We have had women participating in public worship at the Manhattan Church of Christ since the early 2000s. Since we are a well-known congregation in New York City, we often have visitors who come to us from Churches of Christ in other parts of the country and even outside of the United States — churches that, by and large, do not allow women to take on leadership roles. Many of our visitors know that we have women in leadership. Some feel excited about the opportunity to witness a gender inclusive worship service, while others feel apprehensive. There are other visitors who do not realize that they have walked into a Church of Christ that practices gender equality. They are surprised when they look at the order of worship and see female names listed to lead prayers, read Scripture, share the communion meditations, or preach the sermon. While some are pleasantly surprised — excited about the opportunity to experience something new and different — many feel concerned. They worry that they have wandered into a place that celebrates something that seems fundamentally unbiblical and they wonder if it is sinful to stay.
Some do leave at this point. They just can’t reconcile their beliefs with our practices, and their consciences demand that they walk out. We notice when people leave and we feel sad. Sad for us, yes — we were happy to welcome them. But sadder for them — they came all the way to church in the middle of their vacation but couldn’t even stay for the service. How disappointing and how frustrating that must be. But others stay. They may decide to give it a few minutes and see what they think — if it really feels sinful then they can always get up and leave in the middle of the service. Or maybe they come to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with worshipping with us, even though they disagree with our practices.
However they make sense of their decision, we are glad when they stay and we’re always interested to hear about their experience. Very often people talk about being surprised. They thought it was going to be weird but they were surprised that it wasn’t. They thought it would feel wrong but they were surprised it didn’t. There is something about hearing a woman speak a prayer from a place of reverence and faith that feels much more right than wrong. And there is something about witnessing a woman read the words of holy Scripture with authentic joy that is truly beautiful and not at all weird. They may not realize it in the moment, but this experience has challenged these visitors’ long-held assumptions and beliefs. Through the years many people have told me that this decision — the decision to stay and worship in a gender inclusive environment — was a decision that changed their lives. For some the change was in the direction of a more open and accepting view of those who interpret Scripture differently than they do. Others remember this decision as the starting point on a journey toward a gospel of equal discipleship.
But still others have taken my hands and with tears in their eyes told me how deeply moved they were by the sound of women’s voices in worship. They talk about how surprised they were by the depth of their own emotion, unable to sing through their own tears. These are the people who leave with a longing to worship every Sunday in a space where they can hear the voices of women as well as those of men. Their stories stay with me. Women and men both, surprised to discover a deep, Spirit-led longing to throw off the shackles of patriarchy and come to the cross as equals in Christ. Neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. All one in Christ Jesus.
Surprised. Surprised by God. Surprised by the Holy Spirit who has shown them a new way to worship, a new way to be the church.