A culture is built around the stories it tells.
After telling my story of spiritual abuse and marginalization as a woman leader in the church, a man who attended a different church dismissed my story since it was not his own faith community experience. He had not heard any similar stories from women leaders in his church. I asked him how he knew these stories did not exist. He didn’t.
Stories are powerful, but they can also be misused or misunderstood. Here are three ways this happens.
1. Dismissing a Story that Doesn’t Fit our Paradigm
For example, the hearer may dismiss a story as anecdotal and not significant to most people’s experiences (as illustrated by my experience above). Often stories concerning women in the church are limited or filtered or discouraged if negative. Under a patriarchal system1 the stories of women are usually confined to marriage and children, and as a result, women will hesitate to tell their real story even if they are asked.
A church may say it values vulnerability and honesty until a woman with non-traditional gifts of leadership reveals her pain in being subjected to hidden misogyny. She is dismissed as being too emotional. I was called “fragile.”
A church may say it values diversity and open conversation until a woman challenges patriarchal theology and practice. She is dismissed as being unbiblical. I was called “ungracious” and “divisive.”
A church may say it values social justice and rescues women from abuse and sex trafficking until a woman points out the inconsistency and ultimate injustice of not empowering women in the church. She is dismissed as being judgmental. I was invited to leave.
2. Ignoring the Cultural Bounds of a Story
The flip side of dismissing a story is the problem of extrapolating timeless principles from a culturally bound or historically specific story. This is where confusion reigns in the interpretation of the Bible, a collection of what is mostly story. It gets messy on two levels: the level of interpretation (what was the real story) and the level of application (what does that story mean for us today).
It’s not easy to navigate Paul’s letters as he addresses specific churches with specific issues. There is a story to every church in the New Testament. We forget that the story of the Church as recorded in the book of Acts is only the beginning, the “prologue.” In fact, Acts (or Acts of the Apostles) was originally called the “History of Christian Origins.” “Origins” creates space for “evolution.”
If Acts is the prologue, then the Church since New Testament times is the main body of a story that is evolving with its surprising turning points and transformations as each generation reflects on their theology and practice. The powerful image of the Church as a Bride in the book of Revelation becomes our epilogue.
When we approach the handful of problem passages concerning women with this understanding of the bigger story of the Church and tease out the stories of the women hidden behind Paul’s letters, we are able to consider several possible interpretations of his words. Perhaps he did not intend to set timeless mandates such as women, in general, are to be silent or to not have authority over men. There are too many biblical stories of women that do not support their confinement.
Since God breaks the “rules” of patriarchy often enough, a church has a choice of what narrative to follow. Perhaps it is possible that the movement of God in the story of the Church is a movement forward towards mutuality and equality, rather than backward to the curse of domination.
3. Reading Too Much into a Story
It is also possible to read too much into a story by superimposing the reader’s cultural values or assigning significance that is not relevant to the teller’s culture.
For example, the naming of Eve in Genesis 2 is often cited as proof that Adam had authority over her and therefore the mandate to rule has a hierarchical structure. The act of naming may be considered evidence of authority in our current western culture, but care must be taken when superimposing a strict value on other cultures, especially ancient ones. You can miss the point of the story.
I found this out when I went to Beijing where it is customary for the Christian foreigner to be given a Chinese name, one that is carefully chosen and lovingly bestowed. Fangfang, my translator, took over a week to find my name. She chose it after observing me and listening to my messages in order to capture my heart. When Fangfang named me, I felt welcomed into her world. And because the name fit me perfectly, I felt known. Fangfang was my equal and when she named me, I felt a special bond to her, a heart connection that enhanced the roles we were engaging in as speaker and translator. We needed each other. We appreciated each other. We were a team.
It occurred to me that perhaps Eve felt the same way when she was presented to Adam and then named by him.
And Adam needed to know that Eve was created to fill a sacred space in his life. Naming the animals was an exercise to highlight his loneliness, not only in his sexuality but also in his position as caretaker of creation. The text doesn’t tell us how long it took to finish the job nor what kind of creative energy it took to come up with unique names for each of the species. But he had only himself to consult and it was a very lonely job.
Then God gave Adam a gift, one like him to help him rule. After a divinely-induced sleep, he woke up to a new reality. Now his world was to be shared with another human being, created by God to be his ezer, his equal, his strong helper and co-warrior. When Adam met his partner he welcomed her into his world by naming her. As bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, they were connected. Adam and Eve needed each other and they were a team.
For Adam, naming Eve wasn’t about power or authority. It was an act of bonding, of solidarity, and of mutual dependence. Naming was not an exercise of authority but an exercise of attachment. So as we read the stories of the Bible we need to recognize any western cultural values or purposes being assigned inappropriately to ancient cultural acts. Naming may only indicate authority in our culture but it may have multiple meanings in another.2
Stories are powerful but they must be used carefully.
With the influence of social media, hundreds of stories are now being told and heard. The voices of women are multiplying so that their stories can no longer be ignored or dismissed.
If you are a church who believes your culture needs no changing, your women are fulfilled in their call as disciples, and there is no hidden misogyny among your leaders, then I encourage you to back up your assumptions by asking the women to be honest with their stories…as long as the women are truly safe to tell them and you are committed to change if you are shown to be wrong in your assumptions. Change will take a lot of humility, hard work, and intentionality.
1 When I use the term “patriarchal system” I refer to a system of church leadership in which the ruling body excludes women. A church is still patriarchal if women are allowed to teach, preach or pastor, but not allowed to be on the board of elders.
2 There are other problems with discerning meaning in stories. (1) The meaning of an act in one sphere (job) does not necessarily transfer to another sphere (home). For example, sweeping the floor in a housekeeping job has a different motivation and value than sweeping the floor of my own home. (2) One act is not confined to one person or one category of persons. I am not the only one who sweeps the floor in my home. Just because Adam named Eve does not mean only men/husbands/fathers continued to do the naming, even in a patriarchal society. While Abraham named Ishmael and Isaac, Isaac and Rebekah (“they”) named Esau. Rachel and Leah named their own children. Even a community of women named Naomi’s baby Obed (Ruth 4:17).
Graphic Credit: Kate Hickman