Many people who believe in biblical equality find themselves in churches that don’t share their beliefs. How does one decide whether to stay and work for change, or leave to find a church with a similar interpretation of Scripture?
Mary Hanson of Denver, Colo., and Joan Flikkema of Grand Rapids, Mich., were both faced with this question, and they each made a different choice as they were led by the Holy Spirit.
Mary Hanson and her husband Clem value the doctrine, theology and worship of traditional Reformed or Presbyterian churches. In Denver, they attended a church whose pastor was egalitarian, even though the denomination doesn’t affirm women in public ministry. While at this church, Hanson discovered biblical equality.
During the family’s six years as members, Hanson served as church pianist. Although she was frustrated by not being able to hold office, she worked with others for change by speaking up for biblical equality whenever she could, and when the pastor left, by serving on the Pulpit Nominating Committee.
When the new, young pastor began preaching a series from Corinthians, it quickly became clear to Hanson that he was not interpreting Scripture with Scripture. She asked him to rethink his interpretation of I Corinthians 14:34 (women should remain silent) in light of I Corinthians 11:5 (every woman who prays or prophesies), but he just stated that prophecy and tongues were no longer valid gifts.
This environment of patriarchy began to weigh on Hanson, but thinking about leaving was difficult. She loved her friends and the music ministry, and knew the church depended on her. The church was also similar to the one she grew up in, and had become an ingrained part of her background. She also felt pressure because the church taught about the dangers of “being led astray by ‘liberal’ churches.”
“It took a long time to become secure enough in my faith to trust God’s guidance to seek out a new church,” says Hanson. “After I realized the flaws of a male-dominated church, I seriously saw it as my mission to try to effect change, essentially by myself.” As Hanson noticed that the church was becoming more entrenched in its beliefs and that she was not growing in her faith, she began looking for another church. “I finally came to the realization that the strength of my faith was not dependent on any one particular church,” she says.
As the family searched, they found some churches that didn’t match their musical preferences or that had women in office but were still functioning as a traditional hierarchy. They found some great matches too far from home for active participation. After about a year of searching, they discovered a church that had both women and men serving as copastors without the women working “under” the men. Women and men serve on leadership boards, and its musical style and location fit the family.
The decision to change churches came with a cost: The former church refused to transfer their membership because they said the new church was not of “like faith and practice.” Their friends at this church also cut off contact with the Hansons.
For others beginning this journey, Hanson recommends spending a few Sundays attending different churches, and then returning to your old church to compare and learn. She says, “Pray about it; let the Spirit be your guide.”
Planning for Institutional Change
When Joan Flikkema entered the process of working towards an acceptance of women in ministry, her denomination, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), had already begun looking at the question of women in ministry. In 1975, the national level government determined that there was nothing biblical against women holding office, but that the local churches were not culturally ready.
Flikkema said she “felt called to be a prophetic agent” in helping her denomination make this cultural change. Two major experiences helped prepare her for this work: She had learned how culture changes over time through teaching English and history for 34 years, and she practically saw how change happens through working as a negotiator for the teacher’s union. By the mid-1980s, Flikkema had become the executive secretary at the international level.
From a sociological perspective, Flikkema knew that 20 percent is the necessary amount to accept a new belief for it to become self-sustaining. To that end, Flikkema and her colleagues led the women of the CRC to pull together and appeal to the moderates until churches across North America began to see having women in office as an acceptable minority position.
The Committee for Women, an independent group of women and men in the CRC who are dedicated to the use of all members’ gifts, had a carefully planned approach. They printed newsletters, held debates, provided a speakers bureau, did archival research, and led retreats and conferences. They wrote or provided books and study guides and served to testify or observe in the church courts process at all levels. These leaders also worked to establish a million dollar endowment that has helped 140 women attend various seminaries in the Reformed tradition, and remains as a permanent source of scholarships for women in the denomination.
Flikkema brought her skills to a time in history when our society was working from a solid base while going through tremendous sociological changes. Jobs, health care and marriages were stable, providing boundaries for people’s lives within which to deal with institutional change. Today when so many of these things are in transition, Flikkema expects that it will be harder for people to dedicate energy for institutional change.
“Proof-text poker,” in which Bible verses are isolated and used for pronouncements, will always be a challenge for anyone working for change, Flikkema says. Nevertheless, working from a biblical base is important as a foundation for presenting solid theology and gaining a credible hearing.
Given that as a basis, however, Flikkema found the process most effective when the conversations were framed in the use of spiritual gifts, when the church remembered its call to be the church reformed, and most of all, when the people could hear personal testimony. When people could meet women in ministry who believed in the word of God and lived according to it, gender became less of an issue.
Personally and emotionally this work has taken decades of sacrifice with a serious commitment. Flikkema was able to endure because she had a strong emotional and spiritual support base outside the denomination, built through previous years of ecumenical faith and work. She says her faith and gifts grew. She has no regrets, and encourages others who engage in the process of cultural and institutional change to consider the length and breadth of the process in the big picture.