It was August, 2008 and sweltering in my home town of Birmingham, Ala. I was back home from New York visiting my family in my last few free days before embarking on an odd twist in my 11-year advertising career: seminary. The opportunity to study and work toward a career in the realm of what truly interested me (Theological Ethics) had appeared before me like a spring in the desert, and while I wasn’t immediately sure what seminary would mean for a woman raised in the Southern Baptist church, I was sure of one thing: God had found me in a dry land and was leading me to restoring waters. The days before graduate school started were to be spent drawing from a spiritual spring of sorts: reading and praying, transitioning into the mind-frame of a new purpose and listening for God’s voice, ever ready to follow.
During the visit, I heard that a prominent evangelical mega-church in a wealthy suburb of Birmingham had recently brought on a 29-year-old pastor. This was notable. Though I had disassociated with the Southern Baptist scene long before, I interpreted this new youthful authority as a sign of hope. Maybe this guy would shake up the traditional church format with a fresh worldview and an emerging Generation-X edge? This could start a trend. Maybe the Bible Belt could don a new buckle?
I visited the church, ready to find inspiration in the crowded, cavernous auditorium. The congregation was nominating elders and deacons. During the sermon the young pastor launched into an unexpected direction: his conviction that women are not allowed by God to serve in such leadership positions in the church. He gave an awkwardly apologetic and wobbly argument based on 1 Timothy 3:1-13, which basically “excludes” women from being a deacon or an elder simply by way of the innate social assumptions and unending masculine pronouns it employs. Never mind that this would be expected of most any first-century document of the Roman diaspora. But this was 2008, right? Many of the well-off women in the congregation who tithed to the church were probably CEOs of corporations, small business owners and community political leaders, but were listening to a young ordained man tell them God didn’t desire, accept or bless their diverse leadership skills in the church.
I looked around to see if any other women looked confused, but all eyes were on the spot-lit stage. I thought that this kid must be kidding. Could it be that a voice of my own generation was oppressing women in an idolatrous act of worship of the ghosts of centuries-old, patriarchal political structures that happened to be captured in the Bible? The pastor generously added his own extra-biblical addendum that children’s education, administrative work or social planning were areas God would surely be pleased to see a lady lead, and since he still wasn’t laughing, I decided it was no joke. I personally couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony. A young, post-evangelical woman visits sweet home Alabama for pre-seminary preparation and gets put back in her place. Forget a new buckle, the belt had actually tightened up a couple notches. Equally disconcerting was the fact that I could recall several evangelical-based churches I had attended in New York City which also restricted the roles of women.
That sermon changed the way I went to seminary. You might think it burned enough to seal the deal — that any sentimentality or lingering value I held for the evangelical religion of my youth had been scorched. But actually, it lit another kind of fire inside. Instead of turning away, I decided to take back my tradition.
I started to wonder, what does it really mean to be “evangelical” anyway? Diverse and loaded as the meaning is today, at its core it connotes a foundational relationship to the “evangel.” This term comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news,” commonly called “the Gospel.” The good news proclaimed by Jesus was a declaration that God had come for humanity. The Gospel of Mark tells us that “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mk. 1:14-15).
Jesus announced the in-breaking of a new way of being into the world that reflects the being of God: loving, just, merciful, healing, inclusive. God came to us, not to put a magic spell on us and get us to fall into line, but to model The Way that offers life at its fullest to all. The term “repent” also has a meaning too often misunderstood. The Greek metanoia implies a change of perception after an event, the act of changing one’s mind to accept a new reality. It has nothing to do with guilt, finger pointing, confession, suppression or oppression. Things like letters to Timothy came about later on when apostles of the time were debating and competing, trying to suss out what a “Christian” religion would look and function like in the context of their social, political and economic structures. But Jesus didn’t bring a new religion, he brought a new reality. This reality is constantly asserting itself — even in the face of opponents — over the course of human history. Those who perceive it know it sets people free to become all God created us to be. Period. End of the Evangelical Story.
Women have little to hold to in scripture by way of role models or positive accounts of the female experience. I believe this is less an effect of God’s inspiration and more a lack of human imagination. For instance, the Gospel of Mark has at least two endings, and interestingly the difference hinges on the role women are “allowed” (by ancient Judeo-Roman culture’s writers) to play in witnessing and announcing the resurrection of Jesus. In the last chapter of Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary “mother of James” and Salome go to the tomb of the crucified Jesus to anoint his body, but instead a figure in white tells them Jesus is risen and has gone ahead to Galilee, where they will see him. The earliest ancient manuscripts end Mark’s story by saying, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
But later, scribes added back in the popular, traditional knowledge that the risen Jesus actually appeared first to Mary Magdalene, a brave and beloved disciple (this is the second ending you will find in your Bible today). She was entrusted by Jesus to not only witness and believe this shocking new reality, but also to take the news that he was alive to the rest of the disciples. Jesus chose a woman to reveal his resurrection to the world, and to prepare them for his subsequent appearances. Talk about being the bearer of good news!
In the version of the resurrection story found in the Gospel of John chapter 20, Mary Magdalene again has the primary role in the angelousa, or the announcing of the appearance of the risen Jesus. Mary arrives at the tomb while it is still dark, sees that the body of Jesus is gone, and notifies Peter and the “other disciple” who then go to the tomb, see that it is true and go back to where they are staying. But Mary does not turn away. Once she is alone, Jesus appears to her, and he calls her by name: “Mary.” He then tells her to go and tell his brothers that he is ascending to “my God and your God.” He waited for her alone, and hence Mary is literally the recipient of of the initial Easter Christophany upon which the faith of the Johannine community of Christ-followers was based.
Even less obvious stories like that of the servant surrogate Hagar in Genesis 16 remind me of the important role of underdog women in the story of God and humanity. Here it is found in the short-sightedness of “Father” Abraham when he fails to trust God’s own birth plan for the forthcoming “people of God.” When the pregnant slave Hagar runs away from Sarah and Abraham’s harsh treatment into the desert, God finds her by a spring and promises her a future. Then she becomes the only biblical character to actually name God: El Roi, the God who sees me.
Likewise, I can trust that my value and position in my faith tradition has little to do with a young male pastor’s ancient hierarchies and everything to do with the God who sees me. This is good news. We do not have to run from a deadening evangel, but can find life at its fullest in a new reality. Like Mary Magdalene, Jesus calls us by name, as women, to serve his God and our God. This is God coming for us specifically as females, calling us to lay claim to our evangelicalism — our important role in the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into the world — no matter what our religious affiliation or belief system. Like Mary, we cannot turn away. Femmevanglicals, repent and believe.