February 29, 2016

Brick in the Wall: Being a Woman and an Independent Baptist

The Baptist denomination is kind of like a bag of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans: There's more flavors than you could ever imagine, and some are more palatable than others.

For instance, you have Westboro Baptist Church, which has gained some infamous notoriety over the years for its stance on homosexuality (we'll call them the vomit-flavored bean); however, you also have bodies like the Alliance of Baptists and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists who welcome homosexuals (we'll call them Starburst flavored). In between, you have a variety of stripes--even more conservative Baptist traditions rarely take it as far as Westboro does. These might be grass flavored, or booger flavored, or wood flavored--perhaps not as bad as vomit, but still not something I'm willing to snack on personally.

To further complicate matters when you're talking about Baptists, you've got a strong web of independent Baptist churches. These churches are not affiliated with any official governing body, and thus, they determine their own doctrinal stances, confessions, and creeds with no oversight and no consistency between churches. The range of flavors here is unimaginable, but tends towards the conservative end of the spectrum, at least in my experience.

Much like their views on homosexuality, views on gender relations also vary widely. The churches that I grew up in believed in "complementarianism", or the idea that men and women are distinct and different but equally valuable. It's a little like this statement from the Southern Baptist Convention:

While Scripture teaches that a woman's role is not identical to that of men in every respect, and that pastoral leadership is assigned to men, it also teaches that women are equal in value to men.

Indeed, in most churches that I grew up in, women were allowed to participate in nearly every aspect of church leadership except pastoral positions.

The problem with complementarianism is that it's a lie. It maintains that men and women are equally valued while still restricting women from key leadership positions within the church community.



This doesn't end in the pews, either. It continues into the home, where women are expected to submit to the care of the men in their lives. Daughters are to submit to fathers until marriage, when they are to submit to their husbands. There's no room for compromise, and the idea of the submissive female is pervasive and commanding. You rarely see ballsy women highlighted (although they are present in the Bible--I'm looking at you, Jael, wife of Heber, in Judges 4). We were instead fed the stories of Ruth and Esther, who in the latter case at least may have been very brave, but were completely controlled by the men in their lives and who they married. The only time that I remember the story of Jael mentioned--and it stuck in my head precisely because I ate up the idea of this badass woman--was in a sermon aimed more at men. The sermon itself focused on the idea that when there's no man around willing to be used, God will use a woman. You know, because he has no other options.

When I was a teenager in our youth group, this difference struck me as particularly unfair. There was a young man in our group who was earmarked to be a pastor. He was a year older than me. One evening, the pastor had asked each of us to prepare a testimony to give the following week about our experiences at church camp. I prepped and prepared mine. I pulled scripture. I found statistics regarding the life of teenagers in America. When I stood behind the pulpit and gave my speech, I riveted people. By the end, I'd moved some to tears.

And yet, when he presented a far less thoughtful and moving sermon, he was praised for his future as a preacher, and I was told that I'd make a lovely pastor's wife, reading and helping with my husband's sermon preparation.

It was infuriating and disheartening. I remember praying, begging God to know why he'd given me the ability to move people like that if I wasn't supposed to use it. When I asked my youth pastor's wife, she explained that supporting my future husband would be enough to fulfill me, and I ached to know that it would be true, because I doubted it. I knew the passion that had been awakened, and I knew that I had an ability to communicate with people in ways that were meaningful. It wasn't just a gift; it was a pleasure, something I enjoyed.

It made me wonder why I wasn't as valuable to my church family as my male friend. When I asked (politely and discreetly, of course), the answer was always along the lines of, "You're just as valuable as a man. Why would you think any differently?"

Well, let's look at this. Not being allowed to make my own decisions, being told that I have to submit to my husband's decisions even I disagree, not being allowed to leverage my own talents because I'm barred from pastoral positions, being told that keeping the home is my job and I should rely on a husband to provide, being told consistently that what God wants from me is cheerful submission....

Is there any reason that I would feel as valuable as a man? Because I didn't see any then, and I still fail to see any today, as I look back on those moments when it first hit me that I would different.

In the end, I sought opportunities that would allow me to use those talents outside of my church. Throughout high school, I used them. In college, I was met several times with the question of whether I'd considered public speaking as a career (how does one even make a career out of that? I have no idea). I was pegged to do presentations in my workplace. In every situation where I've leveraged that talent, it's been well-received and praised.

Save one: in my church, where my many testimonies were seen as proof that I'd be an excellent wife, and not as proof that I was talented person.

It shakes me, sometimes, to know that there are still so many women trapped in that same cycle of being told that they are valuable while simultaneously not receiving the same recognition and respect as their male believing counterparts. How much talent goes unnoticed, unrecognized, wasted, because churches cling to these patriarchal doctrines? How many women fade into the background, never taking credit, when in reality they are creating amazing things, each and every week? For free?

It renews my commitment, not just to atheism but also to feminism. Rational thinking will prevail, and when it does, it will liberate the majority of my gender still laboring in religious shackles. That, my dears, will be a glorious day indeed.

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