Basically, I’ve had a lot of people, men and women, affirm my ability and giftedness in teaching the Bible, but due to the traditions of my church, I’ve hit the glass ceiling. It’s been discouraging and incredibly confusing. I guess it’s for me to teach in a classroom, but not from the pulpit. (Although I did once, during youth Sunday. Our Senior pastor was really supportive of me and has championed for me as much as he could, I think. He sat on stage as I ‘preached’.
The time has come that we address these types of emails and questions. Not because this is a cozy and comfortable place for me, but because we find ourselves in the midst of a necessity: the necessity to stop hurting and instead being free. About 10 years ago, we left a megachurch that we were a part of because of the issue of women in ministry. Since then, I have walked this path with great fear, courage, and loneliness. I have been called a heretic, told that my husband and I would inevitably split up because of my refusal to submit, and have been made to believe that everything I taught had to be questioned all because I was a woman. I, too, have always been affirmed in my gifts of teaching and leading but have also hit this same glass ceiling.
Hitting it feels embarrassing. It’s like when you were a kid and asked to sit with the cool kids, only to find out that they weren’t serious. So you are left in the cafeteria by yourself. It feels like total crap, and for me, well my cheeks get hot event thinking about it. To be a part of a community that “affirms” your gifts but then tells you you can only use them in a certain capacity, or with the help of a man, isn’t actually affirming you at all.
Something I have wanted to say for some time now to the women who are stuck in a denomination or community that is pretending to affirm them but aren’t really. This is for the women who believe that Jesus doesn’t hand out gifts to the males first and then the women, but does so without concern for gender. To the women who are deeply convicted by the Scriptures and the Spirit about equality, but constantly feel that they are in conflict with their communities about it: you can leave, and you do not have to belong there. You do not owe a single denomination or church tradition anything. You do not answer to them. You do not find your worth in them, and you certainly do not allow them to dictate your life’s purposes when those purposes are in sharp contrast to what the Spirit has told you, led you and called out in you.
Your worth, your calling, and your freedom can only be found in Christ. And I suspect you (and many, many others) are writing this to me because you are in conflict: what you believe to be true about yourself, what is affirmed by you in others, is in direct conflict with the path that is in front of you. When this happens, it is time to evaluate the church community and tradition you are a part of, and decide if you can stay.
Over the past ten years I have been involved in a handful of churches, and we often settled for ones that believed women were gifted (to an extent) and allowed me to exercise these gifts in a certain capacity. This looked like having a male literally sit with me on stage while I preached, or “sharing my story” instead of teaching the Bible. At the time, it felt like progress and felt like freedom, but you guys, it’s not. It’s not either of those things. Hear me when I say this: anytime your worth as a woman, your giftedness and calling, I do not care if it is in teaching the church, mothering your children, being a student or a Barista at Starbucks, but anytime you are defined by your male counterpart; this is not affirmation. This is not freedom. This is actually chains and hurt that is wrapped up in God language. This is suppression and oppression. It is hiding half of the Kingdom. It is nothing different than a community that refuses to count any other minority as equal.
You have permission to recognize it, call it out, and find a healthy, breathing community.
Now hear me when I say this: there are many, many churches who are doing great things in the name of Jesus who do not think that women can lead and teach. You may even belong to one of them. These places are not all bad, their people and their leadership are not bad. you simply have a different conviction about women in ministry and it is only you who can decide if you want to belong to a church that stands in conflict with this conviction. For some, it is not a deal breaker. And so I say: stay. But for others, this is eating away at you, you are conflicted, you are worn out from fighting this battle and you literally feel “less than”. If that is you, it is time to leave.
I have spent way too long in churches being made to feel less than my male counterparts simply because I am a woman. I have fought internal battles of womanhood: self-image, shame, depression and the on-going assessment that I am not a good enough wife or mother because I believe that women are equal. And all because I have been told that my belief on the topic or desire to want to lead and teach is un-biblical and I am out of line. I lived far too long believing that lie, which lead me to constantly pick apart myself and my worth until there was nothing left but pieces.
Old habits die hard, and traditions don’t die at all. In communities, where the conviction that women are not equal to men is strong, it is going to stay that way. It is not going anywhere. For many churches, building a belief and a community upon patriarchy is a deeply seeded and rooted belief that holds up many other pillars of understanding God and his Kingdom. If it were to fall, the rest would crumble and many churches are not going to walk this path. This is not your battle to fight. This is your battle to notice and walk away with peace and grace.
You will never win this war, ladies, because you were not designed to. You weren’t even designed to fight it in the first place. God created you unique and beautiful and gave you a gift as an invitation to join in His kingdom work the way that He sees fit. Not in the ways that your denomination or anyone else sees fit. Him. Your gifts, your womanhood, your calling are all invitations from the Creator all carry unique parts of Him that no one else can. Men and women were designed differently for the very reason that we both reflect God in different ways. You simply were not designed to fight a battle trying to prove your worth to man, when only God can affirm this. And you certainly weren’t meant to choose between believing and trusting in who God made you to be and who the church says you should be.
We have decided as a family that we no longer will attend a church regularly that doesn’t affirm women in full capacity ministry. We can’t do it. For starters, its damaging to the Kingdom of God and to the women who are being put in boxes, but we also in good conscious can’t have our children see a church that is only led by half the Kingdom. What does a church that only has male leadership teach my children about what it means to be a man? Or what does it teach my children about what it means to be a woman?
We don’t attend a church that is skewed male simply because I happen to be a gifted speaker and teacher. We do it because we believe that the person of God is best displayed in both male and female, and that His Kingdom always promotes equality and justice. We believe that society offers a picture of women as objects in which men can do as they please, and that women must submit to their desires and their ideas to those of men. And the Church is meant to be a light on hill, and has a place of refuge and peace to offer when women are seen as equal parts in ushering in the Kingdom. What type of witness would it be to the world if the Church refused to play by those rules and instead brought equality, justice, and respect to the table? What type of generation would follow?
These are questions that we intend to answer in words and example to our children: men and women are a pair, a partnership that is gifted uniquely and beautifully and there is plenty of room for both boys and girls at the table. Because right now its boys and girls on the playground and one day it will be men and women in the pew.
No matter how well-meaning people are, no matter how kind and generous and wonderful they are, that is not the message that we are going to send our kids. Nor is it one that we are going to listen to ourselves.
There are many good and well-meaning churches who are wonderful that don’t allow women in leadership roles. That’s is ok. But that doesn’t have to be the cross that I bear, nor does it have to be yours. It is ok to step away from a community who is hurting you and into a community that welcomes you. I have learned that convictions run deep, traditions maybe even deeper and your desire to fight that battle with those people will end in ruin and scars, many of which will drive you away from the Church entirely. It is not worth it.
If you feel like you have hit a ceiling; you have. If you feel like you aren’t really affirmed, you probably aren’t. If your heart breaks to leave a group of people that you love and love you and are doing kingdom work in many ways; you are not alone. You can stay, absolutely. But hear me in this: If you choose to stay and are conflicted about doing so, you feel like you are not allowed to be yourself or there are limits and caveats in being who God made you to be, then staying means that you are deciding to put part of yourself away, into a box, that can only be opened on certain Sundays and by certain men.
Leaving will take prayer, it will take hard conversations and it will be lonely. You will be wandering like lost sheep for a bit, but you will land, eventually. And you will find freedom: freedom to be yourself, freedom to use your gifts, and freedom from the shame and the guilt and the un-worthiness that you are battling right now.
It will be hard, but it will be worth it. You only answer to God, sister.