“That sense of inferiority which by nature and by law we are compelled to feel, and to which we must submit, is worn by us with as much satisfaction as the badge of slavery generally.” Louisa Adams, in a letter to John Quincy Adams, early 1800s
Her name was Claire; that much I remember. I’m surprised I still remember her name since names don’t easily stick in my mind. But I’m not surprised that I remember her question. Even now, twenty years later, I can still recall the sinking feeling I had when she asked it.
We had met a few months earlier, in June 1999, when I had presented a workshop at the CMDA National Student Conference in Bristol, TN. Claire was assigned to be my facilitator for that conference. An intelligent, articulate, capable young woman, she proved to be an excellent assistant, and everything had gone like clockwork. After my sessions, she asked if I would be willing to do a retreat for the women of her church. I agreed, and a few months later I headed to Banner Elk, NC, to speak.
It wasn’t until the retreat was over and I was packing up to leave that she raised the question. She began by talking about her education and the job she now held. Her position was one of authority and responsibility, her work was respected. In the past she had been active in her church, holding positions of leadership and responsibility. But after her marriage to a young medical student, things had changed. As expected, she had joined his church, one that was in a different denomination, a PCA church. In trying to find her way in this new setting, she felt as if she had suddenly ceased to exist as a person, felt her value had been diminished. At the new church it seemed as if her only identity was as her husband’s wife. Her ability to use her knowledge and gifts was limited to caring for or teaching children. Any position that involved responsibility or leadership was off-limits to her. Confused and hurt, she said, “I don’t know how to function in this environment. I don’t know who I am anymore. Is this the way it’s supposed to be? It wasn’t the way things were in my church, and it’s not the way they are in my job. I can’t make sense of this.” I inwardly cringed, dreading the question I knew would be coming. “Jan, how do you make sense of all this? I need your help.” I looked at her and answered honestly: “I don’t know, Claire. I can’t make sense of it either. It didn’t used to be this way. To be honest, the tension it creates in me is becoming unbearable.”
If you have been reading what I’ve written so far, you will know that the questions Claire was asking weren’t new to me. Earlier that same year I had listened as woman after woman at the conference in Cyprus expressed their pain and confusion, and had ultimately asked me the same questions. I had personally felt those same constraints, seen that same theme running through the courses I had taken in biblical counseling training: women have a God-ordained place, and they must stay in that place. I had sat poring over the catalogue at Covenant Seminary, taking notice of courses I found interesting but would not be allowed to take because they were designed for those in church leadership or preachers and not open to women. And I wondered, why? Something was off; the inequity—the inconsistency—was glaringly obvious, oppressive, yet I couldn’t see how to resolve it.
As I think about the tension of these questions, my mind goes back to a time in the early 90s, to a church experience, and a young woman who became a friend. Her name is Gale. I first met Gale when she was a young 20-something, and I was her Sunday School teacher. My family left her church in 1990 to join a new church, formed as the result of a church split. Gale, her husband Gary, and their three young children came to that new church several months, maybe a year, after we did. Not long after they joined, Gary began experiencing serious health problems and was soon diagnosed with cancer. The next months were brutal for their entire family. A little over a year after first having symptoms, Gary died at the age of 37. At age 30, Gale found herself a widow with three children. When we were talking a little over a year ago, I asked her to write to me about what happened after his death. This is taken from her story:
It’s interesting that God has taken me on my journey as a woman in the Church, married, widowed, and divorced, to glean a greater understanding of the plight of women in the mainstream Church. I have seen and experienced much over these past 30 years. I have asked the Lord many times, “As a Christian woman, if I can’t go to the ‘Church,’ where do I go?” The answer I received was, “You come to me directly. I will lead and teach you by my Holy Spirit. What you think is the true Church, is not. Much will be revealed to you over time. Follow me.”
The first reveal— Tri Cities Baptist Church. The Lord took me back and reminded me of the women’s Sunday School class you started so that I would have a place to go on Sunday Mornings. After Gary died my options as a young widow were to attend the singles class, which I was not ready for, or to continue in the couples class, and I was no longer a couple. Your class became a lifeline for me at that time until the leadership decided to shut the class down because it was NOT approved and we were not under the authority of the Church, or at least that is what I was told. God showed me that there was no place to actually minister to a woman my age who suddenly became a widow. Older women were widows, they were the norm, I was not. They didn’t know what to do with me except marry me off.
I felt uncovered, unprotected, vulnerable, and very displaced. The powers that be ushered me into the singles department, even with my many objections, where I became prey for single men on the hunt. Many voices raised up in favor of me marrying right away, as if that were the only option for me. I knew I needed to grieve and get my bearings. Not so, said the voices in leadership. I was a sitting duck for the enemy and totally blindsided by John McCurry.
It’s amazing to me, that after those dark years and the abuse my children and I suffered at the hands of John McCurry, how many of my ‘sisters and brothers’ came forth to tell me they knew of John’s issues but never said anything, never a warning about his past. I went to the leadership and reported him multiple times. I asked for help repeatedly but nobody responded. [The associate pastor] told me that he had personally dealt with John’s issues through prayer and counsel and felt sure that John had resolved his past. I even went to an attorney to have the marriage annulled in the first two months so that I wouldn’t have to carry the shame of a divorce. The response was that it would be much cheaper to divorce. An annulment would cost me thousands of dollars that I didn’t have. A Christian attorney from Tri Cities Baptist told me that it was my fault for marrying a divorced man with a past.
The dark years—greater revelation. John took us in and out of many denominations, while placing us under Bill Gothard’s hierarchy of male dominance. I homeschooled with Gothard’s wisdom books for 6 years, along with … many other deluded families we encountered along the way. I’m positive that this was a way for John McCurry to continue his reign of terror with the approval of the Church. This false teaching on submission gave him total control and he used it to his advantage.
As I continued to seek an ally, John would tell the Church leadership we were under that I was a rebellious wife who would not come under his submission. Each time I sought counsel from Church leadership I was told that I must stay under submission/abuse. I was told several times that certain pastors would not even speak to me unless I was under submission. When I asked what that meant to them, they had no response.
When I read what Gale had written with such honesty and transparency, I could feel her pain, her confusion, her sense of betrayal. I hadn’t known the nightmare she had lived for years after we lost touch. Reading her words, I would have understood if she had lost hope, sunk into despair, or walked away from Church and become one of the “nones.” But she didn’t. Her faith in the reality of Jesus and his message, not in the “Church,” carried her through. She finished up her story by saying, “… The beauty of our Father is that He takes all the broken pieces and makes something so amazing out of them.” I see the beautiful, strong woman she is today, and I am amazed at the steadfastness of her faith. She was able to separate her faith in the person of Jesus from damaging teaching and actions of those in the “Church”—something she should never have had to do.
A couple of years ago my pastor told me about something that had happened in 2015 in Texas. A former missionary, Jordan Root, admitted to pedophilia and the use of child pornography. Rocked and betrayed by this revelation, his wife Karen made the difficult decision to file for an annulment of their marriage. 1 The two were members of Village Church, the flagship megachurch of the Acts 29 church planting movement, with over 10,000 members. When Karen notified the church that the marriage was over, she received a letter from the leadership notifying her that because she had not first fulfilled her “obligations to submit to the care and direction of your elders” and asked their permission, she was being placed under discipline. Her husband was not placed under discipline since he had confessed and appeared repentant. Shocked, Karen responded that in view of this, she was withdrawing her membership from Village Church. The answer she received was that she was not allowed to withdraw her membership without the permission of the leadership. It was at this point that Karen went public with her story. 2
Once the news of what they had done was out, the leadership of Village Church apologized for their actions. What was not addressed, and still isn’t being address, is the underlying belief that allows this kind of behavior to be sanctioned as upholding “God’s ordained order.” I listened with mounting outrage as my pastor enlightened me about the growing influence of the Acts 29 church movement, and the fact that the role of women in their church structure in greatly limited, if indeed it exists at all. We ended that conversation with him saying, “Jan, you have to speak out about this. You have to tell your story.” Still I held back, waiting, watching.
Then a few months ago, someone sent me an article along with a note informing me that a mainline Evangelical pastor had given this article to a woman to read when she had gone to him for help and counsel because of her husband’s abuse. Just reading the title of the article immediately raised my blood pressure to the danger zone: “Why God Wants You to Stay in an Abusive Relationship.” I was outraged! I had come across this kind of “counsel” before, even among some in my biblical counseling training, and it had always disturbed me. As I read the article (as much as I could stand, anyway), my blood began to boil. My immediate response was, Who wrote this drivel??? Of course, the author had withheld his name, lacking the courage to stand behind what he said. Yet some “pastor,” because he apparently agreed with his thinking, had given his words credibility and “authority,” and had used them to further batter this woman who had come to him for help! That was it.
It has taken time and struggle and reading and arguing and listening and praying and thinking and rethinking, but I have an answer to the question, How do I make sense of this? Those of you who know me or have been reading what I’ve written so far know I don’t come to conclusions easily. I have to go deep, and the answer has to satisfy me on many levels. The question now playing in my mind centers around how best to express my answer. I could simply lay out what I think, and what I say could be one more small voice joining the din of voices arguing about the “place” of women. That would be the easiest thing to do. But then, the easy path has never been the one laid out for me. Besides, I think it’s important to know why I see things as I do and how I got here, not just what I think. And that will mean telling a story, a rather involved story. I’ve been dancing around this story for months now—okay, maybe years would be more accurate. I think it’s time I begin in earnest. Maybe opening up about what I have learned and what I see can help relieve the confusion and pain.
1 “A Dallas megachurch has apologized to a wife subjected to church discipline for leaving her husband without permission after learning he is a pedophile.” https://baptistnews.com/article/man-confesses-to-child-porn-church-disciplines-his-wife/#.XXpYdG5FxPY
2 Karen Hinckley’s Response To Village Church https://watchkeep.blogspot.com/2015/05/karen-hinkleys-response-to-village.html