The Woman Question
By Dan Clendenin
Last Sunday, I celebrated the Feast of Mary Magdalene for the first time. A few weeks before that, I attended the ordination service of two friends, both of them women. That was also a first. As I look back over the past few years, I realize that my faith journey has included many such “firsts” when it comes to the role of women in the Church — firsts I could not have imagined as a child or young adult.
At the same time, I have friends and family members — people I love — who continue to hold complementarian views on gender, views I now struggle to respect. I also have feminist friends who’ve decided to stick it out in churches where their feminism is a “problem,” hoping to see positive change in their lifetimes.
What follows below is a reflection I shared at church last Sunday. It explores my upbringing in a gender-traditional culture, and explains why the full equality of women has become such an urgent issue for me. For a long time, I subscribed to the view that “the woman question” is important but not central. That is, I believed thoughtful Christians could disagree about women’s roles at home and in ministry without grave consequence. I no longer hold such a view. I can’t hold it, not when women and girls around the world continue to suffer for their sex in so many horrific ways. Not when we all know that “separate but equal” is a historically proven farce. Not when I understand that the mission of the Church is to reflect the values of God’s kingdom back to our circumstances here and now.
I understand that writing on this topic for JwJ might be tantamount to preaching to the choir. But I think the danger for progressive Christians is that we can grow complacent, too easily relegating the work of Christian feminism to the historians and scholars. As if our practices around gender and faith — spoken and unspoken — don’t have profound real-world effects. In our “enlightened” bubbles, we can forget that for many women around the world, these questions still sear and burn. I share my story in the hope that someday soon, the great legacy of Mary Magdalene — our “Apostle to the Apostles” — will become their legacy, too.
On the night before my wedding — twenty years ago now — the women of my family gathered in my mother’s kitchen to cook and tell stories. For hours they sat cross-legged on the tile floor, peeling onions, grating ginger, crushing cardamom. “No, just sit and rest,” they said each time I offered to help. This was my night to have my cheeks pinched and my fingers caressed in strong, calloused hands. It was my night to listen: an intimate, women-only version of premarital counseling. My mother, grandmother, aunts, and cousins had lessons to teach.
As the hours passed, the stories flowed around the circle. I learned about the blustery, loud-mouthed uncle — an elder at our church — who bawled like a baby if he got a paper cut. About the son-in-law (the leader of a worship team) who didn’t know how to boil water without burning his hands. About the pastor husband who preached ferocious sermons on Sunday mornings, but couldn’t find matching socks without his wife’s help. About a young cousin who called his bride “a brilliant queen” at home, but would sooner die than confess such “unmanly” admiration in public.
The women never said the unspeakable thing out loud that night; everything I received came to me in code. But their stories were meant to teach me a two-part secret, a secret they felt would save me as I embarked on the twin adventures of womanhood and marriage. Part One: men were officially in charge because that’s what God — also a male, after all — wanted them to be. Part Two: their in-charge-ness was really a joke, because in fact, men — all of them, all of the time — were incompetent babies.
The gap between these two narratives about gender — the official story and the unofficial one — was never named. But by the time those mountains of onions were peeled and chopped that night, I understood that the life’s work of good, Christian women was to live with poise and dignity in that wide gap: to dandle men, fuss over them, indulge them, and forgive them — all the while cherishing our secret knowledge of female superiority. Our strength and solace couldn’t lie in institutions; the institutions belonged to men. Rather, our secret truths — the truths we acknowledged between the lines — would be our source of power.
I share this story because it captures the duality I’ve struggled with when it comes to gender, feminism, and power. I grew up around capable, gifted, and intelligent women. But in the Christian world that raised me, men were unambiguously in charge, both domestically and spiritually. In the churches I attended as a child and teenager, the same women who skillfully juggled careers, marriage, motherhood, and any number of other pursuits, covered their heads and kept silent during services. God was only spoken of as masculine; to do anything else — even to dwell too long on “feminine-sounding” descriptions of divine tenderness or nurture — was considered iffy. No one talked, for example, about God as a woman panting in childbirth, or as a female spirit of wisdom (Sophia) hovering over creation, or as a mother hen longing to gather her chicks under her wings. I was surprised when I discovered much later that these images come straight from the Bible.
The sermons I heard as a child were rarely, if ever, about female characters in Scripture, and when they were, the women were offered up as examples of modesty and submission, not prophetic power or dynamic leadership. I was well into my thirties when I first heard a woman preach. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve seen women wearing vestments, pronouncing absolutions, and celebrating Eucharist. I didn’t know until recently that a Feast for Mary Magdalene existed.
I don’t mean for a second to denigrate “private,” or “unofficial power,” but I think we need to acknowledge its limits, and push for the more “public” power that must come from transformed (and transformative) institutions. Growing up, I saw firsthand the limits of private power. Though it bolstered the women I cared about, and drew them together in a kind of stoic solidarity, it wasn’t potent enough to overcome injustice in our homes and churches. It couldn’t speak, for example, to the direct correlation between women’s sanctioned submission in the Church, and the tacit accceptance of domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and coerced marriage in our community. It couldn’t explain why girls were encouraged — presumably by God — to use the full range of their intellectual and spiritual gifts in school and in the workplace, but not in God’s own house, the Church. It couldn’t generate the collective will — spiritually, politically, economically — to fight on behalf of suffering girls and women elsewhere in the world. And it couldn’t call out the subtle shame, ambivalence, and self-loathing that was par for the course for women who learned to worship a deity who was only ever Father, not Mother. Only bridegroom, not bride. Only master, not servant.
Those of us who attend egalitarian churches might be tempted to think we’ve finished the hard work: after all, so many denominations now ordain women, use inclusive language in their liturgies, and celebrate women like Mary Magdalene.
But there’s still a huge gap between simply acknowledging Mary — and so many other women in early Christian history — and actually living out the implications of what it means today, right now, here, that our first witness to the resurrection was a woman. How can we translate her legacy for those who still suffer under sex trafficking, female infanticide, child marriage, domestic violence, draconian welfare policies, rape culture, the glass ceiling?
Those gaps need the ongoing work of our creativity: our art, our sermon-making, our politics, our imaginations, our outrage, our compassion. Mary’s work can’t be over until the symbolic power of her Apostleship becomes the norm for the Church and for the world — not a feast day exception, but an everyday reality. I wonder what the Church would look like — what the world would look like — if we took seriously the fact that Mary’s witness, a woman’s witness, is primary? After all, the rest of us — male and female — will only ever echo the testimony she dared to give first, that “He is risen.”
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