As I mentioned in a previous post, there were always things about the type of Christianity with which I grew up that I either didn’t understand or didn’t find resonant. One such thing was the place and role of women, both within a romantic (heterosexual, of course) relationship and within the church.
Like many tenets of my inherited religious tradition, the status of women was taught much more implicitly than explicitly. I have no memories of sermons concerning gender roles from my childhood, which I suppose is not surprising as I imagine many pastors steer clear of that topic to the greatest extent possible. And, of course, the pastors who want to steer clear of it are usually males still participating in a “traditional” set-up, because any church that ordains women is probably not afraid to tackle the subject, and has probably been doing so for quite a while.
In any case, though there were certainly plenty of working women (and single women, and childless women) in the congregation of my youth, they did not tend to be leaders, per se. They were often teachers, as was the case in most of my Sunday school classes, and even more often office workers at the church. But pastors? In many--if not most--Baptist churches, that was a big “No." Now, were women specifically told to stay in their place? Not that I recall. However, the expectation that as a woman I was meant to ultimately defer to the men in my life--most especially my future husband--was clear.
As a child, and even as a teenager (and let’s be honest, even as a young adult), this concept actually did not bother me. It probably helped that I simply didn’t think about it that much due to the fact that my dating life was sparser than sparse. It wasn’t until after college, when I dove into the practice of “submission” with a young man I truly thought I was on my way to marrying, that I realized I didn’t know how to do it. Not without losing myself completely and becoming embarrassingly, stereotypically crazy, that is. Horror of horrors: I was not good at relationships.
Truth is I was not good at what the Christians often call “complementarian” relationships, in which women and men have specific and pre-ordained roles, with the man acting as “head of the household”. I’ve since learned that I’m actually okay with sucking at those kinds of relationships, because it means that I’m more inclined toward what many Evangelicals disdainfully refer to as an “egalitarian” relationship, and what I call “healthy”. But at the time, knowing that I was not one to submit to a man--any man--left me feeling like an outsider within the church (one of many things that had such an effect) and had me questioning my femininity--whatever that means--like whoa.
In seminary, I attended a couple of slightly more progressive churches that tried to make the whole ‘women submitting to men’ thing okay by also emphasizing the verse, which comes right after the one dealing with women, that says “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). So, you see, we’re equally worthy in the eyes of God! Yes, men and women still have specific roles, but there is mutual surrender!
This new perspective didn’t sit well with me, though, and I couldn’t figure out why. The logic seemed fallacious, but where was the fallacy, exactly? Where was the hole? It slowly dawned on me. Who was Christ to the church? The leader; the root of it all. So to say a husband’s selflessness in marriage is qualitatively the same as, “Women, submit yourselves to your husbands, for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church” is just bullshit. He still gets to be the leader, and is clearly meant to be seen as the more powerful and authoritative figure. I call foul.
To be fair, there are many--well, at least a few--Christian denominations that see this verse and others like it within their historic context (in which women were considered property) and choose not to believe that hierarchical gender roles are God’s will. When I, on occasion, show up at church--a lingering habit I’ll write more about later--I attend one such gathering. The progression is nice, but to be honest, it doesn’t make up for the religion-based sexism I and others have encountered and continue to encounter on a regular basis.
Also, while I was trying to determine the healthiest way to see myself as both a Christian and a woman, a new question emerged: if we have to start explaining stuff away, thanks to historical contingencies or whatever, what exactly is left? As we peel away the anachronistic layers, at what point do we get to the essence of “Christianity”? What if it’s all anachronistic?
What if it’s all bullshit?