Gender & Grace

June 15, 2008

Personal assumptions challenged

I have been recently, in another class, concerned with the nature of sexuality and the way evangelicals deal (or do not deal) with it in their churches. My own experience growing up in the conservative South has been a mixed bag, to say the least. When I began reading Van Leeuwen’s book, I hoped she would give me some tools to move forward like a spelunker in the messy realm of sexuality and personhood. Because I have been doing so much reading and studying on the subject in the last few quarters, there are few assumptions I have that have not already been challenged and stretched and re-couched in new terms and with enlightened understanding.

What I did learn from this book is the inseparable interrelatedness of nature and nurture: not only is it nearly impossible to determine when nurture actually begins to affect nature, but it is also pointless to try to determine the extent to which each affects a human being or which affects that human being to a greater extent. Everyone debates one way or the other, but Van Leeuwen argues that there should be no argument at all because “[b]iology and experience are mutually influential” (67). And while “biology…can nuance…behavior” (77), “biology is both augmented and reshaped by learning” (108).

Life circumstances explained/clarified

What I was hoping for out of the concluding chapters of Van Leeuwen’s book was a delving into the issue of sexuality as it relates to personhood, who we are as sexual beings, bodily beings. While she covers some of that concern within the context of marriage (and to be fair, she is speaking as a married woman), she leaves only a chapter for homosexuality and only something like two pages for singleness. Van Leeuwen is not the only author to concentrate on sexuality within the context of marriage. Carrie Miles spends a good deal of time on marriage and parenting in The Redemption of Love, which I read for Dufault-Hunter last quarter, but she also offers no guidance on the single life. Granted, much of the talk about male headship concerns a woman’s place within marriage, but when a husband and wife share a common understanding of mutual submission, that marriage state offers a considerable amount of protection for a woman’s sexuality. Single women (and for that matter, single men) have a precarious place in the church as it is, even more so when in leadership positions. The debate over women’s role in ministry is difficult enough without having the added pressure to get married or the added stigma of being some kind of temptress. If we cannot even deal with our own sexual natures properly, how can we deal with the gender debate?

Of course, it sounds as though I did not enjoy the reading or benefit from it. I actually appreciated the opportunity to read a kind of synthesis of psychology, sociology, and theology concerning the nature and nurture of women and men. Putting ideas and concepts from different areas of study into one critical work helps to get a big picture of the many issues involved in the debate about the authority of women in the home and in the church. I especially appreciated Van Leeuwen’s effort to couch her arguments within a biblical model and under the premise of kingdom work. The missionary principle for hermeneutical approaches and the kingdom model are essential to Van Leeuwen’s argument that there is freedom and grace for human beings to move differently as the Holy Spirit inspires in different times and places but that this freedom must be bounded within the kingdom model and thus within the scriptural model for living a Christian life and glorifying God with one’s talents and gifts. Whether single, married, male, female, suffering, fighting, or free—the best we can do with our fallen understanding is to try to live as consistently after God as possible. The rest is grace.

Strange aspects

In the sense that I do not have a calling to preach in any capacity or to seek ordination for any purpose, the experiences of each of these women included in Riggs’ anthology Can I Get a Witness? are unlike my own. They each offered a profound and undeniable supernatural calling to the work they either accepted or resisted. Whether they responded as confidently as Sojourner Truth who lived true to her God-given name (21), or as tremulously as Zilpha Elaw who likened herself to Jonah or Julia Foote who described herself as “so weak and ignorant” (52), these women experienced the Jeremiah-like burning ( 8 ) to speak publicly and with authority regardless of the consequences. Also unlike my own experience as a white woman who has only ever known freedom, these women suffered and fought against not only sexism but racism, many of them being former slaves or the daughters of slaves. Ironically, their prophetic calling to speak against injustice met with opposition not because of their sex but because of their color: “And if I didn’t have faith, I wouldn’t spend so much of my time talking to ninety percent white audiences all over the country…because America must wake up and learn the truth about itself and its racism” (Fannie Lou Hamer 171).

Out of Hogan’s article describing Phoebe Palmer’s ministry, the strangest part of her argument was her conservative insistence that the woman’s sphere was separated from the man’s, that women and men had different natures, but that by the baptism of the Holy Spirit God brought spiritual equality to both men and women. As Hogan sums, “Men and women were different, and yet, men and women were called to the same baptism and the same task, proclaiming the good news” (220). Certainly an unusual approach in light of the argument from personhood that is so much more favored in this debate. I have never heard anyone mix their arguments like Palmer does here, certainly a strange choice.

Familiar aspects

More familiar in my experience of the debate about women’s authority to speak in public his Palmer’s own admission concerning the difficulty of women who are called to preach but unable to find a forum in which to do so: “‘And what a dilemma! The will of the church and the will of Christ in conflict!’ (vi). Before women could obey the command of the spirit to speak, they first had to secure the right to speak (218). While her argument may have some contradictions, people certainly would have been hard-pressed to contradict her ultimate claim to God’s authority over both men and women. Hogan notes, “Spiritual equality, as used by Palmer, was grounded in the God-given equality between women and men….All of this was under God’s direction and command. It was God’s doing, not theirs, and this was the final and crucial distinction between personhood and spiritual equality” (221).

More familiar as well is the constant struggle African American women faced in securing an opportunity to be heard at all. Jarena Lee records that in eight years following her call “I had only been allowed to exhort, and even this privilege but seldom” (8). Virginia Broughton narrowly escaped being thrown from a window (37). I admire Julia Foote’s courage to speak regardless of opposition, asserting that “[m]an’s opinion weighed nothing with me, for my commission was from heaven, and my reward was with the Most High” (57). Another common experience is the jealousy that emerges when women’s ministry flourishes, like that of Broughton: “Ministers and laymen…who were jealous of the growing popularity of the woman’s work, as if there was some cause of alarm for the safety of their own positions of power and honor, all rose up from their churches…to oppose the woman’s work and break it up if possible” (35-6). Even when women are promoting daily Bible study and holy, righteous living, the fact that they are women promoting anything at all is cause enough for many men insecure in their own callings to fight the movement of the Holy Spirit.