We had been in a discipleship relationship for about a year. We’d meet in a local coffee shop to talk about books, Scripture, and a bit of life. He was the supervising pastor; I was preparing for ordained ministry as an elder. We were friends. Our spouses, friends, and church members knew and approved. God was blessing the friendship and the ministry. Then suddenly, one afternoon, he called to end the discipleship. The only explanation he gave was that an older male pastor had commented, “Men should not engage in serious and deep discipleship with women—ever.”
After we hung up, I sat in shock, rejected, as a familiar feeling of shame and questioning washed over me. Do I even belong in the church, in ministry? Am I wanted? What role must I play in order to be accepted? Has God really even called me? How can I serve together with men? Teach men? Surely, God hasn’t called me to only walk with women, has he?
I wholeheartedly believe that most male clergy, at least within my Wesleyan tradition, want women to be in ministry with them, but I’m not sure they are willing to do what needs to be done to really “be in this together” with women. Throughout my thirty-three years in the church, too many male clergy have claimed with their words, “I accept you,” while communicating with their actions, “Be ashamed,” “You’re too emotional,” and “Don’t get too close.”
There are dangers—absolutely. Temptations abound; broken relationships make people vulnerable; spouses are jealous; congregations tend to be suspicious and gossipy. I must admit that even I sometimes wonder about a man and a woman who seem to be “too close.” But all this means that I as a woman hear, “You are a danger. You will cause him to fall. You will destroy his ministry.” The accusations, spoken and unspoken, echo Adam’s claim, “The woman you put here with me…”—she made me do it (Gen. 3:12).
Women, we must be aware that we can contribute to the very fear that keeps us out of fellowship with our brothers. Many of us gossip and make harmful assumptions; a few of us step into relationships that we should avoid. These are individual mistakes, yet for some reason, all women must bear the liability for everyone’s sin, both of women and of men. The very potential to sin and cause others to sin is put upon us—as if it’s inevitable. Thus, we are invited, “Come, but please, stand on the other side of the street,” lest we threaten everything.
Women carry the shame of everyone’s potential sin, even when we have done nothing wrong—other than being women. I feel this shame in the depths of my soul; the pain of it aches in my bones and burns in my heart. This most recent discipleship rejection stirred it all up again.
Here I sit in my shame, shame I didn’t “earn,” shame that was “put on” me for being born female. I am neither sexually promiscuous, nor an adulterer, nor a marriage-destroyer. Yet the behaviors of my Christian siblings insinuate I will eventually be all of these things, and so I am too often relegated to “safer” ministry with women, looking on from the outside at the brotherhood of pastors.
This Is Where God Steps In
The day after the supervising pastor ended our discipleship relationship, I taught a Sunday school lesson on Acts 10, the story where Cornelius calls for Peter after having a vision. Likewise, Peter has his own while praying as a meal is being prepared.
He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. (Acts 10:11–16)
Because Peter righteously followed the law, he knew that certain animals were considered unclean and thus could not be eaten or sometimes even touched. Avoiding contamination was a necessary requirement under the Old Testament covenant law.
Even more so, Cornelius, a Gentile, a Roman Centurion, was also considered unclean by Jewish religious law, so it just wasn’t right for Peter to visit his home. Peter not only came but also asked Cornelius to stand instead of kneeling at his feet, declaring them equals (10:25–26). Imagine the suspicious chatter among the people—their accusations and their gossip. Peter silenced them with a word from God, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection” (10:28–29a). This same message echoed in Peter’s account of his vision from God as he focused on the broader application of this vision to any person, not just anything or any food. Peter made it clear what God had revealed to him, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (10:34–35).1
Peter’s words hung in my mind all day. My heart swelled with the validation and acceptance that Cornelius likely felt as Peter spoke; that was what I longed for. Cornelius was unclean because of his nation of origin; I was considered unclean—shameful—because of my gender. Like Cornelius, I am also a Christian who is pursuing God’s own heart. He and I are the same, excluded because of what we are, not who we are. In this moment, I heard God say to me, in my innermost being, “They have called you unclean, but I call you clean.”
God Reminds Me I Am Clean and Unashamed
As I continued to grieve the abrupt end of this valuable discipleship relationship, God brought me back to his revelation in Acts 10 three specific times. Like Peter, I needed the repetition for this truth to settle in my being.
The first reminder: forgiven and saved by faith
On an evening walk, I listened to a sermon by Tim Keller.2 As he illuminated the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet with her perfume, I was struck by both the intimacy of this moment and the immediate condemnation by those observing. Yet Jesus didn’t send her away, nor make her stop touching Him, nor tell her to stay on the other side of the room . . . and she was a prostitute! Instead, Jesus declared her clean: “Your sins are forgiven . . . and your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:36–50).
The second reminder: intimately discipled
The next day, I read N.T. Wright’s discussion of Mary and Martha in Luke 10 and encountered the same message.3 Wright believes that while Martha was irritated at having to do all the work, she probably was more frustrated that Mary sat at Jesus’s feet, being intimately discipled by this male rabbi while all the other women were in the back of the house away from the men. Mary violated “one of the most basic social conventions. And Jesus declares that she is right to do so” despite what others might think.
The third reminder: called out of shame
That same week, God gave me one more reminder, one I recently and powerfully re-experienced when Elaine Bernius, an Old Testament scholar, spoke in our university chapel service about sexuality. As she described the woman caught in adultery standing in fear and shame before the Pharisees and teachers of the law, I saw myself. I was that woman—not in her specific sin, but definitely in her shame. I heard Jesus saying to my accusers, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:8). When just Jesus and I remained, he looked me in the eyes, seeing me fully. And then he spoke, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’. . . Then neither do I condemn you. . . . Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:10–11).
I Am Learning to Embrace God’s Declarations of Me
Like Peter, God had to tell me three times before I really understood that we “should not call anyone impure or unclean” if God has said otherwise. As I sat in these stories, Jesus lifted my eyes to his, and he said, “Woman.” Oh, this is the identity that he has given me, and it is good! The shame for being female began to dissolve as the words, “Neither do I condemn you,” reverberated in my head. Though I still needed time to grieve the end of my discipleship relationship, I was so thankful for God’s affirmation of my worth, belonging, and call to ministry. Jesus is faithful to remove the shame of everyone’s potential sin from my shoulders, time after time after time. I pray for the arrival of the day when that shame does not return. But for now, he has once again reminded me that he alone is the one who declares who I am.
May we not call anyone unclean whom God has made clean.
Now I say to all other women who have been made to feel ashamed for wanting to minister alongside men, let’s lay our hearts at the feet of Jesus:
Oh, Jesus, you have saved us; you call us into an intimate relationship with you as your beloved daughters and friends. You do not put up boundaries because we’re women; rather, you praise us when we come to you. You have made us clean; you have set us free from the rules and restrictions of this world, even those of the church. You have called us to share your good news and to serve and love as you did. Jesus, give us the confidence of Cornelius, Mary as she sat at your feet, and the woman who stood before her accusers, to be carefree in our worship of you and unrestrained in our service to you through the church, no matter what people might say. And, Jesus, teach us to live as brothers and sisters in real relationships with one another so that we may show the world your love. Amen.
- R. Edwards, "New Testament Unit 4: Lesson 40 – Peter and Cornelius," Join the Story, (Barefoot Ministries Online: 2004).
- Timothy Keller, Faith in Jesus. Podcast audio. January 26, 2003. https://podcast.gospelinlife.com/e/faith-in-jesus-1565828686/
- N.T. Wright, "The Biblical Basis for Women’s Service in the Church," Priscilla Papers 20, no. 4 (2006): 5-10.
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