American historians have noted how the vastness of our country — our immense physical space — contributes to our culture as Americans. One historian suggests that “space and race” are the two most prominent features that characterize America. We are a diverse people with lots of room to move. And, we possess the freedom to move through our vastness largely as we choose.
Perhaps the same can be said about American church life. There is sufficient space in America for enormous diversity in church options. Having so many denominations and independent churches to select from may be the reason why Christians move from church to church throughout their lives. While there are several important reasons that lead individuals to consider healthier church options, quite often gender bias inspires their move. Sadly, the poor treatment of women has also led many people away from church altogether, a fact noted by Catherine Edwards Sanders in her important book Wicca’s Charm.
Recently, however, I note a counter-trend among some CBE members. These individuals are making lifelong commitments to their churches and denominations, viewing their church family as they do their biological family. They are in it for the long haul. While their church is filled with people they might never select as friends, as is true with family members or work colleagues, they are determined to love people who are different from themselves. They are committed to serving people, recognizing that loving and understanding others may take a lifetime.
A close friend of mine has made this sort of commitment to her church. My friend, let’s call her Sue, has been active in her church for many years, even though her church is part of a denomination that excludes women from leadership. Why does Sue remain in a church opposed to a standard she considers biblical? Like with family members or neighbors, Sue has come to love her church family and wishes to remain part of their lives. Though she at times feels alone as an egalitarian, God continues to use her in important ways. For example, when her pastor’s daughter was writing a paper on faith and gender, Sue was someone they consulted. Why? They have known Sue for a long time and they have come to admire and respect her intimacy with Christ. They also trust her intellectually.
Just last month Sue’s pastor decided to preach a sermon series on Genesis. Of course, gender issues were unavoidable. After each sermon Sue provided feedback that challenged and helped shape his sermons. In healthy relationships we can receive challenges, recognizing that they come from a reliable friend; Scripture teaches that the wounds of a friend can be trusted (Prov. 27:5–6). While Sue’s church family may not agree with her, she has won their respect. Her commitment to God, her dedication to them as a sister in Christ, and her servant-leadership has, over the years, given her the right to speak into their lives. Though most of us might prefer attending a church that shares our views on gender, Sue is part of a church that is open to authentic and healthy dialogue on difficult issues. I’m not suggesting we remain in churches that beleaguer or abuse us. I am however, celebrating the influence Sue has had in a church committed to healthy dialogue, though it is challenging for everyone.
While working with the gender issue group at the 2004 Lausanne Conference for World Evangelization I observed a similar challenge. Some were uncomfortable declaring their support for biblical equality for fear of creating tense working environments, while others feared hindering missions by remaining silent. Finally, one leader stood up and said, “Don’t silence the prophets! Let them speak. We have priests who will come along and bind us up.” We all discerned God’s voice to us in that moment! His words pressed us to act on our belief that biblical equality advances missions, creates greater intimacy in marriage, and greater health in the body of Christ. Like Sue, though scared, we went on doing what we had to do, trusting God to care for our relationships.
In order to better understand the challenge of gender in churches today, CBE surveyed our community, discovering that like Sue’s church and like the leaders in Lausanne, Christians want to begin a discussion on biblical equality. Yet they fear conflict, and they also need resources — egalitarian curriculum. As for the resources, CBE carries books for group study and we’re developing more. As for the fear of conflict, perhaps God is establishing trusted leaders like Sue to begin healthy discussions on gender in churches and denominations. God may also be asking others to step out in courage, trusting that our prophetic voices will be supplemented with God’s priestly care for relationships. May we also take comfort in realizing that developing trust, articulating the message roundly, and building healthy relationships will take years. And, however frightened we might be to speak the truth in love, we draw upon the courage God gives us. Though properly scared, we go on doing what we know we must do.