Just Who Are These ‘Church Ladies’?

Inspired by Sarah Flashing who is doing an admirable job of providing commentary on our culture, and recently on specific Church culture, I started to think about how I define this term that I have used, ‘The Church Lady‘. I pretty much presumed that we all know this lady and have similar thoughts and feelings about her. As she has become defined, however, I am not so sure I presumed correctly.

So, how do I see ‘The Church Lady’? And how far have I conformed to this stereotype, myself?

  1. She is the SNL caricature of old fashioned clothing, and as recorded in Wikipedia:”uptight, smug, and pious”…”She often takes others to task”…”whenever she felt that she had demonstrated her superiority, she would do her “Superior dance” in which she would rhythmically strut to organ music in front of her alleged inferiors”
  2. Much of the Church Lady’s attributes in our real churches are the result of following the prescribed dress, demeanor, and attitudes handed her by the mainly male leadership. This is usually in the name of various virtues and denominational references. Some women sincerely try to emulate the sets of rules with the best of intentions, some struggle without knowing how to be otherwise, and some find themselves completely at home in the persona.
  3. Church ladies are secure in their constricted world of social rounds inside their church circles. They are – and often proudly so- a callback to the ’50’s women of the past… with their own substitutions for bridge parties and coffee klatches. They make it equally as difficult to break into their cliques as any elite social organizations of that time.
  4. They are mixed in among the sincere and the faithful, so that they are not identifiable by image alone, but rather by the undermining critical spirit hidden in their pious smiles, the impossibility of gaining their acceptance by any except their own standards.
  5. Her view is small and parochial, she doesn’t want to be bothered by larger concerns of the world, except in the most generic way possible, she stands aghast at the great unwashed masses. Her world is neatly pressed, and deodorized… brightly smiling, preferably.
  6. But sometimes she is determined to break from that smallness, and sometimes she proves herself a tireless worker in ministries to the less fortunate
  7. Sometimes she provides a safe haven of grace and hospitality, lovingly setting a fine table for guests or providing meals for the distressed. Her home cloistered from the outside world can be a place of peace and respite.
  8. She is mindful of boundaries that make the difference between a place of order and grace and chaos
  9. She is the amalgam of women, both sincere and hypocritical who seek to have a Christlike life. The one succeeding in spirit, if encumbered by distractions to many rules of appearance and lifestyle…. the other giving rise to the many jokes and bitter memories of being ambushed by her.

My own Church lady role has consisted of trying to conform to the mold of my newfound Christian faith, back in the day ( 1970’s ). Some of it was finding my way through the maze of real versus substitute virtue.

Real modesty vs. a dress code for Christian women, real charity vs. a knee-jerk reaction to every church related plea for time and money, time managed by priorities of a spiritual demand rather than the merry go round of meaningless, time-filling (killing) Church activities. Real piety of prayer and compassion vs. the religious conformity to outward shows of pseudo-holiness, real love and sense of ones own depravity vs. bemoaning the world going to hell in a handbasket, real investigation of the Word of God rather than Bible study by rote in hand delivered palaver. Real devotion to Christ rather than hard-driven, hard-bitten dogmatism to the party line.

Mark D. Linville in his all too accurate picture of a fundamentalist’s church life, leaves us in his essay, IN PRAISE OF THE CHURCH LADY ( a pdf file) with these thoughts:

I suspect that the Church Lady—who, in my memory is more an amalgam of many people who had an early influence on me than an actual person—had something less than an articulate and carefully reasoned theology. I would not be surprised to learn that she harbored some religious beliefs that were downright silly. I know that I could take her in a fight today. But she is yet another example of those crude earthen vessels, in which God has placed His treasure, and which He is able to use for His good purposes.

…I am convinced that the Church Lady is needed today more than ever. It would be the height of foolishness for anyone to expect to pass on the baton of a robust faith to their children in these days and in this culture without immersing them in a community of
believing people as I was. The unchurched child in the nominally Christian family today will find anything but a Christian role model to set his course. There may be attempts within the home to instill faith and Christian virtues, but the prevailing winds of our culture are blowing strongly in the opposite direction.

What defines the difference between those church ladies who are affectionately, if amusedly, remembered and who left a positive impact on ones Christian life and those who are recalled with some bitterness and disdain? I believe it is the element of love. Love which is sincerely desiring the best, and in this view the proverb that love covers a multitude of sins may be our very own. That for all the faults of many well-meaning Christian women, the deciding factor of reflecting Christlikeness is this quality of love.

As a ‘Church Lady’, this is the goal: not throwing off rules or remaking images, but reflecting Christ Jesus, Our Savior and His gospel. These women who provide nourishment, who clean the hallways and rooms of our lives, who are available for prayer, who seek to the best of their ability to serve and support are mixed in with some who are hypocritically self-serving under the pretense of their pious smiles and their eternal preoccupation with the small details of rulebook infractions. The Gladys Kravitz‘s of our churches.

I personally desire to be a Church Lady with a difference, one that aspires to all the virtues of Christ in a faith the genuinely works by love. One that is honest enough to look at herself, and look at her world and adjust the lens, and throw away the false filters. I chose to be a stay at home, homeschooling, home birthing, fundamental doctrinally, conservative dressing, values-oriented woman for reasons. Well thought out reasons, but not those that I would apply universally to every other Christian woman. My mainstay of a message is that we appreciate each others sincere effort to follow Christ Jesus, that we honor Him in our lives and in the world, that we support each others efforts, even when we don’t fully approve or understand. The benchmark is whether one loves Christ. Church ladies have a responsibility to adjust themselves to that benchmark. And when they do, who will be laughing, then?

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