Of Female Ghosts and Haunted Churches – {Bronwyn Lea}

Imagine for a minute that you have just finished the first course of a delicious meal at a family dinner. Seated around the table are your siblings and cousins: those of whom it is true that blood is thicker than water. You love them. You enjoy their company. You are all in on the old family joke about crazy Uncle Bill and his wild habit of trying to ride reindeer every winter. Also, sometimes they drive you crazy. You are all living in different places and phases of life, and sometimes opinions around the table can get heated. Especially on the favorite sticky topics.

But it’s okay. Because you’re family, and love keeps a tight rein on making sure that frustration doesn’t lead to fighting.

This blog, at Passing the Salt Shaker, is that kind of table. We are family, getting together to chew the fat. In particular, we want to talk about the sticky topics surrounding men and women in the church, and how this works out in our faith and practice. We know we will disagree. But we also know we are family.

We are inviting you, gentle reader, to pull up a chair at the table and listen in. We want to talk openly and honestly about these topics, we want to press deeper into Scripture and grow in love and Christ-likeness through these discussions. And the reason we are doing it in public, on a blog, is that we want the world to know that it is possible for families to have heated discussions and still not break fellowship.

Who’s seated at the table? Some of the faces may be familiar. You can read a little more about each of us in our introductions: Hannah Anderson, Graham Ware, April Fiet, Alastair Roberts, Hannah Malcolm, Kristen Padilla and myself. The faces at the table may change, and we’ll have some guests for dinner too, but the idea is this: someone will raise a topic for discussion – something we’ve read or been thinking about… and then we’ll take turns to “pass the salt” along the table, each contributing some thoughts.

None of us is claiming to be experts on the topic. But we’re all interested in the discussion and sticking around at the family table to talk about it.

Being the extrovert that I am, I came to the table itching to talk about Jen Wilkin’s article 3 Female Ghosts That Haunt The Church, which was published by The Gospel Coalition last week. In it, Wilkin warns men in ministry (and those in earshot) to be careful of three pitfalls in dealings with women: treating them as Usurpers, Temptresses, or Children. Each of these, says Wilkin, stems from a fear that women are trying to take authority illegimitately, wield sexual power over you, or are unable to fully follow what you’re saying. She writes:

When fear governs our interactions, both genders drift into role-playing that subverts our ability to interact as equals. In the un-haunted church ,where love trumps fear, women are viewed (and view themselves) as allies rather than antagonists, sisters rather than seductresses, co-laborers rather than children.

In a way, I found it somewhat surprising that The Gospel Coalition, being as staunchly complementarian in its views as it is, published this piece. I was very grateful that they did, though: it seems to me that if women were regarded as contributors rather than conspirators, and as equals rather than as children, a great number of the complaints about patriarchy and abuse would disappear. So much of the mud slinging in this debate happens because we have assumed the worst of our listeners before we even started talking. A space of mutual trust and respect is a bedrock for any healthy relationship, and of course it should be so within the Family of God.

Women have often not been treated with trust and respect, and I think in this article Wilkin offers an insightful diagnosis (the “this might be your ghost if you’ve done the following…” suggestions are particularly revealing) and appeal  (to pursue women trustingly, rather than to “permit” them participation begrudgingly, as she has written of elsewhere.)

When faced with a woman like Wilkin, who is clearly not a usurper (she is a firm complementarian), a temptress or a child, I can see how a man with firm biblical convictions about the ‘place’ of women might let his guard down. My question, however, is this: what if the woman asking the questions doesn’t agree about the place women should hold in the church?

What if, not intending to be a usurper, but from an honest enquiry into what Scripture means, she has questions about whether God might be calling her to teach, or even to preach? What if, having searched the Scriptures, she has come to different conclusions and wants to know whether it’s okay for her (or not even for herself, for another woman whose wisdom and godliness she admires) to teach the Sunday School class, or to officiate communion.

In other words, if there were a real challenge to his viewpoint. Would he, as Wilkin suggests, be able to “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, or would she be considered a real, live usurper just for having asked the question and holding a different view point?

My own experience is as someone who fully believes that women are of great worth and dignity as God’s children and equally responsible and gifted for the word of ministry, but who also believes that the bible speaks to men and women differently in certain parts of the Bible. I am, to put myself in the proverbial pigeonhole, a “soft complementarian”.

The difficulty for me comes in knowing what that actually means in practice. What does that mean in my marriage (my immediate family), and what does that mean in the church (the family of God)? How, in practice, does this work out in the ways I work and serve alongside the men in my church: me, a sister and mother, shoulder to shoulder with the brothers and fathers in God’s household?

I read literature to see how others are working this out in practice, and some of it makes my skin crawl. I am neither Betty Crocker nor Betty Friedan. I am not the bake-cookies-for-Jesus type, but when I ask questions of what I should do with teaching and speaking and writing gifts, I read both complementarian and egalitarian believers whom I respect and love as brothers and sisters in the faith, and am often horrified at how quickly the egalitarian women are dismissed as usurpers, just for having asked the question. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth to be made to feel like a guilty complementarian just for having respect for egalitarian questions.

Indeed, I’ve been taken aside and given a gentle talking to on more than one occasion for asking “presumptuous questions”.

Is it really possible in practice to ask questions about men, women and authority in the church and “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, when deep in your heart you believe that anything other than your position actually would amount to usurping?

So, brethren around the table, I’m passing the salt.

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