The People Who Have Always Had Questions by Liz Cooledge Jenkins

A few weeks back, author and historian Jemar Tisby tweeted that an acquaintance of his “described their general experience with white evangelicals as ‘people who don’t have any questions.’ I immediately knew what they meant.” The tweet gained some traction, with 62.1k “likes” at the time I’m writing this. The next week, Tisby followed up with a thoughtful reflection piece, expanding on his own experience with white evangelicals needing to have answers to every question, from “How old is the earth?” to “How should Christians vote?” Tisby unpacks the dangers of this kind of arrogant certainty, inviting Christians instead to embrace mystery, curiosity, and learning.

I resonate with many of Tisby’s observations and reflections. From my experience (including thirteen years in evangelical churches and a Master of Divinity degree from an evangelical seminary), I wouldn’t say these things are true of every single white evangelical—but they’re definitely true enough of the movement as a whole that they are very much worth naming, engaging, and challenging. I appreciate Tisby’s work.

I wonder, though, how gender plays into all of this. Tisby names the racial aspect of it, and that is right and good. And, at the same time—not to take away from his work but perhaps to add further nuance to it—can we also see gender?

A religious system that thinks it has all the answers requires leaders who are willing to teach their followers a particular set of doctrines—and often leaders who enforce belief in these doctrines and expel people who don’t toe the party line. As Tisby writes, it’s “not that white evangelicals never ask any questions or have any doubts. Rather they, or their leaders, have an indisputable conclusion to every query. Go ahead and ask the question. But you need only ask once because there is an answer to every question, often with a Bible verse to back it up.”

I feel this. And I’m also very aware that, in conservative evangelical communities, these leaders who “have an indisputable conclusion to every query” are almost always men. I wonder how this changes things. In churches with male-dominated leadership, women can be among those who ask questions—but we are almost never among those who provide the church-approved answers. We are not expected to be among those who think things through and offer wise guidance—to our friends, communities, or even ourselves—on the big questions of life and faith.

Perhaps conservative white evangelical churches’ fear of uncertainty—and their unwillingness to consider other perspectives—is intimately connected with these same churches’ low regard for women. (Many in these churches would disagree with the characterization of “low regard for women,” but to me, a refusal to acknowledge women’s preaching or leadership is exactly that.) Women, after all, are often socialized to think more communally, to place a higher value on relationships, to acknowledge and express our emotions more freely. I wonder if the ways patriarchal culture has constructed masculinity and femininity sometimes leave more room for women to question, to be humble, to be willing to change our minds. I’m not saying men cannot be humble, or that there are not humble men; I am suggesting that men are often socially pressured to suppress these parts of themselves that patriarchal culture considers weak. This suppression of men’s full humanity harms men, and it harms everyone.[1]

If women led the way, perhaps evangelicalism would look quite different. There might be less fear of perceived weakness, less aversion to the uncertainty and confusion that is a natural part of human life. There might be more room for the sacred questions, the honest doubts, the beautiful wonderings of people of all genders.

I would love to see space opened wide in churches for men to be humble learners without being considered (by themselves or others) less masculine for doing so. I want to see women’s voices and perspectives honored—both our questions and the answers we come up with. Not because these answers will always be right, but because every human of every gender has the holy God-given agency to pursue and find the answers to our deepest questions that make the most sense to us, that feel right to us, that resonate most strongly with our spirits. We were not meant to mindlessly accept the things taught to us by authority figures who are just as fallible as we are.

I’ve been reading a beautiful book of prayers called Women Pray: Voices through the Ages, from Many Faiths, Cultures, and Traditions, edited by Monica Furlong. In these prayers, I see women approaching God with curiosity, wonder, humility, feeling, wisdom. I see women connecting faith in God to attentiveness to nature and care for the earth. I see women longing for and sometimes experiencing ways of knowing and loving God that go far beyond any purely intellectual answers to heady theological questions. I see a desire to learn, to grow, to be transformed. These are all essential aspects of authentic spiritual life—and they are all at odds with the kind of know-it-all certainty that often characterizes evangelical faith, or at least evangelical leadership. In the midst of a patriarchal world—and of churches dominated by a tendency toward authoritarian certainty—perhaps, however subversively, women have always had questions.

It seems to me that, in a kind of vicious patriarchal cycle, the silencing of women’s voices in conservative evangelicalism has both contributed to the problem Tisby names and is also caused by it. Women have not been free to offer our questions and reflections as a gift to the church. And certain men in power are unwilling to consider the suggestion that the answers they currently hold about men’s and women’s roles may be wrong. None of this benefits those within the Christian tradition, let alone our world as a whole. It is past time for change. I want to see Christians lay down their certainties and embrace wonder—and I want to see women free to lead the way.


[1] I’m drawing here on bell hooks’ work in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (Washington Square Press, 2004).

BIO: Liz Cooledge Jenkins is a writer, preacher, and former college campus minister who lives in Burien, WA. She regularly shares justice-minded biblical reflections, poems, “super chill book reviews,” and more at lizcooledgejenkins.com. When not writing or reading, you can find her swimming, hiking, attempting to grow vegetables, and/or drinking a lot of tea. You can also find her on FB (Liz Cooledge Jenkins, Writer) and Instagram (@lizcoolj).



Categories: Evangelicalism, General, Patriarchy, Women's Spirituality, Women's Voices

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. Wonderful post with astute observations! Thank you. And yes, I have always had questions. Shared and linked on the divine feminine app. <3

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  2. I grew up in an evangelical community as you describe here in your essay and remember being continually frustrated with the authoritarian leadership having an answer for every question. The answer usually revolved around the phrase “God’s ways are not our ways.” No further discussion. I eventually left the community. Thanks for writing.

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  3. One of my favorite things about Unitarian Universalism is our focus on questions rather than on answers. No one has all the answers.

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  4. I find it frightening that so many people accept a way of being in the world without questioning – as a lifetime questioners I can’t imagine that way of being in the world BUT I acknowledge that it has become a more powerful voice than ever – Facing the unknown is scary and the public at large refuses to do it – I cite climate change as an example – I guess my point here is that it is not only evangelists that are problematic but the culture as a whole – patriarchy has a death grip on us now in my opinion.

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  5. Wow, yes! This speaks to something I’ve witnessed, but not been a part of. I’m taking a class called “This I Believe,” right now with Patricia Lynn Reilly, that is about deconstructing inherited legacies of patriarchal conditioning and reclaiming our own wisdom, agency, and belief.

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