Women Know Things: An Untapped Epistemic Advantage
When I first began preaching nearly a decade ago, somebody asked me, “How will you know how to preach if you’ve never done it before?” I thought their question was a little silly. After all, we learn all the time how to do things we have never done before. We learn new recipes, new skills, new information. So how will I preach? I will learn how to preach, I thought. Over the past several years I have read dozens of books on preaching, I have taken several courses in preaching, and I have studied under some of my favorite preachers. But when I stood up to preach my very first sermon, I possessed only a couple of tools: (1) observations from watching people preach my whole life, and (2) what I will call in this article an epistemic advantage. This second tool has proven to be the strongest tool that I retain to this day.
According to Dr. Courtney Goto from Boston University, an epistemic advantage is “a critical, perspectival edge created by experiencing oppression personally or empathically, enabling a knower to stand in multiple places, discern what others might not, and to challenge ignorance or violence.”  Another way to think about epistemic advantage is to ask yourself, “How do I know what I know? What have I been taught to see?” or “What is it that I don’t know? What have I been trained to not see?”
The first time I heard the term epistemic advantage was at a conference for women in ministry in June 2017. Dr. Irie Session preached a sermon in which she mentioned how her social location as a woman of color in the United States has resulted in an epistemic advantage: due to marginalization, she is able to see and know things that a white person cannot see or know on their own. At the time, I realized that as a white woman who seeks justice, I must become keenly aware of my epistemic blindness. I also began to realize in the months that followed that, while I must work to overcome the epistemic blindness that attends my whiteness, I do possess an epistemic advantage as a woman—particularly as a woman in Churches of Christ.
When I got up to preach my first sermon, I had in mind a long list of really good ideas which I had gathered from hearing great preachers. I also had in my mind an even longer list of things I would never, ever do in a sermon. Because I grew up in a denomination that required me to be silent and submissive on a pew, I gained a unique ability to recognize abuses of power, privilege, and language. I became aware of the limitations of language, its inextricable connectedness with power and politics, and the tempestuous terrain of power disparity that so easily emerges between pulpit and pew. I knew how it felt to translate sermons in my head that were designed only for men, so that I could leave church having heard the gospel in some way. “Brothers” in my mind became “brothers and sisters.” “Men of God” became “people of God.” As God was obscured with exclusively hypermasculine language, I applied creativity to retrieve those feminine metaphors for God, reminding myself that we all reflect the image of God together. Church easily became exhausting for me, as I performed mental gymnastics just to see myself in the good news being proclaimed.
I imagine most of the male preachers I heard growing up never intended to obscure God or the gospel from women like me. In fact, quite the contrary—I believe their greatest joy and passion in life is to share the good news with as many people as possible. Their use of limiting language emerged out of their epistemic blindness, not necessarily out of malevolence. They had never been expected to sit in silence and submission on the pew, and thus they lacked a woman’s perspectival edge. As men whose perspectives and voices are privileged in the denomination, they retain the option of choosing whether or not to honor the experiences of women in their congregation. Unfortunately, many men will continue to ignore the vast wealth of wisdom and awareness that flourishes untapped among the women of their congregations. However, I am willing to bet that many men in leadership in Churches of Christ do sincerely desire gender reconciliation and are looking for solid next steps in that pursuit.
So, if you are a minister who wants to become more attentive to harmful power dynamics in your church, I have some good news for you. According to Dr. Courtney Goto, even if you are a person of social privilege, by acknowledging your own epistemic disadvantage or blindness, you can begin the process of changing location. Through empathy, by doing life with people who are different from you, by listening to those who have an epistemic advantage, you can expand your own epistemic horizon. You can learn how to construct sermons through multiple lenses, asking yourself, “How would this sermon illustration come across to a woman?” or “Is this language exclusionary to women?” or “How might a woman hear the gospel in this sermon?” For those of us who preach in order to testify to the gospel in our midst—which liberates us, unites us, and aligns us to that which is good and just—isn’t this good news?
Thus, my first recommendation to you is to take time to listen carefully to those who are different from you. Let these people leave their mark upon you. Let them change the way you see the world. My second recommendation, which may take more time in some of your congregations, is to fill your worship services with lots of different voices. A man cannot replicate a woman’s voice. And although a man may become more aware of a woman’s unique vantage point, he cannot reproduce it. So, I recommend that you hand over the mic, and see what God is up to! It will be a blessing to you and your whole congregation, I promise you. The women in your church know things—powerful things—that will transform your congregation for the better.
 Courtney T. Goto, Taking On Practical Theology: The Idolization of Context and the Hope of Community (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 68.