For a class project, I once spent a semester studying people I disagree with. Initially, I planned to report on atheists because their beliefs differ dramatically from my Christian faith.
I approached my professor with the idea, and he shook his head. “No, you need to choose people who frustrate you. Who don’t you get along with? Who is hard to like?”
Truthfully, I had the least warm and fuzzy feelings toward those who oppose women in ministry leadership. I’d become weary of repeating myself to young men who ignored me in seminary study groups. It was awkward to question when they edited my words out of group papers without discussion.
I wrestled over a male professor explaining to my class that, “men do ministry with a capital-M and women do ministry with a little-m.” The same professor once docked considerable points off my paper with no explanation besides: “I can only measure your natural abilities compared to others in the class.” (I transferred to another seminary the next year.)
The grade stung since I’d read 250 extra pages and labored for weeks to write what I considered a rocking paper on why Jesus thwarted power-hungry legalists and overturned corrupt establishments. My stomach sank when I overheard a male colleague say, “I totally BS-ed that assignment.” Evidently he wrote the paper the night before and received a 97%.
I couldn’t deny how painfully hard it was to get along with Christians who believe males have a universal role of authority over females. Seminary introduced me to the theological term for those of this camp: hierarchal complementarians. I came to think of them as HCs since it sounds less pretentious and is much easier to say.
Studying HCs seemed a good choice for the project. A colleague, Patti, and I approached three of them, and they agreed to interviews. We invited them to study us in return, and they were surprisingly enthusiastic.
The project required putting aside personal judgments, asking thoughtful questions, listening for the sake of understanding, and practicing mutual respect. Everybody agreed, though I’m sure we hoped to influence the other group’s thinking.
Early discussions were painless. We agreed that male and female reflect the image of God with equal value. We agreed that male and female are equally messed up; equally needing rescue by God through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We agreed that male and female receive equal measures of new life in the Spirit.
I felt optimistic—Did HCs and Spirit-led egalitarians (SLEs, as I call them) have enough in common to work together in Jesus’ name?
Same Bible, Opposite Conclusions
Discussions of “male” versus “female” leadership abilities dashed my optimism. A HC expressed concerns that women are more emotional and that hormonal swings may cause them to make poor decisions. The HC expressed questions: Would a female president be more prone to pulling the lever on a nuke due to her cycle? Would a female pastor make detrimental mistakes because of PMS?
From my perspective, stereotypes were influencing the HC’s assumptions about gender and masquerading as the will of God. I doubted that God wired females to be emotional yoyos. It seemed just as illogical to say males live above such tendencies.
I shared observations of some men watching football, playing hockey, and having abusive conflicts with wives. Do strong emotions not play into some men screaming obscenities, getting in fistfights, and mistreating women?
The HCs explained their belief that if a man “steps up to the plate as a servant leader,” his emotions won’t get the best of him. Being a better leader, they insisted, would cause him to treat his wife better.
Patti relayed the common story of a selfish husband demanding a wife’s submission. I described the pain a woman suffers when a husband tells her to submit to watching pornography, to tolerate infidelity, incest, or any other scenario that conflicts with the Spirit’s whispers to her own soul.
“Does being in a position of leadership over a woman really motivate a man’s character?” We questioned. “Does having authority over women really help men be better men? Why not emphasize submission to the King of kings and Lord of lords?”
“You have a hermeneutic of pain,” the HCs responded flatly.
It was a fancy way of saying they thought our brains could not understand the Bible because of personal pain and identifying with people who suffer.
Patti and I reminded them of the numerous well-respected evangelical scholars who use the same method of translating, and they didn’t push the point.
“Doesn’t letting go of a position of power—like Jesus sacrificed his life on a cross—accomplish God’s greatest purposes?” Patti questioned.
“Don’t those who suffer painful injustices, like he did, know that most deeply?” I added.
The HCs could not deny that suffering opens a legitimately deeper understanding of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Patti continued, “And if it’s possible to have a hermeneutic of pain,” then isn’t it possible to have a “hermeneutic of ease?”
The HCs could not deny that privilege causes some people, including male leaders, to miss legitimate messages in God’s word.
In that rare moment, I sensed the Spirit bringing us together though it didn’t last. The more we discussed our differences, the more firmly we stood in our beliefs. With time, we could joke about some of our differences, and we had a decent time.
Six weeks later, over a meal, we shook our heads, realizing that we read the same Bible yet reach opposite conclusions. It boiled down to differing methods of translating (hermeneutics). We agreed it’s never right to treat those we disagree with unkindly. We also agreed we’d never do ministry together.
The project left me with several takeaways:
1. It’s important to discern the sincerity of people who want to discuss differing views of women in leadership. Do they really want a conversation? Or do they want to demean you for not seeing things their way?
2. It’s okay for people to question and discuss ideas. But it’s never okay for them to attack your character.
3. Experiences shape the ways we all read the Bible—for better or for worse. Nobody but Jesus has a corner on the theological market. Humility and a well-thought-out system of translating (hermeneutics) are in order.
4. When disagreeing about difficult passages, it’s best to start with the method of translating the passage rather than talking past one another about the details.
5. Partnering with people who do not support women in ministry leadership is riddled with conflicts. It’s not impossible. But sometimes it’s better to part ways.
This post has been adapted from amyrbuckley.com.