We are all shaped by our backgrounds, whether that means we conform to, adjust, or rebel against them. My wife Dianne and I come from very different backgrounds when it comes to the Bible and gender equality. Dianne’s family had a Methodist background for whom women in ministry was never an issue. Coming to faith herself through Billy Graham, she found a home in a committed evangelical Baptist church where women took a natural and unquestioned place in the leadership of the church.
I grew up among the Open Brethren, who had clear views on the silence and subordination of women and the importance of male eldership. I never heard a woman preach or even contribute to a discussion. I knew they spoke at women’s meetings, but not if men were present. On one occasion the male chauffer was made to sit in the foyer during the meeting because he wasn’t permitted access while a woman was “ministering.” For all its blind spots, my church left me with a thirst to study and expound Scripture. When I read the Bible, I was left with the disturbing question as to why my assembly had ignored so much about women in Scripture and exclusively taught the few passages in Paul’s writings which seemed to insist on their silence. Of Deborah, Ruth, Huldah, Phoebe, Priscilla (except of course as Aquila’s wife), and others, as well as a host of key biblical passages, I knew nothing.
My formal biblical study led me to somewhat different conclusions than those I had been taught. I fully identify with the desire of many to be faithful to Scripture, even if it is unfashionable or inconvenient. So, unless I could legitimately interpret it as advocating equality in the church and its leadership, I would have been unconvinced. But as I looked at the hermeneutical and exegetical issues, I became persuaded not only that the Bible positively teaches equality, but that the partial foundations on which male headship arguments are built were insecure. The results are found in Dianne’s and my jointly-authored book, The Message of Women in IVP’s BST series. Disagreements over, say 1 Timothy 2, are not a matter of the authority of Scripture but of its interpretation.
What I came to see in Scripture was also supported by experience. My church, although it insisted in women “in their place” at home, rejoiced in telling heroic stories of women on the mission field in a way which didn’t tie up. Some of the best speakers in the Christian Union at my university were women. When Dianne and I were at Bible college we were taught by a brilliant faculty but, by common consent, the best Bible teacher was a woman.
Early in our marriage, Dianne asked me whether she was destined to follow me around the country to my various posts, leaving her to find an appointment as a second best, or would I follow her. Well, it took some time, but at last we’ve gotten there. We live in the British East Midlands because six years ago Dianne, by then an ordained Baptist minister, became the regional minister (a sort of overseer) for the Baptist churches in that area, with responsibility for about 150 churches. While my own ministry continues busily, I’m delighted to be the bag carrier and research assistant to a brilliantly gifted female leader, without whose leadership the church would be denying itself the use of the gifts God has given.
Recent TV advertisements by a leading British newspaper showed what appeared to be a thug mugging an old lady, and a young man attempting to steal a businessman’s briefcase. But when the camera drew back, providing a broader context it was easy to see how interpreting their actions this way would have been wrong. The thug was pushing the old lady to safety from an advancing car and the young man saving the businessman from disaster descending from above. The punchline was: “It’s only when you get the whole picture you can fully understand what’s going on.” We’re both grateful for the churches that nurtured us, though often they only gave a partial view, both of the Bible and of God’s way of working in his world. We don’t claim to have arrived at infallibility! We respect those who differ from us. But we now see that if we’re to interpret Scripture correctly we need to get “the whole picture” and that, we believe, will lead us to egalitarian views on women and men.