Like most people, my college years contain many positive memories, but also many memories that still sting. The things that happen to us during those four years—classes we take, activities we do, people we become friends with—often greatly influence our future plans, philosophies, and priorities. The last year of my life has prompted a revisiting of many of those influences, a process that has surprised me in a number of ways. Below are some in-progress thoughts about an issue that became important to me while at college: women’s leadership in the church. It’s my hope to share my thoughts from a place of both honesty and tact, illuminating some of the dark parts of this conversation while bringing attention to the importance and necessity of a quality I often lack: charity.
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I couldn’t really believe what I was hearing that November day back in 2012—I was a freshman in college, running on the indoor track with a group of about 25 other women during a fitness class my college required for all students. “I won’t go there…they support women’s ordination,” a peer said to her friend, discussing local churches and which ones they would and wouldn’t visit. Having grown up in a denomination that ordained women and with a father (who was a pastor) who never seemed to raise any concern about it, I was genuinely surprised and curious to hear someone speak with such conviction, and even disdain, about an issue I didn’t realize was controversial. I wasn’t really forced to think about that conversation or issue again though until my sophomore year of college, a year when my initial surprise and curiosity about “The Woman Question” would turn into shock and embarrassment.
I should clarify: I never held any overtly “spiritual” leadership roles during college. I spent most of my free time in the theatre department creating posters, painting signs, and posting promotions on social media for our fall musical, spring plays, and one act festivals. However, it bears mentioning that I did do these activities on the campus of a Christian college, the kind of place where theological debates transpire both in the arena of the classroom and over pizza with peers on a Friday night. I chose and cherished much of what this culture encouraged; I appreciated my professors’ deep faith and the freedom to bring belief into discussions both in the classroom and outside of it. As a Communication Studies major, I safely avoided the more heated theological debates that were common in the classroom for Biblical and Religious Studies majors, something I was fine with. But despite skipping most structured theological debates, the experiences I pursued simply because I was on a Chrisitan college campus would end up bringing those conversations to me anyways. Be it on the indoor track, in the theatre, or in the church pew, my experiences demanded that I come up with an answer to “The Woman Question,” and preferably a correct one.
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The more my years at college went on, the more responsibilities I assumed in the different activities I was a part of. Unfortunately, the more responsibility I got, the more challenging it became to carry out my responsibilities with the same enjoyment and ease that accompanied earlier years. Some of it was me trying to learn what it meant to lead and delegate well, but some of it was being an unfortunate recipient of misogynistic and disrespectful comments that stemmed from viewpoints and upbringings far different from my own. Some comments used more common curses (calling me a b**ch), but the some of the more damaging of all the comments I heard used the Bible’s language of submission and instructions for a woman’s “quietness” to justify criticism of my leadership choices. Even though my roles in college didn’t involve praying or preaching, there was a distinct discomfort and disdain for my leadership from a number of my peers, who, aside from those couple of girls on the indoor rack, were male.
Some of these comments were scarring and haunting. They echoed through my head on days when I was insecure, and caused me to build walls against people and places that never sought to hurt me in the first place. I would say a lot of my posture was understandable; much of what was said to me was insulting, unjust, and untrue. But it’s taken me many years to see that my experiences and the defensive viewpoints I adopted as a result had harmful consequences of their own. You see, I didn’t want bruise my hands ever again in a fight for my right as a woman to lead, so I decided to get myself a pair of brass knuckles. Unfortunately, I used these brass knuckles in ways that could be harmful not only to myself, but to my participation in God’s vision for his Church and my love of other people.
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When I was searching for a church the summer after I graduated, I said the same words I heard my peers say on the indoor track freshman year, except I reversed the conclusion. “I won’t go there…they don’t support women’s ordination.” My bad experiences in leadership at a Christian college made me draw a hard line, and I felt I was right to do so. And my first year out of college, I did go to a church that supported women’s ordination. But then I moved to Nashville and the church I ended up going to, healing in, and learning in and still learn from (thanks to podcast sermons) was a PCA church, a church that doesn’t ordain women or allow them to be elders. Each Sunday and every Tuesday night, I found myself challenged and nourished by the Gospel, something I would have missed had I kept my pledge never to step foot in Midtown 12 South because of the baggage I insisted on continuing to carry.
I’m not trying to say that the wounds I sustained as a female leader in college were made up, invalid, or that I deserved them. I didn’t and those men who said them were wrong to say such misplaced and disrespectful things. Their viewpoints did not ascribe the value to me that I have as an image-bearer of God, and that is a real shame. But as I get distance from those years and realize how much of my own story is full of the grace of God and the charity of others, I’m realizing that it may be time to ask God to help me put my baggage down and set my brass knuckles aside. I still have strong convictions and reasons to support women’s ordination and leadership in the church, but I’ve also been exposed to some helpful viewpoints about this issue from none other than…a female Anglican priest!
Tish Harrison Warren is an author and ordained minister in the Anglican Church of North America, serving at a church in Pittsburgh that I’ve gotten to attend a few times to hear her, her husband, and the other pastors at Ascension Anglican preach Gospel-centered and challenging sermons. I recommend you read and listen to Tish write and speak on the issue of women’s ordination (you find such resources here), but for now I’ll share her closing thoughts in an excellent article for Christianity Today titled “We Can Agree to Disagree on Women’s Ordination.” She articulates a viewpoint of what I now believe in but struggled to both embrace and articulate:
“Yes, we must appropriate the best truths in feminism and work to ensure that men and women are equally treated as God’s mutual image-bearers. And yes, a church must provide clear and meaningful ways for all members, men and women, to use their gifts to serve the church. I hope that denominations will be increasingly open to the ordination of women, and I’m filled with gratitude and wonder that I am ordained.
However, it is harmful when denominations that ordain women demand that clergy fall in line on this issue or find a new church. As long as there are those in my communion who pure-heartedly believe Scripture precludes women from ordination, I want to allow room for them and to serve the church alongside of them. I hope they will do the same for those of us for women’s ordination. Our mutual love for the church compels us to seek to grow together into him who is our head, even if our growth is painful, messy, halting, and incomplete.”
I know my own growth as a Christian has been painful, messy, halting, and remains incomplete. But I owe much of my growth to my local church, be it in Nashville, in Pittsburgh, or here in Kent. Among the body of believers I have learned and grown alongside are men and women both for and against women’s ordination. They are loving, grace-filled Christians who are helping me tear my defenses down, give my baggage up, set my brass knuckles aside, and recommit to curiosity and charity. It’s not a perfect process because we aren’t perfect people. We do and can disagree, but we do it in such a way that I think, as Tish writes, “compels us to seek to grow together into him who is our head.” I would use a tweet by Tim Keller to describe what such process is like: “Our hearts are like a bucket of water on a cold day—they will freeze over unless we regularly smash the ice that is forming.”
So I guess this post is part of me smashing away. But this time, it’s not about smashing the patriarchy or having the correct answer to The Woman Question, but offering to God the only thing I ever had to give anyways: my hard heart.