A few days ago, I got my hands on Sarah Bessey’s new book, Jesus Feminist. I’m excited to be part of Sarah’s synchroblog with (as of this writing) around 45 others to celebrate the release of the book. This is the (relatively) short version of why I’m a Jesus Feminist.
I grew up with a mother who did it all. Married just out of high school, she went back to college when my brother and I were very young, and was teaching first grade a few years later. After her youngest sister was killed in a car crash, she decided to get certified as an Emergency Medical Technician, and volunteered for years with the local rescue squad. (I still have the diary with a velvet unicorn on the cover in which my 8-year-old self wrote about a trip to the mall, where we saw a man pass out and “Mom saved him!”) To keep in shape, she ran several miles almost every day, doing road races with my dad on weekends (and just completed her first half marathon last month). She also wrote a column for our hometown newspaper, the content of which was left up to her. Quite often, it was stories about my brother and me (which embarrassed us no end). Watching Mom in action, I don’t think it occurred to me as a child that there was anything women couldn’t do.
Sadly, the first time I can remember that idea being challenged is when I went to church. At the first church I attended regularly, it was only men I saw up front. Men did the preaching, singing, praying, and teaching, except in the Sunday School classes for children. Women were not permitted to speak or to pray aloud. And more than once, I heard sermons about why that was. At the next church, things were a little better. There I heard women speak in business meetings, sing solos, play musical instruments, tell stories of missionaries before we took up special offerings for them, and sometimes they passed the collection plates.
But still there were lines of demarcation. Between Sunday School and worship, the men had a prayer meeting. Only the men. Week after week, I watched them leave the sanctuary as the women — by far the majority of the congregation — stayed behind. I was a brand new Christian, filled with the zeal that only conversion can bring. Every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night, I was at church, involved in every way I could be. Already there was growing within me a spark of conviction that I should be more involved. And one Sunday morning, as the men filed out for their prayer meeting, I couldn’t keep silent anymore. “What are we supposed to do?” I asked one man as he walked past me. Laughingly, he responded, “I don’t know, honey. Can you knit?”
That moment is burned into my memory. I knew he was wrong. I knew I was meant to do more than knit. (Not that there’s anything wrong with knitting. After all, according to Psalm 139, God is a knitter. Myself, I prefer crochet.) The spark I had felt as a teenager grew until it was a fire in my bones, and the “more” to which I felt God pulling me was leadership, was ministry. I was sure of it. But I had no role models. I had never met a minister who wasn’t a man. That changed when I signed up to do a summer mission trip in college.
My supervisor’s name was Carol, and she led a mission team made up solely of women. Among other things, we led worship services on the beach every Sunday morning. The three of us college girls took turns preaching brief sermons (though we called it “speaking”) to the few vacationers in attendance, while the other two led in hymn singing and prayer — all of us doing what I had previously only seen men do. God chose that summer to solidify my calling to ministry, and I never looked back. After college, I spent two years as a missionary in France, meeting many other strong women serving God along the way (not to mention a few men and women who said it was “not biblical” for women to be ministers).
When I returned to the US, I felt it was important to pursue a theological education, to prepare for ministry and discern what kind of minister I was meant to be. I had to visit a couple of schools before I found one where women were welcome as full participants. I’ll never forget my first seminary campus visit, during which the tour guide ignored me completely and directed all his commentary to the male prospective students, until we passed one of the education buildings and he mentioned their excellent preaching classes. “Of course, you wouldn’t need to worry about those,” he said to me.
Eventually, a friend recommended that I visit the school of divinity at Gardner-Webb University, and I found a home there. My professors, both men and women, were as encouraging of my gifts — and as hard on me — as with any other student. For the first time, I met people who seriously studied the Bible and came to the conclusion that God viewed men and women as equals — equally fragile, equally gifted, equally important. I learned to read the Bible in its cultural context. I fell in love with the biblical languages — and was simultaneously frustrated by their complexity — in the few courses I was able to devote to them. My mind was blown on an almost daily basis.
I rediscovered Genesis 2:18, in which God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone, I will make him a help meet for him.” That verse has been used by many throughout the centuries to say, “See, God intended for woman to be nothing more than man’s helper, not his equal.” What I learned is that the same Hebrew word rendered as “help meet” or “helpmate” for Eve is most often used in the Hebrew Bible to speak of God being Israel’s help, obviously not a term of inferiority. I rediscovered the anunciation story in Luke 1 and saw it for what it really is — Mary’s calling to be a vital part of God’s plan for the world. I rediscovered many stories of Jesus’s interactions with women, and was properly astonished by them for the first time. Learning more about the culture of first century Palestine, it became clear just how radical his treatment of women was, for the simple fact that he treated them no differently than men.
I rediscovered the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10 when I learned that Mary sitting at Jesus’s feet was not an act of submissive femininity; instead, she was boldly taking the stance of a disciple. Though women did not do such things at that time, Jesus defended Mary’s right to be there, telling Martha that it would not be taken away from her. I was reminded that the first evangelists — the first ones entrusted with the ministry of spreading the good news of Christ’s resurrection — were the women who had followed him and stayed with him even at the cross, when his other disciples had fled.
I even rediscovered Paul. As we read Paul’s letters in the order in which they were written, not the order in which they appear in the Bible, I could see the development of Paul’s theology over time, and came to understand him as a fellow traveler on the journey of faith, not someone who had all the answers from day one. I wondered why I had never before noticed how many women Paul calls by name and praises as his fellow ministers — Chloe, Euodia, Syntyche, Phoebe, Priscilla, the apostle Junia, and more. I rediscovered him as the man who wrote, “Now there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 is the verse that was printed on the bottom of my ordination certificate by the good people at Fernwood Baptist Church the year after I finished divinity school.
In 2009, I preached my first real sermon, standing before the congregation of the church I now call home. This was nothing all that unusual at Providence Baptist Church, where more than half the people the church has ordained have been women, and where on any given Sunday women may preach, lead singing, read scripture, pray aloud, lead the litany, take up the offering, preside at the communion table, or anything else that needs doing. A few weeks after my sermon, a friend of mine’s young daughter said as they were pulling into the parking lot, “I hope Miss Stacy is preaching today.” Someone else overheard her telling this story and asked, “Isn’t it great that she knows that’s always a possibility? I’m so glad our kids here have no notion that God puts up signs marked ‘No girls allowed.'” Amen and amen.