[Part 2 here.]
Earlier this week, I tweeted this:
I was surprised by the response, mostly affirming that this may in fact be the case. I admit that it was kind of a shot in the dark. I also admit that this is not a particular area of academic expertise or extensive experience for me.
Because of that, I want to frame this two-part series as a similar kind of proposal, rather than a definitive word on the subject. I want to make two primary suggestions, and then ask two big questions to those who are more knowledgable and experienced than I in this area.
But in this first post, I’ll focus on giving some background on why I’m venturing into this territory in the first place.
My Patriarchal Past
The fact is, I have past experience with patriarchal understandings of gender in the church and family. While my parents weren’t particularly vocal about gender roles, in practice there was a rather clear delineation about what a wife/mother should do and how a wife/mother should act. And when I began cutting my young adult teeth on Reformed theology, eventually settling in a VERY Reformed Baptist church with strict complementarian views, I became pretty vocal, in a Mark Driscoll kind of way, about how women/wives should act and think.
Sadly, my Reformed thinking was at its peak about the time that I got married. As my wife and I worked through some challenging compatibility issues during those first few years, it did not help one bit that I had some strong Calvinist complementarian tendencies, expecting Kalen to just fall into line. The molds presented by our Reformed church and by my family of origin were both very hard my wife, who does not fit those molds and found herself in a restricted and – I now realize – oppressed position.
And where our marriage was suffering from this perspective at one level, we witnessed the lives of women in the church suffering to a much greater degree. As Kalen and I slowly began to adjust our thinking, we began to see just how oppressive the complementarianism of that particular church was to the women of the church, with such an intense pressure to conform that I worry for them to this day. The Stepford comparison isn’t far off the mark (and I now realize this is true in many conservative/fundamentalist evangelical churches).
What I have witnessed in myself over the last 8 years or so is a deep change in how I view women, especially my wife, in relation to home, church, and life in general. Accordingly, our marriage has blossomed into something that I am certain would not have been possible had my mind not changed in this area. It is a true equal partnership, where I find myself happy to be wrong because I so value the wisdom of my wife. Earlier tonight was one of those times; where once I would have bristled at her “stubbornness,” instead I found myself reminded of just how much I need her leadership. (This happens often.)
Likewise, I find myself a committed defender of her freedom, and have been put in that position on several occasions in recent years with both church and family. Where I see a threat to her integrity, independence, and full humanity, I can’t help but stand up to it. And she has done the same for me.
I would add here that when I talk about that old patriarchal thinking/environments, I am not talking about overtly abusive behavior. But this is precisely the point: the issue of gender and power in the church is typically more subtle than that. Yet the effects are, in fact, oppressive, and until people in the Christian community are willing to admit that, we will get nowhere in this conversation – of that I’m sure. (And don’t misunderstand – all kinds of abuse can be justified if that subtle veneer remains intact, as this infamous video attests.)
The Beyonce Effect
Another thing to note by way of introduction is the Beyonce effect. Namely, Beyonce performed for the Super Bowl halftime show this past Sunday, and the internet was abuzz with interpretations of her performance on Monday. Some saw it as a defiant display of feminine power in the face of male-driven consumerism; others saw it as nothing more than a sexist, racist abuse of power by those manipulating Beyonce to entertain white men. Wherever you land (and I just can’t help feeling like the performance was kind of awesome), the point is that the church is talking about this issue in the wider culture as well, not just within its four walls.
In other words, it’s pretty clear that in both the church and the culture, male (not to mention white) power and privilege is a thing.
The Emergent Answer
Lastly, framing this conversation requires that we look at the other side, too – not just the conservative complementarian problem, but the progressive emergent answer. The internet has been helpful here as well, showing that similar issues of power and privilege may exist even in a more progressive environment. When emergent leader Tony Jones posted, “Where Are the Women?” he got more than he bargained for – namely, actual women actually speaking their minds about why they don’t care to interact on his blog. Tony made two pretty huge mistakes in this process: 1) he posted from a position of power (confronting female readers on why they don’t comment, as if they ought to), and 2) becoming defensive and dismissive when honest answers were given.
The whole debacle prompted Christian culture satirist Stephanie Drury to get dead serious in her post, “Covert Misogyny”, which went rather viral. She begins:
For as inclusive and LGBTQ-friendly the progressive Church likes to imagine itself, there are still deep, linty pockets of gender bias and old habits that haven’t been broken. And how could they be, if no one has pointed them out? Actually, I take that back. How could the Church realize its biases if if the people in positions of power won’t entertain the possibility that they have them? The tragic truth is that the people in power do not need to realize their biases if they don’t elect to, and there’s the rub.
In other words, the progressive church’s value of “inclusion” may be just as blinding as conservative exclusion, in that it is an ideology within an institution that is built upon deeply ingrained male power and privilege. In this way, the institution may pride itself on “including” or “letting” women lead, while it does so from a position of male privilege (and without even knowing it).
Stephanie’s suspicions seemed confirmed a couple weeks later when female emergent pioneer Phyllis Tickle delivered a plenary at the Emergence Christianity conference that devastated feminist attenders. There has been trouble on the emergent homefront since then.
Going back to my initial tweet, the question is whether missional anabaptist (radical) evangelicals might have an answer to this problem that the other two camps can’t seem to grasp. I’m not sure if we do, or if we really know that we do; but I suspect there is something in the DNA of this third, radical way that may be a powerful force for moving the church forward in confirming the freedom and full humanity of the sisters in her midst.
More on that tomorrow…but what are your thoughts today?