When I reflect on my childhood and young adulthood, it’s not difficult to see why I struggled to understand God’s intent for gender roles. I was surrounded by mixed gender messages from my denomination, my family and my Christian college.
My denomination is The Salvation Army, and I am the daughter of Salvation Army officers. In fact, I am a fourth generation “Salvationist” (member of the Salvation Army), and because of that I have a rich heritage of women in my family who have followed God’s call to full-time ministry. My great-grandmother, at age 17, was already enthusiastically skiing her way from one Salvation Army mission station to the next in Norway. My grandparents served a lifetime together as officers in the American Midwest, ministering to poor and immigrant converts during the post-war era.
My own mother, to whom I owe so much of my perspective as a woman of God, serves as a partner with my father on the Salvation Army’s mission field in Russia, after 30 years of teaching and co-pastoring in the United States. I remember being regaled with the stories of William and Catherine Booth, our organization’s original dynamic duo. As a teenager, I felt special pride that my denomination, like many other Wesleyan/ Holiness churches, had chosen to ordain women since the 19th century.
In spite of that female-affirming history, my own family was more traditional when it came to gender roles. My mother bore most of the responsibility for child rearing and the home, while my dad did more of the public work. My parents are quick to point out now that they were people of their day. Few evangelicals in the 1970s were articulating a theology of biblical equality. Secular feminists were discussing equality, but their discussions did not directly impact our family.
I went off to a Christian college in the 1980s and found traditionalism in the air. During that politically conservative era, defending the family against feminism had become a hot topic. Chapel speakers encouraged us to hold tight to the traditional family structure. I concurred — how could I do otherwise? To reject the traditional family would be like rejecting apple pie, wouldn’t it?
I was full of conflicting emotions. I enjoyed some of the remnants of southern-style chivalry that I experienced on campus, yet at the same time I sometimes found them vaguely demeaning. I was thrilled that my college emphasized the academic and spiritual preparation of leaders for the sake of the gospel, but it saddened me to see more women preparing to be wives than preparing for leadership in the church or culture. A few elements of campus life seemed to favor men over women, but I felt that to speak out against them would be inappropriate.
By the time I was to marry my high school sweetheart, John, I found myself in a confused and painful struggle with God over gender roles. I believed Scripture was asking me to defer to my husband in a way that would make him my spiritual leader, but I did not want to accept the concepts that women fall beneath men in the spiritual realm and that women bear primary responsibility for all things domestic.
Someone handed me a copy of Tim and Beverly LaHaye’s book, The Act of Marriage, thinking it would help me sort through the issues. Instead, the book’s heavy-handed patriarchy left me in spiritual crisis. With months to go before my wedding, I had to come to terms with a God who apparently demanded female submission. I simply could not make sense of it, but I believed that God must have his reasons. I announced to my fiancé, “I’d like to have ‘the submission passage’ from the Bible read out loud at our wedding,” believing that a public declaration of wifely subordination would give me peace about the topic.
My fiancé, a biblical egalitarian before either of us even knew the term, said, “Do you really think God intended half of his creation to be subservient to the other half? I don’t think so. Love’s not about control.”
“I know it doesn’t seem to make sense, but I feel like God’s asking this of me,” I said. And so “the submission passage” (beginning with the phrase “wives submit” as opposed to “submit to one another”) became one of two passages read at our wedding.
As John and I settled into marriage, I was able to put aside most of my struggle with the scriptural passages that had troubled me by avoiding them. And since John and I were effectively living out a partnership in marriage, I was more at peace for a time.
In my mid-20s, I began to see some inequities in The Salvation Army that I had not noticed before. At the local church level there were couples in partnered ministry, but at the administrative levels, women were strangely absent. My mother’s appointed jobs now seemed to be based not on her spiritual gifts, but as automatic gender-based designations determined by my father’s changing administrative roles. Women were not included on some of the major decision-making committees.
I was seeing injustice, some minor and some blatant, and yet the history and rhetoric of female ministry were still present. How was it possible that female Salvation Army officers in 1990s America did not seem to have the same opportunities that pioneering women had had a hundred years earlier? In my frustration, my earlier, personal struggles with Scripture resurfaced. Did God intend for a gender hierarchy? Was the apostle Paul some kind of chauvinist? Could men and women be equal in God’s eyes but effectively unequal in their roles?
I shared my questions with my parents in the early 1990s and found that they had recently discovered a new body of literature on biblical equality from a list of CBE writers. Interestingly, they had been rethinking their own perspectives on Christian marriage in light of this new scholarship. I read several books, and at first, I was nervous about accepting viewpoints that seemed so contrary to what I had heard most evangelical Christians espouse. Gradually, over the course of a year or two, I began to embrace an egalitarian perspective and celebrate even more the God whom I love and serve.
Of course God didn’t originally intend for hierarchy in marriage! That was part of the curse of sin that Christ came to undo. What freedom I experienced as I reread Pauline passages in light of their cultural context and saw with more clarity Jesus’ own example of ministry to women! Claiming Galatians 3:28 in its fullness, I saw connections between gender issues and racial issues. And while I did not immediately find answers to why The Salvation Army had drifted away from its roots, I praised God for the freedom I had in Christ.
When I look back, I realize that the gender messages we receive in our Christian homes, colleges and churches are often confusing, but I am so thankful that my personal journey has led me to an egalitarian perspective. I am also thankful that The Salvation Army has taken several recent strides to advance women’s ministry and to reclaim its bold heritage.
If my husband and I had it to do over again, we’d probably choose Galatians 3:28 to be read at our wedding.
Footnote: I shared my story above with Paul and Kay Rader, past international leaders of The Salvation Army, and Mrs. Rader enthusiastically sent back this quotation from the book Catherine Booth — Her Continuing Relevance.
Page 11 of Chapter 1: A Woman’s Place? by Christin Parkin states: “The absolute equality of men and women forms the cornerstone of Catherine Booth’s thought. Catherine Booth accepted that the Fall had put women into subjection as a consequence of sin and that submission to the male was God’s judgment upon her disobedience. But, she argued, to leave it there is to reject the good news of the gospel. The grace of Christ restores what sin had taken away, so that both men and women can now know the bliss of union with God and with one another as God had fully intended it to be. This applies to the marriage relationship, where submission to one another becomes the true expression of divine love. It applies to the Christian ministry and enables men and women equally to respond to the Holy Spirit’s call to every kind of service in the Church.”