When I first met Melinda, my senior pastor and soon-to-be mentor, I sat in the congregation staring at her. I took in her block-colored suits, her no-nonsense pumps, and the platinum blonde hair that she curled around her ear as she preached. I listened to her talk about the strategy for our church and her vision to influence one million people for Jesus in her lifetime. I watched her speak authoritatively to all our leaders and boldly challenge our attitudes in her sermons.
One word encapsulates how I felt: Confused.
Because, women aren’t supposed to be strong. They’re supposed to be gentle and nurturing and soft, not outspoken, visionary, and smart. They’re quiet and demure; they wear elegant dresses and bake lemon tarts. They look for a spiritual leader to marry and then support his vision. “Behind every man is a good woman,” and “It’s a good thing to find a wife,” they say. She makes his lunch, irons his shirts, and rubs his feet when he gets home.
You may have guessed how I was raised. In our church growing up, we took the Bible as it came. It was only men who were allowed to lead. Women were to remain silent. That meant no preaching, no worship leading, and no public Bible reading. In our church women weren’t even allowed to carry around the offering bags.
An Unanswered Question
It was a long and painful journey beginning with a call to ministry at age twenty-six that had me wrestling deeply with the theology I was raised in. Endless expositions of the word kephale, hours of reading about the Ephesian goddess cults and Greco-Roman household codes, and a whole lot of intellectual angst were needed before I was able to fully reconcile my theological position and embrace the ministry God was calling me to.
My Bible college studies served to answer the questions of my head. They addressed the theoretical issues, giving elements of grey to Scripture passages like 1 Timothy 2:11–15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 that had always seemed so black and white at first reading. They answered the question, What can a Christian woman do? but they missed the question of my heart: Who should a Christian woman be?
The gender debates of today usually focus on the woman’s position—what she can and cannot do. They are concerned with ceilings and limits and where the boundary lines fall.
Eventually they come to two different conclusions about a woman’s role and function—whether she can lead in any area of her gifting (egalitarianism) or whether she is limited to certain spheres (complementarianism).
But the gender debate is not just about a woman’s position. The issue goes beyond a job title and a plaque on the door. Positions work to shape who we are.
The Old-Fashioned Way
At the end of 1999, God called me to plant a church. “I can’t,” I told him, “You haven’t given me a husband yet. And two are better than one. Haven’t you read Ecclesiastes?” Every church plant I knew of was led by a man with his wife. In my world, single women didn’t plant churches. Even our denomination’s “Guide to Church-planting” had deemed it impossible by their list of “essentials,” which included “A pastor and his wife.” But it seemed God didn’t care too much about our guidelines. He spoke clearly and emphatically—I was to pioneer a church on my own.
It took a torrent of tearful arguments before I finally surrendered, saying, “Now, at least you can tell me why.”
God’s answer came clearly one morning in the form of a vision. It was an image of a penny farthing—one of those nineteenth-century bicycles with an enormous wheel at the front and a tiny wheel at the back. As it came I heard the words in my spirit, “That’s the old-fashioned way.”
I knew instantly the vision was from God and I knew exactly what it meant. It was the model I’d seen all my life, a pattern that was deeply engrained in everything I said and did. As a wife I’d be the small wheel at the back and my husband would be the big wheel at the front. God was saying if I married then, I would never grow. I would never take responsibility for my calling. He was working to break me out of the limitations of my upbringing. He wanted to release me into the fullness of all he’d designed me to be.
As it turned out, those three years of pioneering became the most defining of my life. I learned how to carry a vision, implement strategy, and use gifts I never thought I had. Leading a church in my own right shaped my identity as a leader and a pastor. I discovered who I was.
A Vision of Equal Wheels
Penny farthings never were a safe way to travel. They are a relic today because we’ve discovered a better way. When it comes to men and women working together, the model is no different. We function better when we are joined and framed together like smoothly fitted wheels.
The problem with the complementarian model is that it always defines a woman’s role in terms of a man. A woman must find a husband who is her spiritual leader. A female pastor must report to a male senior pastor. A woman can only be an elder if she is married to one.
If a woman is designed to permanently fill a support role, she will develop the persona to fit it. If she is forever born to act as second in command, her tendency will be toward passivity and a posture of lesser responsibility. Her function will shape her identity. Like the child who never moves out of home, she’ll grow within the confines she is given. She’ll stay the small wheel at the back.
But if a woman is given the opportunity to move freely in the areas of her gifting, she will flourish beside her man, fully contributing to the purpose of God along with him. It doesn’t mean that a woman has to do the same thing as a man or that if the man’s a pastor, the woman is one too. Nor does it mean that a woman has to join the workforce or surrender the domestic life if she doesn’t choose to.
What it means is that both men and women take responsibility for God’s vision for their life. Both parties express their gifts and callings without restriction. It is God’s original and best design, forgotten but now remembered. It is a vision of equal wheels—a partnership where the enlargement of one doesn’t mean the diminishment of the other, but each is free to serve God to their fullest.