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The Silence of Women in Conservative Christianity

It’s been twenty five minutes, with at least twenty still to go. I’m sitting in a comfortable chair, listening to someone share what God has been revealing to him in the Bible. Their sermon is usually very interesting to me, with a mix of deep theological insight, whimsical humor, and life-giving poetry that calls me into a deeper rest in who I am as a child of a good Father. And as he speaks, my heart is both stilled and awakened.

It’s a process I’ve been through thousands of times. In fact, doing some quick calculations, I realize that I have listened to about 10,000 sermons in my life, just in church and Christian school chapel. My university training was a B.A. in Bible, in which I sat under another countless hours of classroom training and book reading. And since my job is being a professional cleaner, I have logged thousands of hours over the past fifteen years listening to sermons on my phone while working.

But last month, I had an epiphany. I suddenly realized that these 10,000 sermons, countless hours of training and reading, and untold amounts of online sermons I have listened to have all been from white, conservative, fundamentalist, reformed, evangelical men.

Of course, I have listened to an occasional black man, maybe a couple times per year, if that…and only if they had the same exact perspective as the white, conservative, fundamentalist, reformed, evangelical men I otherwise listen to. And I’ve heard some women share what God has been teaching them. But the times I heard anything from women were always short testimonies with no exhortation, or simple personal examples of their husband’s teaching while the women were side by side with their husbands at a marriage conference.

I even attended a business class last month that was taught by a woman in a church auditorium where she joked that she felt a little guilty for speaking in a church building. And this was no backwoods context. She was a successful, cutting edge leader in Real Estate speaking in a contemporary church building. I felt in that moment that things have gone way too far. Why should a nationwide leader in Real Estate feel led to joke about feeling guilty and getting struck by lightning simply because she’s talking about Real Estate in a church building on a Tuesday?

So where is this silent vacuum of women’s voices coming from? Are they silent due to patriarchy, or male ego? To the disappointment of some of my more liberal friends, I’m not going to say here that all conservative white male pastors have a thing against women. In fact, despite what this article is pointing out, I’ve actually learned much from them over the years in how to love and value women. So where is this silence of women coming from? To be quite frank, it’s coming from both conservative men and women’s honest and pure desire to obey Scripture.

1 Corinthians 14:34-35 say,

“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

When I hear many conservatives refer to this verse, they often come across as very apologetic about it. You can see them almost squirm as they share a line of reasoning that shifts the focus to the glory of God, the image-bearing value of everyone, the vital role that women play, and caution against the obvious abuses of this verse being used to put women in their place.

Then when I hear many liberals refer to this verse, and others like it, they often try to come up with a line of reasoning that makes the text say something that any common sense reader won’t get from a natural reading of the text.

So my point in this article is not to try to justify this verse with Christianese that I label as gospel-centered, or explain it to mean something that it doesn’t.

My concern in this article is less with our interpretation of this verse, and more about how our application of it has affected us all.

Because of this verse, I have invested literally tens of thousands of hours of my life listening to what white, conservative fundamentalist, reformed, evangelical men have to say, and virtually no amount of time to what women have to say about God’s leading and revealing himself to them. And to me, that’s a problem.

In the first century Jewish culture in which the church was born, women were highly devalued and silenced. In fact, the daily prayer of Jewish men during this time included the phrase, “Praise be to God that he has not created me a woman.” Women were to be in the home. They were to bear children. And Jewish teaching was that the only reason they were to leave home was to attend the synagogue, in which they were to remain in the outer court, and were to be silent.

Jesus, however, had a very different posture toward women. He consistently spoke with them in public, called them “daughters of Abraham,” rather than the generic “sons,” gave them dignity through compassion and forgiveness, pointed them out as examples to follow, entrusted the first testimony of his resurrection to women, despite his culture’s distrust and silencing of women, and even used women as an illustration of God’s motherly care for us all.

As I look at my own life, I do not see a healthy level of learning from women as examples to follow, and of hearing their testimony as daughters of God. Instead, I see decades of not even recognizing their silence, and using the Bible to justify their silence and to prove that my position was right against women preachers in the rare occasion that it was brought up.

I don’t think most conservative Christians are actively trying to silence women. But by trying to obey the Bible, they have created a culture that relies so much on the spiritual teaching of men, that the natural result is that women overwhelmingly lack the opportunities to be the examples and testifyers that Christ encouraged them to be.

The goal of this blog is not to reinforce the status quo. It’s to provoke wonder for overflow. And simply quoting 1 Corinthians 14 in this article as a way to prove a point that women shouldn’t preach, in my opinion, would be reinforcing the status quo of silencing the overflow of women. Simply arguing against male chauvinistic abuses, without inviting women to speak, would be shifting the focus onto something else and reinforcing the status quo of silencing women. So rather than sharing a formula of how I deal with those verses, I’d like to acknowledge how uncomfortable they make me feel, encourage you to wrestle with them yourself, and then provoke us all in two specific ways.

Encourage women to speak through writing, blogging, podcasting, teaching, and any other means available to them.

If you are reading this as a woman, I want to encourage you to speak. There are countless options in our culture today for you to speak, even if you are a part of a church that will not allow you to preach. You can write books. You can create blogs for free, and share them on social media. You can record podcasts with free software and have them on iTunes. You can teach in many different business, community, and religious contexts. You can use art, photography, and many means to speak that have never been available to the degree that they are today. If you are in a church that allows you to speak publicly, even in small roles, I’d encourage you to take every opportunity you can to do so, including Scripture reading, classes, and small group discussions. If you are a woman who desires to pursue further education for preaching opportunities, there are many seminaries who will gladly help you in this endeavor. So please begin or continue an overflow of sharing what God is doing in you, and know with a clear conscience that Christ is with you in this. If you are a man who can help or encourage a woman in your life to speak, please do what you can to give her a platform.

Encourage men to listen to women.

Over the past couple of months, I have begun the process of listening to women. I’ve been following and reading their thoughts on social media, and listening to their podcasts. And I’ve been learning a lot. It’s interesting how having a different pair of eyes in the room helps the entire room to notice things they never did before. I’ve heard women share observations about life and the Bible that I haven’t heard my white, conservative, fundamentalist, reformed, evangelical preachers and teachers share in countless hours of sitting under their teaching. And these things I’ve been learning are actually quite biblical and life giving. It’s just natural that different people will observe things differently, just like two people observe any event or room differently. But unfortunately, I think our current culture of conservative reformed evangelicalism has gotten into a theological rut of group speak that simply states the same Christianese formulas over and over again. We need to hear more of how God is revealing himself to different image bearers, especially women.

Since most of the people I’m connected to are conservative, white, fundamentalist, reformed evangelicals, I’m sure this article is going to cause some concern. It may cause questions as to where I’m heading theologically. And it may even influence some people to get angry with me, or lovingly confront me out of genuine concern for me. And whether I agree with you or not, I want to share that I appreciate and totally get your concern. But I hope, no matter where you are at, that you can hear my heart here.

It’s just not healthy for me to have listened to tens of thousands of hours of teaching from one small part of God’s image bearers (white, conservative, fundamentalist, reformed, evangelical men), while having spent hardly any time listening to anyone else. So I’m not saying that all of us need to just leave our churches and join churches with female pastors. I’m just trying to point out the stark reality of women being silent in our lives, to encourage women to speak more, and to encourage men to listen. Even if you do not have the faith to attend a church where women are pastors, you should at least be proactive in exploring what they have to say in the many other contexts that modern technology has given us.

I’m very thankful for how God has used white, conservative, fundamentalist, reformed, evangelical men to reveal more of himself to me, and to awaken my heart to wonder. But there’s more to hear. There’s more to wonder at. There are more voices to testify.

Jesus had a posture of open dialogue with women, and of entrusting them as the first testifyers of his resurrection. So let’s reflect that more in our lives. They actually might have an overflow that could spill into us in ways that we haven’t experienced, which will provoke an overflow in us that has been held back from its fullest potential for two millennia. To continue not even recognizing or actively justifying their silence is preventing this overflow that could be a pretty untapped avenue of growth for us all.

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