A “Geddes” Culture

The other day, my husband received an email sent from a friend and elder at our church hoping to discuss a new heresy that he felt was infiltrating the broader church. When I saw it, I was bothered by the heresy, but for some reason instead of thinking about that and its implications, my mind wandered to an imaginary scenario. What it would feel like if one of my female friends at church had sent it to me and a group of theologically minded women instead of the male friend of my husband. It was almost comical to imagine, and it took a bit of time for me to work through what it would actually look and feel like to have a culture where regular lay women understood and were interested in theology on that level.  

In my day-to-day interactions, it is rare to find women discussing theology, ecclesiology, the state of the current evangelical church, missions, or really anything vital to the well-being of the church. Our conversations revolve mainly around two subjects: our children – how we will educate them, what they are eating, if they are sleeping, and our husbands and their jobs. If we are in a close and healthy group, we may intermittently discuss our walk with Christ, spiritual growth, or struggles. But, at least in my experience, those are few and even in them, true theological discussions are highly uncommon.  As I meditated on this, I began to wonder why our culture was this way. Why do women not discuss theology and theological questions? Why do we seem happy to only skim the surface of each other’s lives? Why are we not concerned about the state of the church? I even entertained the question, are women as a gender truly less capable spiritually? Is it possible we really are the “weaker vessel” in every way – not just physically (1 Peter 3:7)? 

Jesus Christ showed repeatedly that he values, speaks to, and uses women.

Of course, is not true that women are a spiritually weaker vessel. In the Gospels, Jesus Christ showed repeatedly that he values, speaks to, and uses women. The most glorious moment in human history — Jesus Christ’s resurrection — was entrusted to a woman to share (John 20:1-18). His precious incarnated body was carried and borne by a woman. Women like the prophetess Anna (Luke 2:36-38), Mary and Martha (John 10:38-42 and John 11:27), Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2), the Greek women of Berea (Acts 17:1-4), and countless others were respected workers in the gospel. God even used Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila, to give theological instruction to Apollos who then went on to become an important, theologically accurate, evangelist in the church (Acts 18:24-28, 1 Corinth. 3:6). Women are not Christians “lite”, and we are not “junior partners” in the gospel. So why are most women in the complementarian, reformed community today uninterested in theology? Why do we not concern ourselves with important ecclesiological issues? 

Rising to the Challenge

There are different causes and possibly many different answers, but I believe the bottom line is simple. As humans, we rise to challenges. In order to grow, we must have a bar to jump or a problem to solve. A goal gives us something to work towards. Men in the church know they are leaders; they have a felt responsibility to their families and to the church. They are ordained as pastors, elders, and deacons. They are asked to teach adult Sunday School classes and retreats for teenagers. The pastors and elders of a church are constantly scanning the horizon of men in their churches to find new leaders and teachers. I do not believe women should be ordained to the office of pastor or elder, but complementarianism seems to result in an unspoken modus operandi of women having no gifting at all. We are left with a culture where women not only (supposedly) have a secondary role in the home and are discouraged from working outside the home so as to care for and even teach their children, but they also have no place in the church – they are unnecessary, superfluous.

Humans grow through expectation, work, and effort. Muscle is grown when it is challenged to bear more and more weight. In the same way, we are meant to grow spiritually by our community expecting something from us. Each part of our body has a function, and it is no coincidence that Paul uses this very metaphor as an example in 1 Corinthians 12. Are we truly a body of which no part is expendable (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)? Why then is there no expectation for women to use their spiritual gifts? Why do the elders of the church not seek to grow and use these gifts? Why are women not taking the responsibility to learn and develop their own gifts and callings? 

If women are only expected to show up (and even then, sometimes simply to watch the children) there is no motivation, opportunity, or means to grow and develop. When there is no expectation, apathy is unbridled. When a person believes they have no purpose and are not needed, there is no motivation to grow, learn, and shoulder real responsibility. They atrophy spiritually, just as muscles atrophy when not used. 

Men in church, on the other hand, have these opportunities and expectations from when they first join. They are personally motivated to grow. They are seen, drawn from, and developed by others. They have no doubt an investment in theological study will enable them to bear fruit in the church at large. 

When a person believes they have no purpose and are not needed, there is no motivation to grow, learn, and shoulder real responsibility.

I finished my master’s degree and then began a post-graduate degree in Theology as a man a few years younger than me at church began his Master of Divinity.  He immediately was given teaching opportunities and even preaching opportunities from the pulpit. He had already been teaching Sunday school and leading small groups for years and as he taught and led, his gift was recognized. He then received encouragement and support to further his training. This is exactly how the development of spiritual gifts should work in a healthy church environment, but that was when it hit me – I was probably wasting my time with theological training. There was no one encouraging me in my theological education. There was not even a way for me to use my gifts or training at my church. There was no one to eagerly draw from me or my education. 

This can be a vicious cycle for women and a serious systemic problem. Nothing is expected of us, so we produce nothing. Men and the church as a whole then look at our lack of theological acuity and feel they are proven right to not allow us to use our gifts because we are shallow spiritually and easily distracted by the domestic.

There is a famous story in the Presbyterian heritage about a courageous woman named Jenny Geddes.[1] It was 1637 and King Charles I began instituting Anglican worship through the required usage of a book of canons – a liturgy – in the fiercely Presbyterian Scotland. Jenny Geddes was a common woman in Edinburgh – so common in fact, her personal information has been lost to history. But we do know that she came to church in St. Giles Cathedral on Sunday, July 23, 1637, with her stool to sit upon in hand. The Dean, dressed in his vestment, came into the sanctuary, and walked up to the reading desk. As he began to read the liturgy, the crowd began to murmur. Jenny stood up and shouted, “Villain, dost thou say mass at my lug?” and promptly threw her stool at him, only missing his head because he ducked in time. Her act broke open the crowd’s frustration and they ran the dean out of the sanctuary with him losing his vestment in the process. The bishop then stood up to try to quiet the crowd, but he also was shouted down with accusations of “Pope!” and “anti-Christ!” and had to dodge stones being thrown. This scene initiated what some call the second reformation in Scotland.[2]

I tell this story partly as a very interesting and amusing part of history, but also as a challenge. What would have happened if Jenny Geddes did not know the Bible, or her own community’s theology well enough to recognize a resurgence of popery? I am not trying to give her more credit than she deserves, but there are many times in history where one person’s momentary choice becomes a turning point for a revolution. Where is the fiery spirit of Geddes in our churches and in our women today? Where is the stance on orthodoxy and correct theological thinking? Do we as women really believe that we bear no responsibility to the church? Do we have works to which Christ has called us and for which we must answer?

Geddes and I would probably disagree on many finer points of theology, but her spirit is one I want to emulate. As women, we must recognize that we are full members of the body of Christ, and we are in union with him the same way as men. We are gifted, called, and will be held responsible for our callings before the judgement seat of Christ along with our leaders. We will not be allowed to hide behind our pastors or husbands when we are called to account and we must not hide today either. 

[1] There are not many resources about Geddes but if you are interested, this one can give more information: W.P. Breed, Jenny Geddes or Presbyterianism and Its Great Conflict with Despotism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1869).

[2] Thomas McCrie, Sketches of Scottish Church History: embracing the period from the Reformation to the Revolution (Edinburgh: J. Johnstone, 1846), 204.