The hardest Sunday I ever spent at church was a mother’s day some years ago. Tim and I had been trying to have children for a few years, and we were starting to give up hope of being parents. It was a painful time of life. At the end of the service on that particular Sunday, all the mothers were asked to stand, and the pianist played a lovely hymn while the elders delivered a rose to each woman.
It was a small church, so I was the only married woman in the room who was seated.
At the time, I didn’t have the perspective I needed not to take such a thing personally. Painful circumstances can cause us to be self-focused and to interpret everything through the lens of our own suffering. I felt humiliated and devalued, like my malfunctioning reproductive system made me less of a woman. Every wound in my heart cried out as the salt was rubbed in. I felt like never going back to church again.
What compounded my struggle was how out of place I’d been feeling at church lately. I was becoming increasingly silent in conversations with my female church friends, because the discussions mostly revolved around diapers and homemade baby food and sleep schedules. At the same time, I’d started a master’s program, and my new friends were mostly atheists/agnostics. No one at the university ever asked me if I had children; certainly none of them wanted to know why I didn’t have children. They wanted to know what I thought about Kant and rhetorical theory and post-structuralism. In conversations with these friends, I found my voice again. It felt like I had a place among atheists and no place among Christians.
I’m not alone in this struggle. I’ve talked with single women who’ve endured painful sermons about how marriage is God’s best for everyone. I’ve talked to divorced women who’ve endured judgmental comments from fellow churchgoers. I’ve talked to women who felt completely alone when they suffered miscarriages.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can make church a place where all kinds of women feel welcome and feel equal. The ground is remarkably level at the foot of the cross.
I have no problem with acknowledging mothers at church. Motherhood is a high, noble calling that is sometimes devalued by our culture, and I understand that churches want to make mothers feel honored in their important work. The problem comes when being a wife and mom is upheld as the biblical norm and other kinds of women are (intentionally or unintentionally) made to feel like second-class citizens. Are we as a church body acknowledging both the struggles and the contributions of women who don’t conform to the mold? There is nothing in the Bible that says that women should be married stay-at-home-moms with multiple children. There is nothing in the Bible that says that women should be highly educated, successful businesswomen. What the Bible does say about the people of the church is that “we are all one in Christ Jesus.”
We don’t need to hear, either from the pulpit or from each other, that being a godly woman means having a job, being married, or having children. All women need to hear to the same good news: that we are more sinful, evil, and weak than we could imagine, but because of Jesus, we are more valued, accepted, and loved than we ever dared to hope.
The woman feeling lonely and isolated as she wipes snotty noses and potty-trains her toddler needs that good news. The woman who is a CEO of a Fortune 500 company needs that good news. The woman who has had an abortion needs that good news. The single working mom of 5 needs that good news.
Church should be a place where broken people come to be made whole and wounded people come to heal. It shouldn’t leave us more broken and wounded than before. This is not some idealistic goal; it can and should be a dynamic reality. And it’s not something that we can just dump onto the plates of church leadership. It’s the responsibility of every single one of us to think broadly and empathetically about how to welcome every person who steps through our church’s door.
My story has a happy ending. I didn’t lose my faith in the midst of my crisis. I’m now part of a church in which the pastoral prayer always includes a petition for married people, parents, single people, and infertile couples. Last year, I was part of a women’s Bible study where the discussion dove deeply into scriptural truths and where it felt like every woman had a voice and was valued. All of this has shown me that it is indeed possible to have a church where the gospel defines people, rather than having some cookie-cutter ideal define people (and let’s be honest, nobody really fits those cookie-cutters anyway). However, many women have not reached the other side and are languishing in the pews wondering if there’s a place for them in God’s house. Find them. Reach out to them. Talk to them. Listen to them. Show them that they matter. Most of all, point them to the gospel and remind them of who they are in Jesus Christ.