I’ve been asked what I’ve been reading to change my mind about the place of women in the church and home? The Bible. Obviously. And quite a few blogs. Recently, I discovered this book, published last year. How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership compiled by Alan Johnson. It is filled with personal stories of change. Evangelical leaders share how they were converted away from practicing gender hierarchy to practicing true gender equality in their marriages and churches. Johnson starts his book with this powerful observation from RT France:
France writes that he knows many evangelicals like himself who have changed their minds about women in leadership and pastoral ministries from a more restrictive view to an inclusive view, but he has never met an evangelical who has changed their mind in the opposite direction. (Alan Johnson quotes from RT France, A Test-Case for Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 10.)
At the knee of my mother…
…was where many of the contributors learned of Jesus’ love. Mothers, who were not allowed to preach in church, preached at home. The most poignant story comes from Tony Campolo.
As I was growing up, she [his mother] often talked about how she, as a teenage girl, had thought about running away from home and joining a small evangelical group headquartered in Zarephath, New Jersey, called the Pillar of Fire Mission. She told me that she did not do so because she was needed to take care of several younger bothers and sisters, who were struggling to survive in the care of her widowed mother.
One day I asked my mother what was so special about the Pillar of Fire Mission and she told me, “They let women be preachers.” Then it dawned on me: my mother not only had the gift of preaching, but also a sense of calling. Evil was the ecclesiastical ruling that kept her from living out that calling, and poorer was the church that was deprived of her extraordinary gifts. (Tony Campolo, p. 66)
John Ortberg reflects on his mother’s leadership qualities that had to be masked by the ideology that the husband was the leader of the marriage. “But although her husband was in charge in theory, it was clear to everyone who knew them that she was by far the more powerful personality. She submitted him right into the ground. ” (John Ortberg, p. 183)
Not just mothers influenced the writers. The stories are filled with the names of influential women, unable to fill the role of preacher or minister, yet teaching and leading in “unofficial” capacity. This cognitive dissonance of refusal to recognize the women’s obvious ministerial gifting sparked many to re-think their traditional hierarchical interpretations. This re-thinking brought conviction that change needed to happen. Stuart Briscoe says this:
Then one day I read again the parable of the man who before going away gave his servants gifts and promised on his return to hear an account of their stewardship. He was less than pleased by the one who misunderstood his master and buried his gift. I took to heart yet again the compelling truth that gifts are not imparted to be buried. But then like a thunderclap the thought occurred to me: “What does the Master think of those who bury the gifts of others?” And I knew that I, as a husband, father and pastor, could do precisely that with the gifts of thousands of women. There and then I asked the Lord, “Whatever else you can accuse me of, please deliver me from ever being guilty of burying the gifts of those over whom I legitimately exercise some degree of spiritual oversight.” And that was the tipping point for me. (Stuart Briscoe, p. 62-63)
The inconsistencies are absurd.
Another common theme throughout the stories is the silly games churches would play to use the gifts of capable and remarkable women, yet still hold on to the “biblical” rule of women not teaching men.
Olive Liefeld , the widow of Pete Fleming who was martyred in Ecuador with Jim Elliot, has amusing/annoying stories to tell of being asked to speak from behind a screen so the men of the congregation could hear her story, yet not be “under” her teaching. Once she had to be interviewed by a man, so she would not be speaking on her own initiative. Yet, her “interview” was followed by a video presentation of Elizabeth Elliot presenting the gospel to thousands at a conference!
John Ortberg describes the human tendency toward consistency. His change occurred when he recognized the dissonance between his patriarchal teaching and his experiences of growing and benefiting from gifted women teachers. He described a female seminary graduate who loved to teach the Bible and evangelize, but was discouraged from acting on that “calling.” Instead, she was pushed overseas.
They would not allow her to do that for white American males in the States, but she could do it for nonwhite males in Third World countries. (John Ortberg, p. 190)
…women can prophesy, but not have the office of prophet. Or, women can teach, but not authoritatively. Or, women can teach and preach, but only with the permission of or under the authority of her husband, or of men in general. These explanations strike me as contrived and desperate attempts to save the system and to preserve the benefits of male privilege that are built upon it. Its no wonder that hierarchicalists cannot agree among themselves on just what a woman may do and under what circumstances…the only thing that hierarchicalists agree on is that it is the men who get to tell women what they can do. (Stanley N. Gundry, p. 100-101)
Remaining true to Scripture
All the contributors believe the Bible is the infallible, inerrant, authoritative Word of God. Every one of them came to the conclusion that to understand the general theme of the gospel, and the witness of the life of Jesus and Paul, they would have to set aside their limited understanding of the four or five problem passages for the greater whole.
First, as I studied Scripture, I found that in addition to the few restrictive passages about women in leadership, there were many places in Scripture that honored and affirmed women. Genesis is clear that men and women together reflect the image of God. God is even described in feminine imagery…I was captured by the thrilling biblical reality that men and women are joint-heirs in Christ and that Paul declared, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. This spiritual panorama from creation to a new creation expanded my perspective on God’s purposes and desires for both men and women. This was exciting and it made biblical sense. (Bob Fryling, p. 84)
I had come to believe that though it was important to understand isolated texts on their own terms, it was nevertheless futile to believe that the debate between egalitarians and traditional hierarchicalists could ever be settled by debating the exegesis and interpretation of individual text in isolation. For me, the more significant question had become: How is the grand sweep of biblical or redemptive history to be understood? What is redemptive history all about, and how do the relevant texts fit into that? (Stanley N. Gundry, p. 98-99)
In other words, when the big picture of redemptive history is kept in mind, the New Testament is seen as a huge leap forward toward full restoration of what was lost or distorted in the fall. When I came to understand Scripture in this manner, the problem passages that had troubled me and that are so often used by hierarchicalists to justify the submission of women are understood as ad hoc accommodations to the fallen patriarchal culture. And the many scriptural examples of women doing what allegedly they are not supposed to do can be given their full evidential weight of how God, as an “equal opportunity employer,” really values women. (Stanley N. Gundry, p.103)
Alice Mathews details her struggle justifying the subordination of women with the greater themes of Scripture against the “clear” problem passages. It was when she discovered the Southern defense of slavery that she experienced her “Aha!”
But then, that snowy afternoon in 1970 it hit me with the force of a revelation that the female subordination texts and the slave subordination texts were in the same hermeneutical boat. The texts were sometimes in the same book of the Bible or even the same chapter. In both cases you could maintain an egalitarian position only by going to the spirit of the Bible, the general direction of the Bible, the doctrine of the image of God in the Bible, the majestic assertion of the Bible that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”(Alice Mathews, p.201)
The writers do give individual interpretations of the problem passages. They don’t all agree with each other, and they view that as precisely the point of holding to loose interpretations. They are HARD passages, that when are strictly followed, contradict the larger, broader themes of freedom, priesthood of all believers, and co-heirs of the gifts of God.
…all we can do is…to submit to the Word of God as we understand it while remaining open to improvement of our interpretation later on. Moreover, while we opt for this or that interpretation among the alternatives, we can recognize that our interpretation might not interpret every single verse and answer every single question better than every one of those alternatives do. Nonetheless, our responsibility is to select among the alternatives the interpretation that we believe does the best job of explaining all of Scripture… (John G. Stackhouse Jr, p. 249)
The heart of the matter
There is some exegesis, but the majority of the book is personality. Individual angst. One of the more poignant stories is from Bill and Lynne Hybel. Bill relates the path that led him to include women in the leadership of Willow Creek all the while Lynne was drowning in the traditional roles a pastor’s wife finds herself playing. She writes:
…I increasingly found myself hating life. And I really didn’t know why. I concluded I was just a selfish, demanding person who was not willing to do what God had asked me to do…The more unhappy I became, the more guilty I felt and the more I confessed my sin. (Lynne Hybel, p. 110)
She describes her discovery of deep-seated beliefs in the supportive role of women, and her journey to break the constricting patterns she’d developed.
“I thought that denying my gifts and passions was part of what it meant to ‘die to self,’ as Scripture asks us to do. I didn’t realize there is a difference between dying to self-will and to sin, and dying to the self that God created and called me to be.” (p. 111)
She talks about learning to use her gifts of encouragement and global compassion. But the beauty of the story is Bill’s confession for his part in her frustration and despair. He talks of the time starting Willow Creek.
…I was insanely busy… Anytime Lynne asked me to do even a small thing to help her, I felt burdened and impatient. The fact that I was earning an income to support our family, while her efforts at home as well as in ministry were always unpaid, contributed to devaluing her work. And, of course, because of my visible ministry, I was applauded and honored. Lynne heard again and again how powerfully God was using me. “Its a good think Bill has you serving him behind the scenes,” was a comment that repeatedly made her ask, What’s wrong with me? Why am I not content?
The reality is that it’s easy to talk about this [gender equality], but when it comes to execution and implementation, usually the guy just gets his way and the woman’s ministry gets squished. (Bill Hybels, p. 113-114)
A change of heart is only the start.
Since a new understanding of gender roles is where I currently am, I was challenged by the practical advice the writers gave to those seeking to add women to the church’s ministry roster. For those of us raised on “the proper place of women” is it easy to fall back into subordinate patterns that restrict and deny the truth of Galatians 3:28. Yes, it is the responsibility of pastors and Biblical scholars to get to the heart of the matter, but it is also up to women to not allow their spiritual gifts to be buried. To have the courage to act, as opposed to a spirit of fear. To have the humility to say no to things God has not given to us, and yes to things He has allowed. To have the patience to wait for change. And the endurance of conviction.
It has given me much to think on. I hope you read it too!