"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.