This is Part II of a three-part series. Read Part I here.
“You don’t want to find yourself on Mickey’s table…” our pastor said from the pulpit on a Sunday morning. We were “in” – my husband was being referenced during a sermon.
My husband is a trauma surgeon. His patients are people who start their day normally and don’t anticipate the fall from a ladder, the roll-over car accident, the drive-by shooting. So because you really don’t want to find yourself on his table, his work lends itself well to references about the frailty and uncertainty of our lives.
I am an Emergency Medicine physician. My patients have asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes (as well as colds, cuts and ear-aches). That week, however, I had lined/tubed/coded three people. One was in his early twenties, one was in his fifties and one was in his eighties. They all died.
And from the bottom-est part of my subconscious a tiny voice began to speak.
It asked, “Why hasn’t he referenced the stretcher in your ER?”
And then another voice asked, “Is it because you’re not supposed to have this kind of job?”
Another Sunday, when our pastor was away, his replacement was an eager 20-something guy with limited scholarly Bible training, but a desire to lead. This was the second time such a young man had been chosen to fill-in. Sometimes the opportunity to speak is more for the growth of the speaker than the enlightenment of the congregants (and that’s okay), but my subconscious was speaking to me again.
It said, “Look over your shoulder.”
And I did.
Behind me was a woman and seminary graduate with four (four!) published Christian books.
“Look to your right,” the voice said.
And to my right was another woman with a masters from seminary.
One of these subconscious voices was getting louder, bolder, “Um, excuse me,” it said. “Why haven’t they been asked to speak? Is it because they’re supposed to be silent in church?”
And then (out of nowhere) Bono started to sing.
Love is blindness,
I don’t wanna see
Won’t you wrap the night
Love is blindness
I kept silent about these voices (I didn’t want to scare anyone or anything).
Mickey and I loved these people and so we sped towards official commitment. We were ready to “DTR” (define the relationship). We went to a membership class and although we had a few, “Oh…you think that?” moments, it wasn’t crazy alarming.
Months passed and then we “proposed,” we asked for the official “covenant” paperwork. It was a thick stack and it took us a while to find the time to read it together. We took it with us on vacation to the Dominican Republic. We read it out loud together on a balcony overlooking the ocean at a resort literally called Sanctuary.
We read the contract with an open Bible and open hearts. We looked up every scripture reference. And at the end, as our mouths spoke “we believe” statements that we did not, in fact, believe, our dashed hope rolled down our cheeks. We could not sign our names to this document. Same Bible, different conclusions. That moment when you realize someone is not who you thought they were? That.
I’ll bet almost all of us have, at one point or another, stayed with someone other than the kind of person we’d hoped to share our life with. You see, I grew up in this kind of church. I didn’t even have the hope to believe that something else existed. So we kept showing up.
I spent my week leading resuscitation teams in the ER and my evenings enjoying the comforts of an equal partnership with my feminist husband. And then, on Sundays I walked into church and became the helper to my husband, the mother of our children, and another woman to serve in children’s ministry and at potlucks. I love serving my husband, adore my children, and really enjoy cooking, but that’s not all of me. That’s not my whole self.
The voices didn’t stop. Now Eddie Vedder was singing to me:
Talkin’; to herself, there’s no one else who needs to know
She tells herself, oh
Memories back when she was bold and strong
And waiting for the world to come along
Swears she knew it, now she swears he’s gone
She lies and says she’s in love with him, can’t find a better man
I was starting to feel like Ally McBeal!
I was also growing increasingly uncomfortable with the incongruousness of my “real life” and “church life.” It’s not supposed to be like that.
And then I learned about a woman in the church who had stepped forward to lead a Bible study with her husband; she was told that she could not, but that her husband could.
I learned about an ambitious woman, who was essentially leading a committee related to the use of the church building, being reminded that she was just the horse; the reigns were held by the male elders (they didn’t actually call her a horse, but the message was clear: you work, we steer).
I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to say something. We scheduled a dinner with our pastor and his wife and after a lovely meal, I voiced some of my concerns. I asked him about the restrictions being put on women in our church.
His first attempt at explaining his position didn’t help me very much. “I am a complementarian,” he said.
“I’m a complementarian,” I replied because I thought it meant what it sounded like. (It doesn’t, but that’s for Part III.) Despite being wrong about the meaning of the word, my point was still apparent: his answer didn’t really justify the marginalization of women in the church for me. After a little back-and-forth, I finally asked, “Do you really believe women can’t teach men anything about the Bible?”
His voice strained when he asked rhetorically, “You don’t think I learned from [so-and-so’s] book?” But when pressed, he sat on my couch, in my house, in 2014 and said that women couldn’t have authority over men or teach them anything about the Bible.
Those voices in my head? They were pretty smart. And now Bono was singing again.
You say, “Love is a temple, love a higher law. Love is a temple, love the higher law.”
You asked me to enter, and then you made me crawl,
But I can’t keep holding on, to what you got,
When all you got is hurt.
Trying to be something other than what God made me to be was exhausting. You may not relate with my story exactly, but I know some of you will relate to the feeling that you can be more real, more yourself, outside the church than in it. It’s not supposed to be that way.
In her new book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans recounts being invited to speak to 3000 evangelical youth workers about why people are leaving the church, why they’ve stopped showing up:
I told them we’re tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. [We] want to be known for what we’re for… not just what we’re against. We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff—biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice—but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask.
I realized that by showing up on Sundays we were silently condoning stances we fundamentally disagreed with.
We were giving money to support a value system that not only differed from ours, but actually opposed it.
We were part of the problem.
In the end, I told Mickey, “If you really want to stay, I’ll stay.” And I meant it.
And he said, “If you feel this way, I would never want to stay.” And he really meant it.
Submitting to one another out of love…it’s a beautiful thing.
And so we left a church. A church where we had made friends. A good church doing good things. We may not agree with them about what “good” is sometimes, but their marginalization of women doesn’t come from a bad place. They really believe this is the only way to interpret the Bible. Their policies (while undeniably restrictive), are an outward expression of them trying to do the right thing and they are not alone in this. Traditional views of, and roles for, women are the prevailing culture in evangelicalism.
When Mickey finally sent the official “break-up” email, all of us had realized we just weren’t right for each other. It reminds me of the break-up between Frank and Kathleen in the movie You’ve Got Mail. They are relieved. Then Frank asks Kathleen if there is someone else and she says, “No, but there is the dream of someone.”
The Bible is like a giant love story, and for me, to give up on church, would be to give up on love. The day Mickey and I sent that email, we joked that we might have to start our own church (there aren’t a lot of liberal, feminist Christians in southern Georgia). But we had a dream of the kind of church we thought Jesus would want to marry. We left out of love for Him. We left with hope.
Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. –Psalm 126:5