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Published Date: December 1, 2010

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How I Changed My Mind: An ETS Panel Discussion (Part 1)

We had a wonderful opportunity at the 2010 Evangelical Theological Society meeting, held in Atlanta, to present some of the stories found in How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership. We were able to secure four consecutive sessions in which three of the book’s twenty-seven authors presented their stories. This was followed by a panel session devoted to reflections on the place of “lived experience” and biblical interpretation as they relate to gender. The presentations were well attended and well received, and I was aware of the Holy Spirit’s presence and oversight in all that took place in these sessions. What follows are a few highlights of the afternoon.

The first presenter was Dr. Alice Mathews (author, dean of Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and Radio Bible Class Bible Teacher). Alice stressed the “fear” factor that keeps us from thinking outside the box in gender issues. Sometimes, pastors’ opinions can be perceived as the word of God and what is “sacred” becomes unalterable. To not obey them (the pastors’ views) is to disobey God and this is often how fear is generated. She comments further, “During the 1990s, denominations that had formerly been open to the full ministry of women as pastors and teachers began tightening down on women. The rhetoric supporting this shift exacerbated the chasm between the camps of those who supported women in leadership and those who denied it. And women wept. In the past two decades, I’ve come alongside scores of Christian women who, like me, have felt trapped between God’s gifts and a church saying ‘no’.”

Stan Gundry presented his essay entitled, “From Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers…” of John R. Rice fame. He told the story of how his wife, Pat, led him step by step to re-evaluate what he had been taught about Scripture and women’s roles—a change in view that eventually led to his dismissal from teaching theology at Moody Bible Institute. Stan writes,

Mine is the story of a man whose wife led her very reluctant husband out of the traditional views that he had been raised to accept without questioning to a position where he embraced the concept that men and women are equally made in God’s image and that God’s redemptive goal is that there should be no gender restrictions on women in church leadership and that the biblical model for husband/wife relationships is mutual submission. While she was researching her book, it was Pat’s probing questions to which I had no good answers that eventually led me to conclusions that were radically different than those with which I had been raised.

Afterward, a woman came up and introduced herself as John R. Rice’s daughter! Being very gracious, (she didn’t seem to mind that Stan cited her father’s view as the one from which he had emerged), she pointed out that her father had many good qualities and gave all of his children the freedom to differ with him, to go to college, and become whatever they chose—including her own scholarly pursuits.

In the third session, Bob Fryling, President of InterVarsity Press, read his wife’s own words describing how she had experienced his love in encouraging her to become all that God had called and gifted her to be, an encouragement-love that brought her out of her depression. Bob himself broke down and many wept with him as he proceeded to finish his story. He summarizes his remarks in the following:

I grew up in a wonderful Plymouth Brethren Assembly that took a very conservative and limited view of the role of women in our local church. However, as a teenager I was confused about the lack of consistency in applying the Scriptures—such as singing hymns written by women but not allowing women to suggest that we sing them!

In college, I saw how culture affects the interpretation of Scripture when I discovered that slavery in the mid 1800s was justified by Christians using Scripture in the same ways that were used to limit the role of women in the church. I also discovered that there were many women gifted by God for spiritual leadership. These two discoveries led me to then discover afresh the broader teachings of Scripture of men and women being “joint heirs in Christ.”

The confirmation of all of this has been my marriage relationship with Alice who, as a spiritually gifted woman, found great freedom in using her gifts for God’s glory. We have also tried to live our marriage according to being mutually submissive to each other according to Ephesians 5:21. This has led to a great “joy in partnership” in all aspects of our lives.

I believe our experience and our interpretation of Scripture can be seen as the two focal points of an ellipse. Both are needed because it is impossible to not have our experiences influence our interpretation of Scripture and vice versa. The Apostle Peter needed the experience of a dream to realize the biblical teaching that the gospel was also for the Gentiles. Another example of this reality is from Numbers 27 when the experience of the daughters of Zelophe had led Moses to appeal to the Lord who agreed to re-interpret the inheritance laws for the benefit of these women. Both of these examples illustrate a movement to greater inclusiveness rather than greater restrictions.

Don’t miss Part 2 in next week’s Arise.