An American journalist covering the ordination of women in the Church of England entitled her article: “Women’s Ordination: A Second Reformation?” As I consider the similarities between reformist movements of the past and the current gender debate within the Church, I see why one might refer to it as a “reformation.”
Throughout history, God endeavors to return the Church to its biblical moorings, its core of truth. Reformers, like prophets, play a critical role in calling the faithful to live more holy and consistent lives, lending credibility to the Gospel message. In each generation, Christians turn to Scripture to meet the challenges of their era. What do past reformist movements and the gender debate have in common?
Consider, for example, how reform movements often begin with a rigorous examination of Scripture — a bursting of biblical scholarship. Though academics are often the first to cast vision for reform, the discussion eventually moves to a popular debate. Make no mistake about it, reformation movements elicit great furor as they challenge sin and theological inaccuracies, particularly within the Church. As the heated exchange of ideas spreads to nearly every corner of the Church, these movements ultimately bring needed change on some key moral or theological issue.
One also observes that reform movements are never isolated events. Rather, as Christians from nearly every corner speak out on behalf of reform, the effects are far-reaching and help turn around a very large ship — the global Church — in a more biblical direction.
Each year we observe the elements of reform within the ministry of CBE. We have noted the amazing growth of scholarship related to biblical equality. We have gone from half a dozen books sold 15 years ago to the more than 180 titles we sell today. Equality Depot, our book- store, cannot keep up with the burgeoning amount of literature written by Christians from almost every denomination, from nearly every continent. While much of this literature is scholarly, much of it is also popular. And, as Christians from many cultures speak out on behalf of God’s gender reform within the Church, the movement is decidedly international. The global exchange of ideas has recently reached new heights.
Six months ago I was asked to lead the Gender Forum at the next Lausanne Conference, in Thailand. That one of the most respected global mission movements would solicit CBE’s leadership was unexpected. Even more encouraging is the realization that many of the members of the Gender Forum express a commitment to biblical equality, though many have never heard of CBE. One missionary from India wrote:
The greatest barriers to the advancement of the Gospel are often found inside the church! These can be barriers in our relationship with God and with each other, including gender barriers. Satan uses them to make the church weak and a poor witness for the Lord.
Does this not suggest that through global leadership God is bringing reform? God’s Spirit is drawing Christians from many cultures back to the Bible where they find inspiration for mutuality in ministry, for equality of service. God is turning the ship — the Church, in a more biblical, egalitarian direction. Those leading reform are often those who, like missionaries, have unique opportunities to observe the biblical truth that the spiritual gifts are not given along gender lines. As missionaries live out the truth that God gifts all people for service regardless of gender, they serve as models for mutuality of ministry. They also function as reformers by calling the Church to live a more credible witness, thus gaining new opportunities for the Gospel message.
As Church reformers respond to the Holy Spirit working within the Bible, I am reminded of a powerful painting of Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), a great Church reformer. She is featured with a large ship on her shoulder, symbolizing her important rescue of the Church. Through individuals like Catherine, God brought renewal and reform to a Church struggling under multiple popes, under church leaders grasping for power and wealth. Catherine represents a long tradition of individuals who under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, confronted sin and boldly sought to renew a spiritually impoverished Church. Though women had no official voice or authority, apart from that given to them by God, Jesus used this humble prophet to bring the Church back to a safe harbor. What does Catherine have in common with the Church today?
I cannot but help but believe that we, like Catherine of Siena, are part of a great reforming tradition that enabled the Gospel to find safe harbor through living and serving in a more biblical fashion. Join with us at CBE as we celebrate the reality that the ship is turning and embracing more perfectly the biblical truth that women and men are equal in their spiritual status, and also equal in the call to serve.