I don’t know many college students who, during their spring break trip to Florida, take along and read Discovering Biblical Equality. But there I was, just a few years ago, sitting on a beach and devouring the 528-page book. Road trips, beaches, and scholarly essays—I felt like a living example of the Sesame Street children’s song, “One of these things is not like the other things…”
To me, though, this was just the next step. I was a couple of months away from proposing to my then-girlfriend Emily and only a year away from graduating from college with a biblical studies degree and then moving on to full-time ministry. Understanding headship in marriage, leadership in the church, and biblical views on gender were at the forefront of my mind. I had questions and I needed answers.
Had you asked me about these issues a couple of years before that spring break trip, I would have had no questions to speak of. I was raised in a patriarchal home, had never been taught by so much as a female Sunday school teacher, and had been homeschooled using a fundamentalist Baptist curriculum. I had full confidence in my own understanding of what the Bible said about women and their role in the home and in the church: submit to men.
Admittedly, my parents were fairly balanced. My dad never angrily ruled over my mom or belittled her intellect, abilities, or talents. But, in times of differing opinion, it was always stated, “Dad is the head of the household and his is the judgment that matters above all.” I never questioned this position. In Genesis 2, the male was created first. In Ephesians, Paul said something about women submitting to men. My family made sense.
This lack of questioning changed within my first couple months of college. I was in a class called “Exploring the Christian Faith” taught by Dr. Tim Erdel. Our class took on contentious issues: pacifism, predestination, secular art, and—of course—biblical equality.
His first assignment was easy enough: find and discuss each time Scripture used the phrase “head of the household.” I went to—what else!—my trusty King James Version exhaustive concordance and couldn’t find anything. I then remembered Ephesians 5, but there I found “man is head of the wife.” Nothing about the household in general. I finally went to an online concordance. The closest thing I could find was 1 Timothy 5:14, “…I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes…” (emphasis my own).
This simple discovery—that the “biblical” phrase “man is the head of the household” wasn’t biblical at all—was enough to cause me to question most everything I had assumed I knew about the Bible. In fact, I changed majors from piano performance to biblical studies. God, through Dr. Erdel, had kindled in me a passion for knowing what Scripture actually said and for understanding what it meant for those who read or heard it for the first time.
I didn’t put much more thought into biblical equality, however, until sophomore year, when our biblical studies department asked Dr. Linda Belleville to come on staff. To many within the CBE community, she is well known as a contributor to Discovering Biblical Equality, Zondervan’s Two Views on Women in Ministry, and her own Women Leaders and the Church. At first, she was yet another challenge to my worldview. My patriarchal beliefs about women had softened some, but I still had many years of fundamentalist Bible training under my belt. And, I have to confess, I let it get to me. I avoided a class taught by Dr. Belleville for two semesters. Somehow, I had convinced myself that by taking one of her classes I was endorsing some twisted view of Scripture.
But, by junior year of college, I had finally been humbled enough to realize I didn’t know all there was to know about Scripture. I couldn’t help but want to learn from Dr. Belleville; the level of training, expertise, and experience she had to offer was impressive. I enrolled in her Gospels course, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that Dr. Belleville was not only a good professor, but she was also better than most! Teaching is usually about conversation, and that is exactly what she offered—discussions on those difficult, messy, and sometimes contentious teachings of Scripture.
I knew that my mind had begun to change on what the Bible said about marriage and gender roles when my older brother had me listen to an MP3 of a sermon on relationships. It followed the typical pattern of quoting Genesis 2 and Ephesians 5, using these passages as texts to prove that it was the husband’s responsibility to spiritually, emotionally, and physically provide and care for his wife. When I gave my brother back the MP3 player, I said, “Thanks, but I really don’t agree with what this pastor has to say.”
Minutes later, I found myself at the dining room table, defending myself against my brother, his wife, and my mom. Bibles flew open, fingers jabbed at people and at verses, and I soon realized that their level of emotional attachment to this debate far outweighed my cognitive ability to argue back. The conversation ended when my brother simply walked away from the table, while shaking his head and saying, “Well, colleges just get more liberal as time goes on. It’s a shame that they’re teaching these things to you.”
I knew I had to do some research on this topic before I ever brought it up again. I went to Dr. Belleville, who pointed me in the direction of the library and to Discovering Biblical Equality. A couple of weeks later, I found myself reading it on a beach in Florida.
Even the act of reading this book was enough to arouse suspicion in my friends. Two of my fellow ministry students also on the spring break trip asked me to take a “long walk on the beach” with them. Once we were out of earshot of the rest of the group (which included my then-girlfriend Emily), I was immediately assaulted with questions and concerns about where my theology was going. “We know you care about Emily,” they said, “but doesn’t that include taking care of her spiritually, of being willing to take responsibility and being the head of the household?”
Later I found out that the girls had also taken Emily aside and asked her the same sort of questions. “What if he doesn’t take care of you like he should? What if he makes you responsible for everything in the household?”
When I returned from spring break, I asked Dr. Belleville, “What on earth makes everyone so scared of this topic?”
“Because they don’t know any other way to handle it.”
I realized that what I was dealing with—with my family and with my peers—was mostly misunderstanding. A misunderstanding of Scripture. A misunderstanding of the people who see male and female as equal before God. I myself had assumed the worst of Dr. Belleville, but instead found a great teacher and friend. My brother had supposed that my college had “gone liberal,” when, in fact, it was trying to teach Scripture the way it was meant to be understood.
In a matter of a few years I had completely changed my mind on biblical equality. What’s more, I was able to articulate why. I don’t know if my friends on the beach ever changed their minds about this topic, but at least they got an intelligent response from me when they asked what was going on.
What changed? First of all, I was given permission to ask questions. Many in the church condemn questions, and I’m afraid it’s not because we understand Scripture so well, but rather because we don’t understand it well enough. When you’re allowed to confess you don’t know something, you’re simultaneously given the freedom to learn.
Secondly, relationships change minds. Dr. Erdel and Dr. Belleville never rammed a certain perspective down anyone’s throat. But by getting to know them and comprehending their love for God and for Scripture, I was able to discover for myself that what they said made sense. It wasn’t an attempt to escape the truth of Scripture, but rather an endeavor to live in it.
A few months after that spring break trip, Emily and I went hiking and got engaged. Together we decided to become one in marriage; together we decided to go into full-time ministry; and together we submit to our Lord and to each other, eagerly serving God’s kingdom. I’m glad I changed my mind.