Decoding Discrimination (or: How to Discover What Your Church Really Believes)

I’ve spent my life in church.

I’m a bit of a church nerd, actually. I love business meetings and conferences; ecclesiastical conversations are my FAVORITE conversations; and, well, I use words like “ecclesiastical” on a regular basis (ecclesiastical = churchy stuff). 

I care deeply about church — and I care deeply about churches being honest. Which is why the very-public nature of the Chris Pratt/ Ellen Page/ Hillsong Church conversation lately has deeply disturbed me, though not at all surprised me.

arco + KEVINSee, I often read websites of churches and other Christian organizations, and am keyed in to the coded language that clouds reality. Some churches are very upfront about what they believe – and I really appreciate that, even when I disagree with their conclusions.

But I have a huge problem with churches who hide their theology in the fine print, apparently so those who disagree still fill their pews — and their offering plates. 

If people would leave your church if they read the fine print, then you probably need to rethink your theology, your congregation, or both. 

I’ve heard people say that they think their church doesn’t discriminate because “all are welcome!” — but there is a huge difference between not turning people away at the door, and inviting people into all aspects of church life (from membership to ordination, and everything in between) regardless of their gender, orientation, or identity.  

A friend of mine once served a church that welcomed a lesbian couple with open arms – and because they were so welcoming, that couple invited their friends. Within a few months, there were several queer couples attending worship there, and the congregation was kind and loving to them, never mean or judgmental. Some of the visitors had been hurt at previous churches and were so glad to find a place where they could worship, without being shamed every time they entered the doors. 

Until, of course, that first couple wanted to join the church and teach Sunday School, at which point they were notified by the pastor that the church actually believed they were living in sin because of their unrepentant same-sex relationship, and they were not welcome into membership. All of these queer people then realized that the church that had been “welcoming” to them saw their identity as a sin to overcome, not a part of their wholly, perfectly, created selves. Their straight friends who attended with them never had any idea that the church wasn’t affirming, because, well, they never needed to ask and just assumed, because again, they were all really nice. 

And this reveals the privilege of people who are cisgender and heterosexual. There’s never a *need* to find out, to seek clarity. When the system works for us, we have no need to question it.

I’ve known so many people who are personally affirming — they advocate equal rights and equal protections for everyone… and yet, they go to churches that are not. But what’s sad to me — and what the Hillsong conversation reveals — is that often, churches who hold that leadership is reserved for men, and deny equality to people who are LGBTQ+ — do so with a veneer of acceptance, without really being honest. 

Thankfully, Church Clarity is helpful in discerning where churches stand, but according to their own website, they are backlogged right now – and even then, not every church in the country is on their list. 

So, if you attend a church and you aren’t sure what they really think, let my years of church nerdiness and ability to speak coded church language help. 

First, a caveat. I am not saying that what follows is a test that a church “passes” or “does not pass.” There are reasons why faithful pastors and congregations do not have written policies on inclusion — but since discrimination often masquerades as silence, we cannot let silence be interpreted as affirmation. And, really, that’s the whole point of this list: Because so few churches say explicitly what they believe and practice, we must be more diligent to seek out answers. Maybe you’ll discover that, while your church has never made a statement of inclusion, they are working toward it and actively seeking justice; maybe you’ll discover that while your church seems like they treat everyone equally, no woman has ever stood behind a pulpit. Maybe you’ll discover you’re exactly where you need to be; maybe you won’t. 

Also, I have never known of any church that welcomes gay men into leadership, but not straight women. If you know of one, I’d love to hear about it. And often trendy churches are just as avoidant of their discrimination against women as they are their discrimination against people who are LGBTQ+, so I’m including women into this discernment list. 

Go to your church’s website. Don’t rely on what you think you know about the church, because as we’ve seen time and time again, often the people in the pews have no idea how discriminatory actual policies and theology are. If you can’t find the information on the website, ask the pastor for clarification; don’t assume that because you have a gay couple in the pews, or the pastor just seems really cool, that they treat LGBTQ+ people – and women – equal to straight cis men. 

~ Who are the pastors? Are there any women? Any LGBTQ+ people? Have there been in the past? 

~ Who makes decisions? In many churches, these are elders, deacons, trustees, board members, session members, or something similar. Are there any women? Any LGBTQ+ people? If no, why not? 

~ Do they use heavy masculine language for God? (He/Him/His, Father, etc) I hesitated including this question; there are a lot of reasons faithful Christians use masculine language. However, in my experience, often churches that rely exclusively on masculine language about God and humanity tend to be less inclusive in other ways as well. 

~ Look at the statement of faith/ “What We Believe” (often found in the “About Us” section of a website), policy papers, and the church’s constitution. Does it include anything about gender, orientation, gender identity, or marriage? (Look for words like “biology,” “God-given gender,” “natural,” and “biblical marriage.”)

~ Where the constitution speaks to leadership (pastoral or lay), does it specify that those positions are reserved for men? 

~ Will the church ordain women and/or people who are openly LGBTQ+ (without requiring celibacy)? 

~ Will the church marry people who are LGBTQ+? 

~ Will the church preclude people who are women and/or LGBTQ+ from any ministry role? 

~ Will this church celebrate the identity of people of all genders and gender identities? Some churches are open to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, but not people who are trans, nonbinary, or genderqueer.

These questions aren’t exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start, and should, at the very least, invite some honest conversation about why your church believes and practices what it does.

Now for church leaders who want to be fully affirming:

~ Would people who are seeking a safe place to worship (without being viewed as sinners due to their identity) be able to find confirmation of that on your website? 

~ If you see yourself as egalitarian but don’t have any women in decision-making leadership, what is one next step you can take toward inclusion of women?

~ If you see yourself as affirming people who are LGBTQ+, but the congregation has not done the work to make that explicit, what is one next step you can take toward inclusion of all orientations and gender identities? 

I’m not saying you should immediately leave churches that aren’t fully affirming. Each of us has different things we’re comfortable with, different things that are dealbreakers, different experiences and convictions. But what I am saying is that, if equality is important to you personally, don’t give your church a pass just because they say “all are welcome.” 

Because until “all” really does mean all, it’s up to us to press toward the goal.

 

 

Finding Junia

JuniaJunia was the first person in the Bible who lied to me. Well, to be fair, it wasn’t really
Junia
 who lied to me; it was the other people who lied to conceal her from me. 

I had been struggling with the issue of women in ministry for years. I come from a background that not only doesn’t ordain women, but doesn’t allow women deacons and elders, which does not allow women to collect offering or teach men older than 12. When I was in elementary school and people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had an answer all prepared: “A pastor’s wife.”

See, I felt the call to ministry at a young age. I mean, very young. I was four. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the pew during a Sunday evening service, listening to a missionary presentation. I thought, “I want to tell people about Jesus!” From that day until this day, I’ve never questioned that I was called into vocational ministry; I just knew.

But the only way available to me was to be a pastor’s wife, and that’s what I did, by marrying an Army chaplain. I checked the boxes and was living the life to which I was called. 

Except, things are rarely that easy, are they? What followed was a life that didn’t line up with what I thought life would be like. I began seeing the cracks in my theology, in a version of Christianity that said to women: We don’t want to say you’re second-class, but

I knew – I KNEW – all of the biblical reasons why women were created to be helpmeets. I could use my apologetics skills to articulate the role of women to support the headship of men better than most men I knew. I would tell you that Timothy’s mother and grandmother were influential in Timothy’s life only because the men in his life slacked on the job (because, clearly, whenever God uses a woman, it’s always Plan B…). I would tell you about the requirement of elders to be The Husband of One Wife and could explain both sides of the debate about whether single men and/or divorced men were excluded.

I had all the answers…

                   …until I didn’t.

Junia first exposed that maybe, just maybe, some of my answers were flawed.
She is an apostle named in Romans 16:7. Let that sink in. Junia, a woman, is an apostle – an esteemed apostle, at that! The more I read, the more disheartened I was. See, a couple hundred years after Romans was written, church leaders decided that this apostle couldn’t have been a woman (at best; at worst, it was a deliberate deceitful choice…)… so they added an s to her name and made her male. For centuries, the Bible was translated hailing Junias – a man.

The first time I read about Junia, I felt like I had been punched in the gut, as though I was a victim of some 2000-year long conspiracy. My well-read Bible had failed me. How could I have been lied to all this time? How could they get away with literally replacing the name of a woman with the name of a man? I started questioning all the proof texts I “knew” about women in ministry. The more I learned, the more I realized that there was not just one “correct” way to look at any text – particularly those which have been used to oppress populations for centuries.

That’s when I knew I needed to follow my calling, not as the “plus one” on my husband’s ministry, but on my own. 

There was more to my decision than just Junia, of course. But when I saw Junia liberated, without that s that made her someone she wasn’t and kept her from being who she was, I knew that I could be who I was as well. 

May 17, the day I write this, is the Feast of St. Junia, a day we commemorate her contributions to Christianity, this esteemed apostle.

On this day, I remember all the other women whose contributions were erased from history because of their gender – or the women who were never allowed to make contributions because men would not let them. Today, I gather in my living room with women from my church, talking about faith and love, about church and community. I celebrate the young woman who is graduating from high school, who stood in my church’s pulpit two days ago and preached. I continue to work toward ordination and fully am who God has called me to be.

I think Junia would be proud.

Egalitarian Marriage: The Myths

Last fall, knowing we were coming up on a decade of marriage, Jon and I decided to read a book together about relationships. We did this a lot when we were first married and hadn’t in several years, and we’re both firm believers in taking time to strengthen your relationship even when it doesn’t “need” it – or you’ll be scrambling when it is. So we started looking for a book from a Christian egalitarian perspective.*

200637_1003058833027_2194_nJon emailed me one day when he saw a list complied by Christians for Biblical Equality of books that they recommended, and we quickly purchased a copy of one that looked appealing and eagerly began reading it when the Amazon box arrived.

We didn’t even finish it. It was that bad.

It WAS good for our marriage, having a shared experience over a book that we could, frankly, make fun of – but it wasn’t exactly a book we would recommend to others. We chalked it up to an expanding market that no one had reached yet, and continued on our merry way.

But that experience has bothered me ever since. Why aren’t there more books about this? It certainly isn’t because all egalitarian marriages are perfect, and it certainly isn’t because complementarianism is the one “right” model of Christian marriage.

In reading about this over the last few years, it seems to me there are some myths about egalitarian marriage. I’ll admit that I had some… before I entered one. I will address some thoughts about what egalitarian marriage is another time, but for now I thought I’d start with what egalitarian marriage is not. The caveat here is that of course there will be anecdotal evidence against every single thing I say. Of course I am not speaking for all egalitarian marriages in all places and in all times for all eternity. What follows is my experience.

MYTH: Egalitarian marriage is inherently individualistic.
I used to think that people in egalitarian marriages basically cohabited and barely cared about their partner: “She lives her life; he lives his!” Egalitarian marriages are not necessarily loveless! And neither does one person have to settle or compromise everything they dream of in order for the other to succeed. Decisions don’t need to be made entirely independent of each other, and neither are decisions always either/or – with one partner always getting their way and the other always giving in.

MYTH: Egalitarian marriage is defined by the wife having a job.
Some couples hold very traditional views of gender roles in marriage, and the wife works. Other couples are very egalitarian, though – because of season of life, personal opportunities, or personal choice – the man is still the “breadwinner.” Egalitarian is not code word for “women working outside the home.”

MYTH: Egalitarian marriage is inherently comprised of man-hating feminists.
The misconceptions about feminism are beyond the scope of what I’m saying here, but it’s important to note that not all women in egalitarian relationships hate men. In fact, I know a lot of people in egalitarian marriages. And – gasp! – none of them hate men. None of them think that men are stupid or should categorically be blamed for All The Things. To claim that because a woman desires equal treatment, respect, and opportunities means that she hates men is absolutely false.

One other note here: To say that women are equal does not mean that one denies biological and anatomical differences between men and women. I have often heard complementarians say that egalitarians claim this, but I have never actually heard an egalitarian claim this. It’s a bit ridiculous.

MYTH: Egalitarian marriage is only good for women.
Men seem to like it too. At least the ones I know do. It is freeing for women to not be bound by patriarchal ideals of womanhood, and it is just as freeing for men to not be bound by patriarchal ideals of manhood. There is a great burden falsely placed on men in these patriarchal systems, and it is as unfair – and potentially damaging – to the men as it is the women.

As I write this, I’m sitting by a fire with my husband of nearly-ten-years. I read to him various drafts of this post, he’d nod in agreement with certain phrases and sentences, and offer suggestions about others. I’d edit and emerge with something new. Better. Different, but slightly. Mostly my words, some his, though all nearly indistinguishable from each other. Each sentence constructed from shared experiences and a conflation of our perspectives… as is every day of our lives.

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*Simply put, egalitarianism is the belief that men and women are completely equal and that personhood and roles are not dependent on gender. Complementarianism maintains that men and women “compliment” each other and are unique in roles and should act according to those roles to be pleasing to God. I’ll be quick to note that many complementarians do not intentionally use this as a tool to oppress women and would claim that their view of women is just as high as their view of men.