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Published Date: March 13, 2020

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Setting a Movement Aflame: The Power of CBE’s Founders

Who am I? What is my life’s purpose? Where is my community? How do I find them? These questions filled my prayers, my conscious thoughts, and my seeking spirit throughout my twenties. In answering these questions, an attentiveness to my spirit as it quickened around people and ideas proved a faithful guide.

For example, I felt compelled to engage those who used Scripture to “other” women in a way that limited their dignity and agency or shamed their gifts and calling. The energy that burst in me in these all too frequent occurrences drove me to search for resources and colleagues who were equally energized. Imagine my delight when I discovered their books and finally met CBE’s founders, Catherine Clark Kroeger (Cathie), Alvera Mickelsen, and Gretchen Gaebelein Hull. Here’s what happened and why I was hooked.

As a student at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, I was in student government working to double the number of women faculty from one to two. Cathie was the logical choice. A respected classics scholar, the student government negotiated a summer class on women in the early church on her behalf. Unsurprisingly, Cathie’s “witness” was a game changer and the seminary continued to give her teaching opportunities. She not only cast vision for women seminarians vocationally, but she also challenged, biblically and by example, the dominance and impunity (unintentionally as it was) of a male-dominated faculty. Her lectures were so captivating that the Chair of Christian Thought began attending. I was grateful to overhear him ask her after attending several classes: “Would you have additional readings for boneheads like me?”

Stunningly, Cathie’s performance in the classroom included jumping up and leaving her lectern to help a pregnant student who had fainted in class. Holding the student’s hand, Cathie instructed someone to call her husband, while telling the collapsed woman, “Dear, you may have low blood sugar. Don’t worry! I’ve had five children and know how easy it is to become light-headed when pregnant.” Once she recovered, Cathie walked back to her notes and finished her lecture! A mother of five and foster mother to many more, Cathie demonstrated that women can serve the needs of people and also lead the church theologically. Cathie also began giving students like me leadership opportunities in the egalitarian movement, and we began to sense the delight in our spirits as we worked. It was through Cathie that I met our beloved Alvera Mickelsen.

A people’s theologian and organizational pragmatist, Alvera’s giggle often diffused the tension in any room. She was a professor of journalism, and her shrewd mind uncluttered the real issues behind theological problems and organizational conflict. Her humble persistence gracefully unmasked assumptions without giving offense. Beside Alvera was Berkeley Mickelsen, her brilliant husband and a respected New Testament scholar. Together they modeled a compelling mutuality that challenged the pink and blue assumptions embedded in evangelical thought and practice. They had nothing to prove! Authentically, they created safe places at the table for others to explore CBE’s mission. Unsurprisingly, they earned the respect of those who agreed and disagreed with CBE’s mission. Alvera jumped right into my heart from our first meeting, and I’m one of thousands who have cherished her wisdom.

On the early board with Cathie and Alvera, Gretchen Gaebelein Hull served as editor of CBE’s first publication, Priscilla Papers—our academic journal which today garners over 100,000 online hits each quarter. To CBE, Gretchen brought a deep biblical passion for social justice. Theologically joined to first-wave feminists, Gretchen distinguished CBE from the second wave by noting that CBE locates women’s leadership and mutuality within Scripture, an obligation that secular feminists ignore. Her book Equal to Serve: Women and Men Working Together to Reveal the Gospel was an immediate best seller beside the Kroegers’ I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11–15 in Light of Ancient Evidence and the Mickelsens’ Studies on Biblical Equality. 

All in their sixties, Gretchen, Cathie, and Alvera invested their extraordinary talent, time, and treasure not only in incorporating CBE as a nonprofit but also in their oversight of its mission, bylaws, finances, publications, events, and staff. Their leadership challenged both male dominance and impunity in a biblical way. They consistently modeled mutuality with their lives, demonstrating the logic for men and women sharing authority. Alvera, for instance, taught many classes helping women learn to manage household funds, since women often outlive their husbands by many years. While this may not seem extraordinary, she saved many families from financial ruin!

God gave our founders the talent, strength, and wisdom they needed to promote mutuality in compelling ways, especially among those who believed affirming women’s leadership ignored the teachings of Scripture. Realizing they faced not only biblical critics but also a history of suspicion for their views, our founders instinctively used the principles of diffusion to make a case for an egalitarian worldview. In crossing cultural lines among evangelicals, CBE founders demonstrated that marginalizing women’s gifts and calling was itself a terrible misreading of Scripture with devastating consequences. So, they pressed on to:

1. Model the Message: With every opportunity, they showed the power and logic of mutuality by modeling it personally.

2. Use accessible language: Reaching scholars, Cathie wrote our earliest technical book, and Gretchen edited our academic journal, but Alvera made these ideas accessible. Imminently practical, she ensured our messaging was theologically precise, yet accessible for a ninth grader—hard to do!

3. Show the Relative Advantage: Mutuality is not only biblical it is also sensible for everyone. Since neither leaders nor husbands possess every needed talent, and because no one knows what the future holds, sharing knowledge, authority, and responsibility is best for everyone. Since the beginning, CBE has shown the personal advantages of shared leadership. Today, it is commonly understood that spouses who share authority, housework, and childcare are happier; their sons are less likely to posture unhealthy masculinity, and their daughters have healthier relationships with men and have more successful careers. What is more, some experts are even saying that husbands who share in housework live longer.

4. Connect to Shared Values: Because our critics misrepresented egalitarians as secular feminists dressed in biblical clothes, Cathie provided the exegetical work demonstrating CBE’s high regard for Scripture, while Gretchen proved how CBE’s mission shared the values of first-wave feminists who did not divorce evangelism from social activism.

5. Provide Safe Opportunities: To take their first steps as egalitarians, Alvera and Berkeley not only modeled ways to live out mutuality through giftedness rather than gender but they also offered churches and individuals a range of ways men and women could share authority in everyday life.

From the first day I met Cathie to the day I heard Alvera say “amen” as we prayed our last prayer together, I consider it the highest honor to have worked beside three pioneers who brought needed biblical and social reform to churches, denominations, and individuals. Cathie alone housed so many abused women that I can only imagine the many lives she must have saved throughout her ministry. Yes, their leadership quickened my spirit, fueled my energy, and directed my vocation. For one soul on fire lights a spark in countless hearts, setting aflame a movement that gives light in the night, renewing the church. May God quicken your spirit in discernable ways that direct where your talents, time, and energies are needed most.

This article appeared in “What Holds Us Together: Hope that Spans Generations,” the Spring 2020 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.