Shopping Cart


Changing the Conversation

Monday, 1 May 2017  | Erin Martine Sessions

A few weekends ago I heard an excellent sermon on Taming the Tongue (James 3) and, as all good sermons do, it got me thinking. I started wondering about the many and varied ways we use words: from articles and pronouns through to attributive adjectives and verbing nouns, words – and what we do with them – have weight and freight. That last sentence alone carried meaning, provided examples of parts of speech, included alliteration and rhyme, and took a (now not so) sneaky jab at grammar grouches. So, aside from that dig at language mavens, it’s not only that I want my words to build people up rather than tear them down (Ephesians 4:29, 1 Thessalonians 5:11 and Romans 14:19). It’s also that I want to keep considering the nuances and subtleties of our ever-evolving language and apply these considerations to what I speak and to what I write.

Language is like water, and I like to swim. It’s always flowing and changing. But, it appears that we’re not all experiencing the same current… actually, I’m pretty sure some people are in a stagnant, backwater, paddling pool. As I progress further in my studies and as I take up more speaking and writing opportunities, I find the kind of feedback, advice and seemingly innocuous comments I receive have a particular flavour: a #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear kind of flavour, leaving me with a nasty taste in my mouth.

Now, just in case you’ve been living under a rock (or, say, an upturned inflatable kiddie pool in Stillwater, Oklahoma), #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear was a hashtag created by Canadian author, preacher and recovering know-it-all, Sarah Bessey. It very quickly started trending on Twitter and Facebook, was picked up by CBE International and inspired an interesting Christianity Today op-ed. The tweets were quotations of things that had been said to Christian women and they ranged from the well-meaning-but-misguided through to the blatantly misogynistic. Here are a few examples I’ve found particularly relatable:

You speak five languages and have a doctoral degree? Children's ministry is your calling! – Sara EggersI'm a pastor. So where does your husband pastor? No, I'm the pastor. You pastor together? No, I'm the pastorI'm a pastor. So where does your husband pastor? No, I'm the pastor. You pastor together? No, I'm the pastor

Women can write theology books but not teach theology. – Scott Lencke

“I’m a Pastor.” So where does your husband pastor? “No, I’m the Pastor.” You pastor together? “No, I’m the Pastor.” – Megan Powell du Toit

I want to qualify what I’m about to say with the following: I am free to exercise my gifts and live out my calling in my church and workplace, where I am lovingly encouraged and supported. But I don’t exist in an egalitarian bubble and, unfortunately, I still experience unconscious bias and sexism on a daily basis. Here are my contributions to #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear

Thanks for that great lecture but shouldn’t you be home with your son?

My male colleague writes an interdisciplinary book: “He’s a Renaissance man". I work towards my interdisciplinary PhD: “She’s confused. She doesn’t know what she wants".

What do we do with this? How can we make it better? Firstly, respectful dialogue. This hashtag has already generated a lot of discussion. Not all of it has been positive. It has, once again, highlighted the spectrum of views on ‘women in ministry’. It also opened up discussion on Church unity. Whatever our perspectives, we can all try to listen, understand and empathise[1] and then thoughtfully and respectfully engage (and remember, thou shalt not commit logical fallacies).

Secondly, whether you are female or male, if you are of the theological persuasion that supports women in ministry, then do it: support us vocally, advisedly and creatively. Give women opportunities to lead, teach, preach, speak and write. Recognise the barriers that may be standing in our way and help us to overcome them. And, getting back to my earlier thoughts on the subtleties of language, here’s a simple but effective way to change culture: use feminine pronouns.

As you were reading my opening sentence, how many of you saw in your mind’s eye the person giving the excellent sermon as a man? This is something I’ve caught myself doing over the years. When I was growing up, it was overwhelmingly the case that people in positions of authority were male, and so masculine pronouns became my default. Today, when I read about a CEO, or a doctor, or a NASA mathematician (if you haven’t seen Hidden Figures make sure you do!), or a Pastor, I still sometimes envision them as male. I believe that culture influences language and vice versa. So, let’s change the conversation.

By the way, that excellent sermon was given by an inexperienced female preacher. And she nailed it.

Erin Martine Sessions is a writer, poet, parent, and lecturer at Morling College. She enjoys bending space and time to binge-watch Netflix.

[1] ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his [sic] point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ – Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird 


Andrew Sloane
May 2, 2017, 9:49AM
A nicely argued and thought-provoking piece. This is one of the many conversations we need to be having - as true conversations rather than sniping from one bunker to another.
Erin Sessions
May 3, 2017, 10:40AM
Still, thanks for being in the trenches with me.
Ken Rolph
July 14, 2017, 4:41PM
Some of us were brought up learning lists of appropriate words like aviatrix and murderess. That was there could be no ambiguity about which gender you were referring to.

My favourite comment on this area is Dorothy L Sayers essay Are Woman Human. I heard of a public meeting where an academic queried her ideas in that essay. She responded by quoting from a textbook 'early man and his wife'.

In a related essay The Human-Not-Quite-Human she writes about men in the same style as the periodicals of that era wrote about women. Example:

'There is nothing in the least feminine about the home surroundings of Mr Focus, the famous children's photographer. His 'den' is panelled in teak and decorated with rude sculptures from Easter Island; over his austere iron bedstead hangs a fine reproduction of the Rape of the Sabines.'

Got something to add?

  • Your Comment


Online Resources

subscribe to engage.mail

follow us

Latest Articles