One of the most the revolutionary books I’ve read in awhile is The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr. I certainly do hope this book has white evangelical women packing up their massive, snack-filled, sometimes bedazzled purses and heading for the exits. Because, WOW. She leaves absolutely no reason to stay standing upright. As I was reading it, I could not escape the image of Angela Bassett strolling away from a burning car in Waiting to Exhale.
I left the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention)–the worst of the worst if you exclude the really creepy Duggar family stuff–a long time ago, but I remained for longer in the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America), which is generally more “enlightened,” especially my particular church, on gender issues. But even at my most conservative, I really, really, really, REALLY despised and didn’t completely buy evangelical “complementarianism,” which is the belief that men and women, “while equal in value” (and here I start getting some strong Plessy v. Ferguson vibes), are fundamentally different. Flowing from that, and drawing from some select Bible verses, they believe that God intends women to be submissive to men in the home and in the church (and some of these folks say in society writ large, and none of those people are ever gonna get along with me).
This never sat right with me, because it didn’t fit with what I knew of women. My mother is what I call a Southern Baptist feminist, which is an evangelical woman who technically submits to male authority but with an extremely bad attitude expressed at high volume. Nobody man-splains my mom, I can tell you that. My dad, who trends toward male chauvinism despite being married to my mom, has tried, and at that point World War III breaks out and peace negotiators have to parachute in just so the human race can continue. My mother was always a woman of real substance, talent, intelligence, education, broad interests, and strong opinions. Infertility delayed motherhood for her, so by the time we were born, she had gotten a master’s degree and built an impressive teaching career. Given a different background and life choices, I could see her leading consciousness-raising seminars at Wellesley. Instead, she is still a Southern Baptist, barred from using a fair number of her gifts within her church.
I am like her. I have a Ph.D., a career, strong opinions, a loud voice. And, big bones. She is petite, but I am a large woman, tall and sturdy. My literal skeleton would probably not fit into a size 2. I always hated and felt badly about my size and always wanted to be what I called a “teeny girl,” someone who could be thrown over a shoulder. It wasn’t until I read Barr’s book that a lightbulb went on–submissive Christian women are small. Of course, no one says they should be literally small, but it’s not surprising that my mind and heart would extrapolate that from the word cloud of submissive, gentle, sweet, retiring, soft-spoken, meek. One reason I never bought complementarianism was because I knew in my case it was physically impossible.
But I hung in that culture far too long, strung along by the inerrancy argument, that if you take the Bible seriously, you have to take its view of gender seriously, even if you can’t quite pull it off. But Barr just systematically destroys the entire complementarian supportive structure, and it is a thing of brutal, awesome beauty, I must say. There was a lady apostle, y’all! Paul was influenced by Greek culture, probably even referenced the ancient equivalent of a meme in his gender pronouncements! Medieval Christian women preached! Being a single lady used to be cool in the church! The Reformation wrecked some stuff! Rigid gender roles originally came from secular culture! Boom, boom, boom!!!! I’m telling you, read this book, then put this bullshit to bed for all eternity. Let the SBC have a mostly empty church full of men and see if they can get even one potluck together. Good luck, fellas, WE OUT.
Fortunately, I’ve been spared the worst of the complementarian sexism–I’ve had friends who have sadly been fire hosed with it–but this got me thinking about the “enlightened” kind that I have more experience with. And it made me mad. It dawned on me that it’s almost even more insulting in a way.
To illustrate, here is a conversation I’ve had about a-billion times with “enlightened complementarians:”
Them: The kind of headship we are talking about is actually really, really humble and loving! It’s telling men to love their wives sacrificially like Christ loved the church! Christ died for the church! WOW. Women are adored and exalted in this vision of gender.
Me: OK, well, practically speaking what does this mean then? Like if my husband is loving me to his very death, how do I submit to him? Sounds like he’s actually submitting to me as well.
Them: Well, no. He’s serving and loving, but he’s not submitting.
Me: OK, well again, I’m not seeing how this plays out in practice in a way that’s actually not egalitarian. Let’s say I get a job offer in another place (I think y’all are fine with career women, right?), and I really want to take it, but his job is here. How do we make this decision?
Them: Well, you’d discuss it and each have your say. If you come to an agreement together, great! But if you can’t, he makes the final decision, based on what’s best for the family, and you accept that.
Me: OK, but that never happens. We’ve literally never had such an impasse. We keep talking about it, and we both compromise until we come up with a solution. We might talk to a counselor if it’s really a deep disagreement.
Them: That’s great!
Me: That’s egalitarian.
Them: Well, it LOOKS egalitarian, but it’s not. Your husband is showing leadership by considering your needs. You are submitting by considering his needs.
Me: So we are both submitting our wills to the other one. It’s mutual submission.
Them: Well, no…not really….He is to love you, and you are to respect him.
Me: But aren’t I also to love him, and shouldn’t he also respect me?
Them: Oh yes! of course! But it’s like just enough different that it’s complementarian. It’s like that Impossible Burger thing, it tastes JUST LIKE a beef burger, but it’s not. And this is not egalitarian. As the Bible, and more importantly, the denomination dictates.
Me: But what you are describing is egalitarian. And honestly, the Impossible Burger has as much calories and fat as a beef burger. It’s really surprising.
Them: Well it looks very egalitarian/beef, because Jesus loves women and also cows, which should never be confused by the way, no matter how popular breastfeeding becomes.
Me: So why don’t you just say that and leave it there. Why do you insist on all this patriarchy language and stuff that just really makes women feel like crap and makes a lot of men think they can treat us that way?
Them: If you feel like crap and if men act like crap, that is just wrong! That is a misapplication of the teaching! Also we can’t ordain women or let them lead in the church. But we want them to know how valuable they are! So we do anoint women as deacons.
Me: Oh, interesting, that is better than the Southern Baptists at least. But what is the difference between anointing and ordaining? Do the deacons and deaconesses do anything different?
Them: No, they are all servant leaders. But the ordination process has some paper work involved. Also we put hands on the guys’ heads, and we just pray for the women standing next to them.
Me: OK, so there’s no difference here really either.
Them: Oh, there is though. The women are not ordained because that would not be biblical.
Me: Was there paperwork in the early church? And are hands on a head really that big a deal?
Them: It’s a huge deal. It means they are ordained. Unlike the women.
Me: So, again, it’s a basically meaningless designation that nonetheless makes women feel like crap.
Them: No! the biblical view of gender is exalting of women! We’ve been through this.
Me: OK, but I don’t feel exalted. I feel like crap. Because you are telling me I’m inferior to you, even though in practice, there’s really no difference between you and me or even how we are supposed to act. So you are telling me I should submit to men just for the sake of it. Which in a way, is even more insulting. At least the Southern Baptists just straight up tell me I’m only fit to teach 5 year olds and organize potlucks.
Them: I’m so sorry you feel this way. It’s undoubtedly because the secular world’s view on gender has clouded your thinking.
Me: Or it might be because telling me I am subjugated to men is actually really insulting and crappy. Tell ya what, Preacher Dude, take some time to think about how you might feel if the tables were turned. Let’s say the decision came down that, actually, we’ve had it all wrong, we got the Greek mixed up, and the Bible says the men are to submit to women and that women are to lead men.
Them: I would accept my God-given role with thanks and praise!
Me: No you wouldn’t. Y’all men don’t accept any amount of powerlessness. Y’all shoot up schools and blow stuff up and kill, rape, and pillage and vote for racist sociopaths. Trust me, this wouldn’t go over well.
Them: Well, that would certainly not be the biblical response.
Me: At least we can agree on that. OK, bye, I’m gonna go be a Methodist now. Peace out.