Every Friday, I meet my grandpa for lunch at a café near my work and his favorite bowling alley. It is a tiny, old school café with nary a soft surface to be found, and I sometimes feel self-conscious about the volume of my voice in those confines. The regulars sitting five tables away could probably update you on all the details of my life, and I know the waitresses could.
If I ever write an autobiography, I’m going to title it “Yelling At Old Men.” I’m only half joking.
Now, you’ve gotta understand. I am a quiet, gentle person with a naturally soft voice. But years of experience have taught me that I need to be LOUD when I am talking to my grandpa, even when he has his hearing aids in. Like many men of a certain age, he has lost most of his high-end hearing, making it difficult for him to hear the voices of women and children. Despite the fact that my grandpa’s gravely bass seldom rises above a low rumble nowadays, the dude can’t hear women unless they yell.
I was reminded of this phenomenon when I read Laura Thigpen’s article “Where are the voices of evangelical women?” featured on the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention’s website. At first I was baffled. As someone who is passionate about building up the body of Christ by building up women, I have immersed myself in the voices of evangelical women from a variety of traditions. I read their articles, follow their blogs, buy their books, and pay attention when they speak. I sit and listen to the spiral permed saints on Sunday mornings; kneel to visit with little girls rushing through the narthex in their sequined shoes. Where are the voices of the evangelical women? They are EVERYWHERE. Can’t you hear them, rising up?
“Thoughts on this?”
This was the open-ended question that introduced me to Thigpen’s article. After reading and discussing it with a group of friends, evangelical women with strong voices all, I determined that yes, I do have thoughts on this.
First things first. In many ways, it was a wonderful article. Thigpen pointed out that women’s unique voices are needed to promote human flourishing, nodded to the historical importance of female activism, and issued a no-excuses call to action. I agree that women do, on the whole, tend to offer a different perspective than men, and that the church (and the world) suffers when those perspectives are under-represented. Several years back, I wrote an article titled “Making Space for the Female Voice,” which said something very similar to what Thigpen said in her article. She and I are on the same page there.
When it comes right down to it, though, I believe that her article contained the answer to its own question. I would like to reflect on some of the comments that Thigpen made in light of my own experience as an evangelical woman who is passionate about helping women find their voice.
Can evangelical women use their voice, and still be considered evangelical?
The first thing that struck me was the title. Where are the voices of the evangelical women? As I said, they are everywhere. Evangelical women are speaking up and speaking out in record numbers.
But here is my suspicion. My suspicion is that once women start speaking up, much of the church stops applying the label “evangelical” to them. Or maybe it was never granted in the first place, as I suspect is the case for many women of color.
Let’s be honest: women who offer a perspective that veers from certain traditionally sanctioned narratives are given a long, hard side-eye. I am not talking about theological orthodoxy. I am talking about white, North American orthopraxy. Evangelical women who challenge that narrative are labeled progressive, or liberal, or ethnic, or what-have-you, and are more likely to be published in progressive, liberal, or ethnically-oriented publications. That doesn’t mean they aren’t evangelical women. It means that the evangelical world has largely sidelined and dismissed their voices.
Why evangelical women clam up
“I have noticed that both the culturally curious and the culturally intimidated women in the evangelical church often refrain from entering these conversations for fear of sounding insubordinate or uneducated. I do not believe this to be the fault of our brothers, but the sin of silence and apathy instead.” –Laura Thigpen, “Where are the voices of the evangelical women?”
Okay, two points here. Maybe more. (Oh, who am I kidding? You may want to get a cup of coffee. This could take a while.)
Because we need to talk about women feeling intimidated. We need to talk about women being afraid of coming across as insubordinate. We need to talk about women being afraid of coming across as uneducated. We need to talk about letting the guys off the hook for this widespread and entirely valid fear, and shaming women for heeding it instead. (What is that? Five points? I’ll pare it back to three.)
Let’s be real. Many women are taught, in their homes and in their churches, that expressing certain thoughts is insubordinate, and that insubordination (particularly when it comes from a woman) is worse than whatever problem is being addressed.
This “insubordination” could be as simple as telling your husband that he turned left when he should have turned right, or as complex as speaking out about questionable theology coming from the pulpit.
This is not the case in all homes and churches, thank goodness. But it is the case in many homes and churches, enough to have a significant impact on evangelicalism as a whole. This “insubordination” is often met with shaming, shunning, slander, and sometimes physical violence. And we wonder why many evangelical women are too intimidated to speak out?
Allow me a bit of autobiography. I was a stay-at-home mom with four kids when I decided to go back and finish my BA. That wasn’t so bad, but deciding to go to seminary was one of the most terrifying decisions of my life. Was I really going to spend all that time and money on my own development, when it could be invested in my family instead? Particularly since there was very little likelihood that any church would hire me, being female and all (oh me of little faith)?
When I did swallow hard and start seminary, there were plenty of folks who weren’t supportive of that choice. Most were supportive, mind you. But if I had a quarter for every time someone squinted at me suspiciously and asked “What do you want to do with that (M.Div.),” I could make a serious dent in my student loans.
At first I told these people that I was going to seminary to improve my writing, which was the narrative I had to sell myself in order to take the plunge. It took a year or so for me to acknowledge that I was going to seminary so I could be a good, solid, theologically informed pastor.
Yes, I am a woman. And I am a pastor. And in many circles, I just lost a whole lot of evangelical cred by admitting that, despite the fact that I serve at a rather conservative rural church. Despite the fact that I work in a denomination that has ordained women since the 1860s. Despite the fact that my last book was on outreach and evangelism. Despite, despite, despite.
See, for some reason, the very education and church appointment that improves a man’s credibility detracts from mine. At least in the evangelical world.
And that, my friends, is why evangelical women are lagging behind men when it comes to theological education. Sure, some women may just be afraid of feeling stupid. But what if the women who really fear sounding uneducated feel that way because they know, deep down inside, that their intellect has not been stewarded appropriately? Because the are wrestling with a call to go deeper that has not, for whatever reason, been realized yet?
There is a great thirst for theological education among evangelical women, but it comes at a high cost. And I am not talking about money.
Who is to blame for this?
So who is at fault for this? Is it The Patriarchy, some nameless cadre of big bad men demeaning women? Is it women themselves, indulging “the sin of silence and apathy” when they should be speaking up? Is it the gatekeepers guarding the pulpits and the publishing houses, only admitting those who meet criteria that have more to do with the kingdom of this world than the kingdom of God?
Why do evangelical women clam up, and why is it so hard to hear them when we do speak?
My humble proposal is that we are all at fault, to some extent. It is the culture that we live in, and there is no use casting shame and blame—we just need to get to work on making it better.
Maybe we need to tune our hearing aids. Or maybe, in the words of the Christian abolitionist and suffragette Sarah Grimke, evangelicals need to “take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on the ground which God designed us to occupy.”
It couldn’t hurt to try both.
Like I said, I loved so many things about Thigpen’s article, and am thankful for her wise voice and insights. But the question is not where the voices of evangelical women are. Evangelical women are speaking up in record numbers—some of them are screaming themselves hoarse—and let’s not pretend we don’t know why some evangelical women find it safer to keep silence.
The question is whether we will have ears to hear.