Stand Up, Sit Down: Fighting Patriarchy in the Church

A few weeks ago, I wrote elsewhere about my own personal struggle to stand up (or in my case, sit down) for myself as a person who lives with chronic illness. Ever since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I navigate others’ expectations of me: as a disabled person and as a woman. I even went on vacation and found myself back in the hot seat, interrogated and reluctantly educating people about gender, racism, privilege. Many of us who work in justice know the fatigue of being that person who is constantly explaining things. Matthew Salesses writes:
In the past year, my first in a prestigious Ph.D. program in creative writing and literature, I have often felt conspicuous as a writer of color. I have felt a responsibility to speak up when race is discussed, but I have also resented this responsibility. Lately, I have found myself burying my head. It bothers me to no end that the pressure is beating me, and yet it is.
I'll just be under this here piano until all the microaggressions are over. Or until Jesus comes back. Whichev.

I’ll just be under this here piano until all the oppression and microaggressions are over. Or until Jesus comes back. Whichev.

This week, as many of us take to our spaces to discuss how feminism and faith intersect, I have a few observations about how I’ve seen women deal with this problem in church or churchy places. And I have a few ideas about how we can get some rest from the fight by fighting differently.

Most of us are familiar with the fact that gifted women teachers are underutilized because of limitations their churches put on them (particularly where audience is concerned). Stories like Marlena Graves’ immediately come to mind:

Growing up, I never heard sermons about gender roles while attending my little country church. It wasn’t until I attended a Christian college that I was taught that women couldn’t teach men or preach to both men and women. Once, I took a spiritual gifts inventory required for a class. My results were: Pastor/Shepherd, Administration, Prophecy, Teaching, and Mercy. At the time, my class was large with well over a hundred people in it. When the professor, who was also a pastor, asked for volunteers to share their results, hands shot up.  I waited and waited. Then I waited some more. Not one female mentioned that her top result was Pastor/Shepherd. How could that be? I wondered. Then I raised my hand and mentioned my results. The professor proceeded to tell me that I could teach children’s Sunday School.


Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that except my gifts do not lie in that area. I do well one-on-one with children. But being a female Christian doesn’t automatically qualify me as the best choice for a children’s Sunday School teacher. I am not. In fact, for years, my husband, who is a philosophy professor, enjoyed helping his mother with children’s church and Sunday school. Hordes of children flock to him even now. He is gifted to teach children’s Sunday School; I am not. Since I can remember, I’ve taught men and women the way of Jesus in a number of different settings. My conversation partners are pastors, writers, theologians, philosophers, college students, and laypeople of both genders—mostly adults. The youngest are in high school.

But recently, this tendency has been challenged on a larger scale, with bloggers calling attention to the lack of women at well-attended Christian conferences. Blogger Rachel Held Evans used her platform to create an ecumenical list of women available to speak at conferences and a number of her colleagues rallied on Twitter to lift up the names of talented theologians, teachers, and writers, calling for inclusivity and diversity beyond gender. I’m excited by these efforts, but as a woman with a smaller audience, I constantly come back to the implications of these issues on congregations and local communities.
Not long ago I was in a multi-generational Christian women’s leadership gathering where I was lamenting some of these issues as they were manifesting in our local churches. One of the women in the meeting I usually trust to share progressive, biblical views on the topic, stated candidly: “I don’t have time to take on sexism in my church. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.” I was surprised by her dismissal of the problem, but I sympathize with my sister’s temptation to “bury [her] head” as Salesses wrote, or to prioritize out of exhaustion and frustration.
My friend chooses (if you can even call it a “choice” in these circumstances) to focus her attention on the women she’s allowed to teach and not to bemoan the fact that her male colleagues, her conversation partners, won’t make room on the platform for her or any other woman. She accepts those boundaries because, unlike those in power, she knows the infinite worth of women. She believes women are worth teaching, so she will teach them. I salute that thinking. Yet, I was troubled, as I often am when I have to make such choices myself. When I have to decide: do I want to keep the platform I have, or do I dare to reach for the next thing God’s encouraging me to do? Do I speak up knowing that I could be brandedthat the price of disagreeing here might cost me the opportunity to speak at all?
My friend has the privilege of teaching women about Jesus. She has also experienced the privilege of being asked by her male leadership to teach those women. She’s got the job. She’s no longer auditioning. Still, she’s only allowed so much influence, and she’s one of the few women heard, so she has to make her opportunity count. Right?
I believe if we take a hard look at this situation, we will realize we’re exhausted because the system is designed to wear us out, wear us down. For women, the audition is never over. There’s a dance to get the gig, and we keep dancing to hold onto it. That’s how patriarchy works. That’s how supremacy in any form works. Consider this comment on racism from Toni Morrison, in a speech she delivered in 1975:

imageHonestly, these dynamics force us to make such choices. They compel us to prioritize who gets to talk next. Who gets the next slice of blessing by those in power? (There’s only so much pie to go around, don’t you know.) Which group has paid enough dues to get the next turn? This isn’t new.
We saw the disciples jockey for position, too. Which one of us will sit at your right hand? 

 A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. -Luke 22:24-27
 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him.Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” -Luke 9:46-48
Hierarchical thinking is not only privileged, sexist/racist/ableist/what-have-you, but it’s essentially stingy. It says, “I only get this much, so I have to hold onto it.” It takes the limitless talents God has given His people and it buries them in a field so we don’t run out, or so we can use them later, when there’s enough room for them all to bear fruit without crowding me out of the field. All the while, Jesus says to us, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” (Matthew 9:37) I don’t know about you, but I see a whole lot of field, a whole lot of women with their hands raised to go, and no one is calling on them.

This pic was a no-brainer.

These are entrenched problems, and we know from Scripture that “sin easily entangles.” The untangling only happens when we fix our eyes on Christ and deal justly with one another in this great cloud of witnesses. Jesus Himself modeled for us an alternative to hierarchy and competition. He upended supremacy when He said that the greatest will serve. The greatest will help by getting out of the way. And the meek will help by claiming their inheritance.
Essentially, those leaders in our midst who have been clinging to their spotlight, their comfort, and protecting their position are being called to share ministry, perhaps to the point of giving it all away. Could we, unlike the rich ruler who walked away from Jesus, give our entitlement, recognition, our status, our resources away to those we ignore or even disdain for the sake of ushering in His kingdom? Can we practice valuing others more highly than we value ourselves? We have the opportunity to show the world a different way to relate to one another. As privileged people, we can stand up for the Gospel by sitting down and giving someone else a turn to talk.
Those in power have to recognize their position and identify places they’ve been holding on too tightly. We need a culture of invitation that goes beyond altar calls and asks people to join Jesus in the work of ministry as He’s gifted them. We need to honor each other, esteem one another, promote one another. 
“The first shall be last,” should have the privileged racing to the back of the line. The fact that we are loved by God, and esteemed by Him to the point of His own death, should give us the power to humbly let the rest of it go. It wasn’t until John realized the magnitude of what it meant to be “the disciple whom Jesus loved” that he gave up fighting for a spot at the table and took up the mantle of letting everyone else know they are loved by God. If we take Christ’s position, and John’s, we’ll find that there’s enough room for everyone. If you’re in a position of authority or privilege in your community, realize you are loved by the Creator of all things and the Redeemer of souls. There’s your worth. Go help others see theirs.
To those of us trapped in the middle, hanging on to a second, third, fifteenth rung of relative privilege: can we give up the ladder and grab onto Jesus for the sake of those climbing behind us? Can we risk our relatively powerful positions to make space for those unheard and despised? We can look at how far we’ve come, or been allowed by “the man” to come, and continue to contend for more without playing this hierarchy game that dooms us all, including those “at the top,” to an indefatigable climb and devastating fall. Celebrate others. Dance if you’re rejoicing, but, for the love of God, you can stop auditioning.
There's room for all of us in the choir, but yeah, Whitney gets the solo.

There’s room for all of us in the choir, but yeah, Whitney gets the solo.

To my friend who thinks she can’t fight sexism because she’s contending for souls, I’d say, fight for all souls to be truly free, yours included. You’re not doing the rest of us any favors, and you’re teaching women that this lot is inevitable. Don’t choose between fighting sexism and proclaiming salvation, or protecting hierarchy and modeling holiness. Go after all of it. Rest, yes! Take care of yourself, and get a posse of supportive, disruptive accomplices, but accept no less than justice. Accept no less than Christ fully glorified and represented in your community.

4 thoughts on “Stand Up, Sit Down: Fighting Patriarchy in the Church

  1. Cayce, this is so important! To shed the layers of defense and self-justification, and find our way out of the tangle of wasted time and energy… That’s such a greater goal than rising up the ladder. I’m glad I read this today.

  2. Christie Esau says:

    Thank you for this excellent post Cayce. What a vivid reminder of the counter-cultural (feminist!) work of Jesus Christ.

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