Male Church Leaders and Feminism

male-leader

My few encounters with male church leaders and feminism in the same room were not pretty.

It amazes me how angry some Christian men get about the idea of gender equality. I understand discomfort and awkwardness and concern if you feel the Bible conflicts with Christian feminists’ vision of gender equality. But angry? Particularly red-in-the-face angry? Belligerent angry? Shut the woman down and up angry?

Psst, I want to whisper. You’re looking like a male chauvinist pig. Do you want to try this conversation again? 

You would think that, as men, they would try their best to come across as understanding, loving, and calm when they’re talking to women, as women, about things women cannot do because they’re women but they can do because they’re men.

If I were in their shoes, I would hem and haw and try to make the issue as palatable as possible and emphasize that the gender disparity in church leadership isn’t what it seems. I would try my hardest not to come across as a jerk who has zero compassion to a woman concerned that God, the Bible, and the church is oppressing her and her spiritual gifts.

….right?

Of course there are compassionate male church leaders who speak graciously on women’s issues from a complementarian perspective. But that hasn’t always been my personal experience, particularly when it comes to the Orthodox church.

One pivotal conversation nearly scared me off from Orthodoxy (and long story short, Christianity) altogether. I asked a male church leader about feminism in Orthodoxy. Immediately his demeanor changed from kindly and witty to defensive and sarcastic.

“I don’t want to debate it, I don’t want to change your mind,” I kept cheerfully reminding him as he kept punching the naive idea that Scripture supports feminism. I got backed into a corner and forced to share that I believed women ought to be priests too. That didn’t go over well.

Because I really didn’t want to debate it, and I really wasn’t interested in changing his mind, and I was really, really uncomfortable with this entire situation, I gave halfhearted answers and prooftexts for him to go at. I kept my real reasons, hurts, and passions hidden away. I made a mental note not to trust this guy again.

I got reading material thrown at me so I could learn what feminism actually was and what the Bible actually taught. I put on a good front, thanked him, and gave it to my friend to return the next time she visited the church. I wasn’t going back.

That happened a while ago, enough time for wounds to scar over. I found myself sitting in a church pew, facing another male Orthodox leader, saying the same scary, awkward thing: “So, I’m a Christian feminist, and…”

“Oh, that won’t be a problem here,” he chuckled.

What?

There are lots of women in that church who feel the same way, he explained, women like his daughter, who identifies as a feminist and defended laws protecting trafficked minors in Illinois. He himself politically identifies as a feminist and actively encourages women in his parish to perform roles often reserved for men in other Orthodox parishes.

“There’s no real reason why girls shouldn’t serve at the altar,” he said, which, if you know anything about Orthodoxy and the priesthood, is a huge thing for an Orthodox priest to say.

“There are many things we don’t know about God and morality,” he said, “many issues that haven’t been fully discussed because they haven’t come up before. Besides, gender and sexuality aren’t the only moral issues to talk about.”

Imagine. Real hurts and abuses to be angry about that aren’t a woman desiring equality.

I’m in the official inquiry process for the Orthodox faith, and I am relieved to do so with a male church leader who doesn’t get angry against women’s issues.

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8 thoughts on “Male Church Leaders and Feminism

  1. Abigail

    The only times gender issues have come up in my church experience, they have been hemmed and hawed about in a concessionary style, emphasizing the spiritual equality of women despite maintaining that they should not be pastors. Although I live in a denominational context that would take a complementarian label, the two churches I have attended in my lifetime espouse the idea that God made men and women different to complement each other, and wholeheartedly reject the lie that God made men and women for specific, rigid roles. Your blog and others have opened my eyes to the reality of other people’s experiences, and I am grateful to understand how the same words and ideas I am familiar with have been used and distorted as tools of oppression towards others.

    I attend a small church plant, and now that my peers are all off at college, I am the only person in my age group. I considered leaving, but decided to stay, because I have local Christian friends my age and love my church despite the lack of a peer group. To help serve and get involved, I have begun volunteering with the youth group. The youth pastor, who formerly served as a church elder, approached me yesterday and asked me if I would like to teach one of the lessons this semester. I think I surprised us both with my enthusiastic response. Without people like you sharing their stories, I would not know to fully appreciate how good and tragically unusual it is for females to be invited to teach mixed-gender groups. I’m excited for the opportunity to delve into a passage of Jonah this fall, and so grateful to belong to a church where women can take many different serving roles without any controversy. One of the blessings of being in a church plant is that the leaders know everyone personally and depend on everyone to make things happen, instead of easing into traditional routines of having men take leadership roles, perhaps without even realizing that they’re leaving people out.

    Oh! That reminds me that last Christmas, I did the advent candle reading and prayer by myself one week. In my previous experience, elders always asked families to do it, and the husband and wife would share the material. Last year, my church invited single people to do the advent presentations, and I was impressed by how consciously counter-cultural that was. I greatly valued the opportunity.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Wow!!! Your experiences are SO encouraging! I’m excited for you that you get to go deep into Scripture in a mixed-group setting. !!!! And what an awesome, counter-cultural thing indeed to invite single people to read for advent! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody but families (well, the husbands of said families) read the advent Scripture, even in churches where women hold higher positions than most complementarian churches. You sound like you’ve been in great church situations, and I’m so happy for you!! Thank you for expressing sympathy for other people’s experiences and letting them give you a new perspective on the wonderful opportunities you have. I appreciate your attitude!! Thanks for sharing!

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  2. korie

    I’m glad you encountered someone willing to talk things over with you. The angry-defensive response from the other leader just sounds immature.

    I’ve been able to avoid the whole women in church leadership deal because I don’t believe in pastors at all (at least, not in the was that most picture pastors). I did teach at a Christian school that seems to lean egalitarian… I’m going back next week to speak in student chapel!

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  3. Elizabeth Erazo

    Its awesome that this priest has been so gracious and is willing to open up aspects of the Church and liturgy to women which have been closed off by others. You may be interested in the writing of Maria Gwyn at http://mariagwyn.com/ on Orthodox theology and women. As someone who is currently attending RCIA in the Catholic church, I am still struggling: sure, this parish is particularly hospitable, loving, and as progressive as I suppose any small-town Catholic parish could be, but what if we move? What if we’re displaced to a new parish where the priest is a curmudgeon and I get the stink-eye for having “only” two kids who are obviously spaced? But commitments to these “big-C” Churches aren’t like membership at the local Bible church — its fealty to the universal Catholic (or in your case, Orthodox) faith which isn’t released simply because you don’t like the guy in charge.

    Plus, there’s this feeling of — by joining this Church which “officially” only allows male priesthood, am I complicit in encouraging the oppression of women, even if my particular parish is progressive or open-minded or hell, even just friendly with feminism? Its definitely a lot to process when you’re mindful of these issues as well as drawn to the immense depth of theology which is presented in the Orthodox or Catholic Churches.

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    • Bailey Steger

      YES. My thought process is exactly the same! At least with Catholicism, there’s a movement for female priests. Conservative parishes might not be too happy about it, but at least it’s an issue the church is talking about. That’s not the case with Orthodoxy, just because it’s so slow to change anything. I remember at one point wondering if I ought to look more into Catholicism just because I liked their view of women better and their conscientiousness toward these modern issues. It’s so hard to feel strongly about issues of justice AND the rich theology, history, liturgy, etc. of these catholic churches. And like you said, you don’t just get to walk away if you’re not happy with the local congregation, which sounds both good and potentially toxic at the same time. You really have to develop a strong conviction that THIS CHURCH is where God wants you. That’s where I’m at right now… following his will one day at a time and trying not to worry about the what ifs of the future. At the same time, I really want my commitment to the Orthodox Church to be just that — a commitment — which means I do need to consider the possibility of belonging to a less-than-ideal parish and the reality of the church at large fighting against full equality for women. :/

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      • Elizabeth Erazo

        Orthodox are definitely the Ents of the Christian world I think! At this point, I’m almost relentlessly pragmatic regarding the Church I attend. I’m becoming Catholic because I believe Christ wants me Catholic, even if I don’t fully understand it yet. I’m doing it because it draws me closer to him, and that’s the important thing.

        God bless!

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