Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Confessions of a Former Complementarian

"You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means."  ~ Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride

I've come across a lot of anti-woman sentiment lately.  Some of the more conservative members of my denomination have a Facebook group that I occasionally look at when I'm in the mood to get good and mad; this week some of them took a (startlingly brief) break from blasting the evil homosexual agenda to share some of the grief with the evil feminist agenda.  Then I met a random guy at my hangout of choice who, out of nowhere, with no idea that I am a minister, announced that he was against women in church leadership.  He made a valiant attempt to out-Bible me, which is always fun.  And then there have been a slew of articles like this interview of Mark Driscoll, in which he reveals himself to be arrogant, pushy, and fairly unconcerned with facts, and this article from The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, in which femininity and females are characterized as all manner of negative things, including imbeciles.  Different but equal, eh?

So, I was a complementarian once.  At least, I tried to be, back in the day when the only people I knew who seemed to take Christian faith seriously were the tribe of campus fundamentalists.  I tried very hard for two years.  Really.  I had had one of those wacky, dramatic conversion experiences, and I thought their path was the one I needed to follow, too.  They told me a lot of things about what the Bible said.  They told me it said that I should stop hanging out with my gay friends unless I was evangelizing them.  They told me it said that people who didn't have a personal relationship with Jesus were going to hell.  And they told me it said that women were supposed to be submissive to men, that husbands were supposed to rule their households, that women were not allowed to teach men or hold any position in the church that might be considered higher than a man.

Then they taught me to read the Bible, intensely, closely, carefully.  They taught me to use the tools available to me to explore the language and context.  They encouraged me to study it alone and in community with others, to honor the text and hold it close.  They might have come to regret all that rather quickly.

I loved the Bible, and I kept reading, and reading, and reading it.  I found it somewhat puzzling that there were so many women doing important things in it, being used by God, proclaiming the Gospel, supporting the people of God, even doing things that might be considered teaching and having authority.  A woman a year or two older than me offered to do a study with me on godly womanhood, and I happily accepted.  We read from Proverbs 31, the passage about the wife of noble character, a verse a week, poring over what these words, the Word, might mean for us.  Who was this godly woman?  As it turns out, she wasn't such a great advertisement for the submissive, stay-at-home wife and mother who was the ideal for most of our campus fellowship - this woman who runs her own business, conducts her own affairs, who gives instruction, who is a partner in whom her husband can have full confidence.

They taught me to treat the words of the Bible, the Word, with great care and attention.  And so I noticed the profound truths, the beauty of the language and the narratives, the compelling teachings, and I grew closer to the text.  As I did so, I also started to notice the inconsistencies in the stories, the multiple but slightly different accounts of the same events, the alarming and troubling passages, the teachings that seemed universal and those that appeared to be directed to a specific community.  My view of what it meant for the Bible to be the Word of God shifted.

These fervent and dedicated people taught me to identify and develop my spiritual gifts, insisting that every Christian had them.  They might have come to regret that, too.  No spiritual gifts inventory ever told me that I had gifts in "womanly" areas like prayer, mercy, and service.  Maybe I was meant to teach in a women's ministry, they told me, or maybe children.  Maybe missions, although it would be better if I could find a husband to lead the ministry.  Beyond that, they weren't sure what to do with me.  So I was left to fight it out with God over these gifts in teaching, prophecy, and leadership that distanced me from the community I had become part of.

A lot of time has passed between then and now, and a lot of other formative things have happened, but that was the beginning of me becoming the minister I am now.  I'm thankful to that group of people for starting that process, for helping me love the Bible and take it seriously.  But if I could go back, there are some things I'd like to say to them.  They are the things I want to say when I hear Mark Driscoll, or read the more vitriolic comments of my complementarian brothers, or meet people who define masculinity, femininity, manhood, and womanhood very narrowly and attribute limited roles and characteristics to those terms.

I would like to tell them that I am who I am, do what I do, and believe what I believe, not despite what the Bible says, but because of it.  Not because I decided that I didn't like it and could therefore ignore it, but because I love it and take it as a whole, and use the overarching themes and consistent threads within it to interpret the individual verses.

I would like to tell them: you keep using that word, Bible.  I do not think it means what you think it means.  The Bible exists to teach us about God, guide us in how we live in the world, and give us hope in God's future.  It is not a science textbook, an etiquette manual, corporate bylaws, or a weapon with which to beat other people into submission.

You keep using that word, feminine.  I do not think it means what you think it means.  Femininity is not by nature soft, feeble, compassionate, cowardly, imbecilic, nurturing, polite, or inferior.  A woman might exhibit any of these characteristics (with the exception of inferiority) and many more - and so might a man.  Masculinity is not tough, courageous, unemotional, intelligent, protective, rough-mannered, or superior.  A man might be these things, and so might a woman.  And if you define God as masculine because, as Driscoll claims, God protects and disciplines (like a father) in addition to nurturing (like a mother), well, I'm guessing you don't know any mothers very well.

You keep using that word, equal.  I do not think it means what you think it means.  If one group of people is limited to a particular set of roles while another group has access to all roles, they are not equal.  If one group is subordinate to another group, they are not equal.  If the abilities and assumed characteristics of one group are considered to be less valuable and versatile than those of the other group, they are not equal.

You keep using that word, Gospel.  I do not think it means what you think it means.  "Believe exactly what I believe and adhere to my ideas about who you should be because it's the only way God will love you and not throw you into hell" is not good news.

Most of all, you keep using that Word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.  The Word is not a rigid text that prescribes our every move.  It is not a set of verses that can be plucked from the whole at will without consideration of context.  It is not a document that explains everything clearly for all people in all times and all places apart from the counsel of the Church and the inspiration of the Spirit.  The Word is the living, breathing, moving embodiment of God that has been there since the beginning of all things.    


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Proving Myself Right

A while ago I wrote this post about the inevitability of running into parishioners when I am at my grossest, sloppiest, and most exhausted.  Yesterday, after returning from a week of travel at 7:30am, collapsing into bed, waking up and realizing I had no food in the house, I decided that just this once it would be okay to go to the grocery store looking like an unwashed degenerate, because no one I know even goes to that particular grocery store.  Yeah...not okay.  I'm not sure whether I was relieved or embarrassed that the child of the person I ran into did not even recognize me in that state.

Into the New

Well, I've come out the other side of my annual Christmas depression.  It's an odd thing, which I've realized gets both a little worse and a little more manageable every year.  Which is to say that I feel the pain and isolation more profoundly each year, but also become better at expecting it, planning for it, and living in it when it comes.

During that time, work is the thing I feel increasingly peaceful about.  I have been in this church long enough that I know how it's going to go, as much as you know how things are ever going to go.  This year one of the youth fainted during the first Christmas Eve service.  In the second one, the candles were lit three songs too early.  Everything was still okay.  So it goes.

Everything else during Christmas is pretty much crappy.  But it's become a predictable crappiness.  I will feel lonely.  I will start to wonder if I should be more intentional about seeking out a partner.  I will remember the year's failed attempts on that front and feel hopeless, hurt, and angry.  I will decide to resign myself to being alone, and feel both desolate and powerful at the prospect.  I do not have to accept consequence; I can decide.  Then I will remember that my self-definition as single is probably the greatest contributor to the Christmas loneliness, and become annoyed at it, and wonder what to do about it, and feel stuck because when I try to change that self-definition, I end up surrounded by emotional black holes and grass-is-greener types who are already attached to someone else.  I will miss my family, even while realizing that I don't particularly enjoy them at holidays, and that I'm so busy and exhausted with work that they wouldn't enjoy me, either.  I will feel self-pity at the scarcity of gifts I receive, and guilt for my selfishness and materialism - because the joy of a Calvinist Christmas is at least a small dose of self-flagellation.  Which is fine, as I don't really do guilt the rest of the year.            

Anyway, I emerged from The Annual Funk just in time for a friend's wedding, thankfully, which involved a lot of hanging out with my favorite snarky, boozy clergy women, and feeling the messy happiness of seeing one of our formerly single-girl flock get paired up.  Then I did my standard New Year's thing: got all fancied up, went to see some friends' band play at a big masquerade ball thing, remembered that my life is actually pretty fabulous, and greeted 2012 with sparkly hats, noisemakers, champagne, friends, and joy.

A new year is inevitably a time of evaluating life, remembering the things that have gone well and not so well, contemplating the things that need change, and planning for the future.  I've been somewhat resistant in the last few years to planning for my future in any specific way, but it's beginning to feel like time for that sort of thinking.  It's time for me to apply for that D.Min program that I've been bouncing around for a couple of years, so I started that process today.  It's also time for me to let go of some things I've kept on the table as options.  It's time to say to my seminary self that academic study is not currently enough of a priority for me to consider a Ph.D or a faculty position as likely possibilities in the foreseeable future (although notice how I'm not ruling it out absolutely...).  That was the dream of someone who was in denial about being a minister, and I'm not that person anymore.  It's time for me to realize that I am probably not ever going to be (or want to be) neutral enough for denominational staff.  All that means that I need to do some serious planning and preparation in moving toward being a senior minister someday, which also involves some personal life caution that isn't exactly a hallmark of my existence.  Time to grow up, or something.

So, with these goals and the usual assortment of semi-resolutions - exercise more, get healthier in general, stop being a sucker for dimples - I enter 2012.  What an interesting year this promises to be!