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.

The Day I was Blamed for My Own Robbery

Thirteen years ago today – December 23, 2001 – changed my life.

I was a freshman at college and had come home for Christmas break. My friend Sara had an apartment in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I decided on a Saturday night to go visit her. Sara and I had been best friends since junior high; I had been looking forward to seeing her all fall while I was away at school.

Being Michigan in December, it was supposed to snow that night. So, as a concession to my dad, I decided to stay the night at Sara’s apartment, and get up early on Sunday the 23rd to drive the 45 minutes to church in the morning so I wouldn’t have to drive in the dark late at night.

So it was early – around 6:00am or so – when I walked out of her apartment.

As I walked to my car, I saw a man approaching. I glanced at him, casually said, “Good morning,” and kept walking. As I got to my car, I heard his voice:

“Get in the car.”

I turned around and stared at him.

“This is a gun. Get in the car.”

Without getting into all the details of what happened, I’ll say that I had accidentally left my keys in Sara’s apartment, so I couldn’t drive him to… wherever he – well, we – were going. He took my wallet, told me that he knew where I lived and if I ever called the cops he’d come kill me. He had me get out of the car, walk behind the apartment building, and told me to take off all my clothes.

Thankfully, he never touched me. I think he really did need to get somewhere, or wanted the money, or something, and he used the shame of my body to keep me from running. He understood that I was in a vulnerable position, and he used that to control my actions.

He dumped out my purse onto the ground and threw it and all my clothes into the woods nearby. He came back and told me not to move.

After a few minutes, I noticed that, when he dumped my purse, my phone had fallen out. Keep in mind, these were not only pre-smart-phone days; they were pre-flip-phone days! My phone – get this – had actual, real, buttons. The phone fell button-side down, in a portion of grass that had not yet been covered with snow. Dawn was just beginning to break, so he didn’t see my phone. I called Sara, who let me in through the sliding door in the back of her apartment.

Sara and her roommate convinced me – and it took a good bit of convincing – to call the police.

As unprepared as I was to be robbed that morning, I was even more unprepared for what happened next.

The police? They didn’t believe me. They heard my story, went to the scene, and decided that I was just a college girl looking for attention.

Seriously. That’s what they told me.

The police – two men in probably their late 50s – told me that I “didn’t respond how a woman in [my] situation should respond.” I appeared calm and at peace – because, 1. I was thankful to be alive, and 2. They couldn’t see what was happening internally.

But they made a judgment about how I appeared and decided I must be lying. SURELY they knew how *I* should act in the “alleged” situation. They thought that, if someone had actually robbed me and forced me to strip, I would be hysterical. Since I wasn’t, they concluded that – certainly – I had done it to myself.

The next week, my dad called the Sheriff’s office. They told him that, given that Sara’s apartment was near a state college campus, they – and I quote – “get too many reports of sexual assault to take them all seriously.”

Mhmm.

They ended up sending a deputy to my house to officially apologize. I had gone out of town with some friends to get my mind off the trauma, so I wasn’t even there to hear the apology (though, I tend to think they were apologizing more to my dad than to me, anyway…).

Now, I want to be clear that I am not anti-police. That’s a caveat that we need to name these days, it seems. I understand these men were just doing their jobs – and I’m sure they had been burned by women falsely accusing men in the past. I am not saying they were being malicious or had ill-will; I am sure they responded based on their experiences, just as I responded based on mine.

But I needed to be believed. Even if the man was never caught, I needed to know that the police were on my side… and I didn’t.

This is important because my story is not isolated. In fact, many women – and men – have had much worse happen to them, though their stories have fallen on the same ears refusing to listen. The same overworked and underpaid police officers. The same college administrators who studied to be educators and administrators, and found themselves in the unwanted position of also being criminal justice specialists and detectives. The same military commanders who have to balance their force readiness with another letter on their desk. The same reporters who are too scared of becoming an example to print what they’re hearing. The same pastors who cannot bear to report a loved deacon, the same mothers who cannot bear to report their husbands.

The same structures that have doubted the words of women and deferred to the words of men for centuries.

I recently read a book that recounted the work of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. He began to study hysteria among the young bourgeois girls of France in the late 1800s. What he found was appalling: Most of these girls had been sexually abused. To make a long (and rather interesting) story short, he soon discovered that his funding would disappear if he published his results.

His response? To start blaming the victims. To publish new “studies” that these young girls were suffering mental and emotional trauma… because of their own shameful sexual fantasies and desires.

Victim-blaming has come a long way in the last century or so, fortunately. At least now we have a way to name it when it happens and to call attention to its fallacy.

But we need to do better. We need to not let the few who are lying feed the narrative that rape culture doesn’t exist or is over-hyped. We need to teach our boys AND our girls that every person has autonomy over their own body. When victims come forward, we need to take them seriously. We need to hold space for their stories and affirm they were not at fault.

We need to do better because there is a man out there, somewhere, who did that to me, and because similar and worse crimes had been done to so many other women – let me say that again: BECAUSE similar and worse crimes had been done to so.many.other.women. – he was allowed to take both my money and my dignity without investigation. We need to do better because I have two daughters, and because I have a son. We need to do better because there are women and men in our churches and our schools and our communities – and maybe even our families – who have been sexually assaulted or harassed and have never come forward because of our culture of victim-blaming. We need to do better because to deny a person’s agency over their body and sexuality is to deny their humanity: to deny who God has created them to be.

We need to do better. We need to listen.

Now.

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I read the story of Jean-Martin Charcot in Trauma and Recovery, which I highly recommend. 

For another helpful perspective on this, I recommend an article Jim Wallis wrote just this week: The Myth of Crying Rape