A doctor, a drug abuser, a plumber and a pastor’s wife walk into a church. Sounds like the beginning of a really bad joke, right? Yes, either that or the gathering of a local church body on a given Sunday in Anytown, USA.
Just take a look around your church. If it’s anything like mine, you have it all—the wealthy, the not-so-wealthy, the toddler crowd, the gray-haired crowd. Even if your church is relatively homogenous in terms of age, you may have racial diversity, cultural diversity, or diversity in terms of lifestyle or spiritual maturity.
How amazing that God has put together such a strange little flock to fulfill His purposes in our tiny corner of the kingdom! How amazing, and, frankly, how awkward. How uncomfortable. For though it is en vogue in 2016 to embrace diversity, the truth we sometimes whisper to ourselves is, What’s up with this, Lord? How can I minister to—and alongside—women who are so different from me? Is this some kind of a joke?
With our lips we say we embrace everyone. We chant that “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” But our tightly bound circles in the church foyer tell another story. It’s easier to love those with whom we have a lot in common. It just is. But what about that equal footing, that level ground? It’s a hallmark of the Christian faith, is it not?
The Castes We Create
Perhaps you remember learning about India’s ancient caste system, where Hindus are confined to a social hierarchy which—based on a person’s social status by birth—determines his or her intrinsic value and code of conduct. Those at the very bottom, Dalits, are banned from even touching members of castes above them, which is why they became known as “the untouchables.”
According to an article in The Christian Science Monitor, “The Indian Constitution aimed to eliminate the caste system decades ago, starting out by banning the lowest rung of the system. However, particularly in villages, caste hierarchy continues to pervade daily life.”
So what’s the parallel between an ancient Hindu social structure and women in the local church? Hopefully we do not have a formal or even conscious hierarchy that divides us. And to be clear, I’m not insinuating that any “suffering” created by social boundaries in the church compares to an entire class of people relegated to a lifetime of human waste collection. But as I examine my own heart and look around the Christian community, I’m compelled to wonder, To what extent have we created a class system of our own? And so I ask: Who are the untouchables in your church?
Differences That Divide
It sounds crazy, right? But hang in there with me. Take a moment to consider the agents of division among the women in your church. Remember those little circles in the church foyer? What makes them tick? Here are a few possibilities I’ve come up with:
- Age/Marital Status
This one is pretty obvious. In many churches, we find our congregations, our women’s ministries, and our friendships segregated according to age or marital status. We naturally flock to those of similar age groups as our own. The Bible study groups we create fall into neat categories and clichés. We have “Senior Saints,” “Young Marrieds,” “College and Career” and so forth. The moms at church are naturally whom I gravitate toward, because, well, that’s where I am right now! And that’s not bad, but who am I missing if the extent of my church fellowship happens at the door of the nursery?
What about the older folks in your church? I sat next to a lady at our spring tea who was in her upper 70s. She commented with great sadness that she didn’t know which children from our congregation belonged to whom because of a lack of interaction with the young families. Are the elderly the marginalized in your church, relegated to pew-filling and offering-giving? Each woman in our churches, from the high schooler to the senior saint, needs other women to come alongside her as we walk this road together.
- Occupation/Economic Status
The church where I grew up had largely a working-class, blue-collar constituency. My dad is a family physician, and he expressed at times how he felt that his “status” as a doctor was a barrier to fellowship and accountability in our local church.
This could look different depending on the makeup of your church and where you sit on the spectrum, but it’s probably present in every local body. Perhaps your church is largely affluent, white-collar jobs, two-income families. Do we let our economics divide us? Should we? In your church, is the woman who is an attorney being ministered to in the same way as the stay-at-home mom? We all need mentoring; we all need accountability.
- Lifestyle Choices
Let’s step gingerly into this territory. Look around that church foyer again. Where are those circles defined by lifestyle choices? These areas can be especially divisive among women. We tend to line up according to breast vs. bottle, anti-vax vs. pro-vax, working mom vs. stay-at-home mom, Granola Gertrude vs. Drive-Thru Daisy. Our church happens to have a church-run Christian school, which has historically caused some division between Christian school/public school/homeschool families in the body. Are these issues important? Of course! Should we have opinions on them? Sure. But they are largely Christian liberty issues and should be met with grace among sisters in Christ.
Each One Needs Some
Here’s the bottom line: Every woman in your church, every woman in my church, needs one of two things: