(I’ve shared or mentioned this story here before, but it’s been a while, and recent events seem to suggest it’s time to share it again.)
My grandmother’s funeral was huge, overflowing the local Presbyterian church where she was a member for decades. My family — my father was Grandma’s only child, and Granddad died before I was born — stood in a kind of receiving line at the front as hundreds of people filed past. We didn’t know most of them, but they all knew us, her four grandchildren, from the photographs and stories she had shown them over the years.
The crowd was mostly women — the women from Grandma’s Bible studies. This was what she did and who she was: A woman who taught Bible studies for other women, not just at her church, but all over the place. And because of that, Grandma was an important and influential regional leader in the church.
She would have disapproved of that last sentence because she was also a rather stern fundamentalist with a long list of things of which she disapproved. Near the top of that list was the idea that women could be leaders, especially not in the church. That’s why her women’s Bible studies were for women only. “Suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve.” I Timothy 2:12-13. In the King James, of course.
Grandma owned many other translations, too, including a Living Bible, which I think she viewed with suspicion. I still have, and still treasure, a Bible she used for preparing her Bible study classes. It’s so heavily annotated with her notes and marginalia that I think of it as Grandma’s Commentary. If you ever need an alliterative three-point summary of any Bible story or passage, let me know. It’s right there in Grandma’s Bible.
And I do mean any story — Grandma had a flair for mining the obscure corners of the Bible and highlighting characters and stories far beyond the usual greatest hits from Sunday school. She’d quiz me and teach me about those characters when I was kid, while we played board games after Sunday dinners at our house. (Grandma always lost at “Mastermind” because her hidden pegs were always red and yellow, black and white.)
As a kid, I knew that Grandma taught Sunday school at her church, and sometimes at other churches. And I knew that she sometimes traveled to Bible conferences and taught at Bible camps. But I didn’t grasp the full extent of her reach and her ministry until all those women showed up at her funeral. (“Ministry” is my word, not hers. She didn’t believe in “women’s ministry.”) Through her far-ranging network of women’s Bible studies, Grandma was basically a circuit-riding preacher — with a tan Nash Rambler instead of a horse — preaching (again, my word, not hers) throughout the frontier of North Jersey.
Grandma’s strict, fundamentalist interpretation of the clobber texts from Corinthians and the pastoral epistles meant that she was what we’d now call a “complementarian.” She was patriarchal through and through. I don’t think she ever questioned that, even though her witness and her own gifts and calling seemed to demonstrate that it was wrong. That’s part of why, I think, her son came to embrace a more egalitarian view of women in ministry and women in the church.*
Another item high on the list of “worldly” things my grandmother disapproved of was divorce. Divorce, she insisted, was simply never an option for Christians. No exceptions. This was part of why her son, my father, didn’t do divorce law in his private practice as an attorney.Except for when he did. And when he did, it was usually pro bono and usually at Grandma’s request.
Because this is something else I learned years later about all those circuit-riding women’s Bible studies Grandma organized and led and taught over the years. They didn’t only talk about the Bible. They would also talk about their lives, their families, their husbands. And some of those husbands were abusive. Sometimes women would show up to Bible study bearing the signs of that abuse. Grandma had learned to notice those signs, and she had learned how to ask about them. Sometimes a woman would abruptly stop showing up, and Grandma had also learned that this was sometimes another one of those signs.
This abuse was another item very high on the list of things Grandma disapproved of. It was something she simply would not abide.
So Grandma would get into that tan Rambler and drive to the woman’s house where she’d help pack some bags before hauling her and the children off to a retreat center run by Pietist “deaconesses” (Pietist nuns, more or less*). This was a safe place — a largely overlooked place run by women whom Grandma admired because those sisters knew how to pray.
After she was sure the woman and her children were safe, Grandma would call her son the lawyer and he would get started filing the paperwork.
Grandma’s no-exceptions policy on divorce was an absolute rule, but it wasn’t her only absolute rule. And when that absolute rule clashed with another one — the rule that said women must be kept safe from the men who would harm them — she didn’t hesitate.
Throughout her life, Grandma insisted that she, as a woman, must never “usurp authority” by teaching men in the church. I think she was wrong about that. I think there are a lot of men wielding authority in the church who could still learn a lot from my grandmother. And they need to learn it urgently.
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* I’ve mentioned before the way this caused a delightful paradox for the patriarchal fundies at my own church. My mother agreed with Grandma on this point. She also taught Sunday school, but also only for women — teaching the “Berachah” class, better-known as the “Old Ladies class,” for decades, until she was finally one of the old ladies herself. Mom’s faithfulness to the required, approved stance on women in the church was commended. My father’s stance was perceived as dangerous. It was therefore viewed as correct that Mom disagreed with Dad on this spiritual matter, yet the same patriarchal, “complementarian” perspective required that the husband must be the “spiritual head” of the wife, and therefore it could never be right that my mother should ever disagree with my father about the Bible. Trying to figure out whether it was acceptable for my mother to disagree with my father’s heretical view that it was acceptable for her to disagree with him caused some of our fellow church-members to get trapped in a logical feedback loop like the robots in some old science fiction movie. Does not compute. Does not compute. Doesss … (whirr, clank).
** I used to think, mistakenly, that this was an Episcopal or Anglican convent. The sisters’ habit of habit-like dress threw me off. But nope, they’re actually German Pietists, an order tracing back to Phillip Spener in the 17th century. I’ve been cagey about naming that place, because I’m sure they’re still ministering to women in the same way they did back in Grandma’s day and a certain anonymity is necessary for that work. But their history is interesting, and the more I learn of it — their work included creating networks of women’s Bible studies — the more I suspect those sisters influenced my grandmother’s own ministry more than I realized.