From Outside the Camp
JUNE 25, 2020
My faith has been deconstructing—against my will—for the past few years.
Most of the people I have talked to who have walked away from their parents’ version of Christianity, did not choose to walk away of their own volition, but were rather forced out. Whether outwardly it seems they quietly slipped away, or lit a match to every Christian bridge they’ve ever crossed, most would claim it to be one of the most painful events in their lives. They did not choose to lose their communities, their families, or their certainty. (Dear God, I miss my certainty!) And although there is an army of deconstructors out there—most of us have never felt more alone.
Before you get angry and call Steve Brown to complain about this heathen author on Key Life, know this: I haven’t lost my relationship with God, and I do still have faith. It has just changed shape. I understand now the blind man who was cast out of the synagogue, the woman at the well who went there alone because she was an outcast, and Mary Magdalene who tackled Jesus in the garden after the resurrection—determined never to let him out of her sight again. When someone with power and authority (like a rabbi) treats an outcast with kindness and dignity, they earn their trust. The opposite is also true.
Deconstruction doesn’t look the same for every person. Lately I’ve been thinking about my past self—the one who studied the Bible for hours every day. The one who taught the women of her church through almost every book of the New Testament and several books in the Old. That earnest woman was so passionate about justice, hungry for learning, and eager for relationship with other theologians. Since she made the men uncomfortable, she trained up new female theologians so she would have someone to talk to about it. When she got unsatisfactory answers to her theological questions, she went and studied and found answers herself.
I went back and re-read my book, Grace is Free, this week (which eventually got published…even after my being called a renegade just for suggesting that the proof of a woman’s salvation was not in how much housework she does). I hoped beyond measure that I still agreed with myself for the most part. While I do not use the same kind of churchy language like “useful to the kingdom,” I was happy to see that even then I was trying to convince Christians that faith is more important than doing lots of religious stuff, and anger is a terrible way to dialogue with others about it. Even back then I was trying to convince other Christians not to be jerks. Here I sit outside the camp wishing that things were different. Both past-me and present-me wish for a lot less anger and much more empathy:
Jesus has a different message for women than we have for each other—a message of mercy and grace. Look through the gospels at the narratives of his encounters with women: not once does he applaud a woman for her domestic skills. On several occasions, however, he commends women with great faith and reckless love…
…A third character is present in most of the accounts of Jesus with women. This character takes different forms but is always the same—angry and judgmental. It may be a group of annoyed disciples begging Jesus to send away a nagging Canaanite woman, or a self-righteous Pharisee who thinks, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is— that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). Once it was a crowd of bloodthirsty men with stones waiting to blame their brutality against a woman caught in adultery on Christ. There is even a sister, a fellow worshipper of Christ, tattling because her sister is not doing what is expected of her.
You know the story. Martha was busy serving and Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet. Often when this story is taught there is a disclaimer. It goes something like this: “Well, Mary should help her sister, but in this case she chose what was better” or “I’ll tell you what, I’d rather stay at Martha’s house.” We feel for Martha. We’ve been where Martha has been. But that disclaimer never shows up in the Bible. This reveals our natural pull to focus on doing instead of believing. We secretly side with Martha and want to learn that later Mary helped her. But it’s not there. Listen to what Jesus said: “Martha, Martha . . . you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42, emphasis mine).
Anger is a natural reaction when people perceive a lack of respect for “the rules.” Yet the one thing needed is to draw near to Christ. The rest of our lives should flow from that one pursuit. Martha ignored Christ to focus on things that didn’t matter.
We do this too. I attended a women’s event at my church. In fact, I headed up the committee that planned it. It was an event where you go from one mini- seminar to another and then have lunch. In between seminars I found myself in a conversation about the gospel and realized I was speaking with someone who desperately needed to hear it. She and I stayed outside of the seminar. Five minutes later, someone poked her head out to warn me I was missing the talk on how to set a fabulous table. I assured her I would come in a minute. Five minutes later she poked her head out again: “Marci, you’re missing it!” I wanted to say, “No, you’re missing it!”
We get the gospel wrong all the time. We rarely reflect on our own need for its power in daily life and miss opportunities because we’re so distracted with externals. The true gospel sets women free to abandon man’s ideal and draw near to Christ’s. His standard is actually much higher than outward performance. It is inward devotion, desire, and dependence. Through freedom and grace received from Him, we are able to give freedom and grace to others rather than trying to control them. We are free to be emotional with him (yes, you heard right). We are free to have transparent friendships, to dialogue without fear of judgment. When we admit weakness rather than covering it, we will be more useful to the kingdom than we’ve ever been.