Saturday, July 12, 2014

Conformity is Next to Godliness

My first roommate after I left college was a good friend and a lovely person.  She still is both of those things, though she lives far away.  But there was one dynamic to our relationship in those early roommate-days that wasn't all that lovely.  We haven't talked about it, but I think she'd shake her head in amusement and chagrin as much as I do now.

You see, she was very skilled, even back then when we were young, in the domestic arts.  She could whip together a dinner for six people without turning a hair.  She could make jams and jellies.  She could sew beautifully-- she eventually made her own wedding dress, and then my bridesmaid dresses.  Her cupboards were organized, her shelves were organized, even her junk drawer was organized.  And when she cleaned the kitchen, it knew it had been cleaned!

And I?  I wasn't a bad cook.  But that's all you could really say about me and the domestic arts.

This wouldn't have been a problem except for the kind of Christianity we were both involved in. We attended the same church, and the church taught that women were designed by God primarily for homemaking.  The Proverbs 31 woman and her superlative skills in food preparation, sewing and the like were the standard to be sought and attained.  I never really could attain it.  My sweet roommate seemed to do it effortlessly.

And this meant that somehow she was a better Christian, a more spiritually mature person, and a better woman, than I was.

Our church never put it this way in so many words, and I'm sure my roommate never consciously told herself as much. I know I never put it into actual words, in my mind or aloud.  But under the surface I think we both knew she was measuring up, and I wasn't.

A similar kind of thing happened to the guy I ended up marrying.  We weren't together at the time, but when he joined the same church and began to "grow in Christ," a certain idea of Christian manhood was held up to him as the standard.  A spiritually mature, godly Christian man was, first of all, an extrovert.  No one said as much, but that was the general idea.  A godly Christian man always prayed confidently and articulately in men's prayer meetings.  A godly Christian man knew how to loudly "take authority over the devil and his works" as a true prayer warrior.  A godly Christian man could go into a park and talk to strangers about Jesus with boldness "like a lion," just as Proverbs 28:1 said.  A godly Christian man was a born leader.

The young man who eventually became my husband was quiet and a little shy.  He met the church's standard easily when it came to reading the Bible privately (though he had a discouraging tendency to come to unapproved conclusions about what he read), but in prayer meetings and "witnessing" he just couldn't measure up.

This is not to say a woman couldn't be a good "prayer warrior," or that a man couldn't be a good cook. But there was always this sense that you had to meet the basic expectations for Christian manhood and womanhood first.  If you did that, then these other traits were an added plus.  If not-- well, they were nice traits of course, but-- well. . . . it just wasn't quite good enough.

There were other, more general things too.  The church was a charismatic one, which meant that outward displays of emotion were encouraged.  We didn't want to be like the "church of the chosen frozen," you know!  I don't think there was anything wrong with our dancing or waving our arms to the music, or with our cheering and applauding as a "praise offering" to God.  The problem was that those who were less comfortable with these outward displays were treated as if they were just not as devoted to Jesus as those to whom these things came naturally.

Personality, you see, was often mistaken for spirituality.

One of the most ludicrous things was how, at nearly every church meeting, we were exhorted from the pulpit to "give God the loudest shout that you've ever given!"  I remember thinking, "but I shouted as loud as I possibly could last time, and the time before.  It's physically impossible for me to shout louder than that!"  This, I might add, was pretty much as far as my rebellious thoughts ever went.  I still obediently shouted as loud as I could-- though I was one of those who felt adoration, and God's presence, far stronger when I was alone in complete silence.

Most of the time (with the exception of the domestic arts) I was pretty good at being what I was expected to be, and doing what I was expected to do.  Naturally easy-going, I usually had no problem going along with whatever the leaders said we should do.  My basic quietness, and the good manners my mother taught me, were generally interpreted as meekness and deference to my spiritual authorities-- even after I stopped believing they were always right.   The fact that at pot-luck dinners I'd rather talk theology with those of the guys who weren't watching sports, than discuss marriage and children in the kitchen with the women, was a bit puzzling to people, I think-- but in general, I was considered a good, godly Christian woman.  But this was really because (with the unfortunate exception of the domestic arts) I happened to have lot of the traits associated with godly womanliness.  It didn't really have much of anything to do with following Jesus.

On the other hand, my roommate-- the one with the super-homemaking powers-- tended to be naturally much more outspoken and even a little loud.  I suspect that just as I felt inferior to her in the domestic arts, she might have felt inferior to me when it came to having a "quiet and gentle spirit" per 1 Peter 3:4.  How was she to know that it wasn't actually my spirit, my "inner self" as the same Bible verse says, but simply my outward personality, that was quieter and gentler than hers was?

Other friends of mine in the church, I remember, sometimes had serious trouble conforming.  Those who couldn't manage it sometimes ended up leaving the church or even being thrown out.  Why was it, I wonder now, that no one seemed to be able to see that those who succeeded at "godliness" were most often those to whom the approved behaviors simply came naturally?

Why does it seem like this is still often the case in many churches today?

I'm not talking about those things which Galatians 5:22-23 calls "the fruit of the Spirit":
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.
It's true that some of these will come easier to some personalities, and others will come easier to other personalities.  But every kind of personality can cultivate these basic virtues, and they won't necessarily look the same in every person.  But what I'm really talking about is when a certain outwardly recognizable stereotype is viewed as "godly" for one whole subset of Christian people (like men or women, or church leaders, or children), or even for all Christians everywhere.  If you fit the stereotype, or can fit yourself into it, you're approved.  If not, you get disapproval and censure.

Under Much Grace, Cynthia Kunsman's informative blog about spiritual abuse, points out that this tendency to seek conformity to a set of unspoken and unwritten expectations can be a spiritually abusive practice:
Manipulative and authoritarian Christian groups manifest this phenomenon all of the time, with great predictability. One of the most significant problems with cultic groups stems from the many different *informal* rules that are held, communicated, and followed by the group, though they often do not directly communicate these rules to new members. . . All groups have standards, expectations, and unspoken rules, [but] cultic groups are riddled with unwritten codes and expectations that are never brought into the light of scrutiny. . . [T]he consequences for failing to comply with [a] standard can range from formal and severe to informal and avoidant.
Every social group has some standards and unspoken rules.  When you meet someone in Western culture, for instance, you shake hands, and to ignore an offered handshake is extremely rude.  But when the standards become restrictive boxes that require everyone in a group to be alike, that's a problem.

Isn't the God who made us, a little more creative than that?  Since God's wisdom displayed through the church according to Ephesians 3:10 is "manifold" (meaning "many and various," in both the English and the Greek texts), shouldn't there be many and various ways to be a good Christian?  And shouldn't it be possible to do so while still being ourselves?

As I remember reading somewhere once (if I could remember where, I'd cite it) individuality in humanity is a feature, not a bug.  Jesus didn't expect Peter to act just like Andrew, or John to act just like Nathaniel.  Or Martha to act just like Mary.

Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen the better thing-- but He didn't insist that Martha choose it too.  He didn't reject her act of service in making a meal-- He just told her she was getting too worried and bothered about it.

I think if Jesus had come in person to my apartment when I was just out of college, He'd have praised my roommate for her individual way of welcoming Him, and me for mine. Neither of us would have felt like we didn't measure up.

No conformity required.  Just love.


JBsptfn said...

I like your phrase at the end there. That's what it should be about.

Anonymous said...

I love this! Reading this is perfect timing in my life! Thank u for writing this...

Michael Moore said...

Wow... You could be reading my diary and I am a Chosen Frozen Presbyterian ;-)

Anonymous said...

I was told, when I was a young teacher in a Christian high school, that no man would ever marry me because I didn't do crafts. I swear to you I am not making that up. Crafting was the defining quality of femininity and I had fallen short. One helpful woman told me she would teach me if I repented from rejecting womanhood. They also assumed I didn't know how to cook because of my lack of crafting. I actually am a great cook, but there was no telling them that.

Kristen said...

Thanks everyone!

I dislike crafts very much, but I did them like everyone else...

Anonymous said...

Another great article!!

I am so tired of feeling like I can't be a Christian without conforming to some rule or being subjugated to someone, etc.

I am a feminine woman (in appearance) who HATES crafts and baking cookies, and LOVES astronomy, baseball, theology, politics and Snakes!!

Thanks for challenging all the nonsense of complementarianism/patriarchy.