Feminism and Church Patriarchy

I was too young during the Civil Rights movement to appreciate the participants’ sacrifices and accomplishments firsthand. We’re in the midst of another, admittedly more subtle, radical social transformation.

The U.S. is tilting left, in large part because younger voters are more liberal on a host of social issues including gay marriage, women’s rights, immigration, gun control, and legalizing marijuana.  As one especially illuminating example of this transformation, read not-so-young Republican Senator Rob Portman’s explanation of why he now supports gay marriage.

The key word in the previous paragraph was “tilting” as in 55%. There’s still a Grand Canyon-like partisan divide on social issues. Case in point, Portman is getting ripped by the Right for abandoning conservative biblical principles and by the Left for a too little too late conversion.

This is what I was thinking about in church Sunday when Melinda, our twenty-something year-old intern, started her sermon, a history of St. Patrick, and what his life might mean for our church today. It was excellent. I drifted as always, but more purposefully. I was fast forwarding, thinking about how bright her pastoral future is. I was picturing her taking future calls and serving a series of churches extremely well. A life spent modeling the gospel; providing spiritual counseling; teaching and preaching; rallying people to serve those in need; thoughtfully baptizing, marrying, and burying the young and old; and the community and larger Church, being better for it.

And then I thought about a religious organization that’s been in the news a lot lately as a result of a change in leadership. And how, despite accelerating social change in the U.S., that religious organization is passing on thousands of Melinda’s the world over every year. How, I wonder, does any institution in the 21st Century take a pass on the leadership potential of half its members?

Also listening to Melinda was our district’s congressman who flies home every weekend to see his wife. Looking at him made me wonder, what if Congress passed on the leadership of half the population? What if schools of medicine did? Or your workplace? What if (fill in the group or institution of your choice) did?

How do my feminist friends, both male and female deal with the church’s patriarchy? That’s only one of my many questions about the Church in the news. My friends would undoubtedly say that’s just one of a long list of unresolved challenges facing the Church. They oppose the Church’s official stands on a litany of issues, but remain committed to it.

How does that work? Does religious tradition trump discordant hearts and minds? How does it hold together?

Divorce as Default

Washington State citizens are about to decide whether homosexuals should have the right to marry. There will be awkward moments at dinner parties, some people will switch churches, and the media spotlight will burn bright.

Meanwhile, few people will talk in any depth about when we gave up on the idea that marriage is a lifetime commitment. When did we decide it’s merely a chapter in the book of life? A chapter that naturally runs its course over time?

Some context. First, I’ve written previously that like anyone who has been married for a long time, my Better Half and I have struggled at times, more than outside observers might guess. We drive each other batshit crazy at times, but we’ve never stopped caring for one another, and we’ve persevered. I’m sympathetic to anyone whose struggling in their marriage.

Second, about two years ago, a friend of mine confided in me that he and his wife had separated. He was committed to fixing it, she wasn’t. It quickly became apparent that she was troubled and he—and I suspect his children—are better off now that the marriage has been dissolved. I acknowledge some people are better off getting divorced. Third, I don’t want to return to the days when divorcees were discriminated against.

Despite those caveats, while reading a popular blog recently, I couldn’t help but wonder when we gave up on the idea that marriage is a lifetime commitment. The post that caught my attention was an announcement that after eighteen years the author had asked his wife for a divorce, moved into an apartment, and started his life over. Childless, he and she were still getting together regularly and were committed to “always being good friends”. He alluded to underlying issues, but understandably didn’t want to go into the details.

To summarize the hundreds of comments that I skimmed, the consensus reply was, “Sorry to hear it man, but hey stuff happens, you two are great people, good luck going forward.” Even allowing for the impersonal nature of the net, the laissez-faire responses made me wonder if our sense of community has completely frayed.

Marriage ceremonies are public celebrations where family and friends form a wedding community, witness the couple’s commitments to one another, and vouch to support them going forward particularly during difficult times. In practice though, given our work-a-day mobile society, newly married couples rarely live in close community with the family and friends who pledged to support them. No man may be an island, but a lot of married couples are.

People don’t see their friends’ divorces, whether they attended the weddings or not, as a collective failure. Instead, they take a “there but for the grace of God go I” approach. Guess I’m hopelessly old fashioned. I reject the notion that divorce is to be expected, that a life-time together is unrealistic.

Whether we can figure out how to do a better job supporting existing marriages through thick and thin is every bit as important as what the media spotlight is beginning to shine on in Washington State.

The Christian College Conundrum

Second Born wants to go to a college where she can enjoy Christian community and deepen her faith. At sixteen she’s not very political, but she’s left-leaning probably because her mom and dad are libs. She also wants to go to a college with a solid academic reputation.

The rub is most explicitly Christian colleges have theologically conservative evangelical roots which lead them to take decidedly conservative positions on pressing contemporary issues upon which reasonable people disagree. For example, here’s an excerpt from Wheaton College’s “Statement of Faith and Educational Purpose” originally penned in 1924:

WE BELIEVE that God has revealed Himself and His truth in the created order, in the Scriptures, and supremely in Jesus Christ; and that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say.

Wheaton, Billy Graham’s alma mater, is opposed to homosexuality. Recently apparently, some Wheaton alumni and students have organized to challenge the college’s position on homosexuality and support gay and lesbian students and alum. Here’s their OneWheaton letter of protest. Worth noting, it doesn’t appear as if they’re an officially recognized group and it’s unclear how much attention the administration has paid to them.

Any college that squelches open-ended inquiry compromises their academic reputation. For example, many biologists believe people’s sexual orientations are in large part genetically determined. Any self-respecting science program would pose it as a question to be investigated—Is one’s sexual orientation genetically determined? When the institution declares homosexuality is wrong, they’re stifling inquiry, crippling their science program, and compromising their academic reputation more generally.

Sorry Azusa Pacific Admissions peeps, after I reflected on this with Second Born a few nights ago she decided to cancel her visit. I told her she’d probably get a better education at a school that prioritizes inquiry and creates an environment in which conservative and liberal points of view are freely expressed. One where all students’ voices—whether conservative or liberal; straight or gay; religious, areligious, or antireligious—are encouraged, protected, and respected.

While not explicitly Christian, some outstanding colleges value and encourage religious life including Goshen and Earlham. Many ELCA Lutheran universities emphasize social-justice and embrace more moderate or liberal expressions of Christianity. And of course there’s the Jesuits who have a reputation for melding their social justice oriented Catholicism with very good academics.

Moral of the story, any student seeking opportunities to grow spiritually and intellectually should make sure whatever religious-based institution they’re considering acknowledges the complexity and ambiguity of the modern world and prioritizes open-ended inquiry.