The Wednesday night discussion class on women’s roles in the church started last week. As I mentioned before, I really thought about going to another class... or waiting it out at a local coffee shop and grilling my mom for details later. (Guess which option I was leaning toward!) I resisted temptation and followed the crowd of people making their way into the classroom. (If I were a youth minister I’d interject, “One of those rare times when 'resisting temptation' and 'following the crowd' go together! *snort*” Cheesy joke + "us against the world" motif - that's a youth ministry home run! But I'd hate to put you through that. Oh, wait...) The class was enormously popular, which is unusual for a Wednesday night in a Metro Atlanta commuter church. The big turn out sent my father on a 10 minute chair-ferrying frenzy, which is just the kind of thing he delights in at church. (I love this about Dad: he’s an elder who’s happy just to be finding everyone a place to sit, facilitating community from behind the scenes.)
To my great relief, most of the class was an introduction led by one of the elders and the preaching minister. Given the heated arguments that have happened, the leadership of the church wanted to reframe the discussion. They began with a familiar exercise in identifying a continuum of viewpoints on women’s role on the church, from the patriarchalist “women belong in the home, barefoot and pregnant” on the far right to the radical feminist “men are the enemy and organized religion is complicit in the oppression of women” on the far left. Actually, these sound more like caricatures to me, but I think the point of this part of the discussion is to make us realize that we’re all somewhere in the middle, and we’re not as different from each other as we sometimes think. These arguments tend to be polarizing, and maybe it helps to see that there are more polarized positions out there than those we hold to. They might be straw people (at least in our church context), but at least we’re knocking them down together! Unity!
Silliness aside, this rhetorical move diffuses some of our animosity toward each other, and I think it sets limits on our temptation to caricature the person sitting beside us. We stop sneaking glances at people we may previously have categorized as extremists. “She might say clunky things to avoid using a gender-specific pronoun for God, but I don’t think she hates men or the church.” “His obnoxious jokes during class might reinforce gender stereotypes, but I don’t think he considers women unequal in society or before God.”
However, thus far the discussion leaves us unsatisfied, and the more cynical among us may suspect it's a bit of a ruse. The distance between the patriarchalist and the radical feminist is great, and our theological skirmishes take place in the hazy middle ground between the two. We may not be that different, but we’re still different. What’s more, we share a lot in common, which opens up another can of worms. We care strongly about a lot of the same things - like being faithful to Christ, worshipping together, and allowing God’s Word to shape our lives, our fellowship, our church structure - but our perspectives on how this translates into practice are seemingly worlds apart.
In the interest of keeping post length manageable, I’ll offer my two-cents on the “middle ground positions” next time.