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.

  • KSP

    Boy, almost enough to make me (a content evangelical) want to go Episcopalian. :)

    Great points, Ellen.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      You’re always welcome to join us Anglicans!

  • http://Www.kewp.blogspot.com Katherine Willis Pershey

    Amen. I have started participating in these recent gender conversations for two primary reasons – to be in solidarity, and to reintroduce the existence of the mainline to this subculture of the Christian world that seems to have forgotten we are still here.

    Thanks for this, Ellen.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      “…to be in solidarity, and to reintroduce the existence of the mainline to this subculture of the Christian world that seems to have forgotten we are still here.”

      Yes, and yes.

      Thanks Katherine.

  • lesa Engelthaler

    wow. loved. thanks Ellen!

  • http://heaveninmyfoot.com Priscilla

    thank you so much for this post. I have felt the exact same things myself reading her blog. the term “the Church” seems to be used on her blog as a synonym for the Evangelical movement, which is frankly a little insulting to the rest of us. I am very glad for what she’s doing, but I have also sometimes felt reading her words and those of many of her commenters: “you know, lots of us just don’t have these problems and we are also the church. So maybe you should just go to another church.”

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Priscilla – I have had your name (and your blog name) in the Notes section of my iPhone for months now, after my (female!) pastor Julia told me about you. Honored to have you stop by and comment here. Now I’m off to check out your blog!


  • Dave

    > I invite you to find a different church.

    That would be much easier to do if people posted their ratings, like on Amazon.

    So to start off the reviews:

    I’d have to give the LDS church five stars for practicing the “radical hospitality” of Jesus.

    They put that hospitality front-and-center because every LDS church I’ve ever seen has a prominent, permanent “Visitors Welcome” sign.

    Anyone can go to an LDS church and get food, clothing, shelter, medical help, request prison visits, etc, and those duties aren’t delegated to a pastor or other leader, they’re handled by the congregation members, each according to their abilities. They minister to the body before ministering to the soul.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    I love it too when I talk to other believers who have never heard of those popular but controversial pastors, Ellen. It’s refreshing, even.

    That said, like Karen above I am a content evangelical. Evangelicalism seems to have a decidedly complementarian stamp, though, which makes me feel like a fish out of water when it comes to church roles – an egal in a comp milieu. So I guess my contentment is incomplete. It’ll probably be that way over one thing or another until Christ returns or takes me home.

    Nice job with this, Ellen.


    P.S. Shameless self-promotion: I started a blog today and the world may never be the same. Linked it through my name abov.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Great news Tim!

  • http://rachelmariestone.com Rachel Marie Stone

    As a person who was raised evangelical but is being sent in mission by a mainline denomination, I have to add a hearty ‘amen’: my organization aims to address the root causes of poverty, be agents for peace, and share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. It’s hard to get more Jesusy than that, IMO. Plus, in many mainline churches/worship gatherings we even sing the same Jesusy songs as they sing in evangelical churches! Who knew, right?

  • Dave

    > … my organization aims to address the root causes of poverty, be agents for peace, and share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ …

    To help those who may be trying to “find a different church” and who find those aims worthy, what mainline denomination is that?

    • http://rachelmariestone.com Rachel Marie Stone

      Hi Dave–I work for the Presbyterian (USA) Mission Agency. Of course, all views and opinions are my own–I’m not speaking in an official capacity. But I do think I work for a great organization that’s doing excellent work! ;)

      • Dave

        Thanks! I’ve never been to a Presbyterian church, but your enthusiasm inspired me to at least visit the Presbyterian website. It sounds like challenging times for the 20 Presbyterian congregations in Syria.

  • http://charityjilldenmark.wordpress.com Charity Jill

    I have heard this criticism of Evans many times in other blog posts and in her comment section. I can’t speak for her, but for me, this criticism is problematic. Just as there is an “Episcopalian culture” that you touch on in this post, there is an Evangelical culture (which you also touch on at the end, with the comment about missing the music). I can understand why some people might think that another person’s cultural affinity for the Evangelical church is frivolous and that they should just “get over it” and join a different tradition, but for many people it is just too wrenching a thought to give up that part of their identity. It’s like saying to an Italian-American, “Sick of all the drama? Sick of the meatballs? What’s so great about being Italian anyway? Just be a German-American. Sure, we won’t suffer you to express your emotions, and you’ll have to eat a lot of potatoes, but we’re nice people at the end of it.” I’m just not convinced that the solution you offer in this post is so simple and easy.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      I’m not suggesting that anyone’s affinity for evangelicalism is frivolous. I am suggesting that:

      1) People be careful with their language and the assumptions that language can reveal. American evangelicalism is a particular Christian subculture. It is not “the Church.” There are choices out there for faithful people who wish to be part of a vibrant faith community where women are valued as equals.

      2) We all need to make choices about our church affiliations based on what is important to us. I often miss the cultural trappings of evangelicalism. But any time I have looked into evangelical churches in my area, I’ve realized I would be worshipping in a church that does not hold the same values as I do when it comes to gender, sexual orientation, social issues, poverty, and more. I’ve decided that those values, which stem from my understanding of Christ’s gospel, are more important than music or prayer or conversational styles. Other people may decide that affinity for the evangelical culture is primary for them, and choose to work within evangelicalism to break down gender stereotypes. I absolutely support people who do that.

      I just ask that they acknowledge, in their language and assumptions, that they are making a choice to work for change from within one particular Christian subculture, rather than seeking out one of the many vibrant Christian churches, movements, and subcultures where they would be welcomed. I know quite a few evangelicals who are quite happy as Episcopalians or being affiliated with other mainline traditions.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      Also want to make clear that I don’t intend this as a criticism of Rachel. I am a fan. Rather, it is an attempt to add to the conversation and offer a different perspective. Also to be a geek about accurate use of terms/language.

  • http://www.churchabusepoetrytherapy.com alice

    Eight years ago on my birthday, I was voted out of membership in a church, after 36 years of verbal and physical abuse …I allowed the x to live in my house afterward, and that was their reason; I fought the system for 18 months. In the end, my name was put up on a big screen, followed by the word, “Conduct Unbecoming a Child of God. I was called to a meeting of deacons and not allowed to have a woman with me. Asked: “Are you still having sex with your ex?!

    The x abuser was not called to any meeting. I cannot bear to go to any church or hear any religious words, after going to church for 60 years.

    What they did to me changed my life forever, and I cannot heal from it.

    • Judy

      If you are alive you can still heal. You may still bear scars, but God is not finished. Don’t let a small group of jackasses control you moving forward. You are giving these people way too much power in your current life when you’re not even part of their church anymore.

    • Joy

      I’m so sorry that happened to you. I will pray for you.

  • Dave

    > … 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.

    According to statistics from a quick internet search, almost 2/3 of churchgoers are women, and personally the only guys I know who attend church are either dragged by their wives, outright gay, or suspiciously uninterested in women.

    So at least numerically, it seems that churches mostly marginalize heterosexual men.

    Do you know of any church where heterosexual men are in the majority, or are even close to being represented in the same proportion as in the general population?

    (Note to Ellen: sorry for posts, but that’s just the way I am! Please feel free to ban me, because the last thing I want to do is cause you any more hassle in your life. You obviously devote a lot of care and thought to your writing, so if I’m taking from that more than I’m returning, I’d be happy to stop posting and just read.)

    • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

      “… personally the only guys I know who attend church are either dragged by their wives, outright gay, or suspiciously uninterested in women.”

      You need to meet more Christian guys, Dave!


      • Dave

        I think that most of the guys I know would say they are Christian. Which is different from being church-going.

  • Eva

    I’m fortunate to attend a church that has ordained women since 1977 ( actually, not fortunate; it was one of the reasons I chose this denomination as my first church visit) and the names you mentioned ( Driscoll, etc) would be met with no recognition there, also. And the ‘easy Jesus talk’ tends to make me nervous ;) so I’m happy without that. But, like you, gender and sexuality are non- issues. We are both lucky!


  • Mary

    Sometimes I really feel out of the loop when I don’t know who the most recent evangelical pastor is. I had to look up on wikipedia who the heck Discoll and Piper actually were. The evangelical movement is something that many of my acquaintances are really into, and I just feel like the unpopular kid in the corner when people start up conversations about it. :) It was nice to learn about it since it’s something new to me. Thanks for the article.

  • Stuart

    Sorry for intruding, but bumped into your site by researching evangelical attitudes to gun control; which seem to be the more the better.
    Anyway, like you, I’m now looking at evangelicalism in the rear view mirror. Isn’t it great to know that, now when some talking head declares a culture war, you don’t have to go? I’m now in a vibrant, spiritually-rich diocese. There is no war on women here. And I’m amazed at the number of disillusioned exiles who have wound up their wandering in the post-evangelical wilderness, with TEC here in Houston. Could mainline churches – long both the whipping boys of evangelicals – be experiencing fresh winds of change towards Jesus-shaped community? I hope and pray this diaspora signals a continuing movement of the Spirit, because the time seems ripe, and we can look forward to learning much from each other.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      That’s a beautiful sentiment. Thanks for stopping by and offering this perspective!

  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    There aren’t too many churches that know how to properly separate the law from the gospel. Many don’t even know what the gospel is. So many seem to be on a self-improvement project or a save the world project.
    Many are the Republican Party at prayer, and the rest seem to be the Democratic Party at prayer.

    I’m fortunate to have found a small mainline church that knows it’s job. Kill the sinner (to any pretensions of goodness for righteousness sake)…and then hand Christ over, with NO strings attached.

    Obviously, are church is not well attended.

  • lane johnson

    Amen,sister! I’ve been wanting to say this so long. Yes, we have issues and we struggle with living up to our calling, but,as a woman,I know my voice carries equal weight.

  • http://www.beingabranch.com Erin

    I grew up in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Honestly, it has only been in the past several years (and largely because of meeting and marrying my husband who grew up in an evangelical tradition) that I have even realized the depths of these issues in other denominations. It was a bit of a shock to me, that I still find a bit confounding…(wait…women can’t be pastors?). I’m so thankful for the PCUSA church and that I grew up believing gender equality to be standard.

  • http://! Joy

    Hi Ellen, I’m one of those people that went from evangelical conservative presby church to the PCUSA in the past year, due in part to the encouragement of people like Rachel. I’m only 25 years old – I had been a member of that church for three years and in the “movement” for about three years before that. And Let me tell you, even with my relatively young age, it was HARD to leave. Part of the problem is exactly as you point out —no one understands. No one understands the constant invalidation of your concerns, being told you’re neurotic, being told you’re loveless/disrespectful/in need of submissiveness/easily deceived, and pain of leaving people you actually love. In fact, they not only understand, the reaction to talking about it is not favorable. So in addition to all the self-hatred from being constantly invalidated at the other church, I felt shame. I consider myself a tough girl -but nothing really prepares you for the hazing on both sides. (I am seeing a therapist. This load is a lot for a fellow layperson to bear.) And just think how easy it should have been -I’m a convert and so young! Its not hard for me to imagine how most people can’t -or can’t begin to think of -leaving.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      The “hazing” as you describe it adds another level to something that is difficult by nature—leaving a community you care about. When the community lashes out at you….I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been. And on the other end, I think that some mainline folk hold stereotypes about evangelicals and might not always be welcoming or open to someone with that background. I try to chip away at those stereotypes whenever I can, but they run deep. Thanks for sharing your story and you’re right…leaving is not easy.

  • elizabeth

    Hey Ellen,

    Found your blog via Rachel Held Evans — love her too. And just wanted to say that I’ve just made this change in my own life. After spending YEARS in the evangelical church I got tired of fighting to be heard. Now I’m loving the people and the worship and the community at a big old mainline church. Hurrah. My only question….what took me so long???


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