“But 1 Corinthians 14 says that women should be silent in churches…right?” It was a shy question from a high school student, in the middle of a church fundraising supper. I had been chatting with this student and his family, and his father mentioned how the Bible passage had come up in discussion at their home a few days earlier. “I believe that women can be preachers. In fact, a woman pastor performed my wife’s and my wedding ceremony more than twenty years ago,” the father said to me as the mother nodded in agreement. “But we believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and I didn’t know what to say to my son when he read those verses. Maybe you can help us understand.” The father, mother, and son all looked at me with tentative but curious faces.
We launched into a great discussion about the cultural context of the Corinthian church, about the surrounding verses in the letter, and about Paul’s approval of women leaders in other sections of his writings (check out these resources on 1 Corinthians 14 for more information). I love these kinds of conversations. I was so inspired by this family’s honesty, humility, and willingness to ask tough questions.
As we chatted, I watched the mother. While she said very little, I noticed how her eyes began to brighten. She even gently leaned forward in her chair—a sure sign, in our understated Minnesotan subculture, that she was getting excited. I recognized it because it matched my own response when I first heard egalitarian Bible interpretations. It was hope. And relief.
But then another young man at our table decided to jump into the conversation. Interrupting me, he very assertively declared, “All I know is that God will use women leaders only when the men aren’t doing their job and stepping up.”
His words, delivered in such stark contrast to the kind and gracious manner of our conversation up to that point, surprised me. And they stung. I looked across the table at the mother. “Wait…what?” She said under her breath. She slumped back into her chair. “Where does the Bible teach that?” I tried pressing the man. But he had no interest in dialoguing. “It’s there,” he responded gruffly, authoritatively.
“There is no teaching anywhere in the Bible that women are God’s second choice.” I said this more to the mother than to the young man. Yet the damage had been done, and the conversation was effectively over.
Jesus help us, is the simple but passionate prayer I find myself silently saying whenever I think about this encounter. For whatever reason, our conversation made that assertive man very uncomfortable. So he merely repeated—unquestioningly regurgitated, actually—an unbiblical teaching he had heard at church all his life. In his effort to silence the dialogue, he held no concern for what his words communicated to that mother, or to me, the only other woman involved. His lack of empathy, his lack of love, deflated the mother at our table that night, inflicting a subtle but very real wound on a sister in Christ.
Why is it that so often in our conversations about God we are the most unlike God? It is a humbling realization that we are all susceptible to this lack of empathy in our interactions with one another. I could recount many times in which I responded to a complementarian out of pride and anger, more in an effort to silence a conversation, or be right, than to come alongside and support a brother or sister in Christ who is on a journey. But Paul, over and over, warns about this. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 8. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” he insists in Galatians 5:6 (emphasis added). And, just one chapter before those tricky verses in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul so beautifully contends that even if he possesses spiritual gifts, all knowledge and wisdom, and faith that can move mountains, without love he is nothing. These are familiar verses to us, and yet sometimes the most familiar ones are the most difficult to live out.
Jesus help us. Jesus help me. May our conversations, as egalitarians and complementarians alike, be marked by love.