On “Keeping Women in Their Place,” #metoo, and the Groaning of the Spirit–Kimberly Ervin Alexander, PhD.

 

I recently heard an Evangelical scholar, when asked about women in ministry, sound what I suppose he meant as a warning or an alarm: “There’s a crisis coming in this country with regard to men and their place.” He neatly shifted the conversation away from the real plight of women who presently maintain only a precarious, slippery space, if that, to the perceived plight of men who may lose theirs. Given how wide that space for men is, it is hard for me to envision any pending crisis. I couldn’t help but think: “I hope you’re right.” Perhaps there will be an earthquake that changes the landscape.

What I fear more is that women will continue to find larger space outside of the church. I am truly alarmed by the statistic: “’The only religious behavior that increased among women in the last 20 years was becoming unchurched. That rose a startling 17 percentage points….”[1]  Concurrently, these women who have remained in church feel under-valued, under-utilized and taken for granted. When women are not flourishing, and clearly they are not, they languish. Languishment can be identified with being emotionally unhealthy [not necessarily mentally ill].[2] My limited knowledge of anatomy and the health sciences tells me that if over one-half of the body is unwell, then the whole body is sick.

In our quest to be like the nations, the Pentecostal church, where women experience the same empowering call and anointing as their male counter-parts has opted for a model that idealizes a portrayal of gender roles that, in reality, has never been sustainable (even if it was desirable) in the Pentecostal church. Given how many of our constituents are from among the working poor and the jobless poor, it is doubtful that the “Father Knows Best” image can be replicated too often in Pentecostal homes in this country, much less in the majority world.  The fact is that in many if not a majority of Pentecostal homes, the “man of the house” is not even a believer. We all know the testimonies of Pentecostal women who had to withstand the threats of their unsaved husband in order to faithfully serve their Lord and their Pentecostal church. This lily-white image, portrayed in Hollywood, Springfield and Cleveland, does not mirror the diversity (and beauty) of the Pentecostal community, and, in truth, it never has.

My own family of origin will serve as a case study: my father’s parents were both textile mill workers until they retired in their late sixties (in the late 1970s/early 1980s). The entirety of my father and his older brother and two younger sisters’ childhood, both of their parents worked at textile looms, working second and third shifts, five nights a week, coming home to their children and the four room house they made a home. Those four children were taken to the local Church of God by a woman who was their next-door neighbor in the southern mill village. In turn, they led their parents to the Lord. Those four “latch-key kids” grew up to be, in chronological order: a US postmaster (and local COG clerk and choir director); a cost–accountant with an M.B.A. (also a COG choir director); a public school kindergarten teacher with an MA in early childhood education; and a COG evangelist married to a COG pastor. Too bad June and Ward Cleaver couldn’t have raised them; I’m sure they would have turned out better.

What was modeled in that Pentecostal family I’ve just described was a Pentecostal faith, and a prophetic mission in their small neighborhood. This happened when my Mamaw, about an hour before going to the mill every afternoon, gathered in the “back bedroom” with several of the sisters from church to pray for unsaved husbands, wayward children and grandchildren and for their friends and families who were sick or out of work. I heard those prayers when I visited, even felt them. Then I watched Mamaw gather up her lunch bag and her purse, wearing a work dress, walk out to the porch to wait for her car pool of fellow mill workers.

Women of my generation, with a call, with intellectual gifts, with leadership skills and gifts, have been made to feel that they neglect their children, and their God-ordained responsibility, and even send society reeling toward destruction, if they obey the call to minister and became good stewards of the gifts they have been given. When they have found church work to do, they have often been relegated to “women’s work” — the work of the church designated for them mirrored the work they did at home: cooking dinners, cleaning, childcare.

Now, our daughters, well-educated, aspiring to work in fulfilling careers and ministries, encouraged to “lean in” and “find a place at the corporate table” still find themselves “under-appreciated”, “undervalued” and “taken for granted” when they work in the church. And so, given that there are other options, they leave us, many still serving the Lord in the larger arena, but not in the church of their fathers and mothers.

At a time when 35% of women in the world have experienced physical violence in their lifetime; when one in ten girls under the age of 18 have been forced to have sex; and when 38% of women who are murdered are killed by their partners,[3] the need for the Pentecostal community to model a different and prophetic witness has never been greater.

The crisis for men that I fear is already here, and it is that society has pressed them into a role of oppressor and even abuser. The recent #metoo campaign, following the Weinstein revelations, brought to light not only how many women have been sexually molested or harassed, but also just how normalized that kind of abuse has become.

Until we acknowledge that our accommodation to and promotion of hierarchy is structural sin, that this is about carnality and sin, until we repent and convert we cannot with any integrity call ourselves Holiness people or People of the Spirit.  Where sin abounds, women are oppressed and abused and their voices aren’t heard. Meanwhile, I hear the groans of the Spirit, longing for that day when all things will be made right. Until then, we must groan with the Spirit and prophesy against this denigration of women who are created in the image of God.

[1] Barna Research Group, accessed May 29, 2014, https://www.barna.org/culture-articles/579-christian-women-today-part-1-of-4-what-women-think-of-faith-leadership-and-their-role-in-the-church cited by Margaret English de Alminana, in “Moving Toward an Ecclesiology of Biblical Gender Justice,” unpublished paper presented at the 44th Annual Meeting of the Society of Pentecostal Studies, Southeastern University, Lakeland, FL (March 2015).

[2] See Linda M. Wagener and Richard Beaton, “Flourishing 101” in Theology, News and Notes (Spring 2010). See also Kimberly Ervin Alexander, “Pentecostal Women:  Chosen for an Exalted Destiny”.  Theology Today Vol. 68, No. 4 (January 2012), pp. 404-412.

[3] Somini Sengupta, “U.N. Reveals ‘Alarmingly High’ Violence Against Women,” New York Times (March 9, 2015) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/10/world/un-finds-alarmingly-high-levels-of-violence-against-women.html

kimBy Kimberly Ervin Alexander, PhD. Associate Professor, History of Christianity, Regent University School of Divinity

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