28 April 2016

An end to coercive Christianity

Or, more realistically, let's provide a robust, passionate, God-honoring alternative to coercive Christianity, because, let's be honest, some people seem to prefer being coerced.

What sparked these reflections? It's all Melanie Springer Mock's fault (oh, and her co-author Kendra Weddle Irons). Reading their book If Eve Only Knew, I realized again that, in my beloved little corner of the Quaker world, I've lived a sheltered life, where men who want to marry seek brides who are intellectual companions, where women know their true strength, where churches choose leadership based on spiritual gifts rather than social status, and so on. I know this lovely picture isnt literally true -- all around me (and even in my personal experience) I see contradictions to these ideals, but somehow those contradictions don't hit me the way they should.

What broke through? This book! -- and its evidence that, whatever I might have optimistically assumed, cultural Christianity still plays a major role in oppression in the lives of millions. It was the data about Christian bookstore sales that reached me: the "biblical womanhood" industry is profitable. There's a lot of money invested in telling women lies about their roles and limitations in God. As Melanie says in the introduction,
Despite the voices of Christian feminists offering an alternative understanding of Scripture, gender, and God's call on our lives, messages about biblical womanhood continue to dominate Christian culture. Such messages provide easy answers to the messy, complicated question of who God wishes us to be, but they are also quite lucrative. According to the CBA (formerly Christian Booksellers Association) state of the industry report, in 2009 Christian products sales were reportedly $4.6 billion. Women assume a significant portion of this market share. Speakers such as Joyce Meyer draw large audiences -- and large sums -- by ironically preaching in mega-churches and to mega-audiences around the country about the primacy of women's domestic domain.
Years ago, I worked for a CBA bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia (helping put Judy through graduate school!). Though I suppose we stocked our share of nonsense, the owner of the store, Florence Skove, had her boundaries: she would not put stuff on the shelves that trivialized women. (If you insisted on buying them, you could order them.) Florence Skove was an active member of a conservative Presbyterian church; she laughingly told me that some of her friends called her "our fundie friend Flo." But my so-called fundie boss also asked me to wear an "ERA YES" button while on the job, supporting the campaign for Virginia to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. It wasn't hard to convince me, although I'm sure we raised a few customers' eyebrows.

Flo wouldn't stock this book because she
said that the luxurious fur coat would be
a "bad witness" to nonbelievers. Source.
Among my excuses for being so oblivious are also the following: (1) My mother was a university professor. I never saw any sign in my parents' marriage that she subordinated herself to my father. Our family had more than its share of dysfunctions, but that wasn't one of them. As I looked to my own future, I never expected that my eventual marriage partner would be some version of that Biblical Womanhood ideal described in If Eve Only Knew's first chapter. Interestingly, most of the guys I knew in high school (admittedly in an experimental program that, already in 1970, had a course devoted to feminism) also seemed to assume that the ideal woman had brains and confidence equal to their own.

(2) When I became a Christian, my very first spiritual home was Ottawa Friends Meeting in Canada. There I came under the influence of Deborah Haight, about whom I've written several times. As she told me stories about her childhood in Norwich, Ontario, in what was then Canada Yearly Meeting (Conservative), she described an upbringing and a subculture which took it for granted that girls would learn carpentry and other farm jobs, and later would be exposed to science and theology, and (in the unprogrammed Quaker context) would be recorded as ministers, on the same basis as boys. It's surely no coincidence that Emily Stowe, Canada's first female doctor, came from Norwich.

Since making my home in the pastoral and evangelical Quaker world, I've found some contradictions a little harder to ignore. It was a memorable session of Indiana Yearly Meeting when (then) superintendent David Brock asked us, with obvious impatience, when we were finally going to implement our testimony to men's and women's equality. Part of his job was helping meetings find new pastors -- but why was it (he asked) that, of all the female candidates he offered, one third of the meetings seeking pastors would ignore them completely, one third of the meetings would put their resumes on the bottom of the pile, and only one third would take them seriously?

It's this aspect of Christian practice that I'm labeling "coercive." It's fine for you to have an interpretation of Scripture that's different from mine (though if you label it more "conservative," expect an argument). My problem starts when you use that interpretation to limit someone else's freedom in Christ, with no right of argument or appeal. When you tell girls that they can't be leaders (or, as If Eve Only Knew documents, attribute all our social woes to Eve's sin or Adam's passivity), and prescribe for them a life whose boundaries must be defined by men, that's coercion. It's bondage reinforced by social sanctions that seemingly can only be broken by disloyalty to God. What's more sorrowful and frustrating as we face an unbelieving world, this approach is profoundly anti-evangelistic. "Welcome to the household of faith," we say. "You are born again, your new life is just beginning! Rejoice!" And then the bait-and-switch: it turns out that you are asked to take on new bondages that seem remarkably similar to the tired old bondages of the world.

I'm not saying that the choice to live a modest life devoted to caring for children and home is wrong! The evil is in coercive boundaries, not freely-made choices. It may be that, if we somehow removed all the ideologies and polarizations that limit our children, a majority of boys and girls would still choose traditional roles and divisions of labor. But, at least within Christian communities, they would be making these choices in prayerful communion with Christ and each other, much as Deborah Haight described her childhood in Norwich.

Realistically, we're not going to put an end to coercive Christianity soon. People will still organize around those bondages and propagandize for them in CBA bookstores, in Christian celebrity mega-events, on Christian TV, and so on. What cheers me up is books like If Eve Only Knew and all the other ways we can and will proclaim a wonderful alternative vision of freedom in Christ for women and men alike.

This alternative does not depend on faking perfection or hiding contradictions. I dearly love Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, where I've met so many wonderful role models of functional egalitarianism and humane evangelicalism. We are wrestling with our own dilemmas around issues of sexuality, and the outcomes are uncertain. But we're doing this all out in the open. Our difficult discussions undermine any pretense that we can impose a single model of Quaker holiness on our children and newcomers. Our various models of discipleship are formed in conversation, debate, even conflict, but at the same time they are also formed in something approaching transparency, and in love.

This is Holy Week here in Russia, and Easter is in three days. As I do every year, I'm re-reading Emmanuel Charles McCarthy's The Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love (PDF file). In light of my ideal of alternative Christian community, here's a page I thought I'd highlight for today:

Not many links today! The Web site I use for preserving links, delicious.com, is in the process of shifting back to its old site and a previous generation of software, and seems unavailable today. (They promise to return shortly at del.icio.us.) But these links seemed especially urgent to pass along....

Tim Stafford on Cities of Refuge.
Bernd Wustl pastors a church of 500 in the German border town of Freilassing. He is a Teddy bear with a full white beard, who worked as an engineer for a local manufacturer before he joined fulltime pastoring at the age of 47. He says that ten years ago his church sensed God directing them to pray on the bridge that links Germany to Austria—the same crossing that Napoleon took to conquer Austria, and that Hitler followed in the Austrian Anschluss. The church held several open-air Sunday services at the bridge over the course of two years, but they never understood why they were praying.

Then in April of 2015 the refugees began to cross that bridge by the tens of thousands. Wustl's church decided to call a conference for all the local churches. "There was an unreal fear. What's happened with Germany? [At the conference] we taught people how to handle fear, so they could be freed for ministry."

The German church has two choices, Wustl tells me. "Either we wake up, open our doors and speak the gospel. Or we close doors, and forget about the German church."
Stop calling it "short term missions." Here's what you should call it instead. (Note the invitation for comments and ideas.)

Easter blessings, with help from the Oslo Gospel Choir: "Holy Is the Lamb."


Johan Maurer said...

I just delinked my blog from Google Plus because the link was allowing only those with Google accounts to make comments. But existing comments seem to have disappeared... (sigh) I don't have time at the moment to figure this out, but obviously it needs working on. There was an important comment on my blog from William Rushby and now it seems to have disappeared....

Bill Rushby said...

Perhaps the disappearance of my comments was for the best!

I continue to wonder how your approach relates to Biblical texts concerning gender roles in and out of the church. Daniel Wilcox's comment also seems to have disappeared. He saw a clear difference between your assertion of complete and unqualified equality between the sexes and Paul's teaching on the subject.

Do you regard the Bible as irrelevant regarding sex roles? If it is relevant, do you "cherry pick" texts to fit your views? A Mennonite (and formerly a Friend) told me that his father (who later joined Friends) once pastored a nondenominational church. His father wrote in his memoirs that he knew what he wanted to say in his sermons; the problem was finding Bible texts to back his opinions up!!!

Daniel Wilcox said...

The central difficulty of man/woman egalitarianism in Christianity are the "household Code" passages in the letters of Paul and Peter. The same ones where slaves are told to be obedient even if their masters are harsh, the same passages which led the vast majority of Christians to support slavery for many hundreds of years.

It's doubtful this literal reading of the NT (and the Old) will change anytime soon. (Heck, some conservative Christian leaders even now still claim that slavery isn't inherently evil!)

In fact (except in more moderate Friends meetings and in liberal mainline churches), Christian denominations are less open to women leaders than 100 years ago. In the early 20th century, many Pentecostal denominations had plenty of active women pastors, but now most of them have only a few.

Only 8% of churches are led by women in the U.S.! And, of course, in the Roman Catholic and other conservative denominations no woman can be ordained.

The rising Calvinist influence in all denominations, (even Quakers!), is causing a turn back away from women's leadership also.

When my wife and I were members of California Yearly Meeting, I don't remember a single woman pastor. (Of course, the leaders of CYM also supported nuclear weapons at our Yearly Meeting. When our own meeting hired a fighter pilot, we left the Friends for a while.)

Johan Maurer said...

Bill, thanks for your patience with this comment system. I regret my experiment with Google Minus.

Over the years, I've read a lot of commentaries on women's roles in the Bible, and specifically on Paul's apparent rules.

Given that commentaries differ wildly, I've decided that my bias will be toward freedom, which to me is the clear bias of the Gospel, and seems to be implied by Paul's own relationships with his co-workers. The threat to freedom is sin, which leads us back into slavery. There seems to be no danger from women and men upon whom the Spirit has been poured out, who follow their God-given gifts, and who exercise those gifts in mutual accountability to the community.

The question about cherry-picking is a valid one. It seems impossible to force consistency onto the Scriptures; to insist that the text has evidence ONLY for egalitarianism or ONLY for limitations on women's roles is, to my mind, wrong. I have to conclude, with Peter Enns, that the Bible was not formed for the purpose of being mined for absolute, categorical rules. When the Bible is used as a source of categorical rules (beyond the explicit covenant commandments or the Acts 15 Council), I have to think about what extra-biblical agenda is being served by those who extract the rules. The Bible is a book formed by the collaboration of humans (operating in committees and councils with all the politics of such groups) and the Holy Spirit, and has no magic powers of its own, nor does it ever claim to have such powers. And it doesn't need such powers to make us wise unto salvation.

As a political scientist, I tend to ask myself who benefits from specific choices of interpretation. When men alone claim supreme authority to do licensing and quality control, it is not surprising that the beneficiaries of their decisions are men! I choose to identify with a tradition of church governance and biblical interpretation that breaks this monopoly. Those who like this monopoly are of course going to continue to try to maintain it, and it is certainly important for me to relate to those brothers and sisters in Christ with respect. I hope that we egalitarians are equally credited with trying to discern the best way to give voice to the Gospel of freedom in Christ.

Finally, I'd like to return to the book that led to this entry, If Eve Only Knew, and recommend its study of the relevant biblical passages. And I also want to re-recommend Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People, which I wrote about here.