I was a Bible teacher to women for 15+ years, the leader of our outreach to female addicts in the inner city, nursery, preschool—I did it all. Over time I became more and more vocal about equality for women in the church. My eyes were being opened to this gender disconnect while studying the book of John.

One thing that sets John’s gospel apart from Matthew, Mark and Luke is the detailed conversations he captured between Jesus and various demographics of people. Many of those conversations were with women. Some of the thoughts rolling around in my mind, as I pondered modern-day gender wars, were these conversations. Jesus’s kind, yet familiar manner seems so radically different from my experiences in my interactions with Christian men.

As a new convert, I so desired camaraderie with other Christ followers. I tried to attend women’s events at church, but all they talked about was housework, and rules, and steps to becoming godly women. Frankly it was boring and irrelevant to me. None of it translated into good news for a recovering party girl.

From the men though, I learned theology, facts about the Bible, context, prophecy, Paul’s travels, and Christian living. After attempting and failing to find meaningful fellowship with these men, I studied by myself through books, commentaries, lexicons and sermon tapes. I even tried to teach myself Greek. I gobbled up every crumb that fell from the table of forbidden bread. I was surrounded by men who loved to talk about theology, but I wasn’t allowed to join in.

Where I come from, women are not allowed to go to seminary. We weren’t allowed to be too chummy with men who were in seminary, because our bodies might become stumbling blocks to them. I learned that the best way to “avoid the very appearance of evil” was to isolate myself from male friendships. We were in our twenties but our gatherings felt like a junior high dance—boys on one side and girls on the other—all hoping to dance, but never getting to it.

And so, I was a closet theologian. I was often shamed as if it was a bad thing that I, being female, wanted to learn theology, rather than tips for organizing my closet. There were Christian conferences that I longed to attend, but couldn’t because they were unapologetically offered to men only. I entertained the idea of disguising myself as a man, but that would be hard to pull off and scandalous if discovered. I was already an outcast. I didn’t need that on my rap sheet.

Alone in John’s gospel though, I saw that Jesus did not exclude women. Not only did He let them hang around in His posse, He treated them with respect. He never made them feel like second-class citizens or intellectually inferior to men, but honored them in front of men. He encouraged Mary and Martha to learn from Him rather than scurry about and fret over dumb stuff that didn’t matter. He emoted with them, took time to listen, and have theological conversations with them. He was willing and eager to be close friends with women, regardless of their background, or what other men thought about it. Jesus may be the only man in history who unlocked the secret to women’s hearts, without being tempted to use their vulnerability for selfish gain. This gospel He brought with him was supposed to give us this same gift of equality and friendship (Galatians 3:28), but it seems the church is stuck preaching the curse from Genesis 3:16 instead.

Jesus may be the only man in history who unlocked the secret to women’s hearts, without being tempted to use their vulnerability for selfish gain.

Over my twenty-five years in ministry, I have encountered many, many men who felt the need to put me in my place. I have had deacons scold me preemptively lest I overspend the women’s ministry budget. I have had elders caution me from teaching their wives too much grace, for fear they may become lazy and unmotivated to fulfill their roles. Young male church leaders, new to their posts, have metaphorically patted me on the head and treated me as if I am much too naïve and emotional to carry any heavy burdens of ministry. The irony on that last one always sends me into battle with my pride, especially since I have seen ministry chew up and spit out so many of them over the years. And don’t even get me started on social media trolls. Hiding behind screens allows them to spit out their patriarchal hatred in anonymity—things they would be too afraid to say to my face—things that would hinder their “Christian testimony.”

I go back to John’s gospel again and am reminded that this is nothing new. The religious leaders of his day were also cruel and disrespectful to women. Even Jesus’s disciples did not view women as equals. One example is John 4:27. “Just then His disciples returned and were surprised to find [Jesus] talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’” Their shock is indicative of the culture, similar to the Evangelical context I was raised in, where religious men do not waste their time or wisdom talking to women.

This is why the gospel of John is a good place for women to get to know Jesus. It shatters pre-conceived notions of who we think He is and what He values. If Romans 8:1 is true (and it is), then the stupidest condemnation I struggle with on a regular basis is the condemnation I feel for being female. This condemnation comes from all sides.

The world tells women that their worth is found in their sexuality. We must look good, smile when told to do so—even if it means betraying our feelings, and be generally appealing to men. This is the path to validation in the world’s eyes for women.

Unfortunately, the church’s message for women often is not too different. It may not be openly sexual (although often it is), but it is equally grounded in how pleasing women are to men. Many women spend their entire Christian lives trying to validate their worth to men (and to themselves). Sometimes they do this by competing with, and demeaning other women. Game over. Who needs or wants that kind of fellowship?

I don’t write this to condemn men for being male or for not understanding females. Women condemn and misunderstand men too. I am merely seeking a bridge that we can cross over and find fellowship with each other somehow. Humbly listening without defensiveness or condescension may be a good start. If there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus from Jesus, then why do we think it is okay to use condemnation as a tool for controlling each other? I think most of us have grown up in a society where disrespecting women is normal. Therefore, we don’t even realize when we are doing it or receiving it. It’s forgivable if we can admit it and move beyond it.

Because of the polarization between genders in our churches and our refusal to listen to each other, we are missing out on something amazing—fellowship with half of the body of Christ! We have become so obsessed with our messages on how to be good boys and girls, we don’t even know how to relate to each other or be genuine. I wonder if we can stop obsessing over moralism, which never has and never will restrain our flesh (Colossians 2:16-23)? Instead we are free to pursue relationships that are genuine and honest, and to distance ourselves from those that aren’t. If we have been accepted by the ultimate Man—Jesus Christ, maybe we can learn to accept each other too.

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? –Romans 8:31-35a

Read More from Marci Preheim Here.