Anna and I met when we were students at Beeson Divinity School. From almost our first meeting I was drawn to her sharp mind, her sensitivity, her sense of humor, and, I might add, her striking beauty. Both of us were, at that time, considering careers in the academy. Anna had served two churches, one mainline and one evangelical, as a lay youth minister before seminary. She had altered her vocational path, however, largely owing to the influence of the conservative Presbyterian denomination of which we were a part. She now had set her sights on a doctorate and the academy—a place she rightly identified as more congenial to women. We were both evangelical, both soft patriarchs, and both interested in the life of the mind. It was a match made in heaven.
As our relationship grew I was able to relate to Anna more deeply and to see just how difficult it is to be a woman in contemporary evangelicalism, much less a woman gifted and called to ministry. And as our life together unfolded I learned how one church required that she not teach youth over the age of 12 lest she be guilty of having authority over a man. I learned how in that same church, although she was on ministry staff, she was treated like a secretary—required to perform tasks that other ministers were not required to do. Mild interest began to shift toward concern.
The painfully ironic thing was that although evangelical by conviction, Anna had been freer to minister effectively in churches with radically different theological convictions. I realized that if it is difficult to be a woman in ministry, it is almost impossible to be an evangelical woman in ministry.
What had previously been simply a point of debate was now incarnated in a specific situation dealing with a person I had grown to love. The facts of the case seemed to stand in stark contrast to the ways in which the evangelical church was acting. Here was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of a top-ranked university with a vital relationship with Christ, a passion for ministry, an incredibly winsome personality and, most importantly, a very real calling to ministry. And yet her vocational options were limited to the academy or children’s ministry. Concern shifted to frustration.
When we were married a year later things got worse—the limitations more severe. It was clearly expressed that as a married woman, Anna was now expected to put my career first. In premarital counseling we were told that Anna’s desire to minister or pursue a doctorate would fade once we were married and started a family. Frustration shifted to anger.
I landed my first ministry position and joined the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. It was a job that we both wanted and to which we both felt called. Given that working for InterVarsity required raising support, we were not sure that we could raise enough for two salaries. Yet after two years, Anna and I decided that she should join the InterVarsity staff in her own right.
We prayed and discussed this move for long months. We came to believe that this was God’s will for us: the calling to work as a staff couple—equal partners recognized equally by our ministry and equally on the campus. Until then, Anna had been working multiple part-time jobs, none of which was even mildly fulfilling. It struck us as particularly unjust that I should be afforded the chance to be paid to minister full-time, while Anna ministered in the margins of her life. Anger shifted to outrage and the desire to advocate for change.
Why the change from initial mild interest to now outrage and advocacy? It is quite simply this: I have come to realize that this is an issue of justice and of peace (shalom). It is an issue that, wrongly decided, hurts the entire church. It is quite frankly an issue that I believe large swaths of evangelicals have decided wrongly. For these reasons I moved from acceptance to hearty advocacy of the equality of women in ministry.
God’s Justice and Shalom
The witness of the Bible seems clear: God is intimately concerned with justice and longs for shalom not only in the world, but also in the church—the new society of God designed to incarnate the attributes of God. It is a matter of justice simply because more is at stake than titles, roles, and credentials. The issue is the freedom of all Christians to express their gifts and talents in the church.
The birth of the Christian community in Acts 2 expresses this clearly. Peter, along with other apostolic leaders, addresses the assembled believers, quoting the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy…Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit…” (Acts 2:17-18). This is a depiction of radical equality. Distinctions of gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic class are to fade away. These distinctions are to be replaced by unity as a single body empowered for ministry by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:11-2:22). It is important to note that Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is the inaugural proclamation of the church and therefore is foundational in interpreting other passages in the New Testament that deal with gender (Bilezikian 1985, 123).
As with Israel, however, the history of the church betrays our inability to live into the words of Joel and of Peter. Psalm 82, for instance, expresses the Divine charge against Israel, “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed” (Psalm 82:2-3).
The psalm clearly indicates God’s heart for justice. And in 1 Peter it is clear that women fall within the class of those people who have been, and are, afflicted by injustice: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Pet. 3:7, emphasis added). John Stackhouse notes: “…[I]n a patriarchal society Peter is telling the simple truth: Economically, politically, educationally—when it comes to social power—women are weaker than men” (Stackhouse 2005, 62). This “weakness” is not, however, something “universal or essential to them” (Id.). Rather, it is a result of the fall of humanity—the systemic disenfranchisement of women since Eden, both in the world and the Christian community. Despite the progress that has been made, we still live with the echoes of a deeply-rooted patriarchy that affects women in the church today. Since the church is comprised of sinner-saints it should not be surprising that God’s cause of gender equality may also be offensive to other Christians—members of the same body (Sumner 2003, 32).
Church Leadership Needs Women’s Voices
One of the most compelling arguments against gender roles in the life and ministry of the church is simply the experience of seeing God-called women exercise their God-given gifts for the sake of the Gospel and the church. This is an argument from experience, and it compliments the good theology on this subject.
The deepest questions of theology and practice are not answered exclusively by exegesis. We, of course, desire to place the Scriptures in the highest authority and center our beliefs and practices upon them. But there are limitations. John Stackhouse is right when he states that the task of Christian theology is to, “formulate an interpretation that does the best job, relative to the other options, of explaining most of the most important data and as much of the remainder as possible” (Stackhouse, 75). In other words, we don’t have to have a watertight position, just one that is stronger than the alternatives.
My wife once heard an elder and seminary trustee state that women ought not to be elders because it would take too long to take care of business—there would be too much talking and emotion. Such a statement is, of course, absurd and illustrates just how far we have to go in this journey of gender reconciliation.
Men and women are not identical—no one claims this. For a variety of reasons, some innate and some conditioned, women and men tend to be different. This is a positive diversity, however, a diversity that is desperately needed in the leadership of the body of Christ.
Having observed multiple leadership meetings in churches with all-male leaders, I am not convinced that there is anything about men that makes them more efficient or effective leaders. I have found, to the contrary, that the presence of women in ministry leadership has actually helped the leadership of the church to reflect more fully the realities of Revelation 7:9—the grand and glorious diversity of God’s Kingdom. And the truth is that more than a single perspective is needed if leaders are to take seriously their biblical calling to wisely shepherd the congregation in their care. Shepherding the whole flock of God means more than a male pastor or lay leader taking a husband to lunch and imagining that by doing so he has succeeded in ministering to the whole family. And while such a suggestion seems ridiculous on its face, I have heard it propounded by more than one pastoral leader. The result? A church weakened by a vacuum where serious pastoral ministry and spiritual direction should have existed for women and men, wives and husbands. This vacuum has largely come about because men in leadership have been unable or unwilling to enter into the experience of our sisters. Because of this inability and unwillingness, leadership in the church must be inclusive of both men and women.
The Call to Action
When men like me come to understand that the issue of gender equality in ministry is one of justice and that justice stands near to the heart of God, we are forced to make a decision. When we realize that the exclusion of women from leadership has weakened the church’s ministry, we are forced to make a choice. The church is God’s new society, yes. But more than that, it is God’s family. And as such, all Christian women are our sisters and Christian men, our brothers. Ultimately it is the solidarity of the church as the body of Christ that causes me to act, not to simply condone women expressing their pastoral gifts, but to challenge the church to employ women’s gifts in every sphere of ministry.
Scripture warns us that we are not to uncritically adopt the prevalent views of culture (Bilezikian, 207). I might add that this warning extends to uncritically adopting the prevalent views of our evangelical sub-culture. Instead we attempt to critically examine our beliefs and traditions in the light of the Scriptures. Can you imagine the positive change when evangelical belief and piety is coupled with a scriptural view of the equality of men and women?
I can imagine a new vigor in the life of the evangelical church. Women freed to minister according to gifts and callings rather than according to roles. Men freed to grow in understanding and appreciation of their wives and Christian sisters rather than trapped by received beliefs left unexamined. The entire redemptive trend of the Bible challenges patriarchy and points to equality. Until recently, it was doubtful that society at large would accept this revelation. So through ages God accommodated the teaching of Scripture to the culture in which it was expressed, yet always foreshadowing a day in which the words of Joel would ring true: “…your sons and your daughters will prophesy” (Joel 2:28-29). It is to be hoped that we are entering those days in the evangelical church—days of restoration, reconciliation, and a renewed desire to be the new society of God in the world. Anna and I are attempting to live into this reality as we journey together through life as equal partners in marriage and ministry.
Bilezikian, Gilbert. Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Woman’s Place in Church and Family. 2nd Ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985, 2001.
Stackhouse, Jr., John G. Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005.
Sumner, Sarah. Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003.