Some Thoughts on Women and Church Leadership

Last week a Christianity Today blog called, hilariously, Leadership Journal, published a hair-raising confessional by a child predator who’d written the piece from behind bars. The structure of the article was probably the worst thing about it, although you’re spoilt for choice in the “worst” category: he described what he called “an extra-marital relationship” with “a friend” who turned out to be, you guessed it, one of his students, someone he’d known since she was in middle school. He was in his thirties.

“The ‘friendship’ continued to develop,” the author, who is eligible for parole in 2015, wrote. “Talking and texting turned flirtatious. Flirting led to a physical relationship. It was all very slow and gradual, but it was constantly escalating. We were both riddled with guilt and tried to end things, but the allure of sin was strong. We had given the devil far more than a foothold and had quenched the Holy Spirit’s prodding so many times, there was little­ to ­no willpower left. We tried to end our involvement with each other many times, but it never lasted. How many smokers have quit smoking only to cave in at the next opportunity for a cigarette? We quit so many times, but the temptation of ‘one more time’ proved too strong. Like David, my selfishness led to infidelity. Then, to destruction.”

Eventually, after several days of angry pressure from the social justice Twitter crowd, the piece was taken down and the site’s editors posted an apology that would ring a lot truer if it had come a lot sooner.

Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” widely considered one of the best-written novels in English, is narrated by a predator and contains a confession worth considering: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” And so you can: Note the repeated use of “we,” the passive voice when the author (name withheld, naturally) talks about his “constantly escalating” proximity to this child. Note the comparison the author makes between himself and King David. Note the characterization of statutory rape—and he must know it’s rape, because he’s in prison on two felony counts—as “infidelity.” He blames his wife elsewhere in the article, though if you look at it only briefly, he appears to merely be put-upon and henpecked. Look at this tangle of thorns.

I wish I could stop here, but I don’t feel like I can. Last week, Kevin William Reed, a 35-year-old youth minister, was arrested on one count of sexual battery for allegedly molesting a 17-year-old in the church kitchen and on rides in his car to and from church. Reed used to be the mayor of Camden, Ohio starting a term in 2011 that was marked by accusations of fraud, embezzlement and theft. But for some reason, Higher Heights Church in Camden decided he was worthy of a second chance—not as a child of God, not as a fellow fallen brother in Christ, but as a leader. I came up with this case by searching for the phrase “youth pastor indicted” on Google News. The same week a cardinal in St. Louis went so far as to say that he wasn’t sure raping children was a crime (it is).

Feminism does not have a strong enough foothold in the church, and without it, men do not understand the way rape polices women’s lives. The experiences of women, sexual minorities and people of color (particularly Asian Christians, who have close ties with majority-white churches and are frequently the victims of surprising racism) are parallel to, not in communion with, those of the straight white men who occupy, without meaningful exception, every single place of leadership in the evangelical church. Not a couple but several women of my personal acquaintance have been abused within the walls of a church, and this is in large part because men do not understand what threats to women look like.

Men say things to each other and themselves like, “I’ve heard Bill’s testimony about chasing tail in college; nobody who likes tits that much could be into little kids;” sometimes they talk about children who are “old enough.” It’s a culture that dismisses pedophiles as creepy perverts and in truth, many of these dudes probably aren’t into little kids. They’re into kids who are maturing physically, not because they have some kind of deviant attraction to sexually immature people, but because they’re complete psychos who feel entitled to whatever arouses them. Boz Tchividjian, a former prosecutor and blogger for Religion News Service, quotes a child protection expert in a recent post who said, “it’s not the guy sitting alone at the party that we should be most concerned about, it’s the one hosting the party,” and he’s right. People who crave attention, people who love giving orders, people who exude charisma: these are the absolute last people who should be in positions of leadership anywhere, least of all the body of Christ.

A close friend who recently graduated from a prestigious seminary confided in me that he’d encountered, with awful frequency, incidents of infidelity and plain old cruelty and narcissism among his fellow students, and (a family man himself), he no longer wanted to go into the ministry where a culture of tolerance and generosity toward that kind of sin was nurtured and encouraged. Meanwhile, any notion that homosexual Christians are our brothers and sisters is rejected out of hand—less, I think, because of some kind of fundamental objection to homosexuality, than because of its affront to masculinity.

There just aren’t enough women leading the church, especially not when the majority of parishioners are female. Evangelical culture still privileges men, and worse, specific kinds of men over others. It worships charisma. It cheers on big bags of shit like Mark Driscoll when they talk smack about gay people. It turns a blind eye to gossip and stigmatizes single mothers to such a degree that abortion becomes the only reasonable alternative to shame for many young women. And it offers wicked men opportunity after opportunity, not to be forgiven, but to hurt their fellow Christians, sometimes by causing them to stumble, and sometimes by brutally and remorselessly assaulting their sisters in Christ, because it puts them in positions of authority.

I guess I’m writing this to say to the women I know in the evangelical church, please step up. If you are organized and thoughtful and know how to talk to people and don’t much enjoy public debate or office politics, I’m sorry to report that you are the ideal candidate for church leadership. If you are already in church leadership, may every blessing be on you and your family and may God raise up a hundred others like you. Let us know how to support you. Men, support them. If you see someone in authority who does not appear to have much of a working conscience when it comes to his personal life or his dealings with other people, shout him down. Do it with love in your heart, but by all means do it. Misogyny is a wicked trap for everyone, not just women, and the people it gives a voice and a platform are the people whom Christ himself said would be better off with a millstone tied around their necks and cast into the sea.

Why I Am So, So Sick of C.S. Lewis

Clive Staples “C.S.” Lewis, a perfectly good children’s novelist and passable sci-fi author, has been adopted by evangelicals as the architect of contemporary evangelism in a way that is not merely wrongheaded and foolish but very harmful. “Mere Christianity” is a terrible book, poorly argued, badly written, and borderline blasphemous (seriously, Christianity is the next phase of evolution? What are you smoking, Clive?), and it’s become the principal method of communication with nonchristians among plenty of our co-religionists. “DId you share the love of Jesus with that guy?” “Oh, I gave him ‘Mere Christianity’ to read.” THEN THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION WAS “NO.”

Nobody on God’s black earth ever converted to Christianity because a Christian beat her in a debate. People who know the first thing about arguing will kick your ass ’til Tuesday if “Mere Christianity” is the only tool in your kit, and atheists or agnostics who dislike arguing and are shut down, condescended to or humiliated in a discussion about theology will wind up hating not merely Lewis but you, as well.

Apologetics is worse than useless. It starts from a perspective of superiority that no one, especially not a Christian, should presume to take over another human being. Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find food, and that’s it. If you are honing your arguments, sharpening your points and strategizing, you are preparing for war, not the fulfillment of the Great Commission. It is certainly more satisfying to view yourself as a crucial member of a noble but embattled minority fighting the forces of darkness, but it is not correct. Left unchecked, this martial perversion of Christianity gives us the culture wars, in which prudes and fools like James Dobson and Pat Robertson tell Christians by way of giant television networks, multimillion-dollar ad campaigns, huge lobbying franchises, and chains of bookstores devoted to selling their wares, that they are disenfranchised. If you cannot discern the irony here, you cannot read.

I think that “Mere Christianity” bears some of the blame for this. Implicit in its pages is the assertion that its argument stems from common sense, that people who do not admit its extremely debatable premises (Descartes’ proof for God is a legendary failure, so it’s not exactly a given that God exists) are being dishonest, and that the badly-lit intellectual avenues by which Lewis claims to arrive at his own Christianity are the only avenues available. If they were, I would certainly not be a Christian and I doubt many others would, either, possibly including Lewis himself. The book represents the total intellectualization of theology and morality, and morality, at base, is tautological. Many things are wrong because they are wrong. We can agree on that and move on, or we can investigate it and justify it carefully enough to go to war against people who don’t come to our conclusions and watch society crumble around our ears.

It baffles me that we are arguing about abortion and gay rights as the world destroys itself in paroxysms of carnage that dwarf wars that birthed a dozen Shakespeare plays a few hundred years ago, and are now merely another sad footnote in the ongoing chronology of death and hatred and mutual destruction. Abortion and homosexuality are matters of individual morality. It’s unproductive to go around blaming gay people for… whatever it is you think gay people do that is so terrible, and it’s cowardly to blame the government for abortion. If you think abortion is wrong—and I’m right there with you—your quarrel is with the people having the abortions, and you should maybe try to make them less ashamed of being pregnant and hopeless about their children’s futures. The daily practice of Christianity is very literally about minding your own business. The spiritual, of its nature, is individual and in conversation with your body. You can’t go to church if there’s no one else there—the church is a group of people, not a building or a state of mind. Communion, perhaps unsurprisingly, is communal.

I love “The Screwtape Letters,” because it’s full of concrete advice about how to live your own life—not how to justify your own life, but how to live it. And the frame is scary and interesting. I like most of the Narnia books, but let’s face it, Lewis was a guy who got out of his depth theologically, FAST. Remember in “The Last Battle” when we learn that Susan doesn’t get to go to heaven because she’s into boys and lipstick? I must have skipped that verse in Romans. And the Tarkaan, whose good deeds in the name of Tash—a totally different creature from Aslan, also, good deeds?—endear him to Aslan? Again, this passage is missing from my copy of the Bible.

There’s also the racism. I don’t think Lewis approached his work with malice aforethought but I do think the characterization of the Calormenes as “darkies” is pretty gross, as is the weird conflation of all Arab peoples into a gang who are not merely enemies of Narnia but enemies of Aslan himself. It doesn’t destroy the books for me, but it does call into question the worshipful attitude Christians take toward them.

Narnia also doesn’t address the basic human realities of everyday life in the way that good contemporary fantasy does, though it does have its charms. China Mieville, George R. R. Martin, T.H. White—these guys are concerned with the minutiae of living, and with dramatizing it in a compelling way. Lewis, or at least the noisiest contingent of his readership, is concerned with didactic metaphor, and while a lot of contemporary literature could stand more blatant moralizing, that kind of writing has to be tied to life if it’s going to work. 

This is why the best bits of the Narnia Chronicles are about bad people trying to become good—Eustace learning to be a better dragon than he was a human; Edmund sliding into temptation and being delivered from it, to his shame; Digory Kirke needing to atone for freeing Jadis in Charn; Eustace and Jill Pole failing every test but the last one in The Silver Chairthese are useful moral lessons, far moreso than any wankery about Deep Magic and Deplorable Words.

Readers of any fiction who spend their time looking for “Christ figures” and “uplifting stories” are implicitly tossing quality out the window in a search for a flattering mirror. If you’re reading fiction, you should be reading something that upsets you and makes you examine yourself more closely. You want a really great, obvious Christ figure? Go with Optimus Prime. You want a really great, Christian novel? Go with “The Brothers Karamazov,” in which the character who moves the action of the plot is a shame-ravaged fornicator and possible murderer. That’s not to say that there aren’t beautiful religious metaphors in Dostoevsky, but that Christianity is about being fucked up and getting unfucked by the grace of God through Jesus.

If that phrasing offends you, I would like to take this opportunity to question your priorities.

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Most Christians seem to be stuck in a time warp where the most recent cultural touchstones available are the Narnia Chronicles. Somebody please notice Stephen Colbert, practically dripping with righteous anger during what is maybe the funniest bit on the funniest show on television. Go, Stephen, go!