The Mothers of My Faith

There’s been more than a little Christian debate swirling around this year’s installment of Mothers’ Day. In part, it has to do with a certain enormously popular Southern Baptist layperson preaching — more on that later. But I’ve also seen a fair number of Christians on social media complain that Mothers’ Day is simply not a Christian holiday.

I get what they’re saying. In the Christian calendar, today is the 4th Sunday in Easter, part of our ongoing remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus. What does that have to do with Hallmark cards, floral bouquets, and going out to brunch?

But because “generations” has been a theme at our church this Eastertide, it actually felt quite appropriate to think about mothers — the mothers of my faith.

Whenever I think of my faith in terms of a spiritual genealogy, my minds turns to this passage from the Covenant theologian Don Frisk:

It has been said that God has no grandchildren, only children. That is but another way of saying that Christianity as a living faith is always, as Luther theologian, Carl Braaten, reminds us, “only a generation away from possible extinction.” It is a simple and solemn truth. The message we have been given is not from ourselves. It is not by nature hidden in every human heart. It is a gift of revelation, a Word from God, a treasure we hold in earthen vessels. If others are to hear it and believe we must tell it to them.

“I learned more about Christianity from my mother,” John Wesley said of Susanna Wesley, “than from all the theologians in England” – Wikimedia

In my family, that living faith has been matrilineal. Among all the other influences on me, I know that I chiefly heard the Christian message and believed it because my mother told it to me. And because her mother told it to her. And so on.

Much as I might like to think of myself as a skilled Christian teacher, I have no doubt that my children are hearing the same message primarily through their mother, who tells them the Gospel on a regular basis — using words when necessary, but more often demonstrating the grace and love of God through her actions. A practice that she learned from her mother, and her grandmother.

I don’t think our families are all that unusual in that regard. Christianity Today recently shared some research from the Barna Group finding that 68% of practicing Christians said that their mothers’ faith influenced them — vs. only 46% of fathers. Likewise, at least 70% of teens said that they had discussed God and the Bible with their mothers, who were also seen as theological/biblical teachers by more than two-thirds of them. For fathers, the same percentages were in the high 40s or low 50s.

While that has me wondering about my own influence on my kids, I think most Christians assume that mothers play an important role in faith formation of children and adolescents — and thus in the church, since the overwhelming majority of Christians (evangelicals included) come to faith before adulthood. Even a complementarian as frankly patriarchal as Owen Strachan suffers women to teach insofar as he holds mothers responsible for “the training of children to know Christ.”

But this is only one part of women’s influence in the church. My faith is the result of generations of work by women in my spiritual genealogy, most of whom are not in my literal genealogy.

I am a Christian because women witnessed the resurrection and announced it to others, because women like an apostle named Junia helped build a fledgling church. Had they not, it would have risked extinction. Instead, generation by generation, the church has survived because women — spiritual mothers, whether or not they had children of their own — shared the message of God’s good news: monastics like Macrina the Younger and Teresa of Avila; mystics like Hildegard of Bingen and Evelyn Underhill; missionaries like Dora Yu and Katharine Bushnell; scholars like Catherine of Siena and Pandita Ramabai; writers like Dorothy Sayers and Rachel Held Evans; social reformers like Sojourner Truth and Dorothy Day; teachers like Sor Juana and Stacey Hunter Hecht; evangelists like a whole generation of Evangelical Free women on the American frontier.

And preachers.

Yes, preachers. Women in many times, places, and cultures who heard God’s call, were given God’s gifts, and thereby proclaimed God’s word. Women like Jarena Lee, a free African American born in New Jersey at the end of the Revolutionary War.

Jarena Lee (1783-1864) – Wikimedia

Some years later “an impressive silence fell upon me,” she remembered,

and I stood as if some one was about to speak to me… to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understand, which said to me, “Go preach the Gospel!” I immediately replied aloud, “No one will believe me.” Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say – “Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and you will turn your enemies to become your friends.”

Though she had to overcome suspicion (“No one will believe me”) and opposition, Lee felt increasingly sure of her calling:

As for me, I am fully persuaded that the Lord called me to labor according to what I have received, in his vineyard. If he has not, how could he consistently hear testimony in favor of my poor labors, in awakening and converting sinners?…. I firmly believe that I have sown seed, in the name of the Lord, which shall appear with its increase at the great day of accounts, when Christ shall come to make up his jewels.

But even so powerful a testimony would not seem to move Strachan. A Southern Baptist historian and theologian who formerly headed the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, Strachan concludes that “there is no way for a woman to instruct the gathered church, whether in an authoritative or ‘non-authoritative’ way… women should not preach or offer public teaching in the gathered worship service in local churches.”

What if a woman has heard a clear call to ministry, and seems to possess the spiritual gifts to match? What if she has “sown seed” that bear fruit? It doesn’t matter. “In terms of local church polity, God does not tell us to select leaders according to gifting and talent,” Strachan insists. “The Lord working through the Spirit calls only godly men to provide spiritual leadership, shepherding, and teaching for the gathered assembly of God’s people (see 1 Corinthians 14:34-35). All this, as we have said, is spiritual and ecclesial order.”

For the sake of such order, Strachan wrote the blog post I’ve quoted in order to condemn the popular Baptist writer and Bible teacher Beth Moore, who had tweeted that she would be preaching a Mother’s Day sermon in her church.

Now, Strachan and Moore are part of a denomination that added complementarian language to its “Faith & Message” document in 2000, including these lines in the article about the church: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” (Strachan goes even further, seeming to deny a biblical basis for women to provide even other women with “doctrinal shepherding, nor to form ministries beyond the church” — like, say, this one.) Moore has not said that she rejects this limitation, nor that she regards herself as a pastor or elder. But as my Anxious Bench colleague Beth Allison Barr explained last night, Moore also hasn’t backed down.

In a Twitter thread yesterday morning, Moore asked conservative complementarians “to grapple with the entire text from Mt 1 thru Rev 22 on every matter concerning women” rather than proof-texting a few controversial verses in Paul’s epistles. (With an eye to texts like 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, the Evangelical Free founding father Fredrik Franson warned that “it is through this process of grounding a doctrine on one or two passages in the Bible, without reading them in context, that heresies arise.”) Moreover, she drew “attention to the sexism & misogyny that is rampant in segments of the SBC, cloaked by piety & bearing the stench of hypocrisy.”

To Barr, it seemed like a turning point:

Beth Moore stands with 900,000 twitter followers. She preaches regularly to hundreds of thousands of women through her tweets, sermons, and books. If those hundreds of thousands of women stand with her, if her almost 1 million twitter followers follow her lead, Beth Moore will change the future of Evangelicalism. Complementarianism only works because women support it. If women stop supporting it, it will be over.

It “was not over Scripture at all,” Moore remembered realizing, as she thought back over how she’d been mistreated by some Southern Baptist men. “It was over sin. It was over power. It was over misogyny. Sexism. It was about arrogance. About protecting systems.”

It was about protecting patriarchy, an old system dressed up in the new language of “complementary” gender roles reflecting God’s “divine order.”

Jarena Lee knew such arguments well. In her quest to preach, she was at first turned down by Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who cited Methodist regulations barring women from the pulpit. In her pioneering memoir, she recalled sadly that the “holy energy which burned within me, as a fire, began to be smothered.” Allen eventually reconsidered, but Lee learned an important lesson from his initial resistance:

O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. For as unseemly as it may appear now-a-days for a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God. And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to preach? seeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as for the man.

I get the appeal of order and systems and government and discipline. They seem like a way to ensure survival for a church constantly faced with extinction. But church history is full of cases like Lee’s, where man-made order — even when clothed in divine language — can silence God’s word.

“I will not leave you orphaned” — without mothers and fathers — Jesus assured his disciples, in this morning’s gospel text. He promised an “Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Soon our calendar will turn to the fulfillment of that promise at Pentecost, the day when the apostle Peter quoted the prophet Joel:

“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.”

“Here,” wrote Lee, of one of her early sermons, “by the instrumentality of a poor coloured woman, the Lord poured forth his spirit among the people.” And here again, in 2019, by the instrument of prophetic women like Beth Moore, perhaps God is again pouring out his spirit on a church that remains just a generation away from extinction.