Who Are the Voiceless Now?
years ago I was approaching middle age and I had issues with the
Mennonite church—that is, the church as I had known and experienced it.
Inner turmoil and ambivalence swirled around my self-identity, my gifts
and interests, and the role of women in church leadership.
From earliest childhood, as I
heard my grandpa joyfully speak of teaching Bible school and holding
prophecy conferences, I had dreamed of working in the church. As years
went by, I continued to feel an irresistible pull to some form of
ministry, but the image was always fuzzy. The specifics of my calling
and how I might be useful to the church never came into focus.
My unfulfilled dream was like a
low-grade fever, an ever-present ache. I learned to live with it, but
it was never far from my mind. Emotional pain was stirred when I read
of other women’s successes.
Embarrassing tears would well
up at unexpected times, provoked, perhaps, by an innocent question
about my education or my career.
I had been taught to respect and obey the voices of authority in my
church as the voice of God. Personal calls to service were discerned
and confirmed by the church. My parents modeled these qualities,
submitting to the church without question. As a young adult I listened
for affirmation and encouragement that would give me a sense of
direction. When it was not forthcoming, I felt helpless, alienated, and
Nevertheless, I gave my heart to
the church and related institutions, making every effort to be
available, accepting each new responsibility as an opportunity to serve
while exploring my gifts and paving the way for other women with
similar interests. During these years I often felt caught up in a dance
of hope and frustration that swayed forward one step and backward two.
I was devastated when, in a
conference-level (denominational regional cluster of congregations)
committee meeting, a bishop flatly remarked that pastors in his
district of the conference believed that for a woman to be in
leadership was a “perversion of her sexuality, just as homosexuality is
a perversion.” I was chairing the meeting. He was talking about me! Such experiences deepened my wounds and heightened my sense of futility for a future in the church.
opportunity to pursue a degree in religious and Anabaptist studies at a
local college offered new perspective on my religious experience.
Immersion in the timeline of Anabaptist history perked my interest in
the theology of suffering—the notion that those who follow Jesus will
Historians analyzing the early
Mennonite experience in North America note the loss of suffering as an
organizing principle and trace the emerging characteristic of humility.
A subsequent rise in evangelical fervor favored strong and vocal male
leadership. Humility, therefore, began to lose relevance. Then with
twentieth century activism, an identity of service began to become more
Though committed to both
humility and service, I also felt an unexplained resonance with
suffering. Why would I, a woman of relative privilege, have a sense of
suffering? Following this thread of thought led to broader questions.
Who are the people who suffer today? They are those who have no voice, those who are powerless. And who, in the church, is without voice and powerless? In that answer, I found my connection to suffering. It is present in the lives of those who seek a role in the church but differ from those who interpret faith and practice. For much of my life, my gender had limited my options and placed me among those without voice.
In my formative years, my
interests were not necessarily church related, but they helped cement
my perception of a woman’s place in tenacious ways. I loved playing
softball with my brother and his friends, but only boys could
participate in organized sports. I enjoyed music and wanted to play an
instrument in the band, but the band wore uniforms and we girls were
forbidden to wear men’s clothing. My earliest memories are of being
denied what I wanted to do, always with words that rang like an
accusation, “You’re not allowed. You are a girl. You can’t do that.
You’re a girl.”
my studies, I was surprised to learn that suffering and power occur in
cycles—that those who are powerless and persecuted often gain
acceptance and status only to unleash righteous anger upon others in
the name of God and orthodox belief. The pattern is documented in the
The first Christian believers
developed from a ragged, egalitarian beginning to become the powerful
and hierarchical Roman Catholic Church, claiming sole authority to
interpret Scripture and dispense salvation. The powerless became the
powerful, and persons who challenged them faced severe consequences.
Well-known reformer Martin Luther risked martyrdom in his breach with
the Catholic Church and then gained control of his own state church
only to become a persecutor of his dissenters.
Fascinated by what I found, I
continued to explore. I read that Anabaptists of the Reformation were
persons of the Bible and their encounter with Scripture transformed
their lives. They were interested in the word, intent, and spirit of
Christ. The New Testament became their authority in matters of faith
Their refusal to submit to
church authority in areas of dispute brought vehement retaliation. They
were accused of heresy and called by disparaging names. They had not
intended to separate from the church, but hostility and intolerance
forced them to go. Their presence was too great a challenge to the
system. The description of these experiences seemed remarkably familiar
I followed the story into more
recent times. Fleeing persecution in Europe, our forefathers and
foremothers established communities in the Western hemisphere,
eventually developing their own systems of orthodoxy and discipline.
With a passion for right beliefs and right practice and with the
intention of protecting the church from sin and worldly influence,
leaders centralized authority, codified practice, and reshaped the
church in ways that allowed little room for anyone with a differing
Numerous schisms ensued.
Residual models of authority and traditional interpretations masking as
biblical absolutes continued to pain and alienate sincere seekers open
to new paradigms of faithfulness.
these repeating patterns was a significant epiphany for me. I saw
women’s struggle—my struggle—as another knobby thread woven into the
tattered tapestry of church history. The perspective was empowering,
sobering, and life-changing.
When I recognized that others
had dared to challenge church authority in many forms, a window of
possibility opened for me. A sense of personal power came in knowing
that my voice and experience is valid, that I do not have to be a
victim to those who would claim authority over me, that I am
responsible to live in a manner congruent with my unfolding
understanding of spiritual truth and practice, that I have options and
can choose my own path.
I was transformed and freed to
work for change, to spend years as an advocate for other women seeking
to use their gifts, to say “Enough!” to those who would prescribe my
behavior and proscribe my voice. I found a community of believers that
is open to my questions, encourages my journey, and is not threatened
I was sobered by the ongoing use
and misuse of power among us, yet I remained wary of some of the
methods proposed to bring change. I did not want to participate in a
march to liberation that would merely replace one face of domination
with another. I did not want to compromise my vision of Jesus, the
compassionate one who came to break the cycle of oppression, who freed
us from the bondage of power-seeking and revenge. I did not want to be
complicit in the misuse of power no matter the intent!
years later, I continue to observe and ponder. Because we have been a
people of humility and service, do we find it difficult to acknowledge
the presence of power in our religious institutions? When did right
doctrine become more important than how we treat one another? When, as
followers of Jesus, did we begin to compromise in the use of coercive
power? When will we measure the justice of our community by how we
treat the powerless?
Who are the people now
disenfranchised, without voice, denied access to meaningful roles in
our churches? Who are those longing for affirmation and blessing, eager
to contribute their energy and their gifts for the benefit of the
community of faith? Who are those experiencing persecution at the hands
of the powerful? Does my epiphany offer hope to those caught in the
current cycle of suffering? Who will stand and shout “Enough!”?
Kennel, Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, is grateful to worship with the
welcoming folks at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster.