Every day people reared or still worshipping in very conservative Christian denominations find the reasons for full partnership between women and men so compelling that they make what they consider to be the bold and breathtaking paradigm shift from forbidding to supporting women in ministry. In point of fact, they eventually realize they have merely adjusted to God’s pre-Fall agenda, which was commanded to humanity from the perfect day of creation: joint authority in all areas of life (Gen. 1:26-30).
I, myself, reared and faithful for 20 years in a fundamentalist church from the late 1940s to the end of the 1960s, became increasingly aware, as I moved more and more actively into ministry, that, like the jalopy I was driving at the time, my understanding of ministry was not hitting on all God’s cylinders.
I had already widened my understanding of the perimeters of the Church universal in Intervarsity at Rutgers in the mid-1960s, when I met Lutherans and Episcopalians who were clearly Christians—an impossibility according to my birth church.
Son of a devout and active Sunday School teaching Mom and blessed with an older sister filled to the brim with gifts and graces and the certitude of faith (my mother once lost track of her at a department store when she was very small and found her sitting up on a counter, where the saleswomen had hoisted her, preaching away to them why they all needed to take Jesus as their savior), I grew up with a profound respect and appreciation for strong and godly women. As a child who noticed things, I also became aware that basically women ran these conservative churches as fully as the men did. If a pastor fell afoul of the powerful women of the church, they were on the phone to each other, and he was very shortly gone. Activated in my faith in college and already doing ministry when the Jesus Movement hit, I had my awareness of joint ministry further broadened as we all hit the streets, the coffee houses, the festivals, evangelizing together, girls and boys, blacks and whites, our hair down to our shoulders, our message about as complex as my sister’s had been—except for the additional illustration of the “vanishing hitchhiker.” My development also cost me my solidarity with my birth church, when my band was summarily replaced from performing in the evening service. We were scheduled to sing two slow acoustic guitar accompanied original choral selections. But, immediately prior to the service, we exhorted the youth group, to the beat of an added electric bass guitar, with such song lyrics I’d written as “Our Rebel Lord,” which began: “Christ was beaten all the way to the cross, then killed by religious and political bosses, who feared his every word against their lies, treachery, hypocrisy and blasphemy—he died, our Rebel Lord!” (etc.) The year was 1969. The second we paused, the church’s youth pastor dashed up to the front, exclaiming, “I never heard anything like that in Bible College!” And the deacons, who had been lurking in the back behind a large divider curtain held a hasty meeting. Our replacement was a nice, safe, musical saw. Honestly. The mainline Presbyterians in the next town over welcomed us and our contemporary sounds; so, I became a Presbyterian.
By @1974, when the (then named and focused) Evangelical Women’s Caucus developed out of Christians for Social Action, both my wife and I were already ordained United Presbyterian ministers (today’s PC[USA]), teaching courses for New York Seminary, running a community in the center of Newark and spinning off an accredited program for storefront pastors (the Alpha-Omega Community Theological School [ACTS]) with 15 professors, @100 students and classes held in Newark and New York City. What struck me at that initial watershed organizational meeting in Chicago we were privileged to attend was the plethora of women out of the Brethren movement who were helping to lead. Like myself, they were apparently reared to take the Bible seriously. And, when you take God’s written word seriously, you move into deeper and deeper levels of understanding truth, past ignorance, past prejudice, past fear.
When Christians for Biblical Equality emerged from (what had now shifted focus to become) the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, we were also privileged to join in at an early stage. When Donna Hailson first called us up to tell us we were all now calling ourselves “egalitarians” (rather than calling myself “a feminist and also a masculinist—because I’m for each of us that God created”—a rather awkward designation I happily left behind), I took another step toward fuller consciousness along the path on which my feet had been set by my fundamentalist upbringing: to rely on the Bible no matter what anybody says and learn to understand it and its implications more and more clearly and deeply.
I feel blessed for having had the privilege of so many years of an increasingly fuller understanding of God’s full ministry plans for men and women—a learning process that goes on (especially as I read and learn from so many thoughtful and wonderfully profound and insightful submissions made to Priscilla Papers). Yet, I realize such progression is not shared by all. To this day, my birth church, as I understand the case to be, still languishes within the limits of stultifying restrictions on women—all done in good faith. One very clear understanding that I bring from my rearing as a fundamentalist, and intimate knowledge of the fundamentalist mindset, is the realization that what motivates it is fear. And with good reason. There is much in the world to fear. Would that we Evangelicals were more wary of the constant leavening of the world that permeates us, as we try to stay relevant—in the world, but not realizing how much we come to be of it. Yet, the answer is not to disengage half of the army God has called to serve. That way the church remains analogous to my tired old Plymouth Valiant, wheezing up the hills, chugging and gasping to smack feebly against the gates of hell with just enough impact to liberate half the captives, but not free them all. We have left our women sparking away but basically unconnected to our central ecclesiastical engines through our simple misinterpretations of Scripture. We misread the Manual.
Consequently, this issue presents a fascinating record of those Christian thinkers, like myself, who have emerged from conservative backgrounds to a fuller realization of our Lord’s commission to us all to go and preach and baptize. Walter Kaiser, the distinguished and much beloved President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, builds on the arguments he declared publicly (to so much controversy) decades ago in an issue in Christianity Today, to detail for us the biblical and theological reasons that fueled his expanding understanding of God’s call in Scripture. Michele Guinness, Britain’s much sought after journalist, speaker, author, whose perceptive analyses help guide the thinking of a nation, tells her fascinating progress from the well-meant but dampening restrictions of a conservative Jewish background to full freedom in Christ. One courageous scholar, who has been a model and hero for me and all of us males in the struggle to full participation in ministry, has been Stan Gundry, who I sometimes think of as the Joseph of our movement. His persecution ended in a position of influence far beyond what it would ever have been had he remained a professor in a conservative Bible college. Today he helms the editorial department of Zondervan, a premier Christian publisher, a position he discharges with fairness and sensitivity to all sides of this and other debates within evangelicalism.
After reading through each of these essays, I was reminded that so much of what we believe is conditioned by our upbringing. Small wonder, then, my predecessing Priscilla Papers editor, the wonderfully creative Victoria Peterson-Hilleque, in a beautiful poem, addresses the need for a dual nurture: depicting the struggle to create a positive context in which a child may grow in grace, while a mother’s gifts may flourish as well.
Finally, our issue closes with another excellent analysis from the astute Christiane Carlson-Thies, this time a book review, as we continue to be privileged to watch her develop over the years her critique of the “hermeneutics in pink and blue.”
While this issue (and our next one) may contain more overt passion than is evident in some of our other outings because of the personal nature of the topic, it is still filled with the insight and edification and dedication to the gospel we have come to expect from each of these well known Christian leaders. What a fascinating privilege to have them take us along on their Emmaus roads, as they reprise for us their journeys with Jesus.