In this age of third-wave feminism, many Americans may not realize that Christian women continue to struggle with what many would deem outdated gendered notions. This includes things such as a woman’s calling being second to her husband’s, women as unwitting temptresses who therefore must hide their bodies, and that women may not lead (or sometimes even speak) in church. Both external and internal pressures and fears have historically kept women silent on these matters.
In the recently released Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith, edited by Erin S. Lane and Enuma C. Okoro, 40 women under 40 were provided a much-needed pulpit from which to break the silence. These 40 women addressed head-on many of the taboos remaining at the intersection of faith and gender, and how they are stepping out of historical oppression to make real change within the church.
Similar to their counterparts in secular academia, Christian women in America are catching up to men in theological training, yet the number of women receiving this training is not reflected in ordained ministry or leadership positions within the church. In her book Lean In, author Sheryl Sandberg notes that this is true, too, in places of business. While women are outpacing men in colleges and graduate schools, one cannot see this translate to positions of power within corporations. For this imbalance to be righted, Sandberg asserts that women must take charge of their circumstances: “The shift to a more equal world will happen person by person. We move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in.”
This is no less true of women in the church, and leaning in is exactly what the essayists of Talking Taboo are doing.
Among the 40 contributors, a reader will find 40 different ways of leaning into individual faith communities, nonprofits, the business world, romantic relationships, and even the home to change traditionally patriarchical notions of a woman’s place within the church. Almost to a person, these women have received high levels of education, hold or seek positions of authority and leadership, and have heartbreaking (or infuriating) stories to tell of how their places of worship have held them back in vocational pursuits. In response, they are using their education to understand better the historical context of biblical passages quoted to keep women in submission. They are writing blogs and books, they are starting nonprofits and businesses, and they are telling their personal stories every chance they get.
While Sandberg focuses on issues such as long work hours, daycare, and more flexibility for working moms, the common, though not exclusive, themes of Talking Taboo are sexuality and biblical interpretation.
None of the essayists question her intellectual abilities as compared with men, and there are few to no mentions of being told these writers being told are not smart or capable enough to lead. Rather, they are told their ability to bear children and the way they are shaped is distracting and would detract from their leadership abilities and authority. They recount how their female bodies have hindered them in their quest for equality, and how the choices they make about sexuality and their bodies is judged so hatefully they can no longer feel emotionally safe within the church.
This common story appears in tales of divorce, abuse, masturbation, trafficking, singleness, premarital sex, and church leadership. Unfortunately, unlike daycare and flexible work hours, a woman’s body is not a policy that can be changed after an especially heated board meeting.
As Pastor Mary Allison Cates writes, “Ministry, even with its emphasis on matters of the heart, would never exempt my body from society’s critical gaze... [this issue] would be present throughout my career.” Cate nonetheless finds a way to effectively minister under this discomforting gaze. Although she could not change her body, Cates could change her self-view. She took up yoga, and learned to love the body that caused her so much professional grief. Another author, Kate Ott, chooses to address the dreaded female sexuality taboo by embracing it, educating women that “God intended pleasure to be part of [their]experience of sexuality.”
Part of Ott’s teaching includes biblical interpretation. She points to Luke 10:27 and its command to “love your neighbor as yourself” as proof that self-care is a core aspect of faith. Rev. Jennifer D. Crumpton also suggests that it is in the Bible itself that women will find how to lean in to historical change, writing,
“… Christian women must not only question, but also redefine biblical authority in order to uphold holiness within our traditions. We must reject Bible stories being used to teach women how to endure trauma gracefully … We must re-imagine Bible stories ... for the girls coming behind us.”
The problem with this type of leaning in is, of course, that these devout women of faith will be labeled as heretics, “cherry-pickers,” or as hermeneutical contortionists. The response to these accusations is well put by writer Rahiel Tesfamariam: “Men cannot continue to be a conduit of theological interpretation between women, their Bibles, and their God. We must make sense of God for ourselves... The church must see this mission as an imperative in keeping Christianity relevant.”
As the number of younger churchgoers dwindle, Tesfamariam’s assertion is one that must be taken seriously as we contemplate how to bring about continued growth of the American church. But, as Tesfamariam goes on to ask, “Is the church ready for a generation of women who are determined to define God on their own terms?”
As these 40 women and others like them continue to lean in and blaze the trail for those to come, it seems clear that, ready or not, the church does not have a choice: women are clamoring for change, and they will fight to get it.
Jamie Calloway-Hanaueris a writer and attorney living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their children. She is a contributing writer for Christian Feminism Today and FaithVillage.com, and a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Her writing appears in numerous publications, including Sojourners and Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics. Jamie blogs weekly at jamiecallowayhanauer.com, and you can follow her on Facebook or on Twitter @JamieHanauer.