Spirit-Filled and Free

It happened during my favorite assembly of the school year—eighth grade chapel. Nearly three hundred uniform-clad students sat on metal bleachers in the middle school gym for the final chapel of the year. The familiar faces of my fellow teachers appeared here and there, positioned strategically amid the pubescent crowd, ready to “shush” any rowdy students.

The room was charged with energetic anticipation of this student-led service, a rite of passage for eighth graders at the school. For weeks, students discussed the chapel in Bible class, divided into teams to plan their portion of the service, and met before school and during break to prepare. Now, as the spotlights surged to life, illuminating the worship band, students leapt to their feet to sing. I stood at the edge of the bleachers holding back tears, for I was not only a proud teacher of these eighth graders; I was also the mother of one.

During the next hour, these creative students beautifully and bravely shone in front of the entire student body—no small feat when you’re thirteen and fourteen years old. Some students stood behind microphones and instruments and led worship, including my son, the drummer. A few students shared a word of testimony. One group performed a skit they had written about kindness and inclusivity; then, another group performed an interpretive dance based on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

When the floor emptied of all other students, a girl named Lizzy walked to its center and took the microphone. I had known Lizzy since my son began attending this small private school in first grade, and I had watched her grow from a cute-as-a-button little girl to a tall, lean young woman with an artistic flair. Now I found myself shocked as I watched her step to center stage with a commanding sense of presence. Like others in the attentive crowd, I sat poised for her first word.

Lizzy delivered the message that day—you could call it a sermon and you wouldn’t be wrong—and she did so powerfully…not just for a fourteen year old, but for anyone teaching the Word of God. Oh, how I wish I could remember what she said, for I know I was both captivated and challenged by her teaching. Unfortunately the content is lost to me; what remains is the moment when I realized I was watching this young woman operate in unhindered glory…and this epiphany landed like a sucker punch to my gut.

This realization bumped against what I’d been taught—what I continued to be taught—about women’s roles in church, ministry, and kingdom work. When I was a girl Lizzy’s age, I was discipled in the Southern Baptist Church, and I keenly observed the ways that men and women operated within the body. Although women carried out so many of the responsibilities, the recognized and revered leaders were clearly all men. I learned that this hierarchy was biblical; to be a good girl, and later a respected woman, meant accepting the status quo of gender roles in the church as gospel truth.

As I watched Lizzy speak, I didn’t have words to describe what I was experiencing or why, but I felt it throughout my body. This fervent young woman taught from the Scripture to both her male and female classmates, and they sat riveted, hanging on her every word. I knew that she was sowing seeds in their young hearts and minds that would germinate long after chapel ended. And yet, I knew that this was likely an eighth grade chapel anomaly.

Would Lizzy be able to step up to any microphone and freely speak, teach, or even preach, regardless of who was gathered in the room, if she later discerned that this was her spiritual gifting and calling? Not without facing a fiercely contested battle, I knew. I knew it because I had both seen it and lived it. Holding this truth while simultaneously beholding Lizzy in her glory shattered the scaffolding of my beliefs.

This moment led me to begin asking questions, to seek a wider range of voices, and to grapple with what I read, heard, and thought. It provoked conversations with my husband, which invited him to be curious too. It prompted me to pay greater attention to women in ministry and the discourse surrounding them. And it led me to consider my own experiences as a ministry leader in church.

In time, I have found words for what I believe with the help of other women—theologians, pastors, historians—like Carolyn Custis James, who writes that “God calls his daughters into action—not just the rare heroic exceptions, but every one of us.” I believe, like James, that “God’s tactics are counterintuitive to our male-centered world…For when men and women are allied together, richer discussions results in better discussions, the elimination of blind spots, and a greater kingdom force in the world.” A blessed alliance, she calls it.

I hold that vision for God’s image bearers before me, and I feel its truth, goodness, and beauty deeply in my heart, in my body, in my bones.

Yet, a shift in the evangelical world to affirm and unleash women to do God’s work as an integral part of this blessed alliance often seems like a lost cause. Remarks like this recent one deal that familiar sucker punch: “The fact that people have benefitted from women’s gifts wrongly used (having teaching authority over men) is an argument based on effect more than obedience…God has blessed the public teaching of women over men despite themselves.”

I feel the impact of this pastor’s words—the familiar strike of accusation, diminishment, and disqualification—and I take a deep breath to steady myself. I call to mind a picture of Lizzy. She’s now a college student, and I have lost track of what she’s doing. However, I can still see her standing in front of her classmates, Spirit-filled and free.

A longing swelled within me on that day to believe that as an image bearer, such freedom was her birthright and my birthright too. This longing remains. Filled with a yearning hope, I declare, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”

Weekly Editor

Susan Tucker is a lifelong lover of story, and with curiosity and openness, she often explores in her writing the tension that life holds. A former English teacher, Susan loves meaningful use of language, especially when used to stir the soul and whet one’s appetite for more truth, goodness, and beauty. Compelled by a burgeoning interest in trauma recovery, she pursued training at The Allender Center, completing the Certificate in Narrative Focused Trauma Care, Level I and Level 2. Susan and Tim, her husband of 27 years, are adapting to an empty nest since both of their sons are now away attending college.nbsp