stepping into a new faith community

Please to enjoy this photo of the bufflogals in their church clothes, as I'm not sure what else goes with this post.

Please to enjoy this photo of the bufflogals in their church clothes, as I’m not sure what else goes with this post.

On Sunday, we attended a Membership Matters class and picked a date, so it’s official: we’re joining our neighborhood United Methodist Church, marking the end of our church search, a search we’ve been on since our beloved community and church plant Eikon disbanded about a year ago.

While we knew finding another Eikon would be impossible, it wasn’t easy to choose a new church to call home. For one thing, even within our marriage, finding a church we both agree on is tough, because certain things like the role of women (we’re for equality!), the importance of social justice and creation care, the belief that the salvation of all things is about more than just asking Jesus to live in your heart, and love for all people regardless of sexuality/race/socioeconomic status are important to us, but we also wanted a great kids program and a vibrant worship experience. Add to that equation that we were also hoping to land in the same place as some of our Eikon friends, and you have a group choosing a church by committee.

We tried big churches and small churches. Presbyterian, Episcopalian, non-denominational/evangelical, and Methodist. We liked aspects of just about every place we visited, and truly disliked only one experience (let’s just say a sermon about how God wants to make people materially wealthy isn’t the way to our hearts). I truly think we could have been happy in many of the congregations we visited.

We even really seriously considered the church that I would say was farthest outside my comfort zone, a non-denominational/evangelical church. It was definitely different than the Presbyterian churches I grew up in, but I was willing to give it a shot because it seemed to have a deep commitment to racial and cultural unity, which is rare in churches in the South and in the US as a whole, and because it had a lot of young families and seemed to have a great kids program. We attended regularly for many months, truly enjoyed our time in worship there, and even went to a class for potential new members, but ultimately, the fact that the leadership (elders and pastors) was all-male, the fact that homosexuality was condemned as a sin, and a few other little things we heard in the preaching came together to show us that we weren’t in quite the right place, though we wish that group the best in their work toward reconciliation and unity.

Ultimately, we started attending a contemporary service at a United Methodist church very near to our house, which is a major plus when trying to get ourselves and two small people out the door on Sunday mornings. We started just as a new pastor for that service came on board, and we have really enjoyed his preaching. We like the music and worship style a lot, and there are many young families and a great, well-run kids program for the girls. Theologically, as the senior pastor said in class today, there’s really not a lot about Methodists that would make them stand out among other mainline protestant denominations, because they all believe the same things, but I liked that he said that what Methodists try to emphasize above everything else is grace. I have also long loved the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a way of making sense of scripture, theology, and the world, because I think it’s vitally important to know the Bible, but also impossible to read/understand/value the Bible in isolation from tradition, reason, and lived experience.

We like that there are women on staff as pastors, and that the UMC affirms women in full equality. We also like that this church is a large church that uses its size to do large amounts of good in our community and the world, and we look forward to plugging in to some mission opportunities there. Ultimately, I think and hope and pray that this will be a place where we can find a peer group but also have a diverse community, where our kids can be nurtured in the faith, where we can learn and grow ourselves, and where we can connect with opportunities to participate in God’s redemptive work of making all things new and whole. I do know that the UMC has some work to do to become truly inclusive of all people regardless of sexuality or gender identity, but I feel the denomination is moving in the right direction, and am encouraged to see same-sex couples in worship on Sunday mornings, which I take as a sign that this particular congregation is on the side of inclusiveness and equality.

So– this lifelong Presbyterian is joining up with the Methodists. I guess this makes me a Presbodist?

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Jesus and Gender Part 5: But what about Paul?

Me teaching at Eikon. Image via my friend Kat, who noticed that none of the guys made it into the pic, so it looks like I was only speaking to women.

Today marks the fifth and final installment of my Jesus and Gender series.  If you missed any of the earlier posts, feel free to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 before reading the rest of this post.

As I said in my introduction in Part 1, when I set out to prepare for the talk at my church that led to this blog series, I was thinking I might end up just having to “chuck” some sections of the New Testament, particularly Paul’s letters.  I thought there was just no way I was going to build a case for the full inclusion of women without having to admit that I think, in some cases, parts of the Bible can just be plain outdated and inapplicable to modern life.  But, to my surprise, I discovered a rich tradition of women leaders in the early church, even in Paul’s writings!

Women were actively involved in the forming of the first church immediately after Jesus’ death.  From Acts 1:14: “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”  Acts also speaks of a fairly remarkable set of sisters, though perhaps what is most remarkable about them is that Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t consider them remarkable at all. In Acts 21:9 “Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.” To prophesy is to preach, and Luke presents four unmarried women who preach, and deems it normal, unworthy of any particular comment or condemnation.

But what about Paul? Verses from Paul are often used to make the case that women are not to speak in church, women are not to teach men, and women are to be modest.  My argument is that, in light of what we know about Jesus’ radical interactions with women, we have to look at Paul again.  Is it possible that we have misunderstood Paul by failing to look at the entire context of his writings?

After all, it is Paul who has the beautiful vision of the kingdom of God described in Galatians 3:28-29: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.”  According to Woman in the World of Jesus, “The phrase ‘in Christ’ implies one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ; but it also implies one’s being in the family of Christ. To be in Christ is to be in the church, the body of Christ. For those ‘in Christ’ or in the church, the body of Christ, it is irrelevant to ask if one is Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.” (163)

Paul also establishes that the primary criteria for determining who should serve in what area of the body of Christ is whether or not an individual has been gifted by God in that area, not gender, or ethnic status, or any other human criteria.  This becomes apparent in Romans 12:4-8. If you have a gift, you are obligated to use it.

Even in the midst of the bizarre 1 Cor passage (11:2-16)* in which Paul demands that women in Corinth cover their heads in church, he affirms their role to pray and prophesy in public: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.”  At the time, “prophesy” was the preaching portion of their worship, and Paul does not call for women to be disallowed from prophesy or public prayer, just that they cover their head while doing so. His later instruction that women “should remain silent in the churches” and save their questions for their husbands for when they are at home, rather than interrupting those who are praying and prophesying cannot therefore undermine his support of women as the ones doing the praying and the prophesying. This is a section about maintaining order in the worship service, and his instruction is to keep silent while others are teaching and praying, not that women are not permitted to teach and pray.

And Paul was a man who had no problem with women as equal partners in ministry, as with Priscilla and her husband Aquila, and he has no problem calling women deacons and apostles, as he did with Phoebe and Junia.  Phoebe appears in Romans 16:1-2: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” Phoebe is described in Rom. 16:1 as what is sometimes translated “a servant,” but this word, “diakonon,” the root of our word “deacon,” was used for anyone engaged in any form of ministry, and is the same word that Paul uses to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25). According to McCabe**, the words used “points to a more recognized ministry” or “a position of responsibility within the congregation.” “Minister” would be an acceptable translation in this regard (99).  Other women were deacons: Pliny, writing during the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD), describes female deacons in Bethynia.  He also describes these same women as “ministers.” And, in his commentary on Romans 16:2, early Church Father Hatto of Vercelli stated “at that time not only men, but also women presided over churches.” (McCabe 109)

Another noteworthy woman was Priscilla, who appears in Romans 16:3. Significantly, she and her husband are listed as “Priscilla and Acquila” (the most important of a group was usually listed first, which is why we conclude Mary Magdalene was the leader of Jesus’ women disciples, because she was always listed first). BOTH are Paul’s “fellow workers in Christ.” Both “risked their necks” for Paul, and for them Paul and all the other Gentile churches give thanks.  A church meets in “their” house.  Priscilla and her husband are equal partners in ministry.  In Acts, Luke describes Priscilla and her husband teaching a man, a Jew named Apollos: “When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:26)

This brings us to the apostle Junia, who appears in Romans 16:7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” There is some debate about whether or not this should be translated Junia or Junias, but many scholars support translating it Junia, and note that Junias is not a common Roman name, and has not been located elsewhere in other ancient texts, while Junia was a common name for Roman women at the time of Paul.  Despite this, for years, translators went with Junias instead of Junia, because of the word “apostle” next to her name. They reasoned that women can’t be apostles, so the text must be wrong to name her Junia.  My translation, the TNIV, names her as Junia, as does my English Standard Version. Most newer, more accurate translations go with Junia.  Early Church Father Chrysostom (344-407 AD) writes of Romans 16:7: “To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.” (McCabe 121)

Finally, I have to mention Euodia and Syntyche, who are found in Philippians 4:2-3 “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”  These are two women whom Paul calls his co-workers, his equals, his fellow ministers.

I have to admit, I had never heard of Junia, Phoebe, or Euodia or Syntyche. As I read and researched to prepare for this talk, and I came across these names of these great women of our faith, I even found myself getting angry that I had never been taught these pieces of our history—and I grew up in a faith tradition, Presbyterians, that had no problem with full inclusion of women in every aspect of church life—I just can’t believe we aren’t being taught this great history!

Just as there are many different women named in many different roles in the early church, just as Mary and Martha had very different ways of showing their faith in and love for Jesus, there are many different roles available to women and to everyone in the family of faith today.  I am not arguing that all pastors should be women or that all women should be pastors, but simply that women should be able to serve Jesus and work to advance his kingdom in any manner to which they feel called, just like anyone else in the church.  I am so glad that I can love and serve a Jesus who encountered men and women and treated them all as whole persons, worthy of dignity, love and respect. I am so glad to be able to be his disciple, like Mary Magdalene and Joanna.  I am so glad I can find my own way of serving in the Body of Christ, like Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia, and Syntyche.  And I am so glad to have found my particular family of faith, Eikon, where they’d let even a geeky, passionate, loudmouthed, feminist like me stand up and teach.  I am so encouraged by this church, so excited about the inclusive spirit this church tries to embody, and so blessed to be a part of it.

*Seriously, this is a bizarre passage. Paul tries to say that men having long hair is “unnatural.” Any men out there, stop cutting your hair and let nature take over and guess what will happen.  He also makes a strange allusion to angels, as if they are somehow tempted by women with uncovered heads.  As best I can tell, this is some sort of reference to accounts in Genesis where angels had sex with human women, producing giants and other heroic offspring.

**Women in the Biblical World: A survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives. Elizabeth A. McCabe, ed.

Jesus and Gender Equality: a new series

 

I tend to talk with my hands and make funny faces, so that's what's going on here. Image via @ryanbyrd.

 

Long time no blog, I know, but let’s just pretend I haven’t been goofing off with nothing to say and just jump right back in, shall we?

I wrote not too long ago about how we’d finally found a church to call our own here in Little Rock, a strange and awesome group of people called Eikon Church.  You know they’re strange and awesome, because they asked a loud, academic, outspoken, feminist like me to teach about Jesus and gender equality at our weekly gathering last night.  And I, being a diligent little grad student, set out to research and write the best talk ever. I think I ended up with 13 pages, and I even had MLA citations.  I’m a serious dork!  And yet they love me anyway!

I have to say, even though I grew up in a tradition (Presbyterian Church USA) in which women are full participants in every aspect of church life, I was still very ignorant of much of the biblical basis for that theology.  I thought I’d basically have to throw out aspects of the Bible, particularly Paul, in order to make the case for my belief in gender equality. And, though I’m one of those heathens who believes that the Bible was written in a specific time period to a specific group of people with a specific understanding of the world and can, thus, be outdated or trumped by more modern understandings of the world, it turns out I don’t actually have to ignore parts of the Bible in order to support egalitarianism.  In fact, there’s a rich pattern of inclusiveness right there in the Bible, even in Paul.

So, I thought I’d share with you, the Internets, what I learned and shared with my friends at Eikon.  Each day this week, I’ll share a part of the story, from the reason this matters to me, to the historic context Jesus lived and taught in, to even the most passing interactions he had with women, in which he always treated women as persons of worth, first and foremost.  I’ll share how he had close personal friendships with women, and I’ll talk about the women who were his disciples.  I’ll even talk about the women who were leaders in the early church, as acknowledged, named, and lauded by the apostle Paul.  I’m really excited by all I’ve learned and so happy to share it!

So, let’s kick it off.  To start:

Why is gender equality so important to me as a Christian?

We, as followers of Jesus, are proclaimers of freedom. We are all about forgiveness, and freedom from bondage, and renewal and restoration. And yet, for many women, the message of the gospel comes to them with a message of a new kind of bondage.  To many women, the message of faith has also been a message that they are inferior. That they are to keep silent. That they alone are to submit. That they are to obey. That they are to be quiet and gentle and meek.

I can’t tell you how much this has hurt me personally.  This may shock some of you, but I have never been quiet or gentle or meek.  And I have often wondered if I could love and serve a Jesus, who, I was told, wanted me to basically change who I am in order to be accepted and loved and used in furtherance of the kingdom. I felt this most acutely during the three years we lived in Charleston.  We never did find a church to really belong to there, but I did find myself in a Bible Study with a group of women who, like me, were married to medical residents and doctors.  I was desperate to fit in with these women, because moving halfway across the country, where I had no friends and knew no one was a very hard and depressing time for me.  And yet I always got the feeling that these women didn’t actually like me very much.  I felt like they thought I was too loud, too passionate, too independent, too strong.  I always felt like I was on my best behavior around them, and this made me feel even worse—if they didn’t like “me on my best behavior,” they would NEVER like the real me, me on a bad day, or me in a vulnerable moment.  At one point, I confessed to a fellow member of the group, a woman a few years older than I who already had three kids, that I felt like I didn’t fit in.  She invited me over for lunch, and I was so relieved. Finally, someone was going to reach out to me, love, and accept me! And yet when I went over to her house, she basically told me she thought Jesus wanted to give me a lobotomy. That Jesus wanted to make me quiet and gentle and meek, the way she felt a godly woman should be.  I quit the group after that.  I don’t want to be part of a group that wants me to be someone else because they think Jesus wants me to be someone other than who I am.

And the thing is, I don’t think Jesus wants any of us to be anyone other than who we were created to be.  I think Jesus wants each and every one of us to love and serve him and work to make his kingdom a reality here on earth in ways that are appropriate to our personalities, our interests, and our gifts, talents, and skills.  And in order to really believe that, I have to believe that women (and people of other races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic status) are allowed full participation in every aspect of church life.

So, this is what I’ll be blogging about for the next week.  Tomorrow, look for some historical context on the world in which Jesus lived, preached, died, and rose again, as a way to set up just how radically inclusive his interactions with women truly were.  I’m excited to be sharing this with you!

love and like

because i hate posts without pictures, here's a picture of my dog, olive. she likes me. chances are she'd like you too.

I’ve always known that God loves me, but, and this might shock you, it’s a relatively new thing for me to realize that God actually likes me, actually enjoys me, as well.  Maybe this is a revelation for you too?

Though I grew up in a wonderful church family, for the past few years, I have struggled to find a community of faith to call my own.  In our three years in Charleston, we never really did find a church to belong to.  For over a year, we thought we had– we loved the “contemporary” service at an Episcopalian congregation that blended the liturgy I love with the music that touches Jon’s heart.  And the people there were friendly enough.  But we couldn’t find places to “plug in.”  We weren’t interested in leading the youth group, though we’ve both been active in ministry to teens in the past.  We were too old for the college kids, but too young for most of the “young marrieds” activities, and we just didn’t fit in with the people who already had kids.  We were in church programming limbo.  So, after about a year, we realized it was time to try to find a place where we wouldn’t still be treated like “visitors” after a year of attendance.  We church hopped ever after.

I also tried to find a community of faith outside the church.  I joined a bible study for medical wives, but, as I’ve written, I didn’t exactly fit in there as an outspoken, feminist, liberal, doubter.  I always felt like they didn’t really know me, didn’t really like me, and REALLY wouldn’t like me if they knew the real me.  Like: if you can’t handle “Sarah on her best behavior,” you’re really not going to do so well with “Sarah in a vulnerable moment.”

And, though I didn’t really realize it until last night, I think that my time in that group (and another community group which Jon and I both belonged to and ultimately left) left me feeling like yes, God loves me, but maybe God, or at the very least God’s people, doesn’t like me very much.

I wrote about our churchless time in Charleston and said I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.  Now that I’m back in Little Rock, I really feel that I should follow up and say that for now, we have, praise God, found a community of believers where we feel at home, and I found it through Twitter of all places.

Our new church is small, but I’ll take quality over quantity any day.  We meet in a converted house near our neighborhood every Sunday night, and, like the very first Christian churches, share a common meal and enjoy each other’s company.  We try to keep to a flattened style of leadership, so we take turns leading in a conversation about Jesus, trying to get to know Him very well so that we can live like He did. And we have a great time.

Perhaps the biggest revelation for me lately isn’t just that we found a group of people who don’t make us feel like heretics, though that’s a big plus.  It’s that we really LIKE these people.  We want to hang out with them, have cook-outs with them, go on random weekday bike rides with them, share our lives with them.  And with that revelation comes the realization that they like us too!

Last night, during our “talk time,” the leader was talking about Matthew 25 and what we do for the “least of these.”  We had some conversation about dealing with “the least of these,” and the fact that sometimes, the least of these are downright annoying, ungrateful, and unpleasant.  He pointed out that so often, when we deal with “the least of these” we have a super secret agenda, be it that they will leave things that hold them in bondage, or that they will accept Christ, or that they will say “thank you.”  He noted that “the least of these” know we have this agenda, and that this hurts them– it hurts people to feel like we’re only tolerating them because we see them as a project.  He said that perhaps the “least of these” in these situations are really being the better friend, because they’re putting up with us, despite our not-so-secret agendas.  And, even more mind-blowingly, he said that WE are “the least of these” to God.  We’re annoying, and unpleasant, and ungrateful, and yet God doesn’t just love us, God LIKES us.  God wants to spend time with us, delights in us, and, in the form of Jesus, reclines at the table with us, sharing a meal, drinking some wine, and just enjoying a conversation.

Does that maybe blow your mind a little bit? It does mine! After a few years in which I felt like Christians I knew didn’t really like me, and in which I’d begun to get the idea that maybe God didn’t either, this message is downright liberating.  It makes me want to pull a Sally Field and scream “You like me! You really like me!”  And it also reminds me that I have a lot of work to do toward becoming more like Jesus.  In our society, we seem to think that loving someone doesn’t mean we have to like them.  I’m sure you’ve heard someone say, “I love you, but I just don’t like you very much right now.”  I’ve definitely felt that.  But “loving” someone without enjoying them is not the way of Jesus.  And that’s a lesson I need to learn with humility, thankful for God’s grace, and love, and LIKE.