The irony was not lost on those who responded, “So a woman’s voice was silenced in a book commissioned to feature women’s voices.” I’ve seen this repeated many times over. We are upset that a woman’s voice was censored. We are especially upset that it happened in a space that was supposed to highlight women’s voices.
We live in a world ordered by patriarchy: women are marginalized and oppressed by design. For patriarchy to have its way, women must be kept in their place (the place where they exist in reference to and for the benefit of men). To do this effectively, women have to be silenced and made subservient. Women cannot be permitted to speak, because their voices threaten the systems that oppress them.
The actions and responses of the USMB and CCMBC Executive Boards regarding the book, On Holy Ground, are Exhibit A of patriarchy asserting its control over women. (Actually, the alphabet is not long enough to accurately label this exhibit. This is not the first time. This is not new.)
Christian churches and denominations do not stand outside patriarchy. Our tradition’s history shows a long history of aligning with patriarchy, becoming its defender and enforcer. Recent work such as Kristin Kobes Du Mez’ book, Jesus and John Wayne, and the Christianity Today podcast series, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” specifically explore evangelicalism’s expressions of patriarchy (and its connection to other ideologies, such as white supremacy and Christian nationalism). The marginalization of women is justified theologically (e.g., complementarianism) and shapes every aspect of the life of the church. Women in ministry is only one of many battlegrounds where patriarchy fights to maintain control.
Before I dig into the On Holy Ground events, I want to turn our attention to another example of patriarchy at work within the MB family in recent years.
In 2019, the USMB Board of Faith and Life (BFL) held a study conference titled “The Bible and Women in Pastoral Ministry.” As reported by The Christian Leader, “No decisions were made when more than 140 Mennonite Brethren gathered… because the purpose of the study conference was not to take action but after a 20-year hiatus to resume conversation around women in pastoral ministry.” In 1999, a resolution was passed as a “concession” – a “compromise” meant to hold together a family “deeply divided” over the role of women in ministry.
On one side are those who believe women should be restricted from certain leadership positions that are reserved only for men. This view is founded on a “God ordained” gender-based hierarchy where “men are to be dominant and never subordinate, and women are to be subordinate and never dominant” (see Cheryl Anderson’s book, Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies). On the other side are those who believe women should not be limited because of gender. Rather, everyone – men and women – should serve according to their gifts.
For 20 years, policy has held what probably feels like the last bit of ground available to maintain a gender hierarchy: “Resolved that women be encouraged to minister in the church in every function other than the lead pastorate.” As long as women cannot be in the one position that most represents authority and power (the position at the top), the system remains intact. No matter how many women serve in leadership (as the resolution encourages them to do), patriarchy will always use power-over to maintain inequality and perpetuate injustice.
Women will be allowed to speak only as long as their voices pose no threat to the system. Patriarchy will silence women’s voices every time they are not used in its service.
Establishing this 1999 so-called compromise (patriarchy wins, equality loses–is that a compromise?) and burying the conversation for 20 years is an act of silencing women. Holding a study conference with no plan for action is an act of silencing women.
In response to the study conference, the BFL communicated its intention to not “formulate a proposal or conclusion at [our upcoming] meeting.” They make it clear that they hold all the power in determining outcomes because they control the process. “We will continue to consider what the next steps ought to be and then try to be faithful to follow in whatever direction we feel led… We don’t have a specific timetable for doing that. We do intend to let you know if any decision about process is made. We will try to be timely with that, but we ask for your patience as we listen to how God is leading us.” Everyone else is asked to patiently wait, to submit to those with the power to decide the future of this conversation. This is an act of silencing women.
Turning back to On Holy Ground, we see the two executive boards (EBs) stepping in to silence Mary Anne Isaak’s reflection on her experience as a pastor. The book project was born out of a desire for women’s stories to have a voice in the conversation about women in ministry leadership. The conversation, when it was happening, was about women, but largely did not include (and certainly did not center) women’s voices. This is not to say women never participated. However, women were largely marginalized as spectators because of their lack of power and agency in the system. I’ve been in plenty of situations where I have witnessed women “at the table,” even in leadership positions, whose voices were minimized, dismissed, vilified, and/or erased.
The MB Historical Commission (HC) contracted with Dora Dueck as editor of this project. The HC, a ministry of the US and Canadian MB Conferences, produces a variety of books and is responsible for decisions about content and publication. They approved the manuscript Dora submitted without changes and copies began to be released. After all the contributors received their physical copies, the news hit that the EBs intervened. Books that were already printed were destroyed. The text was changed and the book reprinted.
The EBs expressed gratitude for the HC’s cooperation “in response to our unusual request.” The EBs are not part of the HC’s publication process, meaning, they are not involved in making decisions about content. I was initially confused about the timeline – why did the EBs wait until after printing began to issue their concern? Now that I know that they are not actually part of the approval process, the “unusual” nature of this action is clearer. This action was a serious overreach, yet they were still able to exert power over the project, and by extension, women’s voices. To my knowledge, the HC has not issued a statement providing clarity on how and why they handled the EBs’ request the way they did. Intentions and motivations aside, the result remains: women’s voices were silenced.
My focus on systems and process in this post will help contextualize my next post about the content of the EBs’ statement about why they intervened. The specifics of their protest against Mary Anne’s reflections about her experience as a pastor in congregations wrestling with LGBTQ inclusion are connected to their willingness to exert their power in the way they did with the goal of censoring a woman’s voice. Additionally, this particular action by the EBs is connected to the past and ongoing systemic marginalization and oppression of women (and all other marginalized and vulnerable groups).
Here are a few resources I’ve found helpful, some of which are quoted in this post:
Ancient Laws & Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation by Cheryl B. Anderson. Also check out her presentation exploring the intersections of gender, race, sexuality, etc. and why we need to come together to fight injustice.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Feminist Survival Project Podcast, Episode 03: Human Giver Syndrome – includes a great summary of the dynamics between human beings (typically male) and human givers (typically female) within our patriarchal cultural context. Also can be read about in Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s book, BURNOUT: the secret to unlocking the stress response cycle. Patriarchy has serious effects on our physical and mental health.