When a Christian man discusses theology or the church, to men at least, his gender disappears. He is simply a neutral human being pondering God, hermeneutics, etc.
But when a Christian woman discusses theology, her gender often becomes front and center. To many, she is not a human being pondering theological or eccelesiological matters, but rather her woman-ness takes precedence. The common assumption is that she has some sort of feminist or otherwise non-"neutral" bent to her thoughts.
Dianna Anderson recently wrote a great post about this phenomenon. Like many women who are interested in theology, Dianna often felt dismissed and "expected to exist apart from and without my womanhood in order to participate in those abstract discussions." She continues:
By my very existence as a woman in theological studies, I insert gender into a discussion that has been previously dominated by a homogenous group of straight, white, cisgender men – men for whom questions of gender and patriarchy were not relevant or pressing in their lives. I, by the very act of being a woman existing in the theological realm, frequently bring to the table a different perspective that is colored by my gendered existence.
Unfortunately, by allowing this experience to play a part in how I approach theology, I am told that I am playing identity politics, that I am failing to participate in the abstract, that I am inserting subjectivity into a previously objective realm.
Dianna points out that a man's objectivity and neutrality simply do no exist.
I believe this illusion of men-as-people, women-as-women is a huge hurdle for Christian women who want to engage in conversations about theology and the church. Over at the excellent blog Women in Theology, Julia points out the speech patterns of many women who speak up. A graduate student in theology, Julia shares:
I wished someone had told me earlier in my graduate career to stop commenting in class like a girl. When “girls” ask a question in class, they preface their inquiry with a qualification like, “This may be a basic question but…” or “I’m not really sure, but it seems to me…” or “Maybe everyone one else got this, but…”
Julia frames the issue as self-sabotage and lack of self-confidence, but I also see a woman's hesitancy to speak confidently and with authority a product of our culture. Many white U.S. men do not feel the need to use self-effacing hedge words; rather, they are comfortable in their own already-represented, established skin. I see this in the courtroom all the time.
When I was an undergraduate student, an anthropological study of gendered speech patters in a non-U.S. culture opened my eyes to the way in which language creates and reinforces gender roles. English-speaking (white) men tend to be more direct in speech, as compared to women who use "hedge words" like "well," "sort of," "maybe," "perhaps," etc. English-speaking men also tend to interrupt more often and are more successful at changing the topic of conversation. A look at Malagasy language (in Madagascar) reveals that women use direct and open speech, a behavior that is a sharp contrast to men. Women are known to be more straightforward, while men tend to use "hedge words" and subtleties.
Sadly, the U.S. church is no different than the broader U.S. culture. A few weeks ago, John Piper reinforced our culture's persistent view that women's voices should be minimized. Piper gave the go-ahead for Christian men to stop reading a commentary written by a woman if her femininity was too present. Rachel Pietka likened Piper's views to nineteenth century oppression of U.S. women, during which time women had to minimize their physical presence and remain seated if they spoke out in the public (read: white male) sphere. Rachel notes that Piper encourages the belief "that men have a God-given right to employ forceful, in-your-face rhetoric, both to each other and to women." Women, on the other hand, should keep their voices indirect and impersonal.
The "consequences" of women having a voice in the church is not limited to the conservative branch of the U.S. church. The different ways in which the progressive Tony Jones and Rachel Held Evans are treated, for example, is quite revealing.
Rachel is one of the most gracious and patient U.S. evangelical voices online and in print. She writes with confidence, does not "hedge" often, and is a competent, intelligent woman who discusses theology and the church. Despite the fact that she takes great pains to act charitably and respectfully toward those with whom she disagrees, Rachel is often accused of making a mockery of Scripture, and has really ticked off many white male evangelical gatekeepers. In contrast, Tony Jones has a very abrasive, dismissive, and often petulant voice online. He is often not gracious toward his critics - see Exhibit A and Exhibit B.
Yes, Tony is criticized by the same camp that criticizes Rachel. But imagine if Tony were a woman. I am certain that the response to his writing would be wildly different. Or, imagine if Rachel behaved the way Tony acts. Many baseline responses to Rachel are that she is shrill, emotional, and polarizing -- or even a manipulative Delilah. Imagine the outrage if Rachel were to respond to a commenter with a brusque "bullshit", or were as combative as Tony is in his blog posts and comments section.
Backed by the U.S. culture and church's belief that Men Are People, the objective neutral against which all Others are compared, Tony can employ as much forceful, in-your-face rhetoric as he wants, with impunity. But women who dare discuss theology with confidence, be careful not to poison the conversation with your feminist bent...lest we be deemed silly women.