I am slowly learning to stop apologizing for my existence.
In most spheres I inhabit, I stick out like a sore thumb. Whether it is because I am multiethnic in monoethnic spaces, because I am outspoken in reserved spaces, or because I’m a (so-called) liberal in conservative spaces, I tend to be a thorn in folks’ sides.
But there is one area in particular in which I am the “odd man out” (pun intended). I am a woman in ministry, which is historically a man’s world. I am female in the traditionally male field of theology. I am an outlier, a statistical anomaly, an aberration.
And I have spent a lot of the last seven years of seminary feeling guilty for intruding on my classmates. I have spent so much time cringing because of the space I inhabit, the way I change the dynamic when I walk into a classroom; and all this because of my very apparent femaleness. I have spent such a long amount of time, effort, and energy apologizing—if only in my head—for my very presence.
I entered seminary nervous but excited. Our firstborn daughter was only 18 months, and we were just starting to recover from the strain of my husband’s years in graduate school. I was (I had thought, at least) keenly aware that I would be the only woman in most of my classes: the oddball, the misfit, the other. I knew I would be challenged in a way that I had never been before. I would be learning the Biblical languages—an overwhelming privilege. I would need to figure out how to balance family, church commitments, campus ministry, and school. I knew God would supply energy, finances, and mental aptitude to survive in seminary. I knew I would be pushed to my limits intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, but I trusted that God would be glorified in my weakness. I knew that Jesus’ bride, the church, would care for us as she had before. I believed that the Holy Spirit would give me those proverbial “ears to hear and eyes to see.” What I had no idea about was how much my gender would affect my time in seminary.
I have seen the way that the “Three Female Ghosts that Haunt the Church” have rattled their chains and dragged their ephemeral gowns through the hallways of my seminary. Though I am actually a robust complementarian, I have been treated as the Usurper of authority, the home-wrecking Temptress, and the imbecilic Child. I will not mince words here. Over the past seven years, there have been too many times when I have been mocked, interrogated, shouted at, disdained, humiliated, overlooked, ostracized, and shamed by men who claim the name of Christ—by men who should have been gathering around me (and allowing me to do the same for them) as the rest of the body was doing. There have indeed been very good brothers who have invited me to join their study groups, who have made it clear that they see me as a fellow student and sister, not a threat or a problem. But there has also been a vocal minority of those who have not treated me with the dignity due a fellow human being, much less one who is a co-heir with Christ.
I don’t use any of the above words lightly. Because of my experiences, I know too well the power of the tongue to do great evil if left unchecked (James 3), and the need for wisdom and discretion in speaking (Ephesians 4). But speaking these truths is not engaging in “corrupting talk” (σαπρὸς, literally “rotten, counterfeit”); rather, it “fits the occasion” for the building up of Christ’s church (Ephesians 4:29). It is heartbreaking when we see the world “curse people who are made in the likeness of God;” it is an unholy work of our flesh and the devil when those doing the denigrating of the imago dei are ones who also have used the tongue to “bless our Lord and Father” (James 3:9). I have no desire to curse anyone (at least, when the Holy Spirit is at work in me), but I do have a burden, an urgency, to talk of ways in which I’ve been effectively cursed, in the hope that all of us can repent of some of the unbiblical ways in which we have thought about and treated women.
The Bible teaches that from the foundations of the earth, God lovingly designed me to be a woman. To have female genes, and female genitalia. That includes the uterus where God lovingly designed my own “little women;” as well as the breasts where I nursed those precious daughters. Though the seminary curriculum includes the theological truth that even I have been intricately knit together in my mother’s own uterus; in practice, my humanity—specifically my dignity—is questioned by my genetic sexual reality, by the visible, physical evidence of my double X chromosomes. My worth in the kingdom, according to Galatians 3, is based in Christ alone. But I have often heard a narrative that my body is a hindrance to the gospel. A message that the very sight (or even a hint) of my breasts is a temptation, even when used as non-sexual source of nourishment for my children. I have been told, explicitly and implicitly, that the curve of my hips, now accentuated by the bearing of those children, is a stumbling block and a snare for my brothers in Christ. I have been told that I am a second-class citizen, an illegitimate child, an unwanted slave.
But that is not what Jesus has for me. That is not what the Lord has for any of his people (Romans 8:17). So I have decided to stop apologizing for being a woman. I have decided to stop apologizing for being the human that God quite literally made me to be.
And though the cultures of both the world and the church are far too similar on our sinful views of women, I will keep fighting to balance a sense of modesty without having shame about my body. I will keep working to show how my intellect is a gift to others, not a threat, even as I strive to remember that we all are equal in Christ (Galatians 3:26-29). I will continue to prove my worth because I am a child of God, not some childish nuisance. And I will continue to think on beautiful things (Philippians 4:8) and to dream.
In much the same way that I had daydreamed, over 20 years ago now, about my wedding day—of walking down the aisle, dressed in white, blushing becomingly—I have now been daydreaming, for the last seven years, about my graduation day. When I was asked if my diploma would have an asterisk on it (presumably linking to fine print explaining that it didn’t really count), I thought of standing proudly—adorned in stole, cap, and gown—with the other candidates. When a classmate screamed in my face because he felt that I had been rude to a professor; when he demanded that I apologize to the professor, the student, and everyone else on campus, I dreamed about hearing Jesus’ gentle words of affirmation at the last days. When a younger classmate with no children called me “honey,” and gave me parenting advice, I thought of the precious, sticky kisses bestowed upon me by my daughters, and dreamed that one day, they might rise up and call me blessed (Proverbs 31:28), along with my supportive husband.
When I was told that my kind of “diversity” (working mother, concerned about political issues that face women) wasn’t welcome on campus; when, during my class presentation those same young men laughed at squirrels, rather than even pretending to listen to my paper on the conversion of Saul in Acts 9 (examining the only New Testament use of the word ἐμπνέων as Saul “breathed out murder against the church), I relied on the Holy Spirit to keep me from breathing out murder against them. I held it mostly together by comforting myself that I would get an A in that class (and I did); that I had the respect of other classmates, and of the professor.
When jokes about ditzy women and wives abounded, when it was assumed that I hadn’t had Greek and Hebrew, and then somehow repeatedly “forgotten” that I had indeed learned the languages, even by a few professors; when, every single semester, some new classmate would assume I was working on a counseling degree (generally seen as a more “appropriate” degree for a woman), not a theology degree, I would think of how proud my family was of me, of how much I had learned, of how much I had been sanctified by it all.
And when class would end, and usually even the good brothers would head off to lunch together but not invite me along, I would think of the ways in which I was included in the life of our church, asked to serve on committees, prayed for by our elders, and publicly encouraged by our pastor. I would dream of the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb, of a time when all would feast and be honored, in the midst of our neediness and vulnerability, as was Mephibosheth at the table of King David (2 Samuel 9).
I have learned to stop apologizing for my very existence, and to rejoice in who God designed me to be—mind, body, and soul. Someday, I will have my glorified body, draped in robes made clean in the blood of the lamb. Until then, I will put in my earrings, grab my Greek and Hebrew Bible, clothe myself in the armor of God (Ephesians 6), and get back to work.