03.31.14

Why Black Women Should Remain in the Church

Professional journalist Joshunda Sanders offers an interesting take on Black women and the Black church in her On Faith post, “The Church Needs Black Women. Do Black Women Need the Church?” Sanders’ perspective and briefly recounted personal journey belongs to a small but growing number of Black female voices calling for either a significant reappraisal of the place of Black women in the Black church or abandonment of the church altogether (for example, see here). The story frequently features some period of spiritual wandering, some sense of either neglect or abuse at the hands of the church—usually male hands, and a decision to find something more in keeping with their interests or to leave the church.

Sanders writes:

“I wanted a church where I could experience God’s love for me as a woman and as a woman of color. In the cathedrals and churches of my youth, men were clergy and bishops and cardinals. Women were church mothers and silent nuns, heads bowed. Where, I wondered, were the communities of faith that allowed women to be proudly and unapologetically themselves, as God made them?”

As the above quote illustrates, this developing genre of personal struggle to find a suitable church centers on the belief that gender roles in the church by definition mean gender suppression or oppression in the church. Sanders assumes that women are not “allowed… to be proudly and unapologetically themselves, as God made them” if the church holds to male pastoral leadership. She interprets such leadership as evidence that she cannot “experience God’s love for [her] as a woman and as a woman of color.” She felt homeless, “rudderless” without the church but she didn’t quite feel welcome in the church.

I suspect a significant number of women in the church—African American, Hispanic, Latina, White, Asian and so on—feel the same way. If I’m reading these accounts correctly, the feeling stems from at least two problems (I’m sure there are others).

First, there is the problem of poor pastoral leadership. We need to face it. Abuse happens. Incompetence exists. Unqualified men find their way into too many pulpits. And chauvinism loves to masquerade as “biblical” gender roles in the church and home. Far too often the culprits go uncensored and undisciplined while many women bear the brunt of male sin and wickedness. We gain nothing by not acknowledging and addressing this issue.

Until there is a movement to see holiness and integrity restored to all pulpits we cannot expect an end to stories like Sanders’. Until congregations come to know and insist upon the biblical qualifications of and , there’s very little probability that pew and pulpit will be safe, affirming places for all who join the church—especially women and children. I wonder whether Sanders and others would have wandered so long in search of a place to feel loved and affirmed if they had encountered pastoral leadership along the lines of ?

But there’s a second problem. Sometimes the issue is not poor pastoral leadership but an unwillingness to embrace as good and right God’s design for leadership in the church. Some of the narratives treat male pastoral leadership as ipso facto sexist, oppressive and demeaning toward women. For these women the pulpit is the last bastion of male superiority, a bastion that needs to be conquered in the spirit of “justice and equality,” or the church should be abandoned as hopelessly outdated.

But what if what God’s Word says is, in fact, true and good? What if flourishing femininity and the largesse of God’s love occur best when, as the Bible teaches, qualified men lead the church while other men and women submit to their spiritual care and direction? What if the protection of women and the full exercise of their gifts has a certain structure, one wherein men and women are equals in worth and dignity but play different roles? And what if that’s God’s good design from the beginning of creation?

If those things are true, then the rejection of the Bible’s teaching guarantees frustration with ourselves, our churches, and our leaders. We would be looking for love in all the wrong places—places that effectively reject the authority of God’s Word when it comes to living our gendered and sexual lives as God designed.

Some men have built their entire careers on stroking the frustrations and needs of women who attend their churches. Some have “groomed” the women for relationships that become obviously abusive. Others have “groomed” women for abuse in ways that appear less obvious, like encouraging them in roles God forbids or using empathy to fleece them of their offerings. As puts it, “The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” Even the desire to usurp authority as God has arranged it may “trail behind” a sister and go largely unnoticed.

Sanders writes:

“Black women are often praised and maligned for being strong beacons of faith compared to black men, who lag behind us in educational attainment and professional achievement. Black women are always asked, all but required, to support black masculinity in ways that are rarely publicly reciprocated. This largely one-sided relationship has its origins in the church, despite the fact that black women are the lifeblood of black churches.”

I agree with the first two sentences—Black women are praised on the one hand and unsupported on the other. I need go no further than my own unmarried mother to see how that inconsistency played out in her life and the lives of her eight children. What I cannot agree with, however, is the assertion that this “one-sided relationship has its origins in the church.” I suspect the origin is in Adam, in sin. And I suspect our first parents’ sin affects not only the tendency toward hypocrisy but also our inability to see the true source of sin.

“But what if what God’s Word says is true?”

The problem is not a church that takes God’s word seriously and attempts to live by it for the blessing of all its members and the world around it. The local church is an imperfect community of the redeemed, where God continues His ongoing work of repair and reformation until we fully reflect the image of Christ at His coming (; ). She’s an imperfect community, but she’s steadily progressing toward the perfection that is in Christ. Outside the church is the imperfection that distorts the image of God further and makes its way to the doorsteps of hell. We ought never exchange the improving imperfections of the local church for the death-dealing decline of the world.

Thus far it looks as if my sisters will not abandon the church. As Sanders points out, eighty-four percent of African-American women say religion is important to them and sixty percent report attending a church service at least once per week. Black women have, indeed, been the backbone of the Black Church and in many cases continue to be.

It is time that the church nurtured Black women as much as Black women have nurtured the church. But the way to do that is not by tossing the Bible out the window. It’s by embracing the word of God as good and delightful, life-saving and life-giving, able to convict and comfort. The best church to settle in is not a church where we see altar girls (as was the case with Sanders) or women preachers, but the church where the preacher and the people humble themselves under God’s word and, relying on His grace, endeavor to live it by spirit and by letter. In that kind of church, everyone made in the image of God—Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free—will flourish as God intends.

3:1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (ESV)

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (ESV)

2:1 But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. Slaves are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (ESV)

24 The sins of some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. (ESV)

24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (ESV)

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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