Fed Up with “The Church”? Try a Different One (Maybe Even in the Mainline!)

In a hugely popular post titled “Confessions of an Accidental Feminist,” blogger, author, and evangelical upstart (in a good way) Rachel Held Evans shared this quote from her exasperated husband:

“It seems to me that the only thing you have to do to be controversial in the Church is to say something true and be a woman at the same time.”

This statement was so lusciously tweetable because it speaks to many evangelical women’s experiences. Within American evangelicalism are people advocating for traditional “Biblical” roles for women (that is, as homemakers and supporters of their head-of-household husbands) as well as people who consider themselves feminists and who advocate for an egalitarian model of marriage. When people with such different worldviews attempt to abide and converse within the same religious community, fireworks can result. In such an environment, many women indeed feel that their contributions to the fraught conversations over how we are to live as Christians are judged more harshly, and given far less weight, than the contributions of their male counterparts. Rachel Held Evans’s relatively moderate views on women and social issues are regularly branded as dangerously radical feminist vitriol by some evangelicals. I’ve privately conversed with a number of women writers who feel that the work they produce for major evangelical publications is judged differently, and more harshly, than work produced by men.

That said, though, I wondered what Evans’s husband meant by “the Church.” I assume he was referring broadly to “evangelicalism” itself.

But evangelicalism isn’t a church. It’s a movement. There hasn’t been any such thing as “the Church” since the 16th century. Rather, there are movements, denominations, and most fundamentally, congregations. Even those of us who engage regularly with diverse Christians through writing and speaking must ultimately, for reasons practical and philosophical, align ourselves with the movement, denomination, and local congregation that best embody our vision of what it means to be “the church” (lower case “c,” because there is such a thing as “the church” if we’re talking about the larger body of Christ that incorporates all Christian believers).

While I am sympathetic to those who wish to bring reforms, of feminist and other natures, to the evangelical movement, I also want to remind those who are fed up with how women and their voices are welcomed (or not) in evangelical churches, publications, and conversations that there are many churches (that is, movements, denominations, and congregations) where women and other marginalized groups (such as LGBT Christians) don’t have to fight for respect, equality, and a voice. I think many frustrated evangelicals would be amazed (and breathe some huge sighs of relief) to discover that issues that are hot within their circles are non-issues for many other dedicated Christians. And that Christians of an evangelical bent can find a home alongside those other dedicated Christians, even in communities that don’t define themselves overtly as “evangelical.”

A friend recently attended an intensive several-day training run by the mainline Presbyterian Church-USA. When she returned from training, she wrote to me, “What a relief/surprise to hang out with (and be working for!)…Christians who’ve never heard of [Mark] Driscoll or [John] Piper.” I’m familiar with that sense of relief myself. Every time Driscoll, Piper, or one of their ilk makes some misogynistic comment that gets the evangelical blogosphere all riled up, I am free to ignore it. No one I go to church with even knows who they are.

When a writing colleague described an interview project she is undertaking, to share stories of women doing extraordinary faith-based work, she mentioned that she was interviewing a man and woman who are co-pastoring a congregation. She planned to ask this team how such a partnership works: How do you co-pastor a church as man and woman when you’re not married to each other? It took me a few minutes to figure out why I found that question so odd. Then it dawned on me: Every church I’ve attended over the past 13 years has had both male and female ordained ministers on staff. The fact that these colleagues were of opposite genders, but not married, was simply not a topic of conversation. After all, don’t most of us work in environments where men and women are colleagues?

I offer these snapshots not to disrespect those who are working within the evangelical tradition to examine gender roles. I support any evangelical theologian, pastor, or writer, of either gender, who takes on the likes of Driscoll and Piper. As a believer in the power of story, I support my colleague’s effort to tell the stories of women whose contributions are changing the face of evangelicalism, including women who are co-pastoring churches with men.

Rather, I share these snapshots to illustrate that many American Christians are living a lively faith within vibrant faith communities, without having to argue for full inclusion and respect for all people, and without having to navigate many of the gender-related controversies that occupy evangelicals.

If you are fed up with churches in which all you have to do to be controversial is to be a woman who speaks her mind, I invite you to find a different church.

Contrary to some stereotypes, mainline American churches are not repositories of chilly, rote religion practiced by people more interested in tradition than the movement of the Spirit. I attend an Episcopal Church that occupies prime real estate in my relatively wealthy town’s quaint and trendy town center, where you have many options for buying your afternoon latte or some designer yogawear. I’ll admit to occasional frustrations with attending an “establishment” church. Our church baptizes many, many babies every year….and many of those babies’ families rarely ever come to church after the deed is done. Now and then, I’ll talk to someone in my church who is clearly a “cultural Epsicopalian,” who comes to church for the ritual and music and social contact, but doesn’t put much stock in the whole resurrection thing. Many mainliners—perhaps especially tradition-bound Episcopalians—can get a little squirmy when we experiment with new types of music, liturgy, or language. And the Episcopal Church at large is not free of controversy over issues related to gender and sexual orientation.

But there is something beautiful about our congregation’s desire to welcome anyone who asks to have their baby baptized in our church. Our church claims to practice the “radical hospitality” of Jesus. What could be more radical within a traditional Christian community than welcoming those who are unsure of how far they want to commit to this Christianity thing?

If my “cultural Epsicopalian” brothers and sisters gain some measure of peace, contentment, or inspiration from weekly attendance at worship, then I thank God that they are finding such sustenance within the church instead of somewhere else. And I thank God too for my fellow parishioners for whom faith is a living thing, their last best hope. My church has connected me with many people who will gladly talk about God’s sustaining them through the worst kind of suffering, or the wisdom of the Spirit coming from the mouth of a preschooler, or how our church has become the family they were so desperately seeking before they stepped through our bright red doors.

Sometimes I miss the energetic, informal worship and easy Jesus talk of my evangelical college fellowship. But I’ve gladly traded those things for a church where the Jesus talk is a little more subdued, but no less vital, and where the gender (or sexual orientation, for that matter) of those doing the talking matters not at all.

 

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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.


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