Finding My Voice as a Woman in the Church

Nikki Holland


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microphone on bible finding my voice

When I was 5 years old, I sang in my first church choir. My dad encouraged me to sing loud so he could hear me. I did, joyfully and unconsciously convinced that my voice was wanted and welcomed in my church, as loud as I wanted to be.

When I was 14, I had found a quiet place to read my Bible, away from the people gathered at our home for our church’s Memorial Day cookout. That was the first time I read Ephesians 5, and its instructions that wives must submit to their husbands. Shocked, I marched into the living room, where my mother was talking with several other women, to ask about it.

“Did you know about this?” I demanded. “What does this mean?”

They laughed. I remember one woman laughing particularly hard, her eyes full of merriment. “It means that when you get married, you have to do what your husband says.”

“What? You mean I’ll never actually get to grow up and be in charge of my own life? There will always be someone telling me what to do?”

They laughed some more. They said something about God. I don’t remember what exactly.

So I began to learn that to be a godly woman, I must crush any desire I had to take charge of my life. Especially where boys or church were involved. Never take initiative, I learned. Wait. Be quiet. Prepare yourself to do whatever your husband tells you to do. Since I’m not by nature a quiet or submissive person, this caused no end of difficulties and shame when my “passionate” personality broke through the responsive character I was trying to develop. I was Elsa from the movie “Frozen”, trying to suppress power that I’d never been allowed to understand.

In my quiet times with God, reading my Bible, I felt a constant validation of who God made me to be.  But when I went to church, I learned that my natural tendencies were rebellious and I needed to get better at keeping my “opinions” to myself and cultivating a quiet spirit. I was not and would never be qualified to participate fully in my home or churches. I am a woman. My job is to follow.

I continued to sing at church. I took lessons. I sang and sang and sang. I was a backup singer. Even after I earned a degree in music, I was a backup singer. Even when I was singing duets. Even though I sometimes sang solos and directed choirs. I was always considered a backup singer.

Once or twice I read a specific, assigned Bible verse in church – but I was never welcome to speak devotional thoughts.  I knew by then that my voice was wanted only when it was doing what it was told. I understood that my voice was a decoration to ornament someone else’s thoughts – never my own tool to convey my own thoughts. Not in church.

By 28, I was married to a sweet man and we had three toddlers. I had met my husband when we were both working as missionaries, but for reasons which I will skip over now, I found myself living as a typical suburban housewife. Isolated in my house most days, arranging my babies’ naps and their many meals, I often connected with people on Facebook. That was the first time I read a Biblical challenge to my understanding of my role as a godly woman.

A friend had posted an article from The Junia Project and I devoured everything I could find after reading it. I learned about Jerome and what he’d done to Junia’s name. I learned about the unusual word authentein, translated as “authority” in 1 Timothy 2. I learned that when I read passages about women with the cultural context in mind, the verses were freeing and affirming of the equal spiritual authority of women. I learned that women had been deacons and apostles and teachers and prophets in the churches of the New Testament. I learned about the concept of mutual submission and I saw how beautifully consistent that concept is with the words of Christ. “Love each other”, says Jesus. “Everyone submit to everyone”, says Paul. “Amen”, say my husband and me.

When I was 30 my family moved to Mexico. One morning at church, a man said to me, “You will be my backup singer for the English, she will be his backup singer for Spanish and we [men] will be the lead singers.”  I looked at him and thought, “You didn’t even bother coming to practice. And we’re singing exactly the same thing. Why do we have to have a lead and a backup?” It was a jolt to my heart.

I looked at my sons. I looked at my nephews and my nieces. I realized that I do not want our children growing up in churches where their biology will determine how fully and in what form they are able to worship their God. Where other people will tell them what God can and cannot call them to do. Where they will be taught, week in and week out, that boys are more like God than girls are.

I asked myself, “Is the equality of women in the Christian church and home really a secondary issue?” I started writing and my blog, The Broken Curse, was born. Jesus broke the curse, including the part about men ruling over women! Why do so many of us work so hard to keep living as if that part of the curse were still in power over us? With Paul I say, “No! It was for freedom we were set free! Let us stand firm and refuse to take up the yoke of slavery once again!”

So my family looked for a church where women are encouraged to participate at every level. When we couldn’t find one we started one in my sister’s home. I was praying one day, telling God that I thought it would be nice if he sent us someone who knew how to do “pastory” things.” He said to me, “What are you going to do about that?”

I argued with God. “You want me to be a pastor? “I am not qualified. If I were going to be a pastor, wouldn’t I have known that YEARS ago? We can’t pay for it, you know. We have no extra money – how are we going to pay for SEMINARY?” Over and over I heard, “I will take care of it.” To my every objection: “I will take care of it.”

And so at 31 years old, I started studying for a Master of Divinity degree. With all my heart, I want to join Jesus in bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind! I want to be a part of Jesus’ work to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor!

And I know now that God made me the way I am on purpose – all my strength, all my boldness, all my womanhood – just so I can do just that. I know again that my voice is beautiful and welcome in God’s house. As loud as I can, I shout – Jesus loves us and has set us free!

[Click here for a Spanish translation of this post.]

Nikki Holland

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  • Great article and I too have had those ah-ha moments. Please keep writing and sharing because this is inspirational.

  • Beautiful! So many of us women have the same testimony. I love your aha moment. It’s kinda silly to even apply hierarchical terms to singing.

    • Yes! It’s so obviously unnecessary! I suppose it’s a good reminder that hierarchy is unnecessary in all other ministries, too…

  • yup … that’s me! except for the pastor part.

    i long to find my place in a church or ministry. i’ve tried so many things and i’m weary for the trying. singing was, i suppose is still, though i remain mostly silent these days, my foundation, my lifeblood. it is the vehicle where the once beautiful sound of my voice could communicate the truth of scripture or the love of Jesus, and the “offense of the gospel” is temporarily overlooked. singing/music is the gift that puts us before kings and rulers … if only to proclaim the message of Jesus.

    thank you for sharing your story!

    • Yvonne, I have never thought of singing as something that puts us before powerful people, but of course you are right. I am hopeful that you will find your ministry, and I believe that God does not waste anything not people, not time, and not the discoveries about ministries that aren’t right for us!

  • I wrote piece long ago for a newspaper about how I was the little sister. Growing up, I watched my brother getting things bigger and better than I did. If he mowed the yard, he got a dollar. If I mowed it, I got a quarter. When I became a Christian, and then met the love of my life, I was told that basically I would never really be a grown up, but would always be the little sister at church. I could have things after my big brothers were done with them, or if they weren’t that important. I was never asked for my ideas, and told not only what I could do, but that I would like doing it.

    Not with my husband, though. He saw me as a partner, equal to him. The only lead and follow we have done is in dancing, and even then. it was my choice to follow or not. We have never had power struggles, we don’t tell each what to do in any kind of bossy lording it over each other. We have lived a very old-fashioned traditional life, as I love being at home, although if I want to get a job, I am free to do so.

    I also have sung in choirs for many years, but have found that without choirs and traditional hymns, I have no place. It has become impossible for me to find a church where I am fed the meat that I want, and use my voice as well. I am far from the only one that understands a lot of what you have experienced! I wish you all blessings in your service to God!

    • A little sister… what a great way to describe this feeling. Thank you for your blessings. I am praying right now that you find a church where you can feel at home, be fed to satisfaction, and sing the songs God has written in you.

  • Isn’t it strange that people think we are not to play God in other people’s lives unless they are women? Then it is “Well God said this so…” Well God insists…” Yet as I learn more and more about Jesus and God I find He says “I came to set the captive free”…”As for Me is not My Way Equal…Is not YOUR way unequal?”…yes God hates oppression and bondage, yet the God of many men thinks that women must be in bondage and oppression…

    • Yes! Exactly!! Jesus came to SET US FREE!!!!! 🙂

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