s special gifts: be truthful; be courageous; be diligent; be smart. Be exactly who God called you to be: His child, His servant.

The lesson for men for whom gender justice sounds like good news is that the discussion cannot only be about “the women’s role in the church.” Gender justice is about their very own roles in the church and at home and in the world; the doors have been flung wide open to reveal a need for men to re-examine their own gifts and the service to which they might be called. In a church that doesn’t make assumptions about who can preach based on gender but rather discerns the gift of proclamation in whomever the Spirit has chosen, what might happen when the cradle-roll class needs a teacher or the Vacation Bible School needs a cookie volunteer for Thursday morning? The answer depends on whether the men of the congregation have grown into the fullness of their humanity right along with the grown women whose knees shake when they read scripture in front of an assembly for the first time.

The lesson, then, for churches moving toward gender justice in the work, worship, and leadership of the congregation is this: it is not enough-or is it way too much?-to open up new areas of service for women without also challenging men to reassess their own lives of service in the kingdom. I long for a time when all the reassessing and reevaluating are finished and we no longer have to remind men that they are eligible to sign up on the nursery duty clipboard that’s being passed around. But churches have much work to do in this area. The person who stands over the Lord’s Supper and quotes 1 Corinthians 11, blessing and breaking the bread in the tradition of our humble messiah, should receive no more honor than the person who comes to church early to squirt grape juice in the little cups or the one who stays late to shake crumbs out of the plates and decide whether the paper doilies will last another week. Who, in this scenario, is the servant of all, the one promised greatness in the kingdom of God (Mark 9:35)? The answer is complicated, for when the speaker, the preparer, and the dishwasher offer humble service according to their gifts and no other criteria, it will be hard to tell.

The second observation I can offer about this string of stories is that the ministry of reconciliation to which I am called (1 Cor. 5:17 ff.) has sometimes been rendered ineffective because my gender provokes conflict.

Here’s how I think about the specific message I’m called to proclaim. The good news Christians have to share is that broken relationships can be healed because of God’s amazing grace. He has poured out grace to close the rift between Himself and His beloved creation. That same grace overflows in our lives so that we can love our fellow human beings in the selfless tradition of Jesus of Nazareth. When we are filled with Jesus’ Spirit, walls come down, anger and resentment drain away, enemies are reconciled, strangers become neighbors, doors are opened. A minister of reconciliation shapes that vocabulary into good news-the best news!-for a disconnected, alienated, bitterly individualistic society.

There’s been enough conflict in my short life to last a long time, and I long now to follow Paul’s exhortation in this life of ministry: “If it is possible, insofar as it depends on you, live peacably with all” (Romans 12:18). So far, God has opened doors that lead to places where it is (mostly) possible to be “just a minister” rather than a woman minister, or a women’s minister, or anything other than the minister of reconciliation I believe He’s called me to be. For the most part, present-day conflict about my vocation has come from strangers rather than members of the congregation I serve: vacationing visitors who get more than they bargained for when they found us in the Yellow Pages; individuals calling the church office to confirm rumors they’ve heard through the “brotherhood” papers; or the entire Southern Baptist Convention as represented on Larry King Live after their recent decision to rein in their most gifted women.

What happens, however, when the minister-messenger, by her very presence, stirs up internal conflict, fear, embarrassment, or resentment in individual members of the congregation to which she is called to serve up a good helping of reconciliation? It does happen. I can announce my intentions from sea to shining sea: “Peace to you who are far off! Peace to you who are near!” (Eph. 2:17). But I have to concede that walking around with this big bull’s eye on my chest makes it look to some like I’d rather fight than reconcile! The “peace” proclamation from my mouth might sound like “Hit me with your best shot,” a challenge rather than a comfort.

What is the lesson, then, as I can change neither my gender nor my calling? Over time I have learned not to seek out conflict, and not to be surprised when it comes despite my best efforts and fervent wishes that it not. Indeed, I have sometimes borne criticism from those who would like to hear me speak out for gender justice in all the churches, rather than rest comfortably in congregations where the battles were fought long before I arrived. From those critics I have learned that to preach reconciliation on Sunday morning may mean that I have to engage in a gender-justice skirmish on Monday afternoon. It may be with a stranger or a member of my congregation, but it should always be for the sake of being true to my calling and for the greater goal of opening doors a little wider for women and men who are peeking through the cracks, waiting to see what’s possible in the upside-down world of God’s kingdom.

Most of all I have learned to be grateful toward those wise and generous women and men who risked their fingers and feet and necks to keep the door from slamming shut on me. What can I do but risk the same to keep open the doors that God unlocks for His children, daughters and sons, every day? This, too, is the ministry of reconciliation, the bringing together of women and men, women and women, women and their gifts, women and their churches. The doors are heavy; the targets painted on all our chests are large and frighteningly visible. But God calls us to this work, this ministry of reconciliation. I’ve never yet seen Him assign a task He didn’t also give us the gifts to do!

Just one more story: Some years ago a man in the Cahaba Valley church in Birmingham was stopped in the grocery store by a fellow from another Church of Christ in town who wanted to confirm the rumors he’d heard. “Is it true,” he asked, “that women served communion in your church last Sunday?” “Hmmà” replied the Cahaba Valley member, “you know, I don’t remember.” That is gender justice. May it come soon for us all.