The Whole Kingdom
Let’s talk nerdy for a moment. Superheroes, science fiction, fantasy…these are my jam. I may not be able to cite every statistic or quote canon from fifties-era comic books, but to paraphrase one of my favorite podcasters: I’m here for the dragons, the time travel, and the capes.
It’s probably no surprise that I’m most drawn to the female characters. Lucy Pevensie, Xena, Kitty Pryde, Eowyn, Hermione Granger; each one of these characters let me see myself in the role of hero, wizard, adventurer, warrior. Through them I could be more than just the princess, eternally trapped in the castle, waiting for a man to rescue her.
When Wonder Woman was released this year the movie was lauded as a win for women. It gave us the opportunity to see something that isn’t the norm in any genre, ourselves in the role of hero. I know, some of you will do a search and pop up with lists of strong female leads in genre fiction. Perhaps that’s the point. When was the last time you had to search for a list of strong male leads in anything?
Then something even more astounding happened. The news broke that the 13th Doctor would be played by a woman. For the first time, when Jodie Whittaker dropped the hood on her over-sized black sweatshirt, I could see myself in this iconic role. Apparently I would rather imagine myself as a double-hearted, time-traveling alien than as a ninja-kicking super-hero. Maybe I value intellectual prowess more than physical. Regardless, the shattering of that gender stereotype matters to me. It matters to a lot of women. I love watching videos of women and girls seeing the reveal for the first time almost as much as I loved the reveal itself. There’s a certain light in their eyes, a catch of the breath, a smile that breaks across their face. Representation matters.
I remember the first time I felt that same feeling in church. I grew up in a church where men were the pastors, and women taught Sunday School to the children. This was the default, and just as we never really notice the preponderance of male roles in entertainment, we can go a lifetime without really noticing it in the church.
About twice a year we would make the five hour trip to my grandparent’s home. Often we’d be there on Sunday and would attend church with them. As part of a slightly more liberal denominational conference, their church had something I had not even known was possible, a husband and wife co-pastoring together. Even though it is several decades later and the memory is buried deep within the haze of childhood, I can still remember the feeling of that first moment when I saw a woman standing in the pulpit and something in my heart sang at the realization that women could be preachers too. The world opened up just a little bit more that day.
It has been nearly four decades since that moment. Forty years of near-weekly church attendance means roughly 2,000 sermons, and yet I do not think I would need all ten fingers to count the number of times I have seen that same sight again. Female preachers have become more common, and yet the default still is to the male. Although the numbers have doubled over the past decade, only ten percent of congregations today are led by a female pastor. Slightly over 50% of US churches will still not allow a woman to be lead pastor.
Why is this important to me? After all, I’m the mom of boys. (More than that, I’m the mom of white boys. In terms of the amount of power automatically granted to them, my children hit the jackpot.) I don’t have to worry about them being paid less for what they do than co-workers of similar education and skill. Nearly every space they enter will have been created by them and for them. If they were to attend most youth conferences, chances are that they would be taught by a line-up of white men. There might be a nod to racial diversity, with keynote speakers who are people of color—but not TOO colored—and maybe a musician or spoken word artist to make the line-up look diverse.
As a woman I notice this. My boys will not have this automatic recognition built in. When you are the default you don’t typically realize that you are the default. As with fictional characters, no one is compiling lists of the “Top 100 Male Leaders.” Instead we get lists like “Top 100 Christian Leaders.” And then the rest of us have to point out that the list is overwhelmingly white and male and so we create our own lists that add a qualifier: Women, Leaders of Color, etc.
I long for the day we no longer need to keep separate lists. As a parent, I want my boys to grow up in a world where no one blinks when time-traveling aliens regenerate as a woman. I want them to grow up in a world where seeing a woman or a person of color in the pulpit is completely unremarkable. I want our churches to consider the gifts that God has given to those seated in the congregation, and to do everything in their power to affirm those gifts.
There are some who will never be convinced that men and women are created equal in the eyes of God. This isn’t aimed at them, because I have had that argument and it goes nowhere. Rather, I am speaking to the churches who by denominational affiliation affirm women in leadership. I’m speaking to the churches who, if asked, would say that they certainly want to affirm everyone in the gifts that they have been given. I’m speaking to the churches who still, through their very structure, default to male pastors and male leadership. I want them to take an honest look at the message they are sending. I want them to consider who is being represented, and who is being excluded. I want them to consider what it would be like to be a Whole Kingdom church.
A good first step for many churches would be to ensure that women are a part of their elder boards and leadership teams and then ask them the question “How can we raise up strong leaders among both our daughters and our sons? How can we affirm to our daughters in all of their giftings?"
I want churches to stop holding Bible studies that reduce us, male or female, to a stereotypical gender role. If you want us to draw closer to God, then stop trying to teach us how to be Women of God or Men of God and just let us study how to be People of God. I want my boys to grow up never hearing the phrase “man card” uttered by church leaders, implying that if they differ on something they are less of a man. I would love to see churches commit to going an entire year without asking a single white male to be a guest speaker. Invite women, invite people of color. (And for goodness’ sake, if you typically pay your guest speakers, don’t treat women and minorities like bargain-basement deals. They’ve invested as much into their preparation as anyone else.)
On a more practical, individual level, read and follow a wealth of voices. If you are on social media, check your lists. If you are a reader, take a look at your bookshelves. Are the majority of voices you hear and read homogeneous? I can promise you that there are women and minorities out there doing theology. Seek them out. Read them, follow them. Buy their books, support their ministries, and listen to their concerns. The Church will be better and stronger if you do.
One of the most radical things about the early church was the way in which it began breaking down the barriers that divide us. We were declared one in Christ, a Kingdom built on wholeness, not hierarchy. How do we reflect that wholeness today? The world is telling our girls that they can be doctors and The Doctor; let's tell them they can be pastors, preachers, and theologians too.