When Women Will Not Be Silenced

Shortly after I graduated high school, I felt called toward ministry. I excitedly told my friend, the son of the local Southern Baptist minister. He responded by quoting the Bible at me and telling me I would never be able to be a senior pastor.

When I was in college, I attended several worship retreats and conferences. Some of them had women speakers, but those speakers only seemed to talk about relationships and marriage. That sort of stuff didn’t interest me, and I longed for a role model who spoke authoritatively about the issues I was interested in – philosophy, theological tradition, social justice.

I had just started graduate school and was talking to some of the older students. I quickly got a run-down of which professors I could trust as a woman and which ones would be harder to get to listen to me. A year later, I would witness this very thing happen when one of the male professors came into our shared office to ask a question and completely ignored my response in favor of the new male student’s answer.

I’m used to people not listening to me because I’m a woman. I realize that’s an incredibly depressing thing to say, but it is accurate to my life experience. But this pattern in my life hasn’t kept me from speaking up – far from it. Indeed, men who choose to dismiss me because I’m a woman often find themselves on the business end of one of my famous lectures.

I refuse to be dismissed. And I’ve seen many wonderful, brilliant women in the church stand up and say the same thing. We refuse to be dismissed; we will have our time to speak.

This past week, Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal published a horrific account from a former youth pastor who is now serving time in prison for statutory rape. The account, presented with no editorial commentary or preface, repeatedly called the crime an “affair” that both parties had participated in equally. The moral of the story that this former youth pastor turned convict wanted to impress upon us? Don’t go after teenage women because you might get caught and lose everything like I did. As far as he was concerned, his “victim” didn’t exist.

Through the week, there was a slowly building outrage. For three days (from Tuesday to Thursday), the only people I saw speaking out were women. One editor deigned to listen to me while dismissing my friends. Women wrote posts about their experiences, took huge risks to be incredibly and deeply vulnerable. A woman started a hashtag on twitter to urge Leadership Journal to #takedownthatpost and women rallied together to push and urge and cajole the editors into taking the right action. For those few days, the only involvement I saw from men were requests that we tone our “attacks” down, that we consider the rapist’s feelings, that we (women) need to work on our forgiveness.

The urge to silence when women speak up – especially when it’s over something that challenges the way we theologize about the world – is strong, especially for those existing in an evangelical tradition. Leadership Journal didn’t want to listen to a group of women who, in their eyes, probably seemed too “overly sensitive.” Indeed, their initial “apology” and “editor’s note” failed to actually apologize for anything – rather it implied the offensiveness of the post was “imagined,” and set a false divide between pastors, women, and victims of sexual abuse (these are not separate categories).

The presence of a woman’s voice, simply because of the differing ways in which we experience the world, fundamentally complicates our worldview. And our worldview needs complication. We need to learn to crave a complex understanding of forgiveness, grace, the church, and the world at large. One of the ways we do this is through including the voices of marginalized women.

By the time the post came down on Friday night, many men had come around to the cause. It was ultimately a joint effort that finally brought Leadership Journal into a humble repentance. But we must never forget that such a thing would not have been possible if women had not stood up and said, “This is not okay.”

Over the last week, women online demonstrated more leadership than the editors of Leadership Journal probably thought possible. Our diverse perspectives, the stories and experience we brought to bear, and unwillingness to accept non-apologies as “good enough” brought the president of a behemoth evangelical magazine to our table, to hear our concerns, and to apologize. Women did this.

So what lessons can we take away from this debacle? Samantha Field has some concrete ideas for what Christianity Today can do now to ensure that they do not harm people in this way again. But what did we, women of the church, learn?

We learned that our voices matter.

Our words can change things.

We learned that we do have power, despite all those years of theology telling us we are powerless and weak.

We learned that our lives, our stories, our experiences matter as part of the church.

We learned that if we stand up, others will join us.

We learned that we are not alone.

And we learned that we – women! Beautiful, glorious, made in God’s image, women! – can make the world better, all on our own.

Take that and run, church. Run into the wood, dismantle the table that refuses to accept us, and as Sarah Bessy says, create a bonfire. Dance, celebrate with those who are celebrating and weep with those who weep. Use the tools at our disposal and dismantle those oppressive structures which command we must forgive those who hurt us and ignore the pain that still exists in our lives. Destroy the theology that says we are lesser, weaker vessels who have to rely on someone else to find God. Create new worlds, burn with the passion of grace, and love fully, boldly, and unreservedly.

We are the church. And we will be heard.