More Mixed Messages for Evangelical Women

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

When I was a little girl, I was told that I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up, except for a pastor. A fervently religious child, with a pension for impromptu lectures to classmates about substitutionary atonement and eternal security, this news came as a bit of blow, but I supposed I could find my calling elsewhere. And yet, as the years went by, I soon learned that to be a woman in the conservative evangelical subculture is to never quite understand your place in this world. It is to live with a constant barrage of mixed messages, from both male and female authority figures, about the role of women in society.

The hermeneutical mazes are still dizzying. Women cannot be pastors, we are told, because Paul told Timothy that he did not permit women to teach or exercise authority over men.  However, Paul’s instructions just two sentences before-- that women should not wear jewelry or expensive clothes--do not apply. In fact, wearing a nice skirt to church is a good idea…as long as it’s not too short. (You don’t want to make your brothers in Christ stumble.) Some churches allow women to teach children and other women. All churches allow women to keep the nursery. Paul’s instructions that women are to cover their heads and to be silent in church are observed only by fringe denominations, as those are culturally-bound admonitions curiously juxtaposed to universal truths.

The Proverbs 31 woman intimidated me at an early age. I remember learning that God preferred women in supporting roles, as “helpers,” like Eve. Feminists were often mentioned in the same breath as atheists and agnostics and liberals. And yet, when boys did not volunteer for leadership positions in my youth group, I took them on myself, to the praise of members of my congregation. When I spoke briefly in front of the church, I was complimented on my confidence and clarity. “You’d be a great preacher,” a male friend of mine once told me, “if you were a boy.” When I ran for senior class president at my Christian college, a few of my female classmates criticized me for overstepping biblical boundaries, but most supported and encouraged me. I felt only a twinge of guilt when I exercised authority over the male members of my leadership team. It seemed that God thought me quite capable leadership and authority, as long as I wasn’t doing it in church.

And always looming before me was my responsibility as a future mother. James Dobson taught, in no uncertain terms, that the biblical ideal was for women with young children to stay home instead of work.  I remember my mother blaming my classmates’ delinquency on absent mothers who had ignored this important charge. As a result, I have always had a crippling panic about achieving all of my career goals before the age of 30. To this day, I continue to feel rushed and afraid, (not to mention completely paranoid about birth control), despite my husband’s insistence that we will share the responsibility of raising children equally.  Sometimes I wonder if this why women can be so hard on each other. We criticize one another's career decisions and parenting skills because, deep down, we are so unsure of our own. 

For these reasons, I have always been a little jealous of boys—not just because they can grow up and do whatever they want to do, but because they can do it without feeling guilty.

With this background, a few recent news items have caught my eye

First, there’s Sarah Palin.

Evangelicals love this woman. Friends of mine who didn’t blink at calling Hillary Clinton the b-word have suddenly discovered their inner feminists. James Dobson told his radio listeners on the day her candidacy was announced that he was as happy as the day Reagan was inaugurated.

I’m not exactly sure how this jives with Dobson’s strong stance against women in the workplace. (Palin has five children, including an infant with Down syndrome), and I’m not sure how evangelicals strongly committed to complementarian worldviews are rationalizing their support.  To me, it  looks like they’re just sending more mixed messages. But as a woman committed to equality, I hope that Palin helps break some barriers. (As an Obama supporter, I hope she doesn’t break too many!)

The other news item I noticed was that Irving Bible Church near Dallas recently allowed a woman to preach before the congregation for the first time. Her name is Jackie Roese, and I’ve heard she is a gifted speaker. This is big news coming from a pretty conservative part of the country, heavily influenced by Dallas Theological Seminary. The Dallas Morning News reports:

“The elders [at Irving Bible Church] decided to study the issue of women in ministry after getting questions from members about what was permitted by Scripture. Ultimately, the elders produced a 24-page position paper posted on the church’s Web site.

Among their findings is that the Bible offers examples of women teaching and leading ‘with God’s blessing.’ Another is that some verses restricting women’s roles were ‘culturally and historically specific, not universal principles for all times and places.’

The elders note that Bible verses have been used to justify slavery and that few conservative evangelicals abide by verses requiring women to cover their heads…

But the elders also concluded that their office ‘seems to be biblically relegated to men.’ So Mrs. Roese will preach at Irving Bible Church under the authority of an elder board that will continue to be all male.”

Still a few mixed messages, but this is progress!

Of course, the change hasn’t taken place without controversy. You can read about that in the rest of the article.

 So, what do you think? Do you think the enthusiasm for Sarah Palin sends mixed messages to young evangelical women? Do you think the decision at Irving Bible Church will have a ripple effect?  

P.S. On a lighter note, you gotta love Tina Fey as Sarah Palin!

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