On being a Christian feminist, Part 2: Hierarchy and idolatry

Given that I’ve already established that I think that feminism is a Christian calling, many of my struggles with the church as an institution and with its cultural presuppositions should be immediately apparent. That post was coming from the perspective of how sexist misunderstandings and misrepresentations have been used against women in marriage and relationship roles, alluding only briefly to women’s role within the church itself. That connects to a bigger point about the concept of hierarchy in spirituality.

I think an ideal spiritual environment eliminates the concept of hierarchy entirely. I think that to assume that any individual, or any type/class of individual, is closer to God or more God-like than any other is pure idolatry. I was raised Catholic, but when I came to my own genuine faith for the first time a couple of years ago, I started attending an Anglican church. One of the reasons I can’t see myself ever going back to Catholicism (though anything is possible, I suppose) is that the entire system is based on an authoritarian model and the presupposition that some individuals have or can gain a unique conduit to God. The message that God sends must be transmitted, or minimally, is better transmitted, though priests ordained to do so, and increasingly high-quality, less-distorted messages come from those further up on the Church chain of command. They are better than, higher than, greater than the masses, regardless of how much we talk about priestly poverty and sacrifice.

When I talk about my disagreement with this principle of Catholicism, people generally assume I’m expressing disagreement with many of the individual tenets/interpretations announced by the men in charge, or with the fact that it continues to be only men who are allowed to take on these roles. This is true, but it’s not the point.

The Reformation improved the general issue by allowing people to start reading and interpreting the bible for themselves, removing the need for a third-party, church-sanctioned translator between God and lowly human, and many of the Protestant churches (including Anglican) allow women to be ordained. But I don’t think we’ve yet gone far enough toward the egalitarian structure modeled both in the garden and by Jesus, who, by my reading, established himself as the boss and put everybody else on an equal plane. We talk a lot about priests being “servants” or “serving the community”, but I don’t think we grasp properly that service and humility mean that they are subservient to the people, not glorified by them, and called to both guide and be guided by them, not to command or regulate them. We also refer to them as ‘holy men’ and, when we want to depict a person of faith, a person who is better than others, on television, we reveal him to be a priest.

Recently, a story came out that a Roman Catholic diocese has decided to evict a group of nuns in order to use the proceeds from selling their convent property in order to pay out a settlement to victims of sexual abuse by priests. On one level, the problem is that the church is protecting pedophiles and finding ways to transfer responsibility away from the individuals and institutional elements involved. A further layer down into the systemic problem reveals that the individuals who are being asked to make enormous personal sacrifices are women, despite the fact that the perpetrators are uniformly men. The system is both corrupt and sexist, but I would argue that the specifics of the situation are the inevitable result of hierarchy. It’s not just that we’re denying that priests can do these things, or that we should be more forgiving when they do (though the Church is, in fact, saying that). What is also being said here is that the needs of some are more important than those of other others, because the work they do is more vital, they are less dispensable, less replaceable, closer to God. Now, they’re all these things because they’re men in addition to priests, but, like the broader system of privilege, it’s a problem because it exists, not because of who has it and who doesn’t.

One of the reasons I love the service that I attend every Sunday morning is because, in lieu of a sermon, we have “teaching” which is often done by lay members of the congregation. Several of these people have studied given topics extensively or have a particular passion for and awareness of a specific issue, and we tap into the resources that our church has to offer beyond just the education and thoughts of the one guy wearing the robe (at this service, by the way, he also doesn’t wear the robe, which I personally appreciate as part of refusing to ‘other’/idolize the priest). I appreciate the knowledge that people have, and I certainly appreciate that many of them have spent more time than I have examining this stuff, but no one pretends that these individuals have any increased ability, natural or learned, to access God and understand his will.

Why is this a feminist issue? Because to my mind, feminism provides us with a model that goes beyond flipping the dichotomy and helps us start to see things in terms of completely opting out. Feminism, to me, isn’t about putting women in positions that have been created and defined under the conditions of patriarchy, it’s about radically rethinking the whole structure. It’s through my initial questioning of the male power structure of the church that I personally started to see the problems with inequality, and I only get more convinced that they’re bigger and deeper than those surface representations.

It’s idolatry to see some as higher than others. It’s putting them closer to and almost in the place of God. Sexism creates a dichotomous version of this, but a hierarchical structure is just setting more layers into the idol-chain.

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4 thoughts on “On being a Christian feminist, Part 2: Hierarchy and idolatry

  1. Jay says:

    Only a few comments…

    1.) I do believe that certain individuals can be closer to God than other individuals. If you take any part of the bible as historical, isn’t that fairly clear? Do you think that the prophets of olden days of yore were no closer to God than anyone else? In more modern times, I certainly believe that some individuals are considerably closer to God than I…my father-in-law (my bishop) for one. For that matter, I’m closer than some others…is it vain of me to think that by working daily to commune with God, that I manage to get a little closer than a (hypothetical) murdering communist atheist? 🙂

    Note that I don’t mean “closer” to mean “better than”…not at all. All are sinners, all have fallen short. I mean closer in the sense that, as all men are able to communicate/receive revelation from God, some are more capable of it or practiced at it than others. It’s like my belief that people aren’t equal…they are created equal, but then proceed to unequalize themselves through their choices. If everyone were equal, then people would not be free. And if everyone were equally close to God, regardless of their attempt to nurture a relationship with him, then people’s free will would be rendered substantially less meaningful.

    Final note: I definitely do not believe anyone grows closer to God through membership in a club (i.e. these guys in funny hats can talk to God), or even that it is limited to membership in the “true” church. I’m certain there are several non-mormons who are closer to God than I am.

    2.) It does me good to hear of your church’s method of “congregation-based teaching”…since it’s similar to my own church’s method. We used appointed teachers, who have been “called” to a teaching position…but they are drawn from the general ranks of the congregation, without special training or ordination, and gender is not a factor. Until recently, both of our Sunday school teachers were female. This is one of the things I like about the LDS church…it’s focus on the laity (did I use that word properly?) in the operation of the church.

    You think that allowing anyone to be closer to God is a form of idolatry…I would distinguish between aknowledging someone’s closer relationship with God and with setting someone up (or one’s self) as closer to God. If I acknowledge that someone else is smarter, taller, or better groomed than myself, is there anything wrong with that? How is relationship with God any different?

    Idolatry, to me, involves worship or elevation in divine status…I suppose it depends on how one defines (or views) relationships with God.

  2. purtek says:

    You make some very valid points that make me realize I’ve missed some things.

    Since I’m perfectly capable of saying that I’m now closer to God than I was when I was an angry, bitter atheist, I have to take it that you’re right that there is some sort of continuum of relation that needs to stay. I can’t challenge myself to greater contact if I don’t think a difference exists between one way and the other.

    As to whether that’s vain or prideful, it depends on how it’s used, on an individual level. Your point raises the issue for me of continually self-challenging, especially when you say:

    they are created equal, but then proceed to unequalize themselves through their choices.

    I do think “closer relationship with God” has to be acknowledged with more caution that ‘smarter, taller etc’ because there is such a heavy qualitative position attached to it. I think church hierarchy has misrepresented the concept through the lens of patriarchy, because we’ve built a culture on lauding some individuals while denigrating others. The churches I’m familiar with both officially and de facto mimic that structure, resulting in varying degrees of idolatry. I really think the idea of leadership as servitude has been lost (both in the church and in politics, where genuine democracy entails that it should apply as well).

    Glad you acknowledge non-mormons can have a relationship with God. I think we’d have a lot of difficulty discussing any of this with any degree of respect if you didn’t ;).

  3. Jay says:

    “I do think “closer relationship with God” has to be acknowledged with more caution that ’smarter, taller etc’ because there is such a heavy qualitative position attached to it.”

    I see where you’re coming from, and how that’s definitely a bad thing. “Close to God” is, to me, like close to anything…a strictly quantitative measure of distance, albeit in weird increments, and impossible to measure precisely. 🙂

    “I think church hierarchy has misrepresented the concept through the lens of patriarchy, because we’ve built a culture on lauding some individuals while denigrating others.”

    Can’t deny that, as a historic fact. Do you think society has taken steps to correct this (at least to some extent), or not so much?

    “I really think the idea of leadership as servitude has been lost (both in the church and in politics, where genuine democracy entails that it should apply as well).”

    100% agreement, especially in the spiritual sense…”Neither be ye called masters; for one is your master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:10-12). One of my faves.

  4. purtek says:

    Wow, we’re in near total agreement about almost everything in the space of three comments? One of us must be going soft. 🙂

    Do I think society has taken steps to correct the dichotomy of denigration/adulation? I think there are sectors of society where you see it happening, yes, but there is some serious ongoing backlash against it that’s entrenching it further and more harshly, imo. I do think we’re lacking effective models of genuine egalitarianism/lack of hierarchy, especially in spiritual environments.

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