Last week Author and Blogger Sarah Bessey started the hashtag #thingsonlychristianwomenhear the response was overwhelming. It was an opportunity for all those who have struggled with discrimination and sexism in the church to share their experiences, and share they did in numbers large enough for it to make the trending list. On his blog, Mike Frost likened it to lancing a boil, and I love that imagery. These are things that have been bubbling away under the surface for some time, and suddenly out they erupted.
Once they were given the space and the opportunity women were keen to share freely of what they had experienced and to read the experiences of other women. Some found it healing to be able to share freely. Reading the experiences of other women helped them feel like they were not alone, every one of those tweets expressed a painful experience in the church because they were a woman. In New Zealand it is easy for us to dismiss these stories as mostly coming from the US, the church is different here and you may be thinking that we are less conservative in our ideas about gender and don’t need to consider these issues.
But we cannot dismiss this as just a problem for the US church and we cannot dismiss this as just a problem for the conservative side of the church. I have sat with women in New Zealand who have told me similar stories. I have heard the jokes that perpetuate negative gender stereotypes from the pulpit, I have heard the lack of response and lack of change when these have been challenged. I have experienced the surprise on people's faces when I say I am a feminist. I have been in Christian leadership in situations where men don’t believe women should be in leadership. I have heard women share their shattered dreams of teaching, preaching, leading or simply being appointed to be a deacon or elder. I have been in ministry and struggled with the expectation that I would have a ‘wife’ at home to help me offer hospitality. I have heard the struggles of single women who seem to have greater ministry expectations placed on them simply because they don’t have family commitments. I have heard the despair in young intelligent women as they realise that the Christian culture has narrowed in gender role expectations. I have seen the absence of women at leadership conferences. This is all right here in your church, in my church, in the New Zealand church.
I read the stories on twitter and I thought about all the stories I have heard, and I am still struggling with my grief and anger. Then I read an unrelated comment on a friend's Facebook status, something along the lines of but in New Zealand we never have to ask “Is Jesus worth it” and I realised that each time a woman experiences sexism in the church she asks herself “Is Jesus worth it?”. Each time a woman is told that she can’t use her gifts she asks “Is Jesus worth it?”, every time a woman’s worth is lessened by patriarchal interpretations of the bible she asks “Is Jesus worth it?”
It is easy to dismiss the comments, the experiences even my blog, as "oh just another woman with a chip on her shoulder." But I want you to know and understand that this is the question that each woman who shared on twitter and who has experienced sexism in the church asks - Is Jesus worth it? It breaks my heart (hopefully yours too) that there were many comments on the twitter exchange from women whose answer to that question had been, no Jesus is not worth it.
These stories and experiences are about so much more than simply wanting leadership positions, to preach and teach and be ordained. This is much deeper than women wanting the same equality that they have in the workplace.
This is about women wanting free and unfettered access to God.
This is about the Good News being good news for all, not just for those in power.
The sexism that women experience in church, is a barrier from men that stops women coming to know and trust God, to hear the Holy Spirit and to be confident in their faith. It is also a barrier to our evangelism as for many non-churched people, this is the church that they see, and it is not attractive.
Jesus came to inaugurate a new kingdom in which we are to live. The Holy Spirit helps us to live by a new set of values that brings the hope of the full restoration to come. That restoration involves the healing of the relationship between people and God, people and the earth and men and women. Therefore we are to live in a way that demonstrates the hope of restoration in the relationship between people. Addressing sexism is a gospel issue and cannot be dismissed as secondary or non-essential. It is essential that women feel valued, accepted, gifted and loved by God. We follow a God of grace and hope who values and loves all regardless of their gender. We are called to demonstrate this hope and love by living out Galatians 3:28 in all we do.
I don’t think that the sexism that has been experienced in New Zealand is as overt as that in the US. But I do believe that covert sexism is rife in the church in NZ, and it is time we talked about it and addressed it. Covert sexism is harder to pin down, it is harder for women to identify and challenge. It is expressed in the attitudes to women that are expressed from the pulpit, it is expressed in assumptions that are made about people’s gifts and interests because of their gender.
Sexism is also expressed in absence.
Think about all the ways women can be absent in what you do: How often does a woman preach in your church? Can women access intelligent mentors? How often have you preached a sermon about the women of the bible? Do you encourage women into leadership (not children’s ministry leadership). How often are women encouraged to attend bible college in your church? How does your church express that they value women, (and I don't mean the stereotypical flowers on Mother's Day)?
All who shared on twitter using this hashtag are hoping that it is more than just atwitter trend, here last week and then forgotten. We are hoping for real engagement with the issue of sexism and acknowledgement that the church often creates an environment in which sexism can flourish.
Take a few moments and read through the tweets with the hashtag #thingsonlychristianwomenhear and as you read each one, (a good summary can be found here) think, behind this comment is a woman asking ‘Is Jesus worth it”?
If you want to take this a step further.
Reflect on the culture and environment of your church:
Can you imagine women in your church tweeting#thingsonlychristianwomenhear
What would they say?
Where are women present?
Where are women absent?
What jokes are being told?
What has become the norm in behaviour and attitudes around gender?
What are the underlying messages that are spread?
What can you do to take away some of these barriers?
I’d love to hear your NZ stories - what is your church doing to break down sexism?