Strapped into the back seat of my Toyota Camry, my three kids were within elbow’s reach of each other as I shuttled them around town. The boys, craning their necks over their shoulders, began scheming about the cars behind us. “Look, he’s gaining on us. He’s gonna pass us. Oh, wait! He’s turning left…we’re gonna beat him for sure.”
This went on for about 90 seconds before my 4-year-old daughter leaned over as far as she could from the constraints of her five-point harness and with a perturbed look said to her older brothers, “It could be a SHE, you know. Not everybody’s the same.”
As wave after wave of revelations of clergy sexual abuse have flooded the Church and exposed its dark secrets, the questions persist: “Why does this continue to happen? What is perpetrating this abuse of position and influence in an institution that is meant to be a sanctuary of safety and love?” Causes are numerous and impact widespread. Catholics around the country are calling for the resignation of bishops. As only one example in the Evangelical community, Willow Creek megachurch has cleaned house, accepting resignations of its founder pastor and other leaders.
For too long, men have been our mirrors of God, the image of Father God reflected among us. We have fallen in line in a patriarchal system in which men are always at the head of the table and all direction and instruction is dictated through them because they are most like God. The trouble with giving sole power to one gender is complex. Those who are not fit with this male authority believe they must succumb to it no matter what the cost, and many who have done so are now shackled behind the closet doors of abuse.
Being the face and voice of God is a heavy responsibility and many men shouldering that load eventually crack under the weight of church leadership. No longer seen as a mere man, but as an agent of God, what is one to do when humanity creeps in and with it the temptation to exploit position and power that in turn bring guilt and shame? The hole has been dug and the coffin of skeletons is buried beneath the facade that all is as it should be.
“For too long, men have been our mirrors of God, the image of Father God reflected among us.”
Looking through my dad’s binoculars at the distant stage, I could see the face of the earnest and charismatic evangelist as his distinctive voice boomed from the pulpit. As the aisles filled and funneled people toward the front of the arena, my 9-year-old self tugged on my dad’s sleeve. “I want to be a Christian.” Hand in hand, we made our way down the steep staircases as Billy Graham’s iconic invitation continued to fill the vast space. It was the only time I heard Graham preach, yet every sermon I would hear over the course of the next 20 years would be delivered by his mirror image: white and male, just like God.
Decades have passed and I no longer need those binoculars. Now, I am often the one behind the pulpit. For generations, women called to pastoral ministry have been chipping away at the glass ceiling, and we have the “This is What a Preacher Looks Like” t-shirts to prove it. I have been buoyed by this progress: men and women, women and men, all created in the image of God.
But I have also been blinded by it. As I watched a recent interpretation of scripture, my heart sank and the scales fell from my eyes. As the story unfolded from the stage, creation was formed. Narrating the birth of the world was the lilting voice of a woman. Personifying God was the deep voice of a man. Mother Nature creates, but it is Father God who remains in control.
While outwardly composed, inwardly I was screaming and weeping simultaneously. In a culture that is consumed with gender and roles and stereotypes, have we yet to realize that God is beyond gender? I agree that it is helpful to have parental language as a framework upon which to hang our ideas about the image of God. But why does it always have to be Dad? Can’t Mom get some air time too?
“It was the only time I heard Graham preach, yet every sermon I would hear over the next 20 years would be delivered by his mirror image: white and male, just like God.”
In scripture we see God referred to as lady wisdom or a mother hen gathering her chicks or a mother bear protecting her cubs. Yet, we often use solely male language for God. Some of you may be thinking, “Here we go again. Another angry feminist pumping her fist into the air.” And, you aren’t wrong. I am angry. I’m angry that with one breath the Church is teaching my daughter that she is created in the image of God and in the next is telling her repeatedly that God is a man. “Daughter, you’re created in the image of God. Just not quite as fully in God’s image as your brothers.”
Church, we are doing a disservice to both our women and our men, our sons and our daughters. Casting God as male affects us all, even if many of us are unaware of how. We have granted our sons the authority and responsibility of being the face of God and with the same words have stripped our daughters of their identity as voices of God. In our culture, women are paid less than their male counterparts, given fewer leadership opportunities and often preyed upon by male leaders, male bosses and, yes, male ministers. Men continue to be selected as senior pastors over equally or better prepared candidates who are women.
But, the real kicker is the way we’ve painted ourselves into a corner by upholding an arbitrary notion of God’s manhood. If even God views women as inferior to men, then the uphill climb just grew steeper, especially for our girls and women who have been abused by the toxic masculinity of Christian leadership. How can God truly understand the female experience if God is always male?
There is no quick fix to our entrenched cultural and theological perceptions of God and those God calls to lead God’s Church. Patriarchy replaced by matriarchy may not be the solution. But I wonder if the pendulum needs to swing to that extreme for more than a moment in the long history of the Church to help restore our equilibrium. Brothers, you are gifted and loved, and I regret the role I have played in a system that has entrusted you as the sole face of God for far too long. That is too great a burden to bear. Sisters, you are strong and worthy and your family, your church and your community need you to speak up.
“How can God truly understand the female experience if God is always male?”
It was while we were on the floor playing dolls that it struck me. Cradling her doll in one arm while feeding it a bottle with the other, my daughter said, “God loves everyone. He made the world.” To which I responded, “Did you know you can call God ‘she’?” The incredulous look on her face reached deep into my gut and I felt the punch of her words.
“You mean God isn’t a BOY?” “No, baby girl. God isn’t a boy.”
“So, God is a girl? Like me? Is God a mom?”
“Yes, you are like God. You’re created in the image of God, and God is like both a Mom and a Dad.”
Smiling, she turned her attention back to the doll.
I often wonder how God feels about being habitually and chronically personified as male. I don’t know the answer, but I plan on asking her.
In the words of my 4-year-old, “It could be a she, you know.”
Erica Whitaker | When women become pastors: Walls fall and ceilings shatter