It is twenty-five years since my first book, Love, Honor and Be Free, was published by Moody Press. Subtitled “A Christian Woman’s Response to Today’s Call to Liberation,” it offered a thoughtful, if very conservative, place to stand in the midst of the swirl of antifamily—and often anti-Christian—rhetoric that accompanied the second wave of feminism. The book takes its place quite legitimately in a long literary tradition of women taking up the Scriptures in an attempt to find their “place,” but it failed to examine the system of interpretation on which its exegesis was based.1
Over the years since the publication of that first book, a number of key life events prodded me toward rethinking my acceptance of traditional “wifely submission” and “women under men’s authority” within the church. One of these was the research and writing of a book on child sexual abuse (Child Sexual Abuse: Hope for Healing, with Karen Burton Mains [Shaw, 1987, rev. 1997]). As I turned from the cozy, sunny certitudes of the Christian family to the frighteningly dark world of women who had experienced sexual exploitation, I began to burn with a long anger against the sexual use of women’s bodies against their will; against language, including religious rhetoric, which supports male dominance; against the obvious injustice of a world in which a wide disparity of power between the genders is disguised, tolerated, and supported. I finally understood the anger that fueled some of the angry anti-male discourse of the women’s movement, and while I knew from experience that there were good and godly men for whom exploitation was abhorrent, I began to question the God-given-ness of a system that allowed for oppression to go unchallenged.
While I was still working out the implications of the discoveries I made while researching this book, so far from my own experience, a second major upheaval was under way in my life. I had early negotiated with my husband that, in return for my support of him in his decision to farm, he would one day support me in fulfilling my career goals. As our children nudged their way through and out of high school, I felt the time had come for me to satisfy my great hunger for further study. Since my husband had always encouraged me to read feminist writers—insisting, “They may not have the right answers, but they are asking the right questions”—I expected his active cooperation in finding a way, compatible with family life, for me to return to school To my surprise, I found him at best passively resistant. During this difficult time of trying to find our way to a shared vision of life that would include my personal and academic aspirations, I confided to a sister-in-law, “I don’t know how we’re going to get through this, or what the solution will be. I only know that we will find our way together, and that one day we will look back at the process and the path.”
Bit by bit we worked our way through the problem. I discovered that a major source of my husband’s resistance was the economic pressure that the extra expense of study engendered. In the end, once we were able to agree on timing, I was able to find generous scholarships to support my graduate study. But coming up against my own fair-minded husband’s resistance to the reasonable—and long-deferred—development of my gifts gave me a new kind of insight into the kind of resistance women have had to overcome to discover and use their abilities.
While my husband and I were able to work out a negotiated strategy by which I could study, I encountered another kind of resistance from my loving, godly parents, which, in some ways, was even more difficult to deal with, because it was less overt. They saw me as no longer fulfilling my God-appointed wifely role and worried about the possible breakdown of our marriage. Having always enjoyed their favor, in undertaking serious and protracted study I had to do something of which they could not approve.
In recognizing how crippling I found their attitude, I also finally recognized the deeply inscribed resistance to women’s full participation in kingdom activity that was the legacy of my conservative background. Things I had not questioned because they were so much “just the way things are” in my life now had to be examined in a new way. I found myself weeping when I read a short story that described a slogan under which Arab women studied. “We earn our certificates to hang in our kitchens.” The push-pull of being encouraged to be an excellent student and yet continually reminded that, as a woman, my place was in the home, had created a kind of whiplash in me that I finally recognized and could repudiate.
To my own sense of shock at discovery of the prejudices and prohibitions that circumscribed my own sense of self and ministry, I had to add in my conversations with the young women with whom I was studying. By and large they were, like our own daughters, postfeminist. That is, they thought that things were settled in favor of equality— and most of them had not yet run into the kinds of silent pressures to conform to a male world or return to a domestic one that many of them have since experienced. They didn’t want feminist rhetoric, but they assumed equality and could not comprehend a Christianity built on gender disparity.
Now I really had to think again: If I wanted to share the “good news concerning Jesus Christ” with the new post-feminist generation, then my life and language would have to be unwrapped from the suffocating graveclothes of patriarchal assumptions.
I began reading, questioning, looking for answers to the gender debate within a stance that honored the Bible as God’s word of love to humankind. Friends reached out to help me. My friend Diane Marshall, director of a counseling center in Toronto, told me about Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s Gender and Grace (InterVarsity, 1990).2 Prof. Lyle Larson, a sociologist of the family at the University of Alberta, invited me into a conversation with him about the respective role of women and men within the family and the church. We met a number of times, and he introduced me to Christians for Biblical Equality as a resource in my search for a fuller, more biblical understanding of gender roles and relationships. Eagerly, I began to read CBE resources. A number of key ideas clicked into place. Willard Swartley’s Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women (Herald Press, 1983), gave me a historic angle from which to critique my received hermeneutic. Clark Pinnock’s The Scripture Principle (Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1984) helped me get beyond “flat text hermeneutics,” and Anthony C. Thiselton’s The Two Horizons (Eerdmans, 1980) helped me recognize my own time-boundedness as well as the historic context of the Scriptures themselves. The thoughtful exegesis of Gilbert Bilezikian in Beyond Sex Roles (Baker, 1985) and Craig S. Keener in Paul, Women and Wives (Hendrickson, 1992) helped with the specific problematics of texts that had been sources of my more traditional, conservative readings. Patricia Gundry’s exercise in exegesis of the “wives submit” passage of Ephesians 5 in Woman Be Free (Zondervan, 1977) was honest and freeing. I felt sad I had not read it years earlier when it had first been published. The discussion of patriarchy that I discovered in Gretchen Gaebelein Hull’s Equal to Serve (Baker, 1987) created one of those “clicks in the brain” when a whole new way of reading Scripture became clear: patriarchy, in Hull’s discussion, was a sin to be repented of rather than a pattern to be repeated, a result of the Fall rather than a prescription for life after the Fall.
Layer by layer, I was being upwrapped, set free. I had kept up with major feminist works through the years, since the late sixties, and the frank reassessment of the women’s movement by Betty Friedan in The Second Stage (Summit Books, 1981) challenged me to be equally honest. This later feminist discussion also opened up places within feminism where I, as a Christian woman, could connect. These connecting points included the expressed desire of women “to tap into some higher, different power,” in recognition of “a real spiritual crisis,”3 and the revaluing of the importance of family and motherhood to women.4
The fact that I was reworking my whole personal integration, a biblical hermeneutic, and an established marriage at much the same time made for enormous emotional, spiritual, and intellectual ferment. Before I could write or speak out of the new synthesis I was developing, my husband and I quite literally had to learn a new language for our marriage. Although we had treated each other with great respect as persons of equal value, I had lived out deeply embedded patterns of withdrawal from a discussion and submission to his final “authority.” Now that I no longer felt the Scripture meant that he should always get the last word, we had to work issues all the way through to the bottom—and our discussions and arguments became painfully intense. Gradually, we learned better conflict resolution techniques. We called each other to account for “fighting fair,” and we worked toward a truly shared consensual model of decision making.
Bit by bit, I began to speak out on gender issues. In 1994, I spoke to the Canadian Church Press Conference on the question: “Is the Gospel Good News for Women?” and examined some of the issues that women graduate students were presenting to me. In the spring of 1995, I tried to press the same question in a series of evangelism colloquia sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
When I was asked by the Associated Canadian Theological Schools at Langley, British Columbia, to teach an intersession course on “women’s issues,” I offered instead to do one on “gender issues.” That course became the prototype for a major cross-faculty course I convened and chaired at Regent College (Vancouver) in January 1999 entitled “Christian Perspectives on Gender, Sexuality and Community,” a symposium involving eighteen presenters from a wide range of disciplines in which the overwhelming consensus was in favor of egalitarian marriages and equal-opportunity churches.5
Where am I now? Still loving, honoring, and growing in freedom, I am teaching young people that the way in which to build a home is through mutual submission, mutual respect, and mutual responsiveness. I am urging male advocacy on behalf of women within the church. I am able to bring a woman’s insights and readings—and acknowledge them as such—to both literary criticism and Bible teaching.
Meanwhile, as my husband and I share our lives, still living in oscillation between worlds of our widely divergent vocations—his as a farmer, mine as an author and teacher—we seek to be transparent and honest about the process, and joyful in living in a full partnership of equals.
- On this tradition, see my article “Mysticism, Dissidence and Didacticism: Recovering the Tradition of Women Writing the Faith, 1350-1859,” Crux, 32.2 (June 1996), 20-29.
- I was later able to include a conversation with Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen in my television series, Stories of Our Becoming, produced for Vision-TV (Canada) by Windborne Productions, Karen Pascal, producer.
- Betty Friedan, The Second Stage (New York, Summit Books, 1981), 62
- Ibid., 86-100.
- Maxine Hancock, “Can We End the Gender Wars?” Faith Today, September/October 1999, 30-35. A series of four themed issues of Crux, the academic journal of Regent College, beginning with June 1999, based on the Regent lectures. (For further information: email@example.com).