A few weeks ago, I ran across this book on Scot McKnight’s website and picked it up at Barnes and Noble the first chance I got. I’ve really been wrestling through this issue for several years now, and as my church faces these challenges, this seemed like a great resource. I had very high expectations for what this book would provide, and I can thankfully say it didn’t disappoint. The book contains story after story of men and women within evangelicalism who have done an aboutface when it comes to their understanding of women in ministry and leadership positions. While I am not an evangelical myself, my situation is very connected to the evangelical tradition, and this book is easily communicable in my setting.
A work of this kind is best experienced rather than summarized. Absent of dry and over-spoken arguments, the authors instead choose to autobiographically share their thought processes and what life experiences have brought about a change in their thinking. Rather than rehash their arguments, I have chosen instead to share the story of how I have changed my mind.
For many this entire discussion sounds antiquated and irrelevant – like rhetoric from a bygone era, but for those of us in churches with conservative leanings or at least traditions, it is far from irrelevant.
My mom took me and my brother and sister to church. Dad went on occasion, but never really was committed and hardly ever goes today. I never saw a woman stand up in front of our small church and address the church. It never happened for any reason. I don’t remember a lot of teaching specifically laid out on this matter – it was more osmosis, you just kind of figured out that that was the way things were. We didn’t have elders, but instead there were men’s business meetings where the decisions of the church were made. Once I was baptized, I began attending these meetings (since Dad didn’t go to church, he never was there), so at age 15 or so, I found myself with a “vote” for church matters. What I found peculiar, even at a young age, was that my Mom didn’t have a vote. That just didn’t make sense. I didn’t have much theological framework to deal with this, so I just dealt with the unsettled way it made me feel.
All my earliest exposure to church was through the eyes of male-dominated leadership. The women in the church (and at the camps I attended) almost always did more work, were more overtly spiritually focused (prayed more, talked of prayer more, etc.), and were always forced behind the scenes. If a woman ever did speak up with any kind of authority she was looked down upon and (sometimes to her face, sometimes not), viewed as a rebel and a distraction to the faith.
As my experiences brought me to college and seminary, I saw more and more godly women with incredible gifts, but who continued to be in the backdrop due to their gender. It wasn’t until I took a theology class in graduate school did I realize that I had a very real egalitarian bend to my thinking. I had apparently oppressed it knowing that it was not accepted within my tradition. Believe me, I didn’t do that on purpose (anyone who knows me, knows I pretty much call it like I see it, unpopular or not), but in that theology class I began to see where I stood. I felt so strongly about it that I wrote a paper about it . . . but wasn’t ready to give women full equality with men – there’s the headship issue in the New Testament, and the creation narrative in Genesis, I thought, spoke to some priority or hierarchy of men over women.
The more I studied the Bible, the worse I felt about those conclusions I had drawn. The more exposure I had to women who preached and led in churches, the more it didn’t make sense that God would give them these gifts, but not allow them to use them. It has been only in the last five years or so that I would say I’ve come to see absolutely no distinction made between the authority of a man or a woman in marriage, leadership, and/or within the church. This is certainly not a common perspective held in the churches I am associated with – causing some challenges in leadership.
There are three chief sources of my full-fledged conversion to egalitarianism (even though that word is too loaded to be completely helpful). 1 – Having a gifted wife who is a leader, who is gentle, and who teaches me all the time. I can stand back and argue on some challenging New Testament passages that she can’t be my equal in the household, or that I should be the spiritual authority and that she’s taking that away from me – or . . . that we’ve got a long history with baggage (humans, not she and I 😉 ) that we need to address. I’ve moved from a time when I felt as though it was important for her to keep me aware of the needs of the other half of the church (and she still does that) to a place where I believe her gifts of leadership and wisdom should be shared by all. That she doesn’t come to the table with some great ideas for me to consider, but that she is my full-fledged partner (in marriage and in ministry) and that her words are as important, valid, and authoritative as mine.
2 – Having two daughters prompted me to think through this issue long and hard. What are we going to teach them? How are we going to help shape their minds? These were really important questions to us. I have come to a place where I believe that if God has gifted them for leadership in his church – regardless of what kind of gifts he’s given – I must find a way to support that, and help nurture those gifts — be they preaching, leadership, or anything in between.
3 – To come to this place, I was unwilling to allow myself to do things with the biblical text that I don’t do consistently for my other beliefs. I have come to the conclusion that there are passages which, when read straightforward seem to teach the contrary. I understand that one of the chief rules of hermeneutics is that what the text says when read straightforward is more often than not what it means. But, I also believe that the traditional perspective has enjoyed an uncritical place at the table for far too long. Undoubtedly, the texts in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians are challenging. An additional hermeneutical guideline is not to allow one text to teach something contrary to the overarching message of Scripture. For me, with all the examples of women leaders, prophets, priests, judges, apostles (Junia), deaconesses . . . these silencing texts just didn’t seem consistent with Scripture everywhere else.
I don’t write this to persuade anyone of what I believe – actually, as an argumentative piece, this isn’t very good. It simply allows you to see the transformation that has taken place in my thinking. I get excited when I think about the way women could enrich the leadership situations at churches all across the world. I smile when I think about the many spiritual gifts that have been implanted in my two little girls and it is crucial to think about the subtle messages that come from my church (and maybe yours) when we exclude them from a position – simply because of their gender. I long for the day when my wife is seen as co-minister and is provided an equal voice on the important matters of the church instead of as an afterthought or secondary (often by me!) If we are exclusive in our practices of anything due to biblical teachings – we better be really, really sure the Bible teaches what we believe it does on those matters.
Two final thoughts from Johnson’s book that encourage me:
– Cornelius Plantigna’s article is fantastic as he shares his “conversion” to egalitarianism coming as the result of his reflecting on Civil War-era writings and realizing that pro-slavery Christians used an identical reading of the Bible to justify slavery as we do today to forbid women from leadership roles.
– One of the authors anectdotally quotes F. F. Bruce saying that when we come to some of Paul’s tougher writings, more times than not we are going to be correct if we understand his writing to mean whatever allows more freedom than less.