Evangelicals, High End Hearing Loss, and the Art of Listening to Women

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?

No?

***

“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.)

 

Insubordination

 

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?

 

Education

 

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.

In Conclusion

 

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.

 

 

24 Responses to Evangelicals, High End Hearing Loss, and the Art of Listening to Women

  1. Dorothy Greco September 1, 2016 at 8:37 am #

    Spot on. Jenny. This is excellent. It’s also curious to me that she’s asking that ? in the context of SB denomination, since if I’m not mistaken, they do not allow women to be senior pastors or elders. Is that true?

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong September 1, 2016 at 8:06 pm #

      That’s my understanding as well, although I think baptists as a whole vest more power in individual congregations, so who knows how it plays out from church to church. I actually am not sure whether there are any Southern Baptist churches at all up where I live, so I don’t have a lot of personal experience to go on. “Everything I Know About Southern Baptists I Learned On The Internet,” or something like that. 😀

  2. ishy September 1, 2016 at 9:08 am #

    This just really makes me shake my head. They’ve been working very hard to silence women in the SBC, and now they want to know where our voices are? Blocking women from their blogs, telling them they can’t “teach” men with any words at all? Telling me that my husband should speak for me when I’m not married?

    I, too, read many evangelical women voices online, which is pretty much the only place the SBC can’t turn them off.

    • James September 1, 2016 at 4:55 pm #

      Truth!

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong September 1, 2016 at 8:03 pm #

      It is baffling, isn’t it? But I’m thankful that they published that piece regardless, and praying it has a positive impact.

  3. Esther Emery September 1, 2016 at 11:07 am #

    Terrific article, Jenny!

  4. Jo September 1, 2016 at 11:09 am #

    I’m not SB, though I was a very ‘conservative’ Baptist for 20 years–not much difference! And so now the SB want to know where our voices are? Really??? I like what you say, Jenny, and I especially like your insubordination section. So true. I could go on and on ’cause I have kids way older than you are, so you know I’ve likely seen it all. I also drank my share of the kool-aid back in the day, but no more! Thank you, and blessings to you!

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong September 1, 2016 at 8:00 pm #

      It’s easy to drink the kool-aid when its the only beverage offered at your church. 😉 Thanks Jo.

  5. Gina September 1, 2016 at 11:12 am #

    This is probably my favorite thing I’ve read all week, and I have Input as a strength, so I’m like #5 from Short Circuit with how much I consume. Thank you Jenny! This is so, so good!

  6. Angie September 1, 2016 at 11:47 am #

    Great analysis! Keep up the good work.

  7. Bev Murrill September 1, 2016 at 5:44 pm #

    Hey Jen,

    I hear ya. Context is an amazing thing because women are rising everywhere to fulfil their unique calls and destiny but intimidation and a real fear of offending God, which has been enculturised into us from a young age.

    The thing that set me free was the revelation that God is not schizophrenic. He doesn’t gift a woman for leadership or preaching etc., and then tell her that He will smite her if she operates in the gifts He has given her. In fact, He says the opposite. He takes a very dim view of people who bury their gifts and mandates because of fear. He’s not a hard taskmaster… but often the Church is.

    Recently I read a blog in which someone was citing a preacher who had written that women are emasculating men even when they’re submissive and quiet… and blah blah. Honestly, this really look like a huge case of victim blaming. Somehow it’s always the woman’s fault. I haven’t yet read Thigpen’s post, but I will, and I know that she is a woman of integrity, so she is not blaming women, but it’s difficult to understand why she hasn’t taken into account the relentless silencing of women’s voices that our culture has endured.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong September 1, 2016 at 7:58 pm #

      Such great insights! I have never heard of Thigpen or read her work before now, so I am not sure where she is coming from, but perhaps she is younger and/or has not encountered the silencing of the female voice much yet? I was blissfully ignorant of this phenomenon until I had kids–that seems to be the game changer for many women I have known.

  8. Amy Lin September 1, 2016 at 6:26 pm #

    I just want to say that the very Sunday after the Southern Baptist Convention voted for the resolution that women could not preach, I left the SBC church of my childhood and joined a church that was more moderate and allowed women to preach. It was NO coincidence that it happened that day.

  9. Heidi Wheeler September 1, 2016 at 10:29 pm #

    I decided I can’t miss any more of your posts and became an email subscriber. :) I came out of a non-denominal church plant by a Baptist church. Oh, the stories I have. I got into “so much trouble” there for using my voice. I’m still recovering from the hurt and clinging to words like yours, they’re a balm to my soul. I’m so glad you’re a pastor and give (whatever label I am) people like me hope.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong September 2, 2016 at 10:31 am #

      Thank you Heidi! And perfect timing on subscribing, since you have a post up on the blog tomorrow. :-) Excited for it!

  10. GC September 2, 2016 at 1:52 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this. I left this comment at the SEBTS site where Laura Thigpen’s article was originally published (and I appreciate them publishing the comment):

    “This could be a parody article in The Babylon Bee. The SBC has been purposefully and systematically silencing women for 20+ years. The SBC is interested in hearing women’s voices only if they serve as an echo chamber for the leaders’ views, rules and dogmas. Any voices that do not are criticized, marginalized and, whenever possible, silenced.”

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong September 2, 2016 at 2:47 pm #

      Wow! I am impressed that they let the comment stand (even if it does seem to be true in most cases)! Thanks for speaking up.

  11. Suzanne Burden September 2, 2016 at 2:25 pm #

    Oh Jenny:

    This post made me want to stand up and clap. This paragraph right here is my experience:

    “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 I thank you for naming it. Additionally, because there was such a backlash to me attending seminary at all and preaching to mixed audiences, I went with a lesser MA in Theology degree rather than pursue an MDiv. Quite literally, the support just was not there. I was already dying inside….with a 4.0 GPA. I say this not to boast, but to affirm the reality of how hard it is to speak into an evangelical culture in which you don’t fit the mold.

    And yet, as Bev has mentioned, God is not schizophrenic. I got my first “pastor of discipleship” business card the other day, and I almost cried. Just the recognition on a silly card that I am a pastor got to me. And I didn’t have the nerve to post it on facebook. At the moment, I can’t handle the rejection. Yet God and I exchanged a happiness moment. I believe you might be inspiring me to blog about this as well.

    And for all that, I say thank you, Pastor Jenny!

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong September 2, 2016 at 2:54 pm #

      Oh Suzanne. I am so sorry you have been put through all of this. I am lucky enough that the majority of people surrounding me have been supportive, and those who aren’t are still lovely people who are kind, even in disagreement. I think part of it may be cultural–we’re a bunch of non-confrontational Swedes up here–and even though I’m serving at Wesleyan church, being formed in the Covenant is helpful, too.

      It makes me so sad and angry that someone as kind and thoughtful and gifted as you has had to battle through all this malarky. I have a few words I would like to say to someone!!! :-O

      I am so glad that your pastoral gifts are being recognized, and am praying that you will have more and more opportunities to live into your calling!!! Huge hugs to you, Pastor Suzanne!

      • Suzanne Burden September 3, 2016 at 8:16 am #

        Thank you, dear sister! Those are healing words.

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