We have had women participating in public worship at the Manhattan Church of Christ since the early 2000s. Since we are a well known congregation in New York City, we often have visitors who come to us from Churches of Christ in other parts of the country and even outside of the United States — churches that by and large do not allow women to take on leadership roles. Some of these visitors come in knowing that we have women in leadership and feel excited about the opportunity to witness a gender inclusive worship experience. Others come knowing about our gender inclusive practices but are apprehensive, not sure how they feel about supporting something that they have been taught is unbiblical. Of course, other visitors do not realize that they have walked into a Church of Christ that embraces and practices gender equality. These visitors are surprised when they look at the order of worship and see female names listed to lead prayers, read scripture, share the communion meditations, or preach the sermon. While some are pleasantly surprised — excited about the opportunity to experience something new and different, many of these visitors feel concerned. They are worry that they have wandered into a place that celebrates something that seems fundamentally wrong and they wonder if they should simply leave.
I have a lot of sympathy for these visitors. First of all, I simply admire anyone who decides to go to church while they are on vacation. There is so much to do in New York City and we at the Manhattan Church of Christ feel truly honored when tourists and travelers chose to spend a few hours with us on Sunday morning. And for anyone who expects to find a little bit of familiarity at the Manhattan Church of Christ, a little slice of home in the middle of the big city, I feel great compassion. I really do want them to feel at home when they are with us.
But my appreciation and sympathy doesn’t do anything to alleviate their concerns about our gender inclusive practices. And this is not hard to understand. It is easy to see why our worship gathering would be troubling to someone who has been taught that it is sinful for women to take on any form of Christian leadership. They find themselves in a difficult position — sitting in the pew, waiting for church to start, wondering if they should simply leave. Will God judge them for being a part of a worship service that embraces unbiblical practices?
Some do leave at this point. They just can’t reconcile their beliefs with our practices and their consciences demand that they walk out. We notice when people leave and we feel sad. Sad for us, yes — we were happy to welcome them. But more sad for them — they came all the way to church but couldn’t even stay for the service. How disappointing and how frustrating that must be. But others stay. They may decide to give it a few minutes and see what they think — if it really feels sinful then they can always get up and leave in the middle of the service. Or maybe they come to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with worshipping with us, even though they disagree with our practices.
However they make sense of their decision, we are glad when they stay and we’re always interested to hear about their experience. Very often people talk about being surprised. They thought it was going to be weird but they were surprised that it wasn’t . They thought it would feel wrong but they were surprised it didn’t. There is something about hearing a woman speak a prayer from a place of reverence and faith that feels much more right than wrong. And there is something about witnessing a woman read the words of holy scripture with authentic joy that is truly beautiful and not at all weird. They may not realize it, but this experience has challenged their long held assumptions and beliefs.
Through the years many people have told me that this decision — the decision to stay and worship in a gender inclusive environment — was a decision that changed their lives. For some the change was in the direction of a more open and accepting view of those who interpret scripture differently than they do. Others remember this decision as the starting point on a journey toward a gospel of equal discipleship.
But still others taken my hands and with tears in their eyes told me how deeply moved they were by the sound of women’s voices in worship. They talk about how surprised they were by the depth of their own emotion, unable to sing through the tears. These are the people who leave us with a longing to worship every Sunday hearing the voices of women as well as those of men. Their stories stay with me. Women and men both, surprised to discover a deep, spirit-led longing to throw off the shackles of patriarchy and come to the the cross as equal in Christ. Neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. All one in Christ Jesus. Surprised. Surprised by God. Surprised by the Holy Spirit who has shown them a new way to worship, a new way to be the church.
This piece originally appeared in Charis Journal on May 29, 2018