Sometimes we don’t fully understand the power and impact of a role model, nor do we fully appreciate those who have gone before, cleared the path and then lit the way for us to follow. Sometimes.
Yet for those of us whose journey toward understanding and embracing biblical equality has been a winding path full of pain and epiphanies, the immense value of our role models is deeply felt. Sometimes this value is felt so deeply that it may even take us by surprise—a surprise of joy, when through the window of God’s grace, we get a glimpse of just how powerful the impact of these role models has been.
Meeting my role model up close
I recently experienced a surprise like this. While attending CBE’s 2007 International Conference this past August, I had an encounter with one of my role models that I never anticipated.
Since the workshop options were so rich and plentiful, I prayed each morning for God to direct my steps and lead me to the places that would be the most beneficial to the work He is doing in my life. I walked into a room that was completely full except for one empty seat. As I sat down, I turned to greet the woman sitting next to me. It’s safe to say that what happened next surprised both of us.
As I glimpsed the name on the woman’s badge, my eyes instantly welled up with tears. This reaction was such a surprise to me that I began to laugh at the same time. I do not know what was going through her mind, but this dear woman was gracious enough to pat my arm and simply wait — wait for me to finish, wait for me to explain, wait for me to understand.
I had just sat down next to Alvera Mickelsen, one of my heroes, one of my role models, even though we had never before met.
In the context of his instruction on the freedom of believers, Paul invited the sisters and brothers of Corinth to “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). He knew these people needed a role model, someone to make God’s path clear, someone to light the way for them.
The example of this invitation is profound. Follow me as I follow Christ. In other words, “I invite you to watch my life, to listen to my words, as I make it my one and only goal to be watching the life of Christ, listening to His words and following the path He has set before me with all my heart.” The value of his modeling the life in Christ was immeasurable.
As I sat next to dear Alvera feeling quite foolish, I began to process what was occurring. From a very deep place in my soul, came this welling up of an understanding of the immeasurable value and impact that women like her have had on my life.
I told her I am someone who has a tremendous appreciation and respect for those women who have gone before me, who have forged a path — and in many cases bushwhacked their way through difficult terrain to be a voice that affirms God’s call on the lives and hearts of women and men alike. You see, it has been the women of missionary movements, the women of the abolition and suffrage movements, and women like Alvera in the movement of biblical equality and justice, that God has used to forge the foundation of my own life and ministry. Just as God placed Paul as an example to follow, Alvera is one in a long line of followers of Christ that I have been able to follow even from a distance. I thanked her for being that for me.
Following role models from a distance
I attended a conservative, evangelical seminary in the late 1980s. I was simultaneously working on my M.Div. and working through my understanding of God’s call on my life toward ministry. It was a difficult journey, filled with internal struggle as well as external opposition. This seminary wasn’t an affirming place for women on many levels, but as I’ve seen throughout my life, God accomplishes His purpose in, through, and despite the circumstances.
During my time there I fervently searched for role models whose words and experiences could speak into my life and offer encouragement to keep going when so many voices told me that I didn’t belong in ministry.
Rather than simply resigning myself to the short list of roles I was told were acceptable for me, I prayed that God would bring people into my life who would affirm that His calling and gifting me served His purposes. I needed knowledgeable role models who would challenge me to see my gender was His idea, and being a woman could serve to enhance, not limit, His call on my life.
Then I came across the writings and work of Alvera and her husband Berkeley Mickelsen, who taught at my denomination’s college and seminary. Within the context of that denomination, I had not heard the message of biblical equality. As I studied their message, I was encouraged, affirmed, and challenged. And the impact was deep.
God used this woman’s skill, courage, and insights as a follower of Christ, along with many others like her, as role models for me, even though they may have been completely unaware.
So too, when Paul first spoke the words “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ,” some people had the privilege and opportunity to walk with him side by side and to talk with him face to face. They had first-hand access to Paul as a model of following Christ. And then there are those of us over the generations who have been taught, challenged, and even transformed from a distance by reading about Paul’s life as a Christ-follower in God’s Word and learning from his example.
Becoming a responsible role model
The power and significance of a role model can be felt from up close as well as from a distance.
I believe most of us are aware of this reality. The truth is, like it or not, we are all role models in our communities, our churches, our workplaces, and our families. Being a role model is both an opportunity and a responsibility. How we live out our faith in Christ and express our passion and conviction for biblical equality and gift-based ministry will influence our effectiveness as role models for those up close as well as those watching and listening from a distance.
Some have taken this responsibility seriously, and I have richly benefited from their examples. Others perhaps don’t take this opportunity seriously enough. Either way, there is much at stake. I wonder if the ongoing debate over men, women, and biblical equality is one way the Evil One keeps the Church distracted from being the transformational and prophetic voice for the cause of Christ in our culture that it ought to be. I wonder.
Since the stakes are so high, and the opportunity and responsibility of being a role model is so profound, we must be purposeful in how we choose to live.
Personally, I start close to home, within my family. I have a daughter and a son for whom God has called me to model my faith in Christ, my love and devotion to the authority of His Word, and my conviction of their full equality in the body of Christ. I take that seriously. Together with my husband of nineteen years, we work hard at living out and modeling a Christ-centered partnership of mutuality, respect, and love to those who watch us from up close as well as from a distance.
As pastors, we are purposeful about infusing the message of biblical equality into our ministry as a whole, and encouraging and challenging women and men in our church to serve according to their giftedness. As a woman, I have taken the opportunity to be a voice of encouragement and, I trust, a role model to other women in a local seminary who need someone to invest in their lives the way Alvera and others invested in mine.
“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” I hope that the extraordinary nature of this invitation is not lost on any of us.
For egalitarians to be role models now and in the future, we must allow God to infuse our lives with perseverance, grace, and patience as well as passion. As we faithfully follow the example of Christ, we can be used to clear the path and light the way for those who come after us, those who are watching from up close and from a distance.