Deconstructing gendered language and its effects on the church

Given the tenuous, occasionally contentious nature of conversation, the massive number of people willing to continually engage in issues is inspiring. We might not all agree with each other and occasionally even passionately take offense, but as with all bold, truthful, courageous words that have never been uttered before, first there is a thawing out that hits the air from the old way of thinking, then there is the slow burning fire that arrives to clear out the brush for what must be built for going forward. Conversation slowly burns back the sticks, the dead grass, the old brush, all the acceptable thorns of our slave-holding society so that people might begin to see the next level of their necessity.

A writer within Spokane Faith and Values wrote that art comes from the border of what has come before and what is coming next. As an English major I understand an art of language that is not just about learning to recognize and pronounce words, but also about how to hear and understand them. The unending question then becomes, how can we read, hear and inwardly digest language without preconceived understandings getting in the way.

In regards to gender and spirituality this is arguably complicated. In his book “Speaking Christian,” Marcus Borg contends that idealists ignore the grim reality of an ex-Eden world while cynics ignore the eschatological reality that a new Eden is around the corner. On any given day my own perspective vacillates between idealist and cynic. On my idealist days I understand the argument that women are predominant in specific activities, keeping everything from falling into chaos and pointlessness by humanizing vision, breathing warmth into plans and priorities and providing the stabilizing joy of deeper togetherness that often lacks in male-centric circles. If women stepped down and out from leading in churches then the whole structure would collapse. My cynical days however, rebut this perspective by seeing no way out from church communities that expect me to have an interest in knitting clubs, singles-only small groups, finding a husband or helping out nursery child care.

Emotional forms of ministry have their place, but as a woman in the church I am eager to move beyond the emotional woman stereotype and thus the surface-level understanding of my God-given talents and attributes. Therefore I constantly strive for a hopeful realism that exercises the complicated discipline of holding both cynical and idealist realities together in tension. This stance stops underestimating a media culture that manipulates our perceptions of what it means to be masculine, what it means to be feminine, and in particular, what the interactions and relational purpose between those two should be and/or look like. It alternately holds in conjunction a space that exudes innumerable possibilities for glorifying God regardless of gender.

My dreams for the church in understanding this tension have been half-met through certain facets of the church. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's recent statement on sexuality reassured me that we must, “recogniz[e] the many ways in which people misuse power and love. We need to be honest about…the finite limitations of human beings…recogniz[ing] the complexity of the human and societal forces that drive the desire for companionship, for intimate relation with another, for belonging, and for worth.”  Essentially, in what ways are our perceptions and expectations of each other being influenced by media advertisements, movies, television shows, and tradition.

The other half of my dreams concern a desire to engage more faith-based people in discussing the idea of gender as performative and a social construct. These discussions are far from easy; requiring a desire to relearn everything we've ever been taught about skills, talents, disposition and temperament as they pertain to gender. How are we performing our gender each day in regards to attire, sitting stance, walk, speech etc.? How are we gender policing others to act “right”? What presumptions are we making about sexuality, relationships and the definition of family?

Until we start these conversations that attempt a deconstruction of the the layers of gendered language, consumerism and entertainment we have spent our history constructing, the church will continue to exist as a Jekyll and Hyde distortion of cynicism and idealism regarding gender roles. One that is no different from, and walks solidly alongside a secular world that still discusses human rights issues from the standpoint that  there is such a thing as “undeserved populations”.

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Eric Blauer

Since my article was referenced even though I was not, I’d like to take issue with the assumption that “knitting clubs, singles-only small groups, finding a husband or helping out nursery child care” is possibly a reference to our paradigm.

This may be some people’s church experience but not ours. Many churches I run with support, receive, celebrate and are welcoming communities for women leaders. This isn’t an ideal but a practicing reality in many of our missional evangelical churches.

I understand that stereotypes are based on people’s actual experience but I hope we can move beyond them.


Eric, I meant to add a link to your post, that’s my fault. When I’m able I’m happy to add that (writing with my thumbs right now).

Laura Stembridge


My comment wasn’t an assumption, it is a verifiable fact of experience I’ve had within faith communities. However, it certainly wasn’t meant to be solely aligned with your particular evangelical paradigm, as gender expectations and experiences span all denominations.

I think it’s wonderful that many churches you run with support, receive, celebrate, and are welcoming communities for women leaders. My caution was/is the point where spaces become a black and white delineation of what those roles as leaders look like i.e. “x” reality for some women is translated onto all women.

I’m not sure what stereotypes you are referring to?

Eric Blauer

The idea that evangelical churches are_________ is a stereo type, just as saying maineline churches are____________.

Women are diverse in perspective on these issues, as are men, and churches. Your experience is yours and you are free to share it.

My concern lies in being a voice for those who really had no voice at the meet up. I learned how to come out of sexist interpersonal dynamics and values through the teaching in evangelical churches. I learned to treat women like a dog in the secular culture I was raised within. Society taught me to be a self-serving idiot. Christ as presented and taught in the churches I discovered God within, helped me redefine my understanding of the dignity and sacredness of the opposite sex. I am not alone in this gift given through such communities.

We all have our stories in this journey, I hope those who have been helped by the churches referenced in all the conversations will speak up too.

Laura Stembridge

When I said I wasn’t sure what specific stereotypes you were referring to, I was operating off the presumption that you were making that remark in direct response to something in my article. As such, I was trying to get more specificity about your comment: “I understand that stereotypes are based on people’s actual experience but I hope we can move beyond them”. Neither in my article here, or at the panel did I make any broad claims about mainline or evangelical churches.

I think you have a legitimate concern about a lack of diversity in the panel at the meet up. However, there is only so much control over the fact that diverse voices are not coming forward. I am confident that people within SpokaneFAVS are making personal connections within and outside the website; espousing a stance that desires inter-faith discussions. If people are unwilling to come forward and speak, I’m not sure what else can be done other than being patient until they are ready to come to the table. Their lack however, should not detract from the plethora of conversational starters offered by Liv, Deb, Amy or I. As Relevant Magazine so poignantly stated in a recent article ‘Why We Need More Women in Ministry’:

“Let’s work on building a church that isn’t just hushing one side to hear the other, but where both men and women are encouraged to bring their whole selves to the table, using every gift God has given them for the sake of the Kingdom to the glory of God.”

I too hope that those who have been helped by the churches referenced in all the conversations will speak up. However, I’m not sure what your comments have to do with my article? There is a space for making legitimate critiques to further an organization but there is also a similar and conjunctive space for engaging the conversation offered. When I write I want people to engage the content and am interested in your comments as they pertain to my thoughts on gender and spirituality.

Eric Blauer

I did engage your article, specifically the part that referenced and from my perspective slightly characterized or stereotyped with the statement that the celling for many women is: “knitting clubs, singles-only small groups, finding a husband or helping out nursery child care” in our circle. I found that statement to be painfully close to a link to my words. But as Si says: ‘Hey’ it’s fine. I was just highlighting that even though what you wrote is true for some places, it’s not all. Just my two cents.

Jan Shannon

Having been involved in ministry, and having been told, (not inferred or implied) but told straight up that if they appointed me Children’s Pastor, fewer of the male leadership in the denomination would have a problem with “a strong woman in ministry,” I totally feel your cynicism with where the gender fight is at this time. I have also been supported, upheld, empowered, and even been fought for by men in this same denomination. People are people wherever you find them. HOwever, I still harbor the fear sometimes, that if I stick my head up over the trench wall to take a leadership stance over a male colleague, that he is thinking, “Another mouthy, unfeminine female.” Although I do try to fight against these thoughts because I know they do not help me, and that fear can often cause me to speak too stridently, it’s hard to overcome 30 years of being told to “go help with the kids.”

Jan shannon

A friend of mine commented on my link. Here are her thoughts:
“At my first read, the summation of the article speaks of the deconstruction of gender. I believe God created male and female genders for a reason. We may not understand the power or purpose behind the creative plan, but it exists and is. So instead of working hard to “deconstruct” what is created – in all its complexity and creativity with its multi levels – I believe we need to embrace what IS and explore and define that which is supernaturally created by the Divine [far beyond our abilities to create ourself]. Another point I see is the age old question within the Christian community: Why aren’t the male figures in American society the spiritual leaders within their churches and families any more? If we research old pictures within the churches the pews and hallways are packed full of men – young and old. I don’t think we need to change what has been beautifully crafted by our Creator [male and female]. We need to embark on a powerful journey where we are willing to explore how the consistency and creativity of God’s plan remains unchanging while our American society is ever-evolving. This was a well-written article. It’s good to hear a voice who is questioning and thinking outside the constructs of the “box”. Thanks for sharing, Jan”

Laura Stembridge


It is hard to overcome a lifetime of being told your place. I regress more times than I’d care to. It’s good to hear you’ve experienced the positivity the Church can exemplify toward its fellow brethren. I’ve also experienced both sides of the gender perspective within congregations and find that immersing myself in faith communities that align with my own views helps me to have a good grasp of my self-worth. I don’t cut out the other mindset entirely, it just puts them in the smaller percentage of my emotional and intellectual engagement. That way people will be people, but I don’t falter in my own potential or the worth of others nearly as much.

Thank you for posting your friends comment! I’ll respond to that once I’ve given it some thought.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x