Women in Church

***This is a post about women in church, but this does not exclude all the forms that womanhood can take. As a caveat, the things I am going to talk about can be done to anyone, regardless of their gender identity, by anyone, regardless of their gender identity. This post operates in a man-woman binary, but I don’t intend to perpetuate that. 

How many women have been told that they would only be “enough” for a spouse if they stayed pure until marriage? How many women have been told, more often implicitly, that they must remain in the bounds of ‘womanhood’ as defined by the church, often meaning stay clear of leadership roles? How many women have been told that their sexual activity and sexuality defines them?

The answer would probably shock you. I would bet every woman has experienced this in some way or another, whether they realize it or not. Women are often directly and indirectly told how to operate in church settings based on a set of patriarchal standards. 

Examples include:

  • You must wait till marriage to have sex – it’s the Christian thing to do.
  • You would only be “enough” for someone if you stayed a virgin till marriage – it would be a “gift” to a husband or you would be more “worthy” if you waited.
  • Being quiet in church and staying away from church roles, that’s not our place.
  • Women in leadership positions, specifically in church, are harder to work with, support and get along with.

What do you think these messages send to women? Do you think that we are empowering women to take charge and be a voice? Why are spaces being created and perpetuated that do not include us?

Speaking specifically to the sexual aspects of the examples above, what is so wrong about empowering women to make choices for themselves and their lives? I do not see the issue very well. I view these messages as ways to control a woman’s body. Removing agency from her so that she will act according to what has been deemed “right”. 

I often think of an example of the difference between men and women when it comes to sex and pregnancy. It involves a young, unmarried couple who become pregnant. In most cases, the woman will be subject to harsh criticism and ostracized from the church. The man will get a slap on the wrist and not suffer nearly as much as his partner. This is even more pronounced when the couple is under 20 (see my sex education post for why churches should help). Why do we do this?

For the examples involving women in leadership, the first churches were begun by women. We would not have church as a building if it were not for the early house churches. See, back in the early days of Christainity, the religion was seen as involving the private aspects of someone’s life. The private sphere was the woman’s space, the home. Also being at home meant less persecution for outright worship in public. So women would have ‘church’ in their home and helped to spread the word that way. Once it got popular, then men took over and it became a part of the public sphere of society. We started the church. Let us continue the work.

Talking about women in leadership cannot be done without talking about Mary Magdalene. July 22nd was the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, a day set apart to honor the first person to see and report the resurrected Jesus. She is the first to see the Risen Christ and share that knowledge with other disciples. She was the full embodiment of church on earth, an Apostle to the Apostles.

With this legacy, why are we not allowing women roles in church? I see it as a loss of control. Unfortunately, men have had the run of the church world (and other places) for quite some time. There has been a system built around the rule of men and it has limited women to certain sectors of society. Changing this pattern means the potential loss of control. Not many people are comfortable with that possibility. 

So why does this all matter? It matters because if we are telling women, regardless of if we do this implicitly or explicitly, that there are certain things they cannot do, we are limiting ourselves to only see snippets of the full expression of God. 

I do not see God as a man. I also do not see God as a woman. I see God as something beyond gender but yet still representative of us all. To me, limiting the work of women is limiting the work of God.

Here is a little bit from a sermon I preached in the spring based on John 12:1-8:

“In this, Jesus is showing that Mary’s heart is in the right place, while Judas’ isn’t. This act of Mary’s is holy, as it is announcing the coming death of Jesus and preparing his body for burial. She may not have known this and was not intending to serve this purpose, but isn’t that often how holy work works? We do something out of simple means but it ends up serving a much greater purpose. 

This passage also shows the holy work of Martha in verse 2, preparing a meal and offering a safe place for Jesus. He had just risen Lazarus from the dead, causing an uproar and calls for his death. This home is a safe space and Martha is thanking him through a lavish dinner. 

Both women are expressing their joy, love and thankfulness for Jesus. 

We can see this work in contemporary times. Think of the church mothers in the African-American faith tradition, they are the reason the church stands so proud. The women in the Moravian church in the 1800s who formed the Female Missionary Society, were the advocates for those in their community who had no voice. We can see Jesus in the work of M Barclay, a transgender nonbinary clergy member of the United Methodist Church. And we can think of Nadia Bolz-Weber, a minister who offers new thoughts on Christianity while covered in tattoos and diving into tough topics.

With all of these women and with us, there is some shame too. Spaces we are told we cannot go. Roles we are told we cannot hold. Lines we cannot cross. We see the shame in the mom-shaming trend, the idea that tattoos must be a disqualifier for ministry, we see the world shame men who advocate for their sisters from the pulpit, and we see it when women are told to keep quiet and go home. I felt it through my friend who told me I cannot be in ministry simply because of my gender.

But Mary overcame the shame. Jesus did not allow space for that shame to come in. He used his position to stop the unnecessary response and show the correct action. By seeing in this story that the shame does not matter, that the opinion of others does not compare to Jesus, we can continue to boldly proclaim our message and do our work.”

Women have been told certain ways of being are expected and when we don’t meet those expectations, we are not good Christians. But we have examples of women like Mary in the Bible who let her love for Jesus guide her, rather than the criticisms of Judas. But we need those who criticize to see that we are just as holy. We need a change in the narrative. 

Let’s stop prescribing ways of being to women and let us be who we are, in all the forms that can take. Our whole self is a version of God and denying us the freedom to be is denying God the freedom to be. There is much to be learned from women, let us teach you. 

Let us embody the spirit of Mary Magdalene, let us see Jesus and tell you what we saw. It’s quite beautiful over here.