My home church never had women preaching, and I grew up as a teenager believing that women shouldn’t preach or lead churches. I understood there were difficulties with that view: at what age does a boy become a man whom I shouldn’t teach? Did it apply to say, home groups, or only church services? What if I was sharing a testimony that had some explanation of the Bible in it? What about those women who feel called by God to lead and preach, can they all be mistaken? All the same though, I was convinced that was the right way to interpret the Bible. Men and women were made with different roles, and the challenge for was to work out how to maintain that they were equal while having such defined leader and follower roles.
This was all reinforced to me on the couple of occasions I’d heard women preaching. It seemed that they didn’t pay much attention to the Bible passage they were meant to be speaking from, and instead talked about their personal feelings and journeys, occasionally seemed close to tears and rarely preached the gospel. It all seemed a bit pathetic. Clearly God was right to leave preaching and Church leading to men, they could do it without crying and they knew that the gospel was more important than their own life story. Of course, I found excuses for the one or two amazing women speakers I heard at events like Soul Survivor. They must have had special training, and the Church couldn’t afford to train everyone to that standard. They were only speaking to teenagers, and that was allowed.
Some things haven’t changed – I do still think men and women are different somehow. For all my musings and puzzling over gender, which I still don’t have many answers to, I think that I think that gender exists in some way which is not purely a social construct. I think “male and female he created them” does mean something, even though it doesn’t mean most of what we’ve taken it to mean. If you follow. Also, I do still think preaching from the Bible and explaining the gospel message clearly are hugely important. When I go to Church on a Sunday, the best thing for me to hear is a part of God’s word, explained and opened up, in a way that helps me hear God through it and think about how he might want to apply it to my life.
Here’s what did change though – over a couple of years , in sixth form and on my gap year, I started to read for myself some books about those verses, the silencer verses. When dad went to theological college, the hypothetical women who felt called to lead were no longer hypothetical, they were my dad’s friends. One of them (to whom is owed a greatly overdue thanks) gave me a book and lent me another, which started to open my eyes to the possibility that there were people who took the Bible as seriously as, if not far more seriously than, me and yet still believed women could and should be leaders in today’s church. As I started to read about contexts, about language, about big theological concepts and good methods of interpretation and exegesis, my mind was blown. I wasn’t instantly convinced, and I read enough conservative material to keep me on the fence for a while, but by the time January 2010 came around, I was ready to try preaching out myself. Once I stopped reading the entire Bible in the light of one interpretation of a couple of verses (never a good way round to work out what the Bible means!) I discovered that equal really does mean equal to God, without ifs, buts or qualification. It set me free to see what God really thinks of women.
Ever since I started that first bit of reading in sixth form and allowed myself to see how God can and does use women in amazing ways, I’ve been inspired by so many amazing women, especially in the last few months. So I want to say a huge thank you: to the women I know and those I don’t know, those whose sermons I’ve learned so much from, those whose blogs I read and books I’ve started, to those I get to have breakfast dates and coffee dates with, those who minister to me and teach me every day, those who listen to me think aloud and are patient when I need to work out the same thoughts all over again – thank you, and I’m so sorry I doubted you.
I’ve learned that being a man in no way guarantees you’ll be good at teaching the Bible – I’ve heard as many vague, ‘here are my thoughts with little connection to the passage’ sermons from men as from women. But far more importantly, I’ve learned that women absolutely can teach the Bible and explain the gospel, and I’m sorry I ever thought I needed to ‘preach like a man’ if I were to be any good. People like Danielle Strickland, Ali Martin, Becky Manley Pippert and MJ Axelson have left me in no doubt about that. I’m so grateful to role models closer to home who’ve modelled to me various kinds of teaching and pastoral ministry like Michelle Tepper, Laura Gallacher and Sharon Mac.
I’ve learned that women’s experiences, their feelings, and their journeys are in no way pathetic but incredibly valuable, that vulnerability isn’t weakness but strength, and it strengthens everyone who has the honour of sharing it. I’ve learnt that it’s not just about women needing to cry all the time, but that men and women all need to share themselves in community, to journey together – and that those words aren’t touchy feely rubbish but a hugely important part of what it means to be gospel-believing followers of Jesus. To see this lived out has validated my own experiences, feelings and journey, and reassured me I’m not pathetic too.
I’ve learnt that being a woman doesn’t mean being judgemental or closed or bitchy, but it can mean sharing life together in a way I’d never really done before. Friends who’ve stuck around, who’ve dealt with my crap, who’ve shared theirs with me, who’ve talked honestly, who’ve reassured me, who’ve prayed for me, who’d questioned with me, have become the most inspiring people in my life.
I’ve learnt that I want to be like my mum when I grow up. The more of myself I’ve shared honestly with her in the last couple of years, the more she’s taught me about strength, compassion, resilience and grace. I want to share her determination and her humility and her sense of humour, if not her wardrobe. My little sister (who is not little any more but a beautiful and opinionated woman) constantly inspires me too with her stories of how she challenges the misconceptions and ignorance she sometimes hears at school and questions whatever she hears, so as to know her own mind. She even manages to do it without losing friends, which I think is admirable in itself! I hope she keeps challenging me like that for years to come.
I’ve learnt that women really can be funny – since mum bought me “How to be a woman”, and my college mum (if I remember rightly, Rosie?!) sat me down to watch Miranda, I’ve discovered that the experiences and ups and downs that many women seem to share are put into this hilarious kind of perspective when reflected back to you by someone like Caitlin Moran or Miranda Hart. And it makes life that little bit better.
I’ve learnt that women who stand up against misogyny in all its forms are not pointlessly angry, making a fuss over nothing, bra burning man haters. I’ve learnt that feminism is necessary and good, despite the few who give it a bad name. I’ve learnt that it’s definitely not all men who cat-call and grope, objectify and dehumanise women – but that the ones who do need to be challenged, and there are plenty of women and men doing just that. The Everyday Sexism Project, the Misogyny Overheard at Oxford group, and the No More Page 3 Campaign have all inspired me to join in.
I could go on. There are so many blogs and stories and books I want to keep reading, so many women I want to meet and pick the brains of and listen to and learn from. But even to those I won’t get around to reading the thoughts of or won’t get to meet and have a conversation with, I still owe my thanks. Just knowing that they’re all over the place, getting on with life with grace and compassion and strength and humour is pretty inspiring, and it makes me want to do the same. It’s because of everyone of these people and groups I’ve mentioned that I feel free now to explore my own call to ministry, whatever that might look like, and free to do it as I am, as a woman, whatever difference that might make. So thank you too for that.
I can’t say for sure that there is a causal link between my change of theological position on women in leadership and speaking roles in the church, and my learning so much from these inspiring women. But while I held the difference between men and women to be the most important thing, and struggled to fit some idea of a kind of equality around that, I don’t think I’d ever have listened as closely or been so open to what God could teach me through the words of women.
Final apology – if you see me sending this post to a lot of people on Twitter or Facebook, please excuse the repetition. It’s only that I want to make sure the apology and the thank you reaches those it’s most intended for.
Love, Claire xxx