I’ve gotten used to the questioning looks I get from some of my Christian brothers when I tell them about my passion for empowering women. When they find out that “women in ministry” is one of my favorite subjects to teach, they seem to wonder, “Why do you, as a man, have such an interest in ‘women’s issues?’”
It’s not that my fellow Christian brothers are all complementarians. Many of them believe that women should serve in the church and community in any and all ways in which they are gifted. Likewise, many would agree that women have been oppressed, discouraged, and discriminated against. No, their questions stem not so much from disagreement, but more from bewilderment about my passion for getting involved.
After all, don’t men have enough problems of their own in the church? Shouldn’t I, as a man, be more involved in men’s issues? Congregations around the globe are reporting decreasing numbers of men. Here in the United States, numerous books, conferences, and ministries are devoted to encouraging men to reclaim their masculinity and shed the apathy that has become all too commonplace for my gender in the church. As a man, wouldn’t it be easier for me to advocate for other men, rather than trying to help women?
So how did I get to this place where advocating for women is one of my primary passions? It began in my college years. During this formative time in my spiritual journey, I gained an appreciation for the Bible and for serious study. I was hungry for truth and sought answers to the tough questions in life that perplexed me both emotionally and intellectually. For the first time in my Christian life I saw that Scripture truly has answers to our current situations.
In the midst of this time of personal renewal, the church I attended commissioned a special committee to develop a statement about the roles of women in the church. This committee, composed only of men, entered the task leaning toward the belief that Scripture placed limitations on women’s teaching and leading in the church. However, when all was said and done, the committee produced a position paper which stated that they found no grounds to limit women and that Scripture actually set the groundwork for the full partnership of men and women.
This egalitarian position paper intrigued me greatly. As a novice Bible student I had tended to read the Bible in a very mechanical, formulaic way — like someone would read a cookbook. But now I was learning about the historical context of these passages and receiving new tools for interpretation. These study skills brought the Bible alive to me in a new way. Though these skills applied to many topics, it was through studying the question of women in ministry that I developed a deep love for theology, a love that would eventually lead me to get a masters degree in Christian Thought.
This was the beginning of what I would call a “conviction.” I was convinced that women and men could serve side by side in all areas of ministry. Through the years my study of the topic led me to believe even more firmly in the equality of men and women. But then something happened.
In 1996 (now about 12 years after my “conviction”), I participated in my first cross-cultural, short-term missions experience. I spent three weeks in Uganda, East Africa teaching apologetics and hermeneutics to 100 pastors and lay leaders. It was a stretching time for me.
I remember the overwhelmed feeling I got the first time I spoke through a translator and felt that I would never be able to effectively communicate. I remember the embarrassing moments when I just couldn’t understand their English, the language I thought I knew, because their accent was so different. I felt like a young child separated from his parents in the grocery store.
But what impacted me most were the relationships I formed. My new friends introduced me to a new world that included some of the most strenuous trials of poverty along with the illness and despair that it can bring. Within the first year after returning home, I lost two friends to the devastation of AIDS. Yet I also saw a strength of spirit and joy in worship that can only be found among those whose only hope is Jesus.
My experiences resulted in a crisis of faith. I began to question where God was in the midst of such poverty. I questioned how my beliefs, my “convictions,” had any bearing on the suffering of the world. It was through this time of soul searching that I began to make the transition from “conviction” to “action.” I realized that my Christianity had made right doctrines, proper interpretations, and correct answers as the ultimate expression of faith.
A change began to occur in me which has set me on my current path. The words of James still echo in my ear. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such a faith save them?” (James 2:14 tniv). Let me make it clear that I am not advocating a works-based system of righteousness. But
I am confessing that I can no longer see salvation as simply a confession of sin that entitles one to a place in heaven. Biblical salvation, beginning with the great themes of the Old Testament and continuing through the teachings of Jesus, seems to be strongly connected with the concept of justice.
As an American steeped in a tradition of individualism, I understood justice about punishment for wrongdoing (if you break the law, you must pay a price), or about ensuring that all are treated equally (everyone gets a chance to bat in gym class). But now my experiences were helping me read Scripture through a different lens. I began to see a God who considered justice to be about advocacy — advocacy for those less fortunate, for those with less of a voice, for those outside the circles of power and influence.
The biblical messages of the prophets often critiqued those in power and warned them about their ill treatment of the alien, the widow, the homeless, the orphan, or the hungry. Unlike my preconceived ideas about why God destroyed Sodom (I thought it had something to do with sex), I learned a different explanation from the prophet Ezekiel: “Sodom’s sins were pride, laziness, and gluttony, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door. She was proud and did loathsome things, so I wiped her out, as you have seen” (Ezek. 16:49–50 NLT). Isaiah rebuked people who thought they were pleasing God with their religious rituals, and he told them what is at the heart of real worship: “Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Fight for the rights of widows” (Isa. 1:17 NLT). Likewise, Amos sums up God’s advocacy for the underdog by refuting false, oppressive religion and saying, “I want to see a mighty flood of justice, a river of righteous living that will never run dry” (Amos 5:24 NLT).
Certainly salvation is about freedom. It’s about freedom from sin through the blood of Jesus, which allows us to enter into a qualitatively different, eternal life with promises of future glory. But salvific freedom is about more than heaven. It’s about freedom for the poor, the hurting, the lowly, the small, the voiceless, and many others who suffer under the weight of injustice. It is a freedom of the here and now.
I mentioned that I had a conviction, or a belief, that men and women were equal. But I came to the realization that God expects more than convictions — he expects actions. I had once seen the issue of women in ministry as an intriguing theological controversy, thus something relegated to the realm of the intellect. I had also seen the gospel as being about getting people to confess sin and accept Jesus as their Savior, again primarily focusing on the realm of belief. Certainly right belief is important. Yet the gospel is not merely about getting to heaven, it’s also about bringing justice to the earth now. It seems to me that justice and salvation are both about freedom and bringing people to a place of whole, healthy, and harmonious relationships.
On several occasions Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is near.” He also told parables like the one about a mustard seed which would grow and grow and not be overcome. As followers of Jesus we are agents of this Kingdom. We cannot be overcome. We do not seek to escape from the problems of this world, but instead seek to be agents of change in the here and now. This is what advocacy is about. It’s about overcoming injustice, helping the weak, and giving a voice to the voiceless. It’s about empowering all of God’s people to participate in the fullness of their giftedness.
This is why I’m so passionate about advocating for women’s equality. By advocating I do not mean to imply that I am superior. Certainly not! During my seminary years I encountered many women who were far more gifted and far more intelligent than I am. By being an advocate for women I am simply acknowledging that my culture has arbitrarily set me in a privileged position as a white, middle class male. I now have a choice. I can sit back with a conviction that men and women are equal and let history take its course, or I can join the struggle with my Christian sisters to help them overcome the chains that bind them.
I need to be an advocate not just for the sake of women. It’s also for my own sake — we’re all in this together. My humanity is wrapped up with theirs. Our lives are interdependent and when one suffers injustice we all feel the effects. Likewise, when we are united we all benefit from the body of Christ functioning as a healthy and whole organism.
This hit home to me last October when I had the opportunity to return to Uganda and teach for three days. While teaching about women in ministry, I asked people to estimate the percentage of women in the world’s missionary force. Some women estimated the total to be less than 1%. They were shocked to know that the numbers are far higher, with some estimates putting the percentage of female missionaries as greater than their male counterparts.
As I talked to women afterward, many commented about the blessing it was to know that so many women were using their gifts in missions…they had no idea. Of all the verses I shared, all the theology I taught, all the hermeneutics and exegesis and well-argued points, it was a simple statistic that blessed these women. Why? I believe it was because they felt solidarity with other women around the world. They felt empowered knowing that there were women who were using their gifts. This solidarity of intertwined, interdependent relations empowers us all to be more effective Kingdom agents.
My personal journey has led me to be more vocal about getting women involved in ministry and about encouraging women to take leadership. I try to teach in both formal and informal arenas as the opportunities present themselves. And for the last year I have committed a couple hours every other week to volunteering in the CBE office. These are my small attempts at becoming an advocate for justice and equality for my Christian sisters. But these small steps are an acknowledgement that we are all in this struggle together, and my advocacy for justice and equality is not just for women, it’s for us all.