Wednesday, 2 March 2011

On Pentecostal women (that is to say, ladies)

Anybody who was brought up, as I was, in the clamorous joy and madness of Pentecostalism, will know something that ought to have been obvious all along: that the Christian faith is really sustained not by its ecclesiastical hierarchies or its salaried religionists, but by its women.

One of the marks of Pentecostalism is the presence of strong women. You will find them in every Pentecostal church: praying in the spirit without ceasing; worshipping with solemn exuberance, as though they alone must bear vicariously the whole joy of salvation; interpreting their thumb-worn leather Bibles, which are always extensively underlined, annotated, and committed to memory; issuing swift, infallible, ruthlessly imposing moral judgments; and, through all this, patiently inscribing their own faith on the bodies of their children. (That, incidentally, explains the remarkable contrast in traditional Pentecostal gatherings between the uninhibited expressiveness of the women and the polite docility of their neatly dressed children.)

As a boy, I was often told that the most important person in our church was not the preacher or the musicians or even the swaggering itinerant evangelists who so often darkened our doors, but Mrs Loy, an 80-something (and later 90-something) Chinese woman who had devoted her life to prayer. In all the years I was there, I rarely heard Mrs Loy say anything, but every Sunday morning her tiny arthritic fists could be seen raised high in palsied worship, her little balding head shining with goodness and joy. Sometimes during worship she would deliver a message in tongues, and an awed silence would fall across the congregation like a blanket. To this day, I don't know what those tremulous glossolalic homilies meant, but instinctively I knew – as everyone knew – that they were the most important things ever spoken in our midst. Not because we understood them, but because they came from the heart of Mrs Loy. She was, I forgot to say, the pastor's mother.

Such women are the engine room of the church. To a great extent, even the formal power structures depend on their secret society, their prayers and prophecies and discerning of spirits. They exercise a tremendous social and theological power, even in churches where the official theology is repressive and the official power rests solely in the hands of men. All this is, as I said, explicit and transparent in Pentecostalism – but isn’t the same thing true in churches semper et ubique?

Here, perhaps, lies the explanation of a strange fact that has often puzzled me. Why is it that churches persistently refer not to women, but to ladies – the “ladies’ group”, the “ladies’ Bible study”, the “ladies’ morning tea”, and so on? As far as I can tell, the church is one of the only cultural institutions – another being the public restroom – that still favours this quaint terminology.

But truths lie buried in language. The word “lady” comes from the Old English hlaefdige (literally “bread kneader”), a woman of high status to whom one owes obedience – the wife of a lord for example, or the head of a household. In popular piety, the term was used to designate the Mother of God, “Our Lady”, the one to whom our homage is due (in Old English, the Latin domina is translated hlaefdige). Looking down from the cross, Christ calls his mother “woman” (Jn 19:26); when we address her, she is always “Lady”.

Is this, then, the reason for that curious ecclesiastical archaism, whereby women are addressed as “ladies”? Is this why an assembled group of women is convoked under the fearful nomination of “Ladies’ Group”? Is this the church’s subliminal recognition of where the real secret of its power lies – not in the young men with their furious ambitions or the old men with their weary dignities, but in the hlaefdige? For is this not the mark of the hlaefdige, the Lady, that she governs the whole household and makes every servant tremble, all the while indulgently allowing her husband the idle vanity of believing himself the sole lord and master of the manor? Is it any different in the church?

That’s why there is no greater comedy, nothing more rib-ticklingly ironic, no greater instance of institutional slapstickery, than a church (like the Pentecostal church where I grew up) that restricts positions of power to – of all people – the men!

17 Comments:

agapelife said...

haha, this was fun to read. I myself come from a charismatic background and could very much connect with this

Brian LePort said...

I enjoyed this since I share a similar background as well. This is one of the more positive aspects of Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity.

Anonymous said...

God from the beginning purposed that the man should be the head of the woman. Adam was created before Eve and he alone named the animals. In like manner Adam also named Eve after she was created from his side to be his helpmate.

God, when he instituted the covenants of work and grace made those covenants with the male gender. From Abraham to Christ each covenant signatory is male. God when he introduces himself to Moses,says that He is the God of; Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. All of these men had wives but God in making himself known does it with reference to the men exclusively.

The New Testament is replete with teachings on male headship which can be found in the writings of Peter and Paul. Christ himself did not make Apostles out of any of the women who were disciples.

dbhamill said...

Thanks anonymous, that's such a relief to know.

John Hobbins said...

Ben,

I loved this post, except for the last paragraph, which strikes me as naive.

It is a well-known fact, or should be, that strong women of the type one finds often in contexts which exclude women from office-based authority are relatively few and far between in contexts like the one you have chosen which grant women office-based authority as a matter of course, and fast-track them in the same.

Charisma und Amt; never the twain shall meet. That's an exaggeration, but only an exaggeration.

Ken e said...

I grew up in a pentecostal church and this brings back memories..lol

Pat said...

Ben - obviously women do have "power" in the church. The first part of your post eloquently highlights this. What are you lamenting? That they aren't ordained as pastors in the Pentecostal church? Anyone who wants "power" in the office - male or female - shouldn't be ordained.

Pat said...

oops - first power should be w/o quotes. and for clarity I should have said influence

Erin said...

You have described precisely, the church where I grew up :)

James K.A. Smith said...

I noticed the Ontario (Canada) license plate in the photo: a shout-out to Aimee Semple McPherson?

Ben Myers said...

Thanks Jamie: a stroke of interpretive genius! I knew there must be some reason why I liked that car so much...

Anonymous said...

I believe God made man as head of women. The explanation can be found if we dig deeper from Bible (and an explanation from Anonymous). The problem is when the head oppress the one who he lead. If there is no oppression from man, deliver to woman, there is no feminism movement.

Oh, i forgot to mention one thing, there is no such thing as man is greater than woman. That's a statement came from man. ;)

Iconoclast said...

Don't know if this post is as funny as the responses from our anonymous friends. Either way, I'm enjoying a good laugh.

I'd just like to thank Anonymous 1 and Anonymous 2 for setting us straight and protecting our true authority and power as men from this reprehensible and unbiblical assault. You are both vanguards of truth.

I love how Anon. 1 likens Adam's naming of the animals to his naming of Eve. Priceless!!

Michael said...

@ Iconoclast

People name their sons and daughters and it doesn't mean they're likening them to animals...

Anon 1. clearly differentiated Eve by pointing out she was made from his side...

craigbenno1 said...

I find it interesting I have found this very thing to exist within the Anglican, Pentecostal and now Baptist...

You can easily exchange the tongues with music, singing, announcements, church picnics / BBQ's...

Gary said...

Craigbenno1: And Churches of Christ, too. Except for the music part, that is.

JOHN said...

What's interesting is that with all the growing trendy mega-churches (we were talking about this the other night) there is always a picture of the 'pastors' (plural) of the church together. The Brian and Boobie Houston model. It obviously has great marketing value. All the up and comings do it. And the scary thing is neither of them usually have any decent theological training but are both called 'senior pastors' as a couple. They preach about their love for each other to the congregation regularly. Involved almost in a public act of emotional masturbation (as well as spiritual of course) in front of their spiritually voyeuristic congregations who are vicariously living their lives through their role models. The girl plays the whore for the team aim, as much as the man.

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