Second-class children: Women in church leadership

"Mary Magdalene," El Greco

I am not a theology blogger, so go easy on me here. This is just something I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time.

I grew up in the company of strong, intelligent Christian women, my mother especially. It is fair to say that most of what I know about God has come from women. Yes, our pastors were always male, and from them I learned the tenets of theology, but I really learned about Jesus–his ministry, grace, and compassion from women, whether from doing morning devotions with my mother, from watching the many women quietly and tirelessly serve our church, or from small groups with other women in high school and college.

When I was old enough, I marveled at the injunctions in the Bible that said women were not permitted to teach or hold any authority over a man. How could that be? All of my best teachers in my faith had been women. This seems appropriate. I was, after all, a girl. But it seemed strange to me, even then. Women can teach other women, but women can never be permitted to teach men in the church. This is odd. No Christian I know is upset by the fact that 76 percent of public school teachers are women. Women can and do preside over men in the workplace (finally). The famously misogynistic Liberty University has Michele Bachmann, candidate for the U.S. presidency, give their convocation speech, and yet they won’t permit women to graduate from their university with degrees in biblical teaching. (Liberty, therefore, seems fine with the idea of Bachmann running the entire country, but she can’t give a sermon at a church. What superb logic.)

So, what gives, 21st-century church? At long last, women can teach and “hold authority over” men in every other segment of society, but as soon as they step inside a church, they become subjugated again, not fit to teach a man anything. We are told that we are all children of God, but as a woman, I often feel like the second-class child of God.

Scripture does plainly say that women should not be permitted to teach over men. I know it does. But it also says that women have to wear veils in church, because they’re a symbol of a woman’s subjugation to her husband. Scripture also says that women aren’t allowed to pray, speak, or even ask questions in church. Mercifully, most churches today do not force women to wear veils or keep silent. These Pauline rules are now interpreted as culturally specific mandates. So, yay, we don’t have to follow them anymore, because we’re living in a supposedly post-patriarchal age!

My question is: Why aren’t we interpreting the passages about women in church leadership as culturally specific mandates? These anti-women-teaching rules for churches were handed down by a man in an undeniably patriarchal society–at the same time as these other rules on veils and speaking. But the vast majority of churches are still keeping women from any teaching or significant leadership roles today.

I’ve really appreciated the perspective of Guion’s aunt on this topic. Dr. Jane Tillman is a well-respected clinical psychologist in Massachusetts, but she is also ordained in the Episcopal church. We’ve exchanged a few e-mails on this topic and I’ve deeply appreciated her perspective, as a woman, believer, and seminary graduate. I did a lot of research on this subject but had such a struggle finding a woman’s input. All of the opinions I read were written by men who were in favor of keeping women out of teaching roles in the church. Until I heard from Aunt Jane. After providing a thorough historical perspective on this issue, she wrote this to me:

The role of an ordained person is 1) to teach; 2) to provide pastoral leadership, 3) to exercise sacramental authority.  I don’t see that women, by virtue of being women, are to be excluded from any of these practices.  Of course there is SOME scripture and certainly the weight of tradition arguing against this, but if the Kingdom of God on earth means that we are growing, dynamic, people then change over time is part of the plan.

Preach it, Aunt Jane! I can’t say it any better than she can, but my last word is this: If Jesus should be our model for how we treat people, I think we’re a far cry from what he practiced. Jesus was radical in his approach to women. He welcomed them into his community and named many of them as his disciples. He reached out to them; he sought their company. Women are recorded as starting and hosting some of the first churches in their homes. Then patriarchy crept in and kept women out. I think it’s time for the modern church to reverse its antiquated and discriminatory policies against women. I can’t help but think Jesus would have pushed the religious institutions of his day to do the same.

Week 8: Thank-you notes to teachers

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

This week’s challenge was inspired by blogger Erin Loechner, who challenged herself to write thank-you notes to 20 memorable and inspirational teachers. Teachers don’t get nearly enough credit in this country and it’s a perpetual mystery to me. Good teachers are responsible for most of the successes in our lives and yet we rarely remember to go back and thank them. In my own small way, that’s what I attempted to do this week.

Teacher 1. Mary Sellers

Mrs. Sellers taught my online AP English Composition class when I was a shy and yet pompous 9th-grader. When you’re homeschooled, you get to learn in a lot of non-traditional ways and online classes were one of those ways for me. In many ways, it was a strange dynamic, but Mrs. Sellers always managed to make our web classroom warm, friendly, and encouraging. She invested so much time in us as students and her hospitality was extraordinary. Mrs. Sellers stayed in touch with many of us even after we had finished her class and I was always impressed by her generosity, particularly as she was already busy with homeschooling her own children.

Teacher 2. Marc Cohen

Professor Cohen is important to me in many ways: He convinced me to be an English major and he introduced me to the great literary love of my life, Virginia Woolf. He taught my Intro to 18th-20th Century British Lit. class during my first semester as a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill. Unlike many professors these days, Marc Cohen actually cared about teaching–and he was very, very good at it. He was creative, encouraging, and enthusiastic and I’m so thankful I was able to have him as a teacher when I arrived at Carolina. I also really appreciated that his syllabus was uniquely focused on great British female authors; we only read women novelists for the novels in that class, which was practically unheard of, especially in the British Lit classes. I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time and I fell in love.

Teacher 3. Bill Cloud

Professor Cloud scared a lot of us in the Journalism School. He well over six feet tall and he spoke with a deep, intimidating voice and he liked to yell at you when you mixed up “illicit” and “elicit.” He once gave me a 50 on a paper because I spelled Brussels sprouts “Brussel sprouts.” I will never make that mistake again for as long as I live! But for all of his aggressive teaching methods, Professor Cloud is largely responsible for getting me a job. He prompted me to apply for the Dow Jones News Fund internship, which I never would have considered without his encouragement. Because of him, I spent an absolutely amazing summer working as a copy editor at the Denver Post. He’s served as my academic reference on numerous occasions and I can’t say enough how grateful I am for his influence. Professor Cloud has been an invaluable career resource for me and for many others, and that’s why I will always recommend him to other J-School students, even though he can make you cry in class.

Teacher 4. George Lensing

Gracious, eloquent, humble, and endlessly fascinating, Professor George Lensing taught the best class I ever took at Carolina, 20th-century poetry. I didn’t really get poetry until I heard Professor Lensing talk about it. We covered a few poems in each class, but we really covered them; we’d spend an hour talking about two lines of Robert Lowell. And then he’d start class with the story of having lunch with Elizabeth Bishop in the Brazilian jungle. Or when he had to squire Robert Frost around UNC’s campus for the day. No big deal. In my opinion, he’s the gem of the UNC English Department and it will be a sad day when he retires (which I heard rumored may be happening sooner than later). He also urged me to write an honors thesis, which was a tortured decision. But with Professor Lensing on my team, I felt like I could do anything.

Teacher 5. Erin Carlston

Professor Carlston was another very intimidating professor. She knew everything; she was fluent in most romance languages; she studied at Harvard and Yale; and she had read every important book–twice. She also didn’t let students get away with crappy writing. You had to labor to pass her class–but if and when you did, you felt like you’d reached the pinnacle of academic success. I took Introduction to Modernism with her and met many previously unread authors that came to be listed among my favorites. After that year ended, I decided to write my thesis on Virginia Woolf and timidly approached her to ask if she’d be my thesis adviser. She graciously replied that she would. Over the next year, Professor Carlston spent countless hours meeting with me, hashing out ideas, and reading and editing my often embarrassingly immature drafts. The slightest compliment from her–“This is a nice sentence.”–could make my entire week. You always knew that she meant exactly what she said and she would never give you false encouragement. She had a million things going on when she was helping me with my thesis–between finishing her own book, teaching a handful of classes, serving on numerous committees, and advising another undergrad thesis on Woolf–and yet when you met with her, you felt like your work was the most important thing on her agenda. Her advice and her edits undoubtedly made me a better writer and my gratitude to her is boundless.

Teacher 6. Mary-Lynn Whitman

I think we can all identify that one teacher who, early on, saw potential in you when no one else really did. Mrs. Whitman was that person for me. I was a shy, arrogant, and self-conscious little girl when I first met Mrs. Whitman in an art class that I took with her son, Patrick. She was bright, intellectual, and full of enthusiasm and knowledge. Even though she was already busy homeschooling her kid, she decided to take me under her wing. Her former life as a children’s book editor equipped her to teach me and critically evaluate my bombastic attempts at writing when I was in late elementary school and early middle school. I would come to her house with a few essays and she would spend hours with me talking about how I could improve and how I could become an even better writer. She saw promise in me, that there was hope that I could be a better writer and a better human, when most just saw a snotty and bossy kid. I am humbled by her attention, even now.

Teacher 7. Teresa Farson

How do you begin to thank the person who taught you everything? My mom gave up her whole life to teach the four of us. She wanted the best for us in every area of our lives and sacrificed constantly so that we could succeed. In our childhood, she endeavored to make learning fun, to spark our imaginations and innate curiosity, rather than make learning about conforming to a pre-defined mold and filling out blanks on worksheets. As a great advocate of “hands-on learning,” we figured out early on that there was no division between Life and School for us; the two were the same and every moment was an educational one. We studied botany on nature walks; animal biology when she took us to the race track; art through our monthly visits to the Mint Museum of Art. I didn’t understand why my neighborhood friends hated school so much. School was everywhere; it was our entire lives. Mom also instilled in us the principle that we were primarily responsible for our educations. If you were not educated, it was no one’s fault but your own. Many people ask me how it was possible that I could succeed at a university after being homeschooled for 12 years. Wasn’t I afraid? Wasn’t I unsure how to adapt to a classroom? Did I even know how to take tests? My transition to college was actually very smooth. Because I had been responsible for my education for years, the freshman concerns of self-control and time management were disciplines that I had already been practicing since I was young. I believe my mom is Superwoman and I don’t know, even now, how she did it all–and how she still does it (with one kid still at home). I know a thank-you note won’t cut it for all of the gratitude I owe her. But, Mom, for everything: THANKS.

Next week, I will be trying to study for the GRE every day! I’m not planning on taking it any time soon, but I go back and forth on the grad school conundrum almost daily and this is my haphazard attempt to add some discernment to my life. Until then!