I first started reading through the Bible when I was 11 years old, challenged by a Sunday School teacher. I was excited to read stories from parts of the Bible I hadn’t heard before, like Leviticus or Song of Solomon. I quickly discovered why Leviticus isn’t the gripping read I thought it’d be, and it was hard to relate to Song of Solomon (somehow, I wasn’t into comparing my crushes to flocks of goats). But what really surprised me were the stories about women I’d never noticed before or been taught in church.

Deborah, judge and ruler over Israel; Jael, battle hero; Abigail, who saved David from bloodshed; Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophaded who were allowed by God to inherit their family’s land; Dinah and Tamar, who received justice for crimes against them; Hagar, the first person in the Bible to name God; Huldah, the prophetess who brought the word of the Lord to the people of Judah; and many more. 

In the New Testament, I read about Joanna, Susanna, and the crowd of women, including Mary Magdalene, who were not only followers of Jesus, but also financially supported his ministry and stayed at the cross when everyone else left. I reveled in the story of Mary, Jesus’s mother, and her openness and trust in God’s will. I rejoiced in God’s provision, allowing Elizabeth to conceive as well, connecting her and Mary as mothers of our faith. More recently, I became aware of Romans 16, where Paul recognizes 10 women (more than men) in his personal greeting, with seven of the women recognized for their ministry, leadership, and work in the community of believers. 

As it says of Mary in the New Testament, I treasured all the stories of these women in my young heart, delighting in how the Lord made sure I felt seen and heard, despite other Bible heroes having more page time.

But while I knew Jesus saw and heard me, and loved me deeply, I didn’t often feel that same level of comfort inside the church as an adult. In college, I minored in women’s studies, and through my classes, I began to see how, historically and today, women have been mistreated or marginalized, sometimes explicitly, but often implicitly, through existing institutions and systems. While there has been progress over the centuries, it felt like I was learning about a new worldview. My vision started to change, becoming almost like a blacklight I could shine on areas of my life, including church, and suddenly see how women were still disadvantaged, devalued, or mistreated. 

I wasn’t intentionally trying to find things to be upset about, but I really felt like I was seeing all kinds of issues in society for the first time, especially issues within the church. As I was engaged in an academic study I found exhilarating and liberating, the church felt the opposite. I tried several different churches in college but had a hard time finding a fit. People, mostly Christians, looked at me differently if I named my area of study and made assumptions about my beliefs simply because women’s studies interested me. As I tried different churches—which continued even after graduation—I found that the space supposed to be the most inclusive and most welcoming often felt the most isolating. I needed to stifle my convictions and step around others with care. I felt alone. I felt angry. I felt hurt due to what I felt was other Christians’ willful misunderstanding of my beliefs. I felt like I was on the margins of my community and couldn’t understand how no one else seemed to see what I could see.

When it comes to Jesus’s support of women during his earthly ministry, I’m reminded of Jesus and his disciples at the house of two sisters named Mary and Martha in Luke 10. Mary chooses to sit at Jesus’s feet and listen to him teach, and Martha becomes upset because Mary isn’t helping with the preparations needed for hosting. She calls Mary out in front of Jesus and asks him to tell her to help. Jesus gently tells Martha that she’s concerned about the wrong things. He identifies that Mary has chosen what is better: to spend time learning from him.

This well-known story is often applied for women in Bible studies and other materials as a prescriptive story, but the story isn’t one of Jesus’s parables. Mary and Martha were real people, not representations of a “Martha” or “Mary” personality. Rather, part of Martha’s distress is that Mary was doing something countercultural for the time: she was sitting with the men, listening to Jesus. Men were traditionally the ones who followed around a rabbi and listened to his teachings.

When Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her, I wonder if she was really asking, “Lord, how come Mary gets a seat at the table, and I don’t?” And Jesus’s response assures her that the seat was already at the table for her: “‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’” (41-42).

“It will not be taken away from her.” Having a seat at the table goes beyond the debated questions of who can be ordained, who can hold a leadership role in the church, or expectations of roles in marriage and family life. 

Having a seat at the table means that women, and their needs and concerns, are an integral part of the church that cannot be missed or relegated to women-only Bible studies. When I’ve talked with Christian brothers and sisters who are deconstructing, many of them cite the church’s treatment of women as one of the reasons they’re questioning their faith. If Jesus so clearly affirmed women at his table, why is it unclear whether the same is true in many churches?

The years I attended church and felt alone were the years I questioned my faith the most intensely. Conversely, years when I was part of a loving and accepting Christian community that allowed me to be me, even if we disagreed, were the times my relationship with the Lord strengthened and grew. Even when I felt alone in church, I continued to have a personal relationship with the Lord and engage in reading scripture and prayer, but I felt grieved in my heart. My own time with God wasn’t enough for me to grow spiritually; I learned that the ability of our Christian communities to offer radical belonging in the way Jesus did has a direct impact on our ability to grow in our love for Christ. If we want younger generations, like my own, to truly know Christ and the love offered by our beautiful God, we have to emulate Christ in all things, which includes providing seats “at the table.”

I’d like to offer some practical things to consider—things I looked for when I visited churches, or things I notice when I visit someone’s church—that clued me in to how welcome and safe I might feel in the church community.

The below list of points isn’t exhaustive, and it’s not intended to be a checklist. Building a community of belonging cannot be about tokenism or checking boxes. Rather, the points I share are things to prayerfully consider and may resonate with some communities more than others. Many of the points are applicable to including any group that might be underrepresented in the church, such as people of color, people with disabilities, people in certain age groups, unmarried people, etc.


1. How often are women visibly present in the church’s services and weekly activities? Are they in front of the congregation doing things like sharing testimonies or missions’ experiences, reading scripture, preaching, or singing? Are they leading bible studies or small groups or ministries? While many denominations have differing beliefs about specific roles, all can find biblical ways to visibly have women serving as active parts of the body.


2. Is the only women’s ministry in the church a mom’s ministry? And does the mom’s ministry meet at a time that is accessible to working moms?

Moms need a lot of support! There’s nothing wrong with a mom’s ministry, but if that’s the only ministry a church has for women, there can be an implicit message that motherhood is what the church values most. We miss out on women who aren’t yet married or have chosen to be single, those who might be struggling to conceive, those whose child-raising stage is over, or those who don’t feel called to be parents. And if the mom’s ministry isn’t accessible to working moms, it can send a message that the church doesn’t support women working outside of the home.


 3. Are women in the church actively participating on boards, committees, and other leadership and organizing groups?

 If not, is it because the board/committee/group meets at a time that is not accessible for someone with childcare responsibilities? Is childcare provided? Are the only committees they’re involved in related to VBS or church decorating?  While these are very important aspects of ministry, are women also participating in spaces like planning the budget, making hiring decisions, or supporting missions?


 4. When tough issues that disproportionately impact women are addressed in the church—such as abortion, divorce, assault, or abuse—are the issues addressed compassionately and in a way that takes into consideration the presence of church members who’ve been directly impacted by those issues?


 5. When books, curriculums, or other media are used as part of the preaching, teaching, or group studies, is content written by women ever used or considered (and not just for women-only studies or children’s church)? Are female theologians, doctors of the church, and scholars referenced regularly in sermons and teachings (or even at all)?


 6. Are there policies and procedures in place to prevent sexual abuse within the church, and are church staff trained to respond to disclosure of intimate partner violence?

 Sexual abuse scandals within Christian settings are in the news all too frequently. Churches need to know how to promote a culture of safety for female members.

 In the United States, October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. About 1 in 4 women have experienced domestic abuse, intimate partner violence, and/or dating violence (1 in 10 for men). If there are women in your church, then there are women who have experienced abuse in the past and possibly are actively being abused by their current partner. The church historically, and today, doesn’t take a stand often enough against domestic violence, nor does it have a thorough understanding of what domestic violence encompasses. Domestic violence can become deadly, even with no previous physical abuse. Women’s lives are at risk, and their trusted spiritual community needs to be a safe haven where they can go to receive accurate information and connection to appropriate resources. Abusers don’t look like Disney villains; they’re regular people, often charming and charismatic. Believing women is imperative.


I know the word has a broad definition, but I considered myself a feminist after reading the Bible as a young girl. I’m not advocating that everyone should call themselves a feminist, but I am advocating for churches with a culture of radical belonging. I am advocating for diversity of thought within the church, and that we develop the skill (especially in the American church) of loving and being in community with those whom we disagree with. I’m advocating that, no matter how homogenous the local community of the church may seem, there are always people who think differently, vote differently, live in “that part of town,” or look differently.

When we disagree (we may even be disagreeing right now!), I think it’s important to take a breath and attempt to learn more about the other person’s perspective. When I say I became a feminist by reading the Bible, ask what that means to me. When I hear someone say that they don’t believe sexism in the church is a problem, I want to ask them why they believe that’s the case. Many Christian women don’t see the same way as I do on these matters, but we can’t let that mean that we’re no longer sisters in Christ. We can try in the moment to understand someone else’s different perspective, or we can come back to it later when feelings aren’t as high. And we can apologize when we get it wrong and hurt someone else due to our own feelings of fear or misunderstanding.

The Church isn’t just a building or a specific local congregation, but a great, diverse gathering of believers worldwide united by loving Jesus and believing in his message and resurrection.

Building a place where people on the margins, particularly women, have a seat at the table can feel overwhelming and takes time. A simple way to start is to lift others up, especially women and those who don’t already have a seat at the table. Does the church want more women on the board or leading in a certain way? Personally ask or recommend a woman in your congregation who you know would be a great fit.

When we lift others up, they feel seen and heard, just as I did when reading the Bible on my own for the first time, and just as Jesus sees and hears all of us, no matter where we are in our relationship with him.