All things to all [wo]men

Instead of cosmetic change of pronouns, why not try inclusive awareness at a level that really matters?

Helen Pearson is a communication consultant in Berkshire, England.

I've lived in an Adventist college community for 17 years. I've worked with Adventist theologians and preachers. I've socialized with them on formal and informal occasions. I count some of them as my good Christian brothers. And yet I have hardly had any one of them ask for my feedback on their sermons. No one has ever talked theology with me. Rarely has anyone ever reviewed with me on a personal level the spiritual problems that confront us each day. No one has discussed with me a recent book he has read, except perhaps expounding on or dismissing the book. I am a woman!

What does it feel like to be an Adventist woman? In church committees, even if there are an equal number of women and men, usually fewer women speak. I have found that even women who share with me deep spiritual insights on a personal level remain silent in traditional Sabbath school classes. I am also aware that some times my silence stems from lack of confidence rather than from lack of some thing to say. I teach ministers of tomorrow, and sometimes I come across young Adventist men conditioned to place less store by the words of women teachers.

As an Adventist woman, I am aware that there is one time more than any other, and one place more than any other, that my needs are not addressed and my experience not utilized because I am a woman. The time: Sabbath morning. The place: the church service.

Representing the whole

Let me begin with the preliminaries of worship. From childhood I have watched and participated in worship. Usually three or four men make up the worship leadership for the Sabbath service. They march onto the platform to "conduct" our worship. Sometimes a woman is included, but she is always in the minority. As far as leadership in worship is concerned, there is no one who is "like" me. No one relating to God from a woman's perspective. No one who has come through childhood hearing and believing that God is "He" and therefore more like her father and her brother than like herself and her mother. No one whose path to the "throne of grace" has been authoritatively mapped out over centuries by those of the opposite sex. No one whose picture of the world and the church consists of powerful people, mostly male, and therefore different from her.

The New Testament concept of representative priesthood helps us to under stand the issue better. Christ our High Priest took upon Himself the limitations of a human being in order to give us confidence that He understands and rep resents the fullness of human experience. I yearn for ministers who will seek inclusiveness in worship service. Take, for example, a simple matter of selecting platform personnel. Why not encourage a wide participation of women single, newly married, mothers, teenagers, the young in faith, grandmothers, divorcees, women with marriage problems, and those in the throes of the "empty nest syndrome."

As the service progresses, and as the pastor or the elder addresses us, how do I feel? How is this man relating to me? Where is he putting himself in relation to me? Observe the platform. That raises him above the rest of us. The stage seems to call for a performance. As the preacher speaks, is he looking down on my family and me as we sit in the congregation? Does his tone reflect his physical position? Is he physically and intellectually a kind of Adventist ministerial macho?

Ministers in such a mold come to believe that the central feature of worship is display rather than communication. They believe that in sermons performance and rhetoric are more important than expression of humanity and creation of a dialogue with the congregation. They aim at a homiletic expertise that generates admiration in the minds of their congregation. Such a display may create in members a confidence that the minister knows where he's going. And some of those members may even use such a sense of confidence to escape from their own struggle to find God for themselves. My children call such pastors "shouting preachers," and fortunately they are get ting fewer, as conversational style takes over the pulpit. It's better to be talked to like a friend than shouted at like a way ward voter.

Some ministers believe in the myth that a pastor's experience of God is normative. From childhood all my knowledge about spiritual life came from men. I am deeply grateful to those men relatives, teachers, and colleagues who have guided my spiritual quest into fruitful realms. The ones who have helped me most are those who did not believe that their own experience was normative.

Intellectually, we are aware that our experience of God is limited. Emotionally, however, the perception is different. Many of us, both men and women, believe that the male experience of God is normative, and is more likely to be true than the female experience. Some of our pastors and members may even feel that when men speak about God, it is more likely to be true and accurate than when women speak. How many sermons in the Adventist Church arise, however subconsciously, out of such presuppositions?

Concepts and language

For example, there's the word "Father." God seems to be a man. Sometimes I wonder how many believe that to be literally so. Of course, we know that God is a Spirit. But most of us aren't very good at separating the symbol from what it symbolizes. In the everyday world we need pictures, including word pictures, to communicate. In the spiritual world, this is even more so. For example, Jesus called God, Father. Isn't that enough? It is. It is, if you remember the context. Jesus was teaching a people who saw God as the remote sovereign of the universe. He showed them that God is not a distant figure; He is our "Daddy." Jesus provided them with a picture of God with which they could easily identify, opening up a new relationship.

Can we not do the same? The God who became flesh understood our need for pictures, for something to relate to. We can't think about God except in terms of what we have seen. We need mental pictures.

But what pictures are we to use to describe God? The Bible is full of them. Although many of the biblical representations of God derive from a male experience, an astonishing number do carry the female perspective: pictures of birth and motherhood, of childlessness and divorce, of yearning for love. Why aren't these pictures emphasized sufficiently in preaching?

What about illustrations from nonbiblical sources? Is it necessary to limit quotations only to male religious authorities? Theological pronouncements may be impressive but hardly relevant to life in the kitchen and the classroom, the office and the supermarket. What does it mean to search for the joy of the Christian life when you are at the back of the line in the supermarket and someone pushes in farther down the line in front of you with a full trolley and a checkbook and you have an important appointment to meet? Sermon illustrations are worse than use less if they have no reference to the practical problems of daily life. A sermon based on John 3 from a maternal perspective that presents the painful and yet wonderful reality of love could touch the congregation more deeply than a list of sterile abstract pronouncements.

Another area of concern is language. To remind ourselves that God is not a man, should we stop calling Him He? Should we follow the example of some Christian feminists and start calling God She? Such volte-face creates as many problems as it solves. Won't the Movement for the Liberation of Christian Men rightly feel excluded? The English language is limited: it has no inclusive pronoun for male and female as do some other languages. The mechanical changing of pronouns in public worship is of little help.

Inclusive awareness

Enlarged awareness of the need for inclusive prayers, hymns, and sermons is the answer. One of my friends found himself understanding Christian women in a new way when he tried to sing "She who would valiant be, let her come hither" from beginning to end. Were only women being invited to discipleship? Singing those hymns with exclusive male pronouns by substituting female pronouns would be a useful consciousness-raising exercise for men who wonder why women feel marginalized by church liturgy!

I am an average Adventist woman. My life gives credence to that classic ecclesiastical fantasy, the "good" Adventist family. I have two "good" Adventist parents who have given life time service to the church and brought up both their children to work for the church. I have a "good" husband who works for the church and two "beautiful" children. And yet I reflect: if women and their experiences do get a mention in a sermon, it is likely to be a story about the efficacy of a mother's prayers or an exhortation to women like me to hold high the standards of the Adventist home and do their part to strengthen the church of the future. Or, once every few years when someone re members in time that Mother's Day is coming, we may receive some words of thanks for our role in the church.

What does it feel like to be an Adventist woman in 1992? Lonely sometimes. I suspect that there are others who may feel much the same: skillful craftsmen in intellectual college churches, poor in rich churches, Blacks in a predominantly White church, Whites in a mostly Black church, the young in a congregation of senior citizens, or the physically handicapped in a church full of joggers.

How can ministers reach out to these divergent groups in their congregations? How can they begin to understand them and meet their needs? What we need is an openness a loving, two-way relation ship between ministers and members, male and female. Listening and becoming, it seems, are the basis of good communication and fruitful relationships in the church and outside of it.

"I have become all things to all [wo]men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings" (1 Cor. 9:22, RSV).

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Helen Pearson is a communication consultant in Berkshire, England.

January 1992

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