Last week I had the great pleasure of joining a group of Cornerstone friends in Indianapolis. We decided that the end of the fest didn’t have to be the end of us, and so we had an Imaginarium Meetup, organized by the coolest people in Indy (you know who you are). The schedule included meals, movies, and seminars. I was asked to present a seminar/roundtable discussion on “Feminism and the State of the Church”- a daunting subject and one that will get you wildly different results depending on who does the presenting. It’s a topic that demands a perspective, and yet one person’s perspective is another person’s agenda, or ax to grind.
I admit it: I have an agenda. When it comes to gender roles I believe the hard right in the church is waging an ideological battle that perhaps stretches back to the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. The same reactionary wave behind that denominational shift is crashing over American evangelicalism as a whole. Threatened by a world they perceive as increasingly secular and liberal, the right has decided that gender theology is a primary, not a secondary issue. As so often happens when fundamentalists feel threatened, they are hardening divisions, driving out the dissenters, spinning law upon law until no corner of life is open to Christian liberty and the voice of the Spirit. The patriarchy is increasingly dogmatic, separatist, and belligerent. And influential.
And therein lies my concern. There have always been people striving for patriarchy in the church, but in the 20th century patiarchy seemed to be moving to the margins like its ugly sibling, racist theology. Not any more. The patriarchists are speaking at the largest pastors conferences, pastoring megachurches, writing books that we’re all reading. They are telling us in no uncertain terms what it means to be a Christian man and a Christian woman, how we are permitted to act, speak, dress, think, parent, work and love. Fundamentalist movements in every religion have a long pattern of constraining and oppressing women, but the truth is that patriarchy is destructive to all of us: to women, men, and children; and to the witness of the Church in the world.
And so that’s why I was happy to be invited to talk about feminism and the church, but I also found it a difficult task. Most of the people I was speaking to are younger than I am, many are in male headship churches. Many had never heard the words “egalitarian” or “complementarian” before I used them in the seminar (maybe a healthy sign, actually). I didn’t want to seem like an alarmist, didn’t want anyone to feel unfairly attacked, and couldn’t possibly do justice to the subject in one session. I don’t know if I succeeded in saying what I wanted to say, but the conversation that we had was challenging and intense – though always civil, I’m happy to report. And as usual with that crowd, there was a lot of laughter mixed in with the heavy discussion.
But I’m not done with this subject (am I ever?). I initially planned to recap the content of the seminar in just one post, but the more I research the more I find that I want to share. There is a very complicated culture of patriarchy in the church: it’s built on a particular theology but manifested in countless ways. As a student of church history and a church culture geek I’m fascinated by this stuff, but I also believe that the better we understand it, the better equipped we are to respond. And we need to respond.
So consider this an introduction to a series of posts in which I hope to hold patriarchy in the church up for a closer look. Some of what I’ll be writing about may just seem like quirky Christian subculture (quiverfull, courtship, modesty guidelines): other issues are deadly serious. I will do my best to be fair, and if I seem like I’m misrepresenting anyone please let me know. If there’s one thing I learned in Indianapolis, it’s that honest feedback makes for a better conversation.
Other posts in this series:
Talking back to patriarchy, part 2: Watch your language!
Talking back to patriarchy, part 3: It all comes down to authority
Talking back to patriarchy, part 4: Joining the great modesty debate
A footnote on modesty: Why no one gets to drop the mic
A footnote on modesty: For my children