If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. – Audre Lorde
Long before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, which officially ended slavery in America, African Americans found solace and strength within the “invisible institution” (i.e., the Black church) and the “liberation” narratives in the Bible.
The former allowed African Americans to build and have their own institutions, while the latter served as a source of inspiration and hope as they read the liberation stories of the Hebrew children from their oppressors in Egypt. The Exodus and other Biblical texts, like the New Testament teachings of Jesus Christ, inspired oppressed men and women to pursue freedom and the abundant life.
However, there was a flaw in African Americans’ pursuit of liberation and freedom, particularly as it related to the establishment of the Black church. According to Anthony B. Pinn, “one of the most widely debated concerns during the entire history of the Black church, an issue cutting across all denominations, is the role of women within Black church life and activities.” In 2004 Delores Williams argued that:
“When the issue of sexism surfaced in the Black church, particularly in the late 19th century on the heels of the emerging women’s suffrage movement, the Black churches did not see gender equality as a concern — or at least as a concern equal to that of race and class oppression.”
Indeed, this created a major dilemma in the Black church, particularly as it relates to full equality and freedom for both men and women. Williams’ assessment is troubling because it unveils the dilemma that has plagued the Black church since its inception: What do we do with the women?
Although when Blacks left white churches during slavery they were determined to serve God “in Spirit and in Truth,” their doctrine and policy were no different from the white churches that they had left.
This obviously created a schism in the Black church and led some 19th-century Black women, such as Jarena Lee, to challenge the Black church’s doctrine and polity, specifically as it related to women’s leadership roles in the church.
Fed up with racism and now sexism in the church, these women challenged the Black church about its own traditions and raised the following critical faith questions:
“If the man may preach, because the savior died for him, why not the woman, seeinghe died for her also? Is he not a whole savior, instead of a half one, as those who hold it wrong for a woman to preach would seem to make it appear?” (Lee, 1986).
Similarly, when a preacher argued at a women’s rights convention that a woman could not have as much right as a man because Christ was not a woman, Sojourner Truth argued: “Whar did your Christ come from?…Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him.”
These critical responses of Sojourner Truth and Jarena Lee raise the issue of servanthood and women’s social roles in the church, and expose the sexist and patriarchal ideologies that have existed in the Black church for years.
In the 20th century, there was a move among some African-American preachers, such as my predecessor the Rev. William H. Gray, III, to reexamine the women’s roles of leadership and expand it in the church. Specifically, at Bright Hope Baptist Church, we not only embraced female preachers, but also female deacons. And under my now six-year tenure as pastor, we have had at least two women to serve as chair of the deacon board.
Part of the reason that pastors have evolved to accept women in leadership positions is because in many African-American churches, women are the “backbone” of the church. Demographically, women come to church more, give more, serve more, and in many cases sacrifice more. This does not discount the men and their service, but shows appreciation to the women of the Black church.
Nevertheless, in 1993 Jacqueline Grant wrote an article, “The Sin of Servanthood,” and offered a stinging critique of women being the “backbone” of the church. For Grant, when women are called the “backbone” of the church, it “may appear to be a compliment, especially when one considers the function of the backbone in the human anatomy.” However, Grant says:
“the telling portion of the word backbone is ‘back’. It has become apparent to me that most ministers who use this term have reference to location rather than function. What they really mean is that women are in the background and should be kept there.”
Certainly, the issues raised by Grant and other womanists undoubtedly have reignited an effort to redefine leadership within the Black church, and to emphasize a more egalitarian view of church leadership.
Congregations that were once Biblical literalist are now embracing a Biblical hermeneutic that is transformative and critically reflective of one’s faith. They are questioning many long-held theological beliefs, such as 1 Timothy 3:2-5, which has often been interpreted as the Bible prohibiting women to be in authority over men.
For example, when the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., pastor of the oldest African-American congregation in Washington, D.C., began to critically assess his views on female deacons, he shared with his congregation the following argument on why they should ordain and embrace female deacons:
“I believe that the word diakonos is never used to describe a person; rather it is used to describe a function. Deacon is not a noun which describes a person, but rather a verb which describes one’s actions. Ultimately, God uses whom he chooses, whether to teach or to preach, or to serve as deacon within the administrative boundaries of the local congregation.”
Hicks’ “Rationale for Female Deacons” is historic, for it not only highlights how a church leader has addressed critical faith issues, but also began to engage a congregation in critically reflecting upon its religious traditions, assumptions, beliefs, and faith.
This shift in faith learning and development is indeed revolutionary, and is currently becoming an unavoidable issue for other traditional Black congregations in America. In our post-modern world, the church must hold to the tenets of Jesus Christ but also be honest with itself regarding traditions that are more church-centered than Christ-centered.
As always, keep the faith.
The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson is senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.