Author and journalist Dennis Covington was investigating a murder when he came across a particular charismatic and supernatural celebrating brand of Christianity in the South – a denomination that practices snake handling. The church gets its practices from Mark 16:17-18: "And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (It should be noted that the earliest manuscripts of Mark do not include these verses).
Intrigued by the practice, Covington stuck around and went to the services. Eventually, he got so involved and wrapped up in the church that he handled snakes, though he never tried to drink the poison (strychnine). He also became quite close to the leadership in the church, but eventually left when the church began to fall apart.
But the church doesn’t fall apart for the reasons you’d expect – y’know, people getting killed by the snakes, police crackdown, etc. No, the church started to fall apart because females wanted a greater voice in the services.
His book was first published in 1995, and it is about his experience only a few short years earlier. In other words, this church fell apart because females wanted authority in it within my lifetime. Within the lifetimes of most of the people reading this blog. It was only a short 20 years ago.
A discussion of male authority in the church usually turns into a big messy ball of crazy. And granted, you can’t take the tale of a snake-handling church and apply it to the church as a whole, but it does exemplify a trend I’ve noticed in a lot of popular charismatic churches. And it is one of the discussions that should be engaged readily within the church. When I watched Derren Brown’s faith healing experiment a few days ago, what I noticed was not the (pretty obvious) conclusions about the test, but rather, how few women were involved as authorities in faith healing.
Now, there have been lots of women involved in faith healing from the start, but take a moment and think of the faith healers you are most familiar with. Most of them are probably men. Benny Hinn. Hobart Freeman. Kenneth Copeland. Oral Roberts.
Derren Brown selected all male figures for his finalists to be his fake faith healer. It occurred to me that in all my introductions to faith healing, I couldn’t think of a single contemporary female who followed the practices of faith healing and was known as a large, important name in the industry. Sure, back in the beginning of it (as my friend Chase duly noted), there were faith healers who were women.
But where are they now? In 2011, faith healers aren’t all that common. But the churches that inspire people to move across the country in the hope of healing have male pastors.
This is not unusual. As I’ve already mentioned, the vast majority of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are men. The vast majority of pastors who are trusted as authorities in this nation are men. The vast majority of journalists we listen to are men (though, as a Rachel Maddow fan, I have to give props to my girl for getting taken seriously).
There has long been a problem in the church with women not being taken seriously. When the women’s moral reform movement began in the 1830s, in NYC and Boston, the advocacy organizations – dedicated to helping women of ill repute get back on their feet – could not be taken seriously in large social circles without a man as the technical head of the organization. Many of them had a husband who stepped in and helped them get their advocacy newspapers published.
It should be no surprise now, then, that male authority is still taken much more seriously within the church.
So yes, this is not directly related to faith healing, but it is worth noting: males tend to be seen as authorities in spiritual matters, and even more so in supernatural spiritual matters. While there may be women who are faith healers, it is the men that people turn up for in droves, it is the men who claim to have the greatest track record of healings, and it is the men who make the headlines.
I feel that this instance is a microcosm for a much larger issue of the church – why is it that we’re more willing to trust a male pastor? Why is it that when a woman becomes a theological authority, she is challenged almost instantly and will face questions most of her life, especially if she happens to be a single woman as well?
There's a tendency in society - and this happens in race issues as well - that the legitimacy of a woman is often seen as more "up for grabs" simply because of her biological identity. I and many of my fellow women have encountered men in our lives who simply won't listen based on where that information is coming from. Female writers had to mask their identity in the past - and still do - in order to be seen as more authoritative. For example, JK Rowling's real name is "Joanne Kathleen." Her publishers asked her to go by "JK" because then her sex would be ambiguous, and more boys would be willing to buy it because it wouldn't be a "girly" book.
It seems that faith healing is just another one of those areas in which women are not seen as responsible and reliable. It is especially bad when this sort of presumption of male authority happens within a religion (any religion - Judaism, Islam, or Christianity), because then those doing the presuming have Scripture (and, by extension, God) on their side.
The amount of trust people put into faith healers is scary. But it’s even scarier when you realize that one of the things aiding that trust just might be the perceived authority of a male figure.
Note: I recognize that there are female faith healers, but what I am referring to is the perception of authority that comes with a male. When most people thinking of faith healing, speaking in tongues, etc (any of the "mainstream" charismatic/supernatural practices), it is the men they think of. Even if women are faith healers, they are no longer prominent in the practice. The question is: What can the church do to change the perception that it is a boys' club?