The Ladies of the Church Will Provide Refreshments

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash                      

I heard it again, “The ladies of the church will provide refreshments.” Argh! Why are these patient, long-suffering, generous women still being taken advantage of? They, no doubt, are glad to make the Jello and bring potato salad yet again to another event. Their bodies and minds are so habituated to this work. It has never occurred to them that they could possibly serve the body of Christ in other ways. Many have lived many decades thinking they had nothing else to contribute. This is their place, and they are happy enough in it.

Down the hall, the door of the church office bursts open, and a dozen men emerge. The consistory, (council, session, board, whatever the governing body) has been adjourned. The scariest scene in a church is seeing all the important decisions made by the collective wisdom of a posse of men alone. They will claim weariness in making mundane decisions: enough about snow removal, furnace repair, and budget shortfalls. But they have also decided on issues that especially impact the women, such as where the funds are allotted, who will be hired to fill various positions, and salaries for staff.  The church’s vision, mission statement, and goals are the products of this group.

Never do the twain meet. In my own experience, between 1950 -1970, the most onerous example of the division of men and women in the church was in the serving of communion. This is so egregious it is hard to repeat. The older men proceeded to the front of the church to form a semi-circle, where the one communion cup and the bread were passed around by the minister. This is repeated four times with the younger men following, then the older women, and finally the young women, quite possibly a 100-year tradition. One could say we girls had the strongest immunity in the church. The combination of the silver cup and 20% alcoholic Manischewitz is said to kill germs. What a message to the young women! We knew our place in the church. This order for serving of the Lord’s Supper continued until sometime after I left home to go to college in the ’70s.

So, the lesson cannot be any other than women are lesser, women stay in their places, women cannot be ordained, and they certainly do not teach men. That went wrong once. It won’t happen again!

Formidable damage is done to the young women growing up in this environment. I am only realizing the full extent many decades later after leaving highly patriarchal churches like this. In my early marriage, I just assumed my husband and men, in general, had superior abilities, which I only started to doubt as I found out my ability to find my way out of the woods was more accurate than my husband’s.

I left those patriarchal churches of my youth and was fifty years old before I saw a woman in the pulpit. For the first time, the realization poured over me: the redemption of Christ is as fully effective for Eve as it was for Adam! The tragedy of so much wisdom lost. How the Holy Spirit has been stifled over the centuries. Matt 28:19 doesn’t apply to half of the church, The great commission, “Make disciples, baptizing in the name,” doesn’t apply to women who of course are not going to administer sacraments. One-half of the workforce for the harvest is decommissioned.

Now in my seventies, I have come to a greater realization of how my girlhood impacted my lack of effectiveness in my maturity: confidence, leadership, and bravery. In addition, as a widow, I interact with men of the church much more often, which as a married woman I didn’t find the opportunity to interact with men as often. As an aside, I was heavily involved in the caretaking of my husband and didn’t have time to serve on committees and boards as I do now. With more need to communicate with male church members, some behavioral habits have come up that I never noticed before.

I mention this as a subtle way that women are still minimized, even in a mainline, liberal church which has totally accepted women in every nook and cranny for decades. This is the church that I now belong to and serve. Yet, older men, who have been married for many decades, are reluctant to interact with me. They curtail eye contact, do not initiate small talk, and do not extend conversations; I might even be invisible to them. I certainly understand this is a long-time safety habit. The Billy Graham rule is deeply ingrained: do not interact alone with a woman who is not your wife. This is being extensively discussed in many sources including CBE circles. I have been recently told that whenever men and women are together, there is always a sexual undercurrent. Maybe from the men’s point of view, this is true; if so, what can we do about it, so we can work together?

On the other hand, some men are totally unbothered. They greet me warmly, and I have met them in a coffee shop for discussions, simply working person to person on solving some issue connected with the church. This is still a conundrum in all circles of church life. Even after all the modesty issues are past discussion, there are still almost invisible barriers to men and women working effectively together. I do not know what the difference is in their upbringing, prior experiences, or in their marriages. To some men, I am a threat; others accept me as a person first. I am baffled as to what I could do differently.

One more thing I have noticed in my recent interactions with senior men, and I repeat, these are long-time Christians with decades of experience working with women as equals. They are generally quite deficient in their knowledge of women’s issues in the church. I spend some time explaining the usual “clobber” verses and point out the many denominations that still do not ordain women. Then they often proudly point out how they once stood up for a woman who was preaching. That is their experience for decades, perhaps going back to their mother’s example. They assume that all men think just like them, so they don’t see any issues anymore. “Well, men who still think like that are just stupid.” That is one direct quote. (I am aware this parallels the conversation about interracial issues.) They are unaware that outside of our egalitarian circles there still exists serious damage inflicted upon women in the church being denied their imago dei.

This essay is the result of a lifetime journey, coming from a very complementarian childhood to the full realization of a mature understanding of personhood in the church. I point out how it once was and a few challenges yet to be met, which I haven’t yet seen in the literature. The rituals of worship, the person in the pulpit, the content taught in Sunday School, all has a huge impact on the development of girls and the nurturing of women. I am an active singer and I have often noted, “All God’s children have a place in the choir, some sing low, and some sing higher.” The church, like the choir, is incomplete without all the voices: alto, tenor, soprano, bass.

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