Seizing on other women’s pain to make a point on my blog is not something I relish doing. But there’s a point to be made here as we watch the fall out in the media and blogosphere around the marital crises of Evangelists Juanita Bynum and Paula White. A point that’s been long time in coming. And I am a teacher at heart. So, take out your pencils and let’s get started.
The marriages of two highly celebrated women televangelists unraveled publicly last week. News broke last Wednesday about the brutal attack on Evangelist Juanita Bynum in a hotel parking lot by her husband of four years Bishop Thomas Weeks. Shortly afterwards, Evangelist Paula White and Rev. Randy White stood in the pulpit of their 23,000 member Tampa Bay, Florida church announcing the end of their 18 year marriage.
Ordinarily, marital strife (in Bynum’s case) and divorce (in White’s case) don’t make headline news. Not unless you’re a celebrity. Everybody divorces. Fifty percent of all marriages in this country go up in smoke (60% of black marriages, says some). Sad and staggering, but that’s our reality. What makes Bynum and White’s marriages attention-getting is that Bynum and White are women who have managed to climbed to the top of the otherwise male dominated profession of Christian ministry. Women who build megaministries that can rival those of the most successful men in their profession attract the best and worst attention to themselves. Their followers, those have been strengthened and helped by their ministries, urge folks to pray for Bynum and White, reminding us of their right to privacy and that they too are human. Others, those who loathe all things related to church, televangelists, and organized religion in general, take this time to blast the church, televangelists, organized religion and, those who are, according to them, their sniveling followers. Others of us believe that a window of much needed conversation has been opened up. Some good can come out of all of this, we pray.
Here’s the lesson to be gained, I believe.
Many of the news stories describe Bynum and White as fiery, gifted Pentecostal preachers who are known internationally for preaching women’s empowerment. Say what? Since when did Pentecostals preach women’s empowerment? That’s a non sequitur. You’re talking here to an Pentecostal, an ex-Pentecostal anyway. Believe me when I tell you there are things I miss about my Pentecostal past and continue to cherish about that tradition. But its teachings on women is not one of them. Bynum is a captivating evangelist. She’s talented. She’s masterful. Heck, the woman can preach! (As for Paula White’s preaching, I’ll leave that for another post.) But Juanita Bynum doesn’t preach empowerment, not outrightly, not consistently.
Since when did those who believe in women’s submission, men’s headship, and strict and proper roles for both genders start preaching women’s empowerment? I’ve sat and watched both women preach and host shows on the rabidly conservative TBN network, and not a word has come out of either woman’s mouth debunking the notion of women’s submission to men. To the contrary, both women have risen to the top of the neo-Pentecostal, charismatic, evangelical world in which they travel preaching fiery messages essentially keeping women in their places — waiting. Waiting on God to deliver them, waiting on God to send them husbands, waiting on God to reward them for their longsuffering, and waiting on their husbands to honor them for their submission. I don’t mean to caricature, trivialize or denounce the preaching of other women. After all, I’m a woman in ministry too. But as much as we would like for it to be different, your anointing does not protect you from scrutiny. I don’t mean to deny the many other good things about their ministries. But their messages to and about women are not the sort that challenges the notion of women’s subordination to men.
It can’t be empowerment if you’re still preaching wives’ submission and husbands’ headship. It can’t be empowerment if women are wives (or ladies-in-waiting) and men are priests, the “covering”, and the “head” of the household. It can’t be empowerment if your sermons keep women believing they’re incomplete and lacking unless they are married? It’s not empowerment if you fail to tell women that they don’t honor God by suffering through abusive marriages. It’s not empowerment if men are not challenged to see women as equals and if women are not made to stop romanticizing their subordinate role. It’s not empowerment if you don’t open women’s eyes to the way their devotion and patience are being exploited by their churches (not all churches, of course) and by their pastors (not all pastors, for sure).
Here’s the lesson I take away from this sad news about my colleagues in ministry: If the marriages of women who preach submission fail, then rather than blaming it on the devil, perhaps it’s because submission doesn’t work. Never has. Certainly not in today’s world. Which explains why the first question I get in workshops for married women is “How do I submit to my husband?” Here’s what I’ve noticed in all my years of conducting marriage seminars: husbands never ask for tips on how to obey the scripture that says, “Submit to one another” (Eph. 5:21). Men don’t worry their pretty little heads about submission. They leave it to the women to get that one right.
The opposite of submission is not being a man-hater, as some would like to argue. The opposite of being submissive is being responsible. Responsible before God for having a brain. Responsible for hearing from God for yourself. Responsible for being accountable to God for your own talents and gifts. Responsible for negotiating equality in your relationships and for not settling for less. Responsible for teaching people how to treat you.
For too long women in the church have gone mad trying to obey the messages they’ve heard from society and from the pulpit, trying to figure how to live up to the script that expects them to be spiritually strong, but emotionally dependent (on men), economically self-sustaining (if you’re a black woman), but psychologically subservient (to black men)– and simultaneously physically chaste (if you’re woman of faith). We don’t question the script. We blame ourselves for failing to live up to the script.
When I’m feeling charitable toward the prophet Paul (which isn’t often) I give him the benefit of the doubt. Seeing how radically women took the gospel message and how eager they were to embrace the freedom that came with following Christ, Paul had second thoughts. He didn’t want this fledgling church movement to call too much attention from its detractors, and thus caved into pressures to prove that Christ follwers were not a cult, but decent and orderly folks. Urging “wives submit to your husbands” (Eph.5:22) should prove the point. The same goes for his fear that slaves hearing the gospel get the wrong idea and threaten the Roman stock market by seeking freedom from their bondage. “Slaves obey your masters” (Eph. 6:5-6) was meant to put an end to possible rebellion among Christian slaves. On my better days (which are few), I sympathize with the position Paul found himself in as a pragmatic theologian. But you don’t get to have it both ways, Paul and others. You can’t preach freedom and equality and domination and hierarchy simultaneously.
Here’s what Paul meant to say about relationships: we need a language for talking about the give and take, power and vulnerability, independence and dependence that come up again and again when two people fall in love and plunge heart long into the task of trying to live together in marriage.
Marriage is hard even when both parties believe in mutuality and equality in marriage. Sharing. Negotiating. Swallowing your pride. Censuring yourself. Finding a rhythm between the two of you. Trusting the other. Forgiving. Letting go of the hurts. Overlooking. Growing older and changing. Finding a new rhythm. Renegotiating. Starting over. It’s messy, bruising work that wreaks havoc on your self-esteem and ego. But you can survive the bruisi-ness of marriage when you know that you’re not the only one in the relationship “dying to ego.” Marriage is about mutual sacrifice, mutually giving and forgiving, and mutually surrendering one’s wants and needs for the sake of the other– not because of some preconceived notion about roles and gender, but because you love each other, and because forever is a long time to be sad, miserable, and subjugated.
Stay tuned for lesson Two on Wednesday.