I believe this letter to my church’s Elder Board could have been written to almost any Complementarian church’s elder board.
To the Elders and leaders of X Church, fellow believers in Christ:
If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. The old had passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5:17-18
I am writing today in response to the request for Elder submissions. Understanding that your responsibilities as elders are to guide an enormous church made up of a diverse population, I want you to know that this letter is ten years in coming and has been written with respect for the authority of scripture and for your roles as leaders. Your responsibilities, I am certain, cause you some “fear and trembling” and I believe that you have a sincere desire to listen well to many people with unlimited perspectives. I have utmost respect for “authority” both within the church and in life and I hope that you will consider these thoughts prayerfully, before God and one another, and with the full congregation of X, both men and women, in mind. Young and old, educated and less knowledgeable, Conservative and liberal, Black, white, Asian, international and US citizens, we all make up the beautiful and complex church of X. What a daunting task you have.
I am writing about the roles of women at X. I have been in dialog with Pastor about this topic for years and always appreciate his frankness and perspective. I respect the need to be aware of the climate in X, the Church at large, as well as within our culture.
As you know, many Christian denominations continue with the practice of male-authority. And others are open to change. Though a clear, Biblical viewpoint was preached recently about how men and women are to treat one another, I know there are many at X, perhaps some of you, who believe in the universal male-headship principle. Obviously if it were simple, things would have changed with cultural and societal changes.
But it is a complex thing to parse through scripture to find what is Core Truth and what is cultural truth, of a time. There are dozens of perspectives on the place of and roles for women in the church.
I appreciate the women who do serve at X church, though support staff in the church is dominated by women and the leadership is dominated by men, which I find strange and a bit backward and tells me that things haven’t progressed as much as I would wish. What speaks loudest is that there are no women on the teaching team. And, though perhaps this is even more difficult to change, women are still not considered for the leadership of being an Elder (who lead, manage, govern) and Deacons (who serve, care, guide) are invisible and do what? I don’t know.
In my conversations with pastor, it has been clear to me that some of you over the years (I realize you’re a revolving door of men) do feel empathetic to the changes in the Church at large. Perhaps you have even studied this on your own?
The New Testament church thought that the Lord was coming in their day and therefore did not very courageously attempt to speak to the injustices of their time. Paul backed away from it so much that he prefered to be single than complicate his life with a woman and family.
But today, more than 2,000 years later, it is quite clear that Christ is yet to come, and I find it imperative that believers in Christ individually and corporately, with the power and influence each has been given by our Lord, speak to the injustices that plague humanity — war, poverty and hunger, and sexism are just a few as well as prejudice, bigotry and racism.
I ask therefore: Do you believe that women must not teach Biblical doctrine? Do you believe that women are unacceptable for Church governance or pastoral and preaching roles? Because that is the current example being set at x. And I would press back saying, if women are not to be in teaching and in authority over men, why are women encouraged to be missionaries and managers at x? This inconsistency implies that women can have authority over men in certain circumstances, just not over men of their own race and in their own church. This I do not understand and ask if you see the conflict?
I urge you to consider the message you are sending to young people in the church, men and women who are considering how they might serve God with their lives. And this has rampant implications for the relationships between men and women, boys and girls, as they see this conflict of ideas.
Church historian Janette Hassey, in her book No Time for Silence, talks about the fact that American evangelicals before the turn of the century and after, advocated and practiced women in pastoral ministry. My own grandmother, a missionary in the 1930s, was an evangelist and preacher in upstate New York, alongside my grandfather. Together they were missionaries in Tibet before the war. Returning home because of WWII, they continued their work here. I don’t think my grandmother would have been encouraged to use that gift if she were at our church. It is sad that the twentieth century took such steps backward for women in the church.
I would like to ask you, individually, if you prescribe to the concept of male headship – or not — as heard in the recent sermon? Whether you think headship is a part of the created order or merely a necessity in wake of the Fall it is not good thing for women. And perhaps you say, “So what? The Bible says what it says. Live with it.” I would push back asking whether you knew that next to alcohol and drug abuse the most reliable predictor of wife battering is “zealous conservative religiosity?” This is just an example of how this policy within the Church at large has hurt women.
As I said before, I believe one call for Christians is to resist chronic injustice – to speak out when it is seen. I see women being subjugated in the church, being kept from being elders when their full gifting, experience and knowledge is toward leadership. I see no women being encouraged toward teaching, serious scholarship and study of theology even when God has given them an ability, a passion for and a call to scriptural truth and teaching. I see women who outside of the church are being affirmed and are leading faithfully and well, within the Church not even being considered to serve with the full capacity of those God-given abilities.
It seems to me that the current perspective takes parts of scripture and holds to it as if it were a Universal or Core Truth, while rejecting many other parts of the Old Testament and New Testament, that are cultural rules and are obviously outdated.
I don’t think women’s subjugation is any part of the core Truth of scripture.
The Church has changed its stance on many important things in the last 2,000 years: like strict or flexible observing of the Sabbath, pacifism vs. a just war, Christian’s cultural involvement or separation from culture, but gender roles remains set in what has “always been” especially in denominations, especially in ours.
Change in something this important is difficult and tumultuous, I understand. To be different than your denomination, to think for ourselves, to study Scripture openly looking at original text with a heart for all people — all this is messy and painful and even unfortunately divisive. It is much easier to ignore it until the culture and climate change so much that you don’t have to risk. I get that. But it breaks my heart.
I would agree that on gender roles, the Bible is less than clear. Just like the NT church was ambiguous about slavery, but we never question that change on Biblical grounds. It is obvious today, that slavery is an ugly and abhorrent part of the Old and New Testament times. And in the fifties it was believed in the church that women are better suited for parenting and that idea has been rejected over time ,seeing clearly that children need both parents involved in their upbringing. There are many things that we reject, as the culture and as times change. But though the Bible isn’t clear it isn’t silent either about gender in the church.
And Jesus was not silent, he was constantly affirming women.
As Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen so beautifully describes, it is more like an …
“… unfolding drama in which salvation is made available to more and more groups that were previously considered marginal. Salvation and equality of access to its privileges and responsibilities, is not just for Jews, but for non-Jews; not just for free persons, but for slaves; not just for men, but for women – and so on, in keeping with the principles of Paul found in Galatians 3:28.”
So, if the Bible is ambiguous about gender roles and headship, how can I be confident and so sure that my belief in changing the roles is sound? For me it comes down to our hermeneutic.
Willard Swartley in Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women asks the following questions, which I most respectfully pose to you, asking you to consider, as it relates to the issue of Women in the Church:
- How are the two Testaments related to each other?
- How is the authority of Jesus related to all Scriptures?
- What is the relationship between divine revelation and the culture in which the revelation is given and received?
- Does Scripture mandate, regulate, or challenge certain practices such as those associated with slavery, war, and the subordination of women?
- Does the Bible say only one thing on a given subject, or does it sometimes show differing, even contradictory, points of view?
- What does it mean to take the Bible literally? Is that a vice or a virtue? Does “literal” signify the intended meaning of the author or a meaning that seems natural to us?
- To what extend does an interpreter’s predetermined position, even ideology (such as patriarchy or feminism) affect the interpretive task?
I think we can all agree the Bible is the incarnate revelation but one should also be taking into serious consideration the audience, time and place to which each book is addressed. Would you not agree that the Bible tailors its message to real people in real, culturally diverse situations? This is the strength of, the power found, in Biblical revelation.
According to Willard Swartley:
“Scriptural diversity is the natural result of the one true God’s graciously relating to humans, drawing humans into a relationship, inviting free response and full engagement … Biblical truth is concrete, shaped usually by specific contexts, needs and opportunities. Interpretation should affirm and celebrate this feature of divine revelation, communicated through many different writers in different linguistic, cultural and political contexts. The variety itself becomes the missionary’s textbook [for] the biblical text spoke God’s word in a variety of cultural, economic, political, and social settings.”
And then Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen whose book Gender & Grace has profoundly changed my perspective on men and women and the Gospel says this beautiful and profound statement:
“For the sake of the advancement of God’s kingdom in a given time and place, temporary compromise can and often must be made with the societal status quo. … Therefore Scripture is accommodated to the cultural setting of its varying audience, constantly being augmented by a move toward the vision of God’s coming kingdom. Indeed, Jesus’ elimination of the sexual double standard was so surprising to his disciples that they concluded it was safer not to marry at all! “
Van Leeuwen continues that “the basic impulse being the Fall – the wish to be independent of God – is no respecter of persons. Feminists and patriarchalists are equally in need of redemption.”
Again, theologian Willard Swartley with a good test of the degree to which our ideologies warp our reading of Scripture.
“Our willingness to be changed by what we read, to let the Bible function as a “window” through which we see beyond self-interested ideologies, and not a “mirror” which simply reflects back to us what we want it to show. Biblical interpretation, if it is worthy to be so called, will challenge the ideology of the interpreter. It can and will lead to change, because people do not come to the text thinking as God thinks, or even as the people of God thought in serving as agents of divine revelation. Interpreters [must] listen to the text carefully enough not to like it. [When they do so] it powerfully demonstrates that the text’s message has been heard and respected.”
This is challenging because I am full of self-interest when it comes to being a Christian woman — that is a tribe that I belong to and feel a responsibility to care for — not because I crave authority, but because I long to see women carrying out every gift from God in their lives, not just in the marketplace, but within the church! I am hopeful that this will happen in my lifetime.
I must ask you, individually, whether God is challenging you to reconsider your thinking on women’s leadership, governance and teaching roles at X, and whether the time has come to face that the current roles are stifling more than half of the church to be heard fully and uniquely.
But even more important (to me) is that this stance just may be holding back the fullness of the Kingdom of God from being revealed in our generation. And my heart weeps with that thought.
Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, in her book Equal to Serve sees Scripture as pointing toward equality and mutual submission between the sexes and I’ll leave you with this quote from her book:
“Today, like James and John, so many people pluck at Christ’s sleeve: dogmatists, traditionalist, egalitarians, feminists, liberationists, all sorts of activists. They all say the equivalent of “Seat me nearest You, Lord; show those other people that my system is best.” As they pluck at Christ’s sleeve, thinking that places at His right and His left will bring them honor and power and worldly recognition, He looks at them – and at all of us – and still asks: “Can you drink my cup? Don’t you see that whoever stays nearest me must … go where I go, serve where I serve? Don’t you see that, loving the world as I do, I must serve it to the uttermost?”
It may come down to this: Can you personally serve under a woman, at work or at Church, and why not? Could you accept that your wife, sister, mother, friends have gifts that make her more visible, knowledgeable, or experienced than you? Could you dare to be like Joseph, step-father of Jesus, playing a lesser role than Mary? What prevents you from rethinking, studying anew these things?
Fear? Ambivalence? Prejudice?
I am incessantly asking myself over the last ten years at X, would I put aside my perspective if the time isn’t right for this church? Would I work for change in a patient and loving way, rather than sinking into anger or bitterness? I do feel that as an active participant (not a member) at X Church I have done that, meanwhile praying for the timing, the hearts of the church members, that God’s revelation on women would come. And asking what part I should or shouldn’t play in that.
I have participated in women’s ministry here and seen women teaching who do not have the confidence that they been given the authority to speak definitively about scripture. This undermines their ability to open scripture and speak prophetically. This saddens me. I have seen many women serving in various roles and respect them and know that they are listened to, but I still am not hearing anyone speak to this central issue.
I don’t know why God has given me such a burden for this but I carry it.
Over the years I have written and sought clarity about why this practice of male elders and teaching team continues? And since I do not feel confident that the issue is being discussed fully, openly or seriously (being sidelined for many other important issues of the church) I send this to you, asking for you to consider it now.
Each of us must ask ourselves, male and female alike, are we living as an old person or a new creation? In the flesh or in the Spirit? And what are we being called to, as we serve together?
I hear God’s call as a voice for certain voiceless populations, including women in the Church.
I am constantly clarifying, are you sure Lord? And at times I have been unproductive, and not very Godly, allowing myself to be anxious or angry or even bitter. I have experienced a lot of pain.
In these years, I have come to a certain amount of peace with simply speaking up from time to time, meanwhile to be in study and prayer. And then to been in a place of seeking the rest of the time. But as the spirit seems to speak (or as elder nominations come up) I ask God what I should do, again — do this time.
So thank you for reading this and hopefully giving it serious consideration. I have purposefully not tried to write a treatise for the Biblical interpretation of all the key and most controversial verses — I’m no biblical scholar and you have one on staff. I would ask you to free him up to study this if he hasn’t already. Listen to him. Then give space and time for your own study and careful deliberation.
God will speak. God has a plan.
With respect and gratitude for your sacrifice of service,
Melody Harrison Hanson
October 7, 2010
The major ideas that persuaded my thinking and inspired this are from Gender & Grace: Love, Work & Parenting in a Changing World by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, ©1990, IVP. She did the scholarship, I just happen to agree with her. Also, Call Me Blessed: The Emerging Christian Woman by Faith Martin.
Other things I have written on these topics search for Women in the Church or Feminism. I have written a lot.
I have intentionally removed the name of my church, though it wouldn’t be hard to figure it out, because I think these issue are relevant to almost any Complementarian church.