The only thing lower than the glass ceiling for women is the stained glass ceiling. And it’s about time both are shattered.
If you are on Twitter at all, you may have run across the hashtag #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear started by Sarah Bessey (who is a fabulous writer) a few days ago. What follows is an online conversation that yanks back the veil of silence to expose misogyny and oppression in the institutional church. It is heart-rending and infuriating. But it is also filled with hope.
As a woman who has been in ministry leadership for over 20 years, I want to add my story to the swell. Or at least part of my story.
I am about to get gut-level honest about many things I have never spoken about publicly, so if you don’t like raw… I’ll give you a moment to click over to something else.
Some of what I am about to talk about is hard and all of it is true. It is not a blanket indictment on the institutional church everywhere. I’ve had some wonderful, affirming, pure-hearted experiences. But unfortunately, I can count them on less than two hands. I’ve had many more experiences that were mixed, like most things fallen and imperfect are. I hold on to the good and learn from what was not. And I’ve had downright assaults to who I am as a woman; mind, body and soul.
I did not meet Jesus or come to faith in an institutional church setting and when I did start attending, the denomination I was in was one of the most open to women leaders at the time. I never had anyone tell me “women don’t speak”. It never even crossed my mind. Until one day I was sitting in my university’s intro to ministry course. And I innocently dropped a bomb in my introduction when I enthusiastically proclaimed:
“I’m called to preach.” The silence was only broken by the professor’s sputtering objection, “You mean you’re called to teach…”
“No, sir, I can do that but I’m really called to preach.”
And I refused to back down. So I got assigned to intern under a woman who could straighten out my heretical streak and show me the finer nuances of children’s ministry. I wouldn’t back down for her either. It remains the only class in my entire academic career I have ever gotten a C in. I became known as a “lovable heretic”. I think I might put that on my tomb stone one day… “here lies Michele, a lovable heretic”.
In the last 20 years since then, I’ve: (Disclaimer: This list is in no particular order, has no names named and is in no way comprehensive.)
- Been invited to “share” or “testify” even though it was the sermon slot.
- Been picked up for speaking engagements overseas and then not allowed to speak because they thought I was a “Michael” not a “Michele”
- Had a male team member who on more than one attempt tried to nuzzle or bear hug me and whom I physically had to push away. (Which is at the very least, sexual harassment and according to some definitions, a form of sexual assault)
- Had my character maligned and been personally and professionally attacked for standing up for survivors and the abuse being perpetrated against them
- Been invited to speak and then given 2 minutes when initially it was an invitation to preach
- Been hosted inappropriately when traveling on the road
- Been violently physically assaulted by the male leader of a church I was leading an outreach team to overseas and then later given 24 hours to get out of the country because of ongoing threats from him to the broader organization.
- Experienced organizational corruption by male leaders who did not protect survivors who reported repeated sexual assault
- Been labeled as unstable because of defending those I served against abuse and systemic injustice
- Had original ideas and content stolen or co-opted by male leaders who then publicly exploited them for their own benefit (for the record, I’ve had that from female leaders too- they just were a bit more subtle about it.)
- And this list could go on another 10 pages. You get the picture.
The stained glass ceiling for women is very real, often abusive and suffocatingly low.
Before you dismiss this as the ramblings of a rebellious, bitter woman (and I do know most of you would never do that), I want you to know those who have wronged me and those I love have been and by grace, are being, continually forgiven.
But forgiving is not forgetting. It is not an excuse for a systemic, pervasive injustice so far from the heart of God, it betrays His very nature on deep and fundamental levels.
There is no biblical mandate for being sweet and nice, although that is culturally what we are taught, especially as women. In most places I have been, strong women with a strong voice are not viewed as Deborahs, but Jezebels. So we are trained to embrace a psuedo-form of meekness.
And some of the loudest advocates of the stained glass ceiling for women in the church are other women. Christianity Today is running a series about women writers who don’t have “biblical” authority and their unhealthy influence from the blogosphere. The flagship article of the series, written by a woman leader, states that: “In this new cyber age, authority comes not from the church or the academic guild but from popularity…. it is a crisis of authority, especially for women.”
How does this stained glass ceiling start to get shattered? One woman at a time refusing to live under it, be silenced by it, or settle for being defined by it.
Women do not have separate but “equally important” roles. If history teaches us nothing else, it screams separate can never be truly equal.
Genesis 2:18 says, “And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” This verse is often interpreted that women exist to be helpmates of men, which is almost always an inferior connotation.
The word for helper is the Hebrew word ezer. Two-thirds of the usage of this noun biblically has God as the designated helper. In three of the uses, ezer can be translated as warrior. Mounce states, “With so many references to God as our helper, it is obvious that an ʻēzer is in no way inferior to the one who receives help. This is important because this is the word that God uses in Gen. 2:18… According to God’s design, therefore, the man and the woman, the husband and the wife, have been designed by God to stand together and help each other fight the battles of life. And God is there as the divine ʻēzer to fight with them.”
So, yes I am 100% egalitarian in my beliefs about women in any role in leadership in the institutional church, or outside of it. I do not believe in the concept of covering except by Jesus Himself. I do believe in community with real, honest, messy accountability that is born in the place of mutually honoring relationship.
The view of women in many places within fundamental Christianity has greater similarities to the views concerning women in fundamental Islam or Judaism, than it does to the heart of Jesus. (Yes, I know that is a loaded statement. But in my experience it is also an accurate one.) Jesus came to set women free. In fact, He might even be considered one of the world’s first feminists. Just ask Mary as she sat at His feet or the woman at the well as He encountered her in perfect love and truth shattering cultural and religious norms.
Much of what the institutional church views as “biblical” womanhood is a man-made systematization of the curse in Genesis. Sarah Bessey explains it so well: “The curse that was laid upon Eve–her desire would be for her husband, and her pain in childbirth would be greatly multiplied–even shows us how patriarchy, subordination, and pain are part of the Fall. They were never God’s original intent; they are a consequence of sin.”
Shattering the stained glass ceiling is a profound and prophetic call back to the life of Jesus and the freedom of the Gospel. It is a mandate born not in the structures of man, but in the original intent of the heart of God.