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Conversation As a Change Agent

On June 08, 2011

How did more than twenty thoughtful Christian leaders change their minds on such a highly entrenched, divisive issue? Opening the conversation, Alan Johnson notes a primary concern: Christians have absolutized cultural patterns in Scripture, confusing the moral teachings of Scripture with Bible-culture. As believers did with slavery in the nineteenth century, Christians today are concluding that patriarchy—male-only authority—is not essential to a God-ordered society. Though slavery and patriarchy are part of Bible culture, both are at odds with the moral teachings of Scripture.

In How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals, eleven men, four women, and six couples discern whether patriarchy is integral or injurious to authentic Christian community. In nearly every case, passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34-36, and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 were considered alongside the legacy of gifted and godly women. Unwilling to dismiss either women's contributions or biblical passages that seem to limit their service, contributors pressed to understand Scripture within a wider biblical, historical, and cultural context.

Provocative questions are consistently raised. Alice Mathews ponders the mixed messages she received as a child. Why was the prominent evangelist Amy Lee Stockton—recipient of an honorary doctorate from Wheaton College—not a sufficient model for evangelical churches to open more pulpits to women? Ruth Barton questions the wisdom of excluding godly women, who are well-acquainted with the challenges of parishioners, from decision-making in churches they nurture each week. She also asks why so many gifted women are humiliated and told that their motives are selfish and that their actions are like those of Eve when they exercise their gifts. Cornelius Plantiga called it "embarrassing" that males somberly discuss "whether we ought to 'allow' women into church offices...as if the church belongs to males."

Underlining the gender debate is the assumption that males are superior to females, Tony Campolo observes. To insist that women may not use their gifts simply because they are female is to imply that there is something inherently inferior in females. Having survived the Armenian massacre, Nazi rule in France, and violence in Lebanon, Gilbert Bilezikian challenges self-arrogated leadership based on birth, ethnicity, or gender.

Though gender-devaluations are untenable, contributors also observed that the teachings of male hierarchy are impossible to implement consistently, or without human suffering. For example, in some denominations women are permitted to teach and preach abroad, but never in the US. Women may write hymns, books, and curriculum that profit everyone, yet are not permitted to lead worship, classes, or book studies with males present. If men are God's appointed leaders, why do we permit women to lead men in any situation, secular or sacred?

Citing the feminist scholar Virginian Vanian, John Stackhouse suggests that "small slights can constitute large-scale social patterns of repression." Unless women work to collapse sexist structures, they will remain in a prison impoverishing everyone. For Stackhouse, women, keenly aware of sexism and gender injustices, are those who must speak out. Perhaps, however, this undertaking is best pursued by the whole church—an endeavor that empowers all its members.

The journeys build momentum, like many hands on a large broom, sweeping the floor of an ancient sanctuary. Each sweep carries away years of patriarchal debris, revealing a biblical mosaic of human mutuality: male and female, created in God’s image and destined for a shared dominion, integral to Christ's new covenant community.

Despite many hands sweeping, it is unfortunate that the book did not include more women, people of color, and believers from the majority world. Other omissions include Christians from the charismatic, Catholic, and Eastern traditions. A few younger voices would have enriched the conversation, too.

Despite these weaknesses, the power of personal story cannot be contained. Just ask the vendors at the recent Evangelical Theological Society Convention. They sold every copy they brought within twenty-four hours! This book offers much wisdom on a primary issue facing the church.

This article will appear in the July/August issue of PRISM magazine and is used with permission.

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