From the day I decided to become a Jesus believer and stood up in that church meeting to say yes to a journey of faith, I knew my life would be saturated with the ripples of that choice. My decision was followed almost immediately by a strong sense of ‘calling’ and commitment to church and mission, from the get-go.
I, in an act contrary to my personality and insecurity of being in a new school, wrote and directed a mission-centred play that aimed to draw young people to God just a few weeks later. My encounter with God, albeit just the beginning of a lifetime of relationship, jolted me into a different space that felt like a world of wonder. Over the years I trotted quite naturally into various leadership roles at school (leading our Christian association and way too many other societies and services), on a youth music and drama team that travelled around South Africa, at Bible college (on the Students Representative Council) and in other Christian and secular environments.
The church I worked for as a young adult in Gauteng hired women to disciple young people, and I had a sense that ministry was for everyone, even though in reality the ‘main’ leaders were males only. I moved to Cape Town to study at Cornerstone Christian College (as it was then), with a clean slate and eager mind, and whilst unsure of the actual direction, with an open heart to serve the Church. It felt like the sky was the limit and I, at the start of a new adventure of mission.
I joined a church that was part of a movement that had (and still has) a more conservative approach to a woman’s place and role in the church. I was unaware, bright-eyed and excited about the future. It was an amazing church, the place where I discovered what grace really was – and that it was a little, or a lot, more than “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”, as I had been taught as a good Baptist. I experienced the presence of God in fresh ways, and ‘religion’ (in its worst, dull, duty-bound form) was challenged and shown up for the lie that it is. It was a place of new-found freedom.
Ironically, it also became a place where I began to question my ‘calling’ in spite of my natural bent towards leadership. The lead elder of the church, who in practice was a releasing and inspiring mentor, did a six-week teaching on women and the church, that I attended with an open heart and blank notebook, eager to hear more about what “God” thought about women and Christian ministry. I was more confused at the end of it than at the start. I had never really thought about the limitations or rules based on gender.
At the time I was leading a weekly ministry (and inter-denominational team) at a place of restoration in Salt River and had, at one stage, about 50 people at our gatherings, most of which were men. It was growing. More and more people were joining in and finding God in radical ways. The team was expanding naturally. It was good and exciting to see lives changing and people channeled into life-giving church community.
My young heart, ever eager to please God and people, started to take what I was experiencing and filter it through what I was hearing in the teaching from my leader whom I deeply respected. I had many questions and started doubting if I should be leading it. I asked my cell leader about it, and he wisely said, “Linda, ask God what he wants you to do, and then do it.” That gave me some level of peace and freedom at the time, but looking back I can see the beginnings of a slow and steady undermining of my wonder-filled, open-hearted, limitless sense of God’s invitation to build the church and be a part of her mission on this earth.
Like an indomitable wood borer unseen, the ‘theology of men’ gradually nibbled away at my sense of mission and calling. Slowly, insidiously, it bore away at my core. It happened over many years of serving in Christian circles where one could do ‘this’ but not ‘that’ – as ‘that’ was more linked to authority and decision-making related to the well being of the church, and was clearly and ‘biblically’ for men only.
I write this with a heavy heart as I realise how theology trickles down into practice, whether tainted or whole, and if one is not aware and the practice is not overt, how damaging it can be over the long term. I realise now how subtle this undermining has been, often only recognised by a gnawing dissonance and sense that I had to play a different role in church to what had come naturally to me in the days when my heart and mind did not know the rules.
I have a deep love for the Church, always have and always will. I received prayer recently in a context of worship, where the man who prayed for me felt that there was an apostolic calling in me that had been dormant and ‘tolerated’ by me, instead of recognised, pursued and cheered on. I felt my heart leap inside of me. Something very long dead, buried and grieved, gave a little ‘kick’ of life – a desire to serve the Church in less broad, vague terms (as I do continue to serve the broader global church in many ways).
It flickered, not into a roaring fire, but into a small, teetering flame that I want to protect from being snuffed out again – not by others, but by me. I want to spend time with God whose heart was never for me to hide, looking back for a while, understanding more, forgiving, moving forward. I want to be so sure of how God sees me, that no theology of man can undermine my faith in who God created me to be, and the plans he has for my life. I want to say sorry for the years I believed this lie and stepped into the shadows.
A friend who was in the process of leaving her church community because of a difference in this understanding of Kingdom ministry, recently told me over breakfast that ‘life is too short to collude with bad theology’, and I agree. Now to move forward and let that flicker of invitation and hope for inner freedom, grow into something that impacts how I live this ‘second half’ of my life and journey with my Creator and Father and Lover of my soul.