With all the discussion going on in our churches today about what we are calling “The Women’s Role”, I think it is best to begin at the beginning. That’s right, the very beginning: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. After the “bite that changed the world”, Adam found Eve wearing her fig leaf. “No way,” he told her! “I’ll wear the plants in this family!”
Since that momentous occasion, human beings of both genders have found themselves locked in a battle of the sexes that we continue to fight today. For some, the battle is very significant and the search for the solution is ongoing. Others assume the victory is won. For me, the struggle is about more than the question of the roles that women can play in our church assemblies. It has become about an evolving way of reading Scripture and finding God’s will for my life. After serving in ministry for four decades, I find that I continue to see God’s Spirit leading me, guiding me, and strengthening me.
It’s a little unbelievable, in some ways, to remember some of the restrictions that women accepted at the time of my conversion in 1974. As a young woman converted in the midst of the women’s liberation movement, I could be heard belting out Helen Reddy’s song, “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar,” and debating the pros and cons of the Equal Rights Amendment. While I did not go so far as the trendy bra burners, I certainly admired their spunk. So it is surprising, in retrospect, to know that I didn’t bat an eye when I joined a church that followed a very male-driven philosophy: Men only were the ones before the church, speaking, teaching, baptizing, singing, even handing out communion supplies. Somehow, this did not disturb me because I was being taught that was God’s will, and that women were to be “helpers” and “behind the scenes.” From a cursory look at a couple of Bible passages, I believed and accepted that point of view. My newfound relationship to God had brought me so much peace, joy, and purpose that it did not disturb me. I still had plenty to do in order to display my devotion to Jesus. I felt called and useful in God’s kingdom, and for that I am thankful.
Journey to Beyond
Through the years, many people, including myself, have realized that our opportunities and responsibilities in God’s kingdom go beyond what we were so certain of, and comfortable with. I know that I am not the first person to come to these realizations, nor will I be the last. My journey has included wrestling with the way I view Scripture, not only about gender issues but also in the way I have learned and am learning to interpret and understand the meaning behind Biblical texts. The following is my personal journey:
When people ask me why I went into the ministry, my usual answer was “I married into the ministry.” My husband, Randy, had ministry in his view when we first began dating and were married. I was head over heels in love and vowed that I would follow him in whatever path he took. As I found my new life as the bride of a campus minister, my “job” was to do basically everything Randy did --- with no pay or benefits. I led “soul talks,” counseled women (as best as a young 23-year-old newly married woman could do), studied the Bible with college girls (with extremely little training on how to do that), and taught some women’s classes (which came a little more naturally and was something I enjoyed). Of course, I did not publicly speak, teach, or lead singing in a mixed assembly, and when the college girls came to be baptized, it was Randy’s job to put on the “waders” and head to the church baptistry at the front of the sanctuary. Later, I served as a missionary overseas, and trained other women on mission teams. Returning to the U.S., I continued to serve without any formal recognition for my work in the form of a paycheck. I did not feel any bitterness about the situation, it was just the way it was.
Sometime in the 1990’s it was decided that women married to ministers should be receiving a salary. (In my present status as a recent retiree, my monthly Social Security checks make me thankful for that decision!) In addition, the atmosphere at church began to look a bit different. Women were doing more up front. We could actually not only make the communion bread, but we could also pass it out in the assembly! Women were singing harmony in worship (with a brother doing the lead singing), baptizing other women, and sharing during communion talks. Women began to have more of a voice in leaders’ meetings. Because our participation was still under the authority of male leadership, these were acceptable practices, and several, like me, were thrilled to have these opportunities. For the next decade or so, women became more and more visible in church services, although with fairly rigid parameters. The thing that was most concerning to me was that we were making positive changes at church with more participation from the women, and yet people did not understand why. I was genuinely concerned that young people were seeing the women up front, then reading a passage about women keeping silent, and assuming that “we don’t believe in that.” I wanted Christians to continue their faith in the Scriptures but to have a better understanding of how to read Scripture within its context. That is my concern even today…. when people come to conclusions without doing the necessary digging to understand why or why not.
A Turning Point
It was during a conference in Budapest, Hungary, when something came up that made a significant difference in my life. At that time, Randy and I were serving as leaders in the church in Northern Virginia, and because of some responsibilities with Europe (where we had served for several years, and in fact had “planted” the church in Hungary in the 1990’s), we were in attendance. I attended a session that was presented by the “Teachers’ Service Team” – a group of brothers dedicated to developing training for ministers and promoting biblical literacy for all Christians. During that session, it occurred to me, as well as to some others (particularly Tess Fontenot from Australia), that although there were many women who would be helpful in this capacity, the group consisted only of men. I spoke with Steve Kinnard, who at the time was the chairman of the team, and asked him to consider including women. He graciously agreed and promised that he would look into that. At that time, I figured I had done my part and felt good that my suggestion was heard. I did not think too much more about it until a few weeks later when I received an invitation to be on the Teachers’ Team myself! I remember telling some friends: “I didn’t mean me…” but I was honored and happy to fill the position, even if I was just a “token” female. Deb Anton and I joined the team in June of 2012 as the only two women on the team, and the first meeting we attended was in Nashville, Tennessee in October 2012.
I recall flying into Nashville, looking out the airplane window, praying about this meeting, and saying to myself, “Don’t mess up, don’t mess up!” I felt a real responsibility to represent my gender. I did not want to do or say anything that would make the guys wish they hadn’t invited me. Nor did I want to leave the impression that “only the women” think in a certain way. I think this reveals how much this bias was in my own mind. The phrase that might describe this today is “systemic sexism.”
That Nashville meeting was wonderful. The brothers there were so welcoming and open to my perspective and contributions. There really was no awkwardness at all, and I will always be grateful for that. Of course, I had Deb with me at that meeting so it was helpful to have her camaraderie.
Another meeting was scheduled to take place in California in 2013. Deb was not able to attend that meeting and I honestly questioned if I should go. But again, my conviction was that women must be represented, so even if it was awkward, I decided to attend. At that meeting, I was asked to give a presentation about women in a teaching role. I still have that Power Point, and one of my appeals was this: Present a paper by the Teachers’ Service Committee on the need for women to teach at the congregational and ministry leadership levels. My presentation was very well received --- the only awkwardness at that meeting was finding someone to eat meals with, as the only “single” woman there. I felt like the girl in the movie “Mean Girls” who ate lunch in the bathroom stall.
A Beginning, not an End
Since 2013, the subject of the women’s role, how to view those “controversial scriptures,” and determining how much women should be permitted to do has been a constant source of discussion for the teachers. From Long Beach to Singapore to Dallas to Chicago to Orlando to Jamaica to San Antonio and a few other places in between, we have continued in dialogue about this subject, and how to study and teach on it. Throughout those years, different people on the team worked on papers and gave presentations, but we never could agree on a specific method to communicate and teach with such varying opinions and perspectives.
In 2016 I gave another presentation to the expanding teachers team (where more women had been added: Suzette Lewis and Tammy Fleming) and we asked the same questions:
How can we answer the most pressing questions in a clear and simplistic way?
What can we agree on as a fellowship of churches, and how can we encourage practices that would be similar (not the same) across all cultures?
How can we provide resources for further study, and what should those resources be?
How will we communicate and teach others about the results of this process?
And the most pressing question always seemed to be:
Can women speak in a mixed gender setting? If so, by what authority?
Finally, the decision came down to writing a series of articles on the more controversial passages that have shaped us and continue to shape us. We hoped, and continue to hope, that if we could exegete these passages then it would help Christians, especially church leaders, to discern and apply the principles in their congregations. The Teachers’ Service Team developed a task force, the purpose of which was to present a series of papers that would exegete those chosen scriptures, to understand more clearly the wording, the context, the message and intent of the author, and how the first readers or hearers of those scriptures would understand them in their time and place. I believe that is what we have done in the collection known as “The Bible and Gender.”
In writing anything, it is easy to forget that we all have a slight bias. And even with these articles, there is obviously going to be some “leaning” whether it is intentional or not. It was significant to me that several people on the task force agreed that scholars have debated these passages and we may not all come to the exact same conclusions.
I do want to point out what we tried to make clear in the book:
It was not the goal of the task force to comment on how the concepts discussed in the papers were to be implemented on a practical level in local ministries. Neither was it the goal of the task force to provide guidelines for local ministries concerning this topic. The goal was to provide research papers that could be used to facilitate discussions within local ministries concerning the Bible and gender. All but one of the articles include reflections that can be used to help facilitate discussions within churches.
Therefore, each paper maintains the personal “feel” of the main author.
The Teachers Task Force on “The Bible and Gender” prays that these papers will facilitate discussions concerning this important topic across churches around the globe.
The task force, consisting originally of seven brothers and three sisters, and led by Val Koha (an elder and recognized Teacher in the Boston church), met fairly regularly via video conferencing (even before the pandemic) and worked on these papers together. Each author would read his or her paper, and then comments and suggestions were made. I want to say that the energy and time and brain power that went into this was remarkable. Everyone on this task force had other jobs to do, and they took on this project in whatever spare time they could. A few on the task force are not in the full-time ministry. I appreciated the encouraging atmosphere of the meetings. I certainly learned so much from each participant. And I learned an incredible amount from my own study. Writing a “scholarly” paper was not something I had a lot of expertise in, but I thoroughly enjoyed what it took to do the research and writing. (I used every big word I knew!) Often there were discussions that included the meaning of Greek words, and some, who will remain unnamed, were quite adamant about the right pronunciation and spelling. I had to let them all know that although I am not a Greek scholar, I suppose I am the only one on the task force that can say the Greek alphabet three times to a lit match. (Only those in a Greek sorority or fraternity can understand why.)
Although there was agreement about the major thrust of each paper, there was not always total agreement with the leaning of the author. This was discussed and eventually led to a slightly different topic, which was this: How can we have unity without uniformity? Do we have to see these things exactly the same, or can we have a different perspective and still be in fellowship? I was surprised when some of this discussion took place, and remember asking at one time: Is this a salvation issue? And the answer I received was that we were not an ecumenical movement, we were not going to be loose on the scriptures. I appreciated what a fellow task force member, Jeanie Shaw, wrote in an email, in response to that particular discussion:
These verses are likely the most debated scriptures in the New Testament and there are several plausible ways of interpreting them. Some, even within our own teachers’ group, believe occasional scriptures such as these refer to a specific problem at a specific time while others believe these should be interpreted literally and applied for all time. We all hold the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God and believe that these difficult scriptures hold transcending principles including respect, order, and the dangers of false teaching… Perhaps our greater challenge is not in exegeting these difficult passages, but in learning how to maintain unity amidst lack of uniformity within differing, yet plausible views of interpretation(my emphasis added). We must respect each of our churches as we all strive to be true to the Scriptures. Ultimately, each congregation will have to wrestle with ways to practice these scriptures.
I want to commend Steve Kinnard (again) for his willingness to collaborate, especially with the women in the group. The first draft of the I Timothy paper, in particular, came to some conclusions that Jeanie, Suzette Lewis, and I did not feel comfortable with. After several discussions, Steve invited us to edit and revise, and he used much of our input in the final paper.
I believe “The Bible and Gender” is a useful tool. I think it is a beginning, not an end. It is not perfect. If scores of biblical scholars for centuries have not figured everything out, I rather doubt we will have the perfect answer. But I believe that it is an instrument that can bring about more study, more discussion, and some enlightenment on an exceedingly difficult subject.
Faith Stronger and Sweeter
“Do you not know that I am a woman? When I think, I must speak!” -- Rosalind, in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”
Where do I stand?
One of the most challenging aspects that we always encounter in our “hermeneutic” (our interpretation of a passage) is in trying to discern what in the New Testament was taught because of the cultural setting at that time and what was being taught as transcendent and enduring principles. As teacher Gordon Ferguson states: “The real estate world tells us that the three most important things in their realm are location, location and location. Similarly, the world of proper hermeneutics tells us that the three most important things in biblical interpretation are context, context and context.”
I used to look at the Scriptures, in particular the epistles, as a blueprint for how church should be today. We are a “New Testament” church. We want to be a church like the New Testament. I used to think that until someone pointed out “so you want to be the Corinthian church?” I now view the epistles as a wonderfully amazing inside view of how the first Christians lived out their faith. It is so exciting to see these ancient texts, realizing they were written and read by brothers and sisters thousands of years ago. From them, I am called higher and want to imitate their faith. However, I may not be able to imitate their life in their culture. But what principles can I learn even from them? How did they view the gospel? What was God saying to them? The original audience heard those words in their setting and in their language. It was not written TO US, but it was written FOR US.
Furthermore, just because a passage does not transcend time, it does not mean that passage is not significant. If Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth are correcting their worship services and communion and acceptance of sin, I can understand the incredible significance of those same subjects in my time and culture. If the letter to Timothy is concerned about women behaving in an unseemly manner, I can take heed that my actions do not cause anyone in my assembly to distrust the gospel.
It has taken some wrestling and prayer to transform my perspective of the Scriptures, in particular the letters and epistles of the New Testament. I have read a stack of books, watched multiple videos, and participated in countless lively discussions. But there was a point over the past several years when the effect on me was quite challenging. You see, I had been taught from my early Christian years that we had to take those “difficult” passages literally. I was disturbed when I learned there were other, many-faceted views of scholars, which debated this issue. It was confusing to me; I had assumed that we had the Bible pretty much figured out. We were following the blueprint that God intended. The Bible is my bedrock, and if my faith in the Bible was broken, then I am broken. There were times I was literally in despair about this, wondering if I could hold on to my trust in God’s word. I had to cling to God fiercely to work through my confusion. But I believe my faith has emerged stronger and sweeter as a result of this study. I am seeing God’s Word with eyes that are more aware. The message of God’s plan for my life rings clearer and truer than ever before.
Shrink back or rise
In conclusion, I would like to add a few points that I believe are important. One of my major incentives for wanting more female voices from the pulpit is because I think, as a fellowship, we could use a more “wholistic” view of the gospels. Our male preachers and teachers certainly give us a good view of the message of Jesus, but the female perspective is a valuable one and is frequently lost. I believe that the men in our churches really miss out because they do not hear this side of things taught.
And finally, I have heard it said that some women do not want more opportunities. In fact, many women have “shrunk back” and are less invested in any kind of public ministry or public service. And people have used that to argue that women are not up to the task. But my response to that is that if women have been made to feel insignificant, certainly not intentionally but by the culture we have created, then women will not rise to the occasion. “If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (I Corinthians 14:6) Women have not heard the “trumpet call” because they do not think it is calling their sex. If we begin to teach men and women that the call to serve, whether publicly or in any arena, is equal for men and women, then I believe women will see their responsibility and respond with enthusiasm.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps this cartoon can say it best: