“I really appreciate your spirit,” he told me.
I looked at him, a bit embarrassed and confused. “Thank you?” I replied and asked all at once. He chuckled good-naturedly.
“You’re not like these other girls — loud, giggly…honestly, a little shallow. A little vain. You’ve got a quiet spirit. You’re a thinker. You’re very tender to the voice of the Lord. I really appreciate that about you.”
I thanked him once more as he left me alone to continue writing in my journal in the empty conference room. He was one of the conference organizers, a man I’d known for almost 10 years and whom I looked up to greatly.
I thought back to a few summers before, when one of my male friends on staff at camp told me that he considered me to be the godliest girl there, then thought of the several preachers who regularly thanked me privately after their sermons for being so openly attentive, like Mary at the feet of Jesus.
Those comments all swirled around in my head, and I was suddenly very deeply humbled. I often felt that I was too brash, too opinionated, that I fell so far short of true godliness. But for that moment, I felt relieved that my dedication to obeying the Lord’s commands regarding women seemed to be evident.
It simply didn’t occur to me that despite the good intentions of these men, what they said was absolutely not a compliment.
“You’re not like other girls.” That’s a comment that I got quite a lot from men and boys alike. It bred contempt for those other girls, a contempt that I was assured the men in my life shared since they were so grateful for me. It bred a sense of pride of that I was better than Those Shallow Giggly Girls, along with a sense of fear that I might one day fall from my pedestal of Godly Girl and an acute sense of shame when I did make mistakes or even simply indulge in giggles and things I considered to be shallow.
In hindsight, that was never a fair assessment — of me or of my friends to whom I was supposedly superior. I was constantly juxtaposed with extroverted women. And when the biblical mandate is that a woman must have a quiet, gentle spirit, the introvert is going to win that battle every single time.
It also put undue strain on me to continue in my quest to quell every strong emotion I experienced, to constantly make sure I was both strong-willed enough to remain steadfast in my faith but not so strong-willed that I became a possible authority figure or source of intimidation to potential husbands in my life that were supposed to be my spiritual leader if we married.
Clearly, it also didn’t do much for sisterly affection and support. It tended to divide us, the Quiet Sensible Godly Girls from Those Other Girls that still needed to learn to be like us.
But that’s not the only sort of issue I ran into while being female in the assemblies.
When I started learning more about feminism a few years ago, I was filled with a tremendous sense of relief. I had already started moving away from the assemblies, having learned the hard way the true contempt with which they held women who fell from grace (and realizing with horror that I had shown the same contempt to others).
But now I finally had the words to describe my experiences as a woman in conservative Christianity — the assemblies in particular.
There was a term for how the women in my world were treated: benevolent sexism.
[Benevolent sexism is] a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men (Glick et al., 2000, p. 763).
I thought of how often I heard preachers opine about how it was against nature and against God for a woman to have authority over a man, only to say in the next breath that the silent covered worship women offered during the Lord’s Supper was surely sweeter to God than the rumblings of the men. How often they repeated that the Bible was clear in its separate roles for men and women, but assured us that didn’t mean that we didn’t have an equal standing before God. How women who held careers rather than staying home were looked down upon for not fitting the ideal of the homemaker, and women who remained single beyond their 20’s were viewed as too strong-willed to be able to submit to a husband. The constant assurance that they held women in the highest respect, which was exactly why they had to rule over us for our own good. Yes. Benevolent sexism certainly fit the bill.
It is the church that told me that my intellect, writing, teaching, and leading abilities are not welcome within its walls unless I am teaching those they consider less than men (i.e., other women or children).
It is the church that told me that I had to remain silent, covered and hidden both in body and in spirit.
It is the church that told me that my body is toxic poison to any and all men, to the point that I’ve heard it hinted that perhaps breast reduction surgery could be in order for women endowed the way I am, to help brothers in Christ not stumble.
It is the church that told me to forgive my attacker, use my sexual assault as an opportunity to witness to him, even rejoice in my assault because there are many who would give anything to suffer for the Lord the way I did.
It is the church that told me that perfect love casts out fear, so if I am afraid then I am in sin for not accepting God’s perfect love.
It is the church that told me that because I was not a virgin on my wedding night, that I am ruined forever, that my relationship with my husband and even my relationship with Christ will never be whole or healthy.
It is the church that told me that my depression is a sin against God, and that if I just trusted Him enough — put my hope in God — all of my anxiety and depression would disappear.
It’s been outside the church, among “godless” liberals and feminists, that I have been given the tools I need to heal.(I put “godless” in quotes, because I was always taught that liberals and feminists are godless, when in fact I’ve discovered quite the contrary.)
It’s been outside the church, among these liberals and feminists, that I’ve learned that it is okay for me to exist.
It’s been outside the church, among these liberals and feminists, that I’ve been allowed to grieve when I hurt, rage when I’m angry, dance when I’m happy, and experience human emotions fully for the first time in my life.
It’s been outside the church, among these liberals and feminists, that I’ve truly heard for the first time that there is nothing I can think, say, do, or wear that can possibly justify sexual, physical, spiritual, or emotional violence against me.
It’s been outside the church, among these liberals and feminists, that I’ve been told that my voice is important.
It’s been outside the church, among these liberals and feminists, that I’ve been told that my entire worth isn’t located in my vagina or connected to any activity that happens therein.
It’s been outside the church, among these wonderful, strong, brave, compassionate liberals and feminists, that I have found safety. Understanding. Friendship. Love.
Early this year, I wrote what was for me a ground-breaking post about self-acceptance and body positivity. As I wrote my follow-up post explaining my reasoning behind it all, I was finally able to name some of the problems I’d encountered in the assemblies:
[I’m sick of a] sub-culture in which I spent most of my life that believes itself to elevate women to a higher level of respect and honor, but still teaches that women “belong” to their husbands, are more easily deceived, are weaker, are unfit for leadership, are expected to obey like children or servants. If unmarried, these women must answer to their fathers, until they are “given” to their husbands. To remain unmarried is seen as a sign of an unsubmissive rebellious spirit. They must be pure, they must be silent, they must be sweet, they must be kind, they must endure abuse without a word, they must never “allow” themselves to be in “compromising” situations, they must shoulder the blame for the lust and desire and sexual sins and even sexual crimes of their brothers in the faith. None of this may be intended, but too many of us have felt this weight, and it cannot be the yoke that is easy to bear, the burden that is light.
While I personally no longer identify with Christianity, I do firmly believe that there is a Christianity that can and must be healthy for its followers. I think it is abundantly safe to say that a theology that teaches the inferiority of women cannot be a healthy theology. A group of people who insist that women must be silent, submissive, and covered cannot be a healthy group of people.
The Plymouth Brethren, it saddens me to say, do not fit that bill. As I said back in January, good people with good intentions perpetuate these systems unknowingly without understanding the consequences.
But these systems do have consequences.
I’m just glad that I was able to leave and start the process of finally affirming the dignity, worth, and humanity of everyone around me…including myself.