This is a question that’s been haunting me. My writing, publishing, and speaking were born out of both a desire and struggle to learn about discipleship in adulthood. I had some basic questions as a young adult:
If I’m going to take this being a Christian thing seriously, what does that look like?
If Christianity is true, what can I hold fast to when I don’t want to act like one?
And how do I grow into maturity?
In seeking answers to these questions, other women resonated with my curiosity and I was asked to teach a women’s Bible study. Of course, the beautiful answer turns our eyes to knowing and communing with the triune God. In this time, I experienced the thrill of discovering theology, a group of thinking women who ask the hard questions, and our joy in growth together. But this excitement came crashing down when the pastor revealed in a flippant comment that his expectations for our learning were lower than the theological questions we had. After all, we were the women’s Bible study. Keep doing your nice learning over there. Wink.
Where does a thinking woman in the church go to be discipled? Turns out we capped out.
I could tell numerous more stories about this quest and how it was squelched over and over. I know many of you reading this right now can too. My loneliness as a thinking woman in the church led me to write. Each book I wrote was another step in trying to make sense of what I was seeing/experiencing and asking the theological questions behind it. They trace a sort of bildungsroman of a woman disciple trying to find a space and communicate in the church. Ultimately, I was a searching for beauty, significance, and where our true longings are meant.
True Community and False Belonging
I’ve learned some things about true community and false belonging in this process. My work made visible what was lurking behind the platitudes stating the equal value of men and women in the church. While outwardly, the church says it values the woman’s voice, it’s governing principles often shut it out. The difficulty of a woman trying to think and communicate in complementarian spaces turns out to be because she is in the boy’s room. But I also learned that the Lord uses this very challenge as a backdrop to get my attention and reveal that discipleship is more than I ever imagined—it is a participation in the covenantal, spousal union with Christ. That keeps me going. That’s the good stuff. And it cannot be taken away.
Ostensibly, we hold to our creeds, explaining what Scripture teaches on first order doctrines. We have this standard for orthodoxy. And various denominations hold to different confessions within this orthodoxy, from which we can worship together, be discipled, and speak out of in more detail about what we confess.
Ostensibly, the Reformed community wants to be identified by their confessions. But if you think that gives you freedom in belonging you quickly find there is more you must subscribe to in order to have the hand of fellowship.
Christians are to be a loving community—it’s our greatest commandment! We are to love our God and love one another. It is how we are to be known! This is where true community can be found. Love, truth, beauty, and goodness are what we commune in—hold in common. In that, we see one another as gift, and give one another our freedom in belonging. Freedom to learn more, love well, and be sharpened as we grow in holiness. This sounds like a good picture of discipleship.
And yet, over and over I experience a false belonging in contrast to genuine community. These freedoms turn out to be a mirage for those of us who to hold these truths dear while strengthening and stretching our thinking within these bounds. The invisible fences zap us. They are the implicit creeds one must subscribe to regarding when we can talk, what we can say, and what we are to think. In order to have fellowship, you must navigate the invisible fences. Many of these are intermingled with cultural mores. And we are told what to think instead of encouraged in how to think. That’s not discipleship.
Still, Where Do We Find This?
You should go to seminary.
You should get your M.Div.
Or, why not work on your PhD and teach?
Yes, that’s what Paul said to Lydia.
Ok, I’ll stop it with the anachronism.
This is an excellent path for many men and women. And I appreciate the encouragement. I’ve thought about it. I learn so much from the work of academics. I am thankful not only for the access that I have to their published work, but to the many relationships I’ve built with them and the ways they have shaped me. But I’ve always seen my own work to represent the regular thinking women who also want to be discipled conversation partners in both the local and broader church. Lay contributions are valuable. And I am thankful that many academics have shown me this too.
There seems to be a gap, especially for women who want to exercise theological vigor and growth in discipleship, between the pew and the academy. And this is where I feel like I’ve been given some opportunity in my writing and speaking. Just as men and women need one another’s insight, so do academics, pastors, and laypeople. Christian academia doesn’t exist merely to form a higher class of thinkers who talk amongst themselves. The whole point is for it to trickle down to the pews, right? In some ways, pastors are bridges to this gap. But we also need feet-on-the-ground lay disciples—ones who aren’t insulated in Christian culture bubbles—to speak from their experiences. After all, we make up most of the church!
I don’t think anyone wants the church to be outsourcing discipleship to the academy. In Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood I ask what happens in the church when it is no longer viewed by its members as the place and context in which they are discipled. It takes me back to my basic questions I was asking as a young adult. When churches do not reintroduce Christ’s teaching in light of the challenges of the secular culture, the challenges within the church itself, and the many questions of application that its men, women, and children have, then congregants look elsewhere for answers. Rather than church as the primary interpretive community, the whole approach to discipleship and Scripture reading can easily become untethered from the means God has given to his people.
Multiple parachurch organizations have stepped in to fill in this gap. But parachurch organizations don’t make disciples. Individual mentors do not make disciples. Christian celebrities certainly don’t make disciples. And PhD’s don’t make disciples. God makes disciples through the ministry and, as a fruit of that, through the men and women tradents in his church. I’m thankful for the academics in the bunch. Maybe I will even go that route one day. But, as my academic friends would agree, the academy is not the primary place of fellowship for Jesus’s students/disciples. The church is.
And as an informed laywoman, I want to encourage others that we aren’t meant to look outside the church when we don’t feel invested in as disciples, when we aren’t being trained well to mature in the faith, and when we are stifled in contributing as active traditioners and reciprocal voices. Something’s not right if we have to do this. We need churches without yellow wallpaper. We need true community with freedom in belonging to Christ. In that, we need to recover the theological meaning of our sexes, better understand our sexuality as gift, and grasp the eschatological story our bodies tell of Christ’s love for his church. Which is why I am calling for sexual reformation in the church.