I was sixteen years old when Bill Gothard’s curriculum, “Basic Youth Conflicts,” came to the California Bay Area.
For readers who don’t know, Gothard was a popular Christian minister and speaker in the 1970s-early 2000s in conservative Christian and homeschool circles. Gothard once filled auditoriums throughout the US with audiences as large as ten thousand people. He founded the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), which sought to educate Christians with conservative teachings on family, marriage, homeschooling, modesty, authority, etc. IBLP is also known for its strong emphasis on male authority and female submission.
Many folks from my local church attended the seminar, including my family. I still remember the excitement in the air as the crowd gathered in the Oakland Colosseum for this new Christian teaching on marriage and family.
You’d think we belonged to a denomination that barred women from the ministry, but this was not the case. We were with Assemblies of God.
My family was very involved at church. We went twice on Sundays as well as to choir practice on Tuesdays and prayer meetings on Wednesdays. As a teen, I also went to Friday night youth group.
In junior high, I approached my Sunday school teacher and pastor to ask for Bible study resources. I was hungry to learn more of the Word of God. My Sunday school teacher gave me a brightly-colored magazine about discipleship for youth and I devoured the contents in just a few days. My pastor encouraged me to attend Bible college in the future.
That was it for extra help and resources for the next six years.
I did go to Bible college, a small school which offered only eight majors at the time. I graduated with a BA in social science. Although English and music were also contenders, it never occurred to me to pursue pastoral ministry. Why? Because women didn’t do that.
In fact, on a campus of about five hundred students, I can remember only one female with a ministerial major. I knew my denomination ordained women. I’d heard stories of women missionaries who had accomplished great things for God. I knew about Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Foursquare denomination. But, besides Aimee, I didn’t know of any female pastors in our circles.
Still, I wanted to dig into the Bible. I wanted to be a thinker and a leader. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the knowledge; I just knew I desired to understand God’s Word more deeply.
Although I was already required to complete thirty-one units of Bible and theology in order to graduate and I was not a ministerial major, I audited a course in hermeneutics to learn the principles of interpreting Scripture. I wanted to attend seminary after I graduated. (My male friends jokingly called me “Karla” because I aspired to be the next Karl Barth, only female.)
Despite all this, I never even prayed about whether I should consider pastoral ministry. In reality, despite my pseudointellectual persona, I was insecure, compliant, and easily intimidated.
I remember feeling a lot of tension and turmoil because my church and community taught one thing, but acted out another. The official Assemblies of God stance on ordaining female ministers did not filter down to my local congregation on a practical level, nor to any of the other churches I visited as part of college music and drama groups (and I visited quite a few).
Sure, I was allowed the privilege of preaching a Sunday morning sermon at my home church after graduating from Bible college. But this was a token gesture, not an intentional act to launch me into ministry.
Back to the Gothard seminar. I still vividly remember an illustration of the “chain of authority” in the home from the syllabus: a hammer (the husband/father) slams down onto a chisel (the wife/mother), which in turn chips away at a diamond (the child).
The rotten fruit of Gothard’s teaching has become tragically evident in recent years in many churches (in 2014, Gothard himself was placed on leave from IBLP due to accusations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior—eventually by more than thirty women). But my older brother, twenty years old when we attended, detected something fishy even then. He wondered aloud, “Why is a forty-year-old single guy who lives with his mother teaching married couples with children about family life?”
Why, indeed. Yet this teaching was accepted and put into practice in a church and denomination that supposedly affirmed equality between men and women.
Can you say “inconsistent”?
In contrast to official Assemblies doctrine, the unspoken rules of my local church said that women were to serve and support men, who were supposed to do the spiritual heavy lifting. And it was the unspoken rule—not the official affirmation—that we lived out. Even at my AG Bible college, the running gag about stereotypical female students was that they attended the school not to train for ministry, but to find a future pastor to marry.
The unwritten rules of my local church had far more practical power in our lives than the official doctrinal statement of our denomination.
So what happens when churches agree that women should be free to minister and lead, yet they never take practical steps to equip and empower them to do so?
In my case, denominational lip service to egalitarian beliefs coupled with my local church’s patriarchal practices only served to confuse me and suppress my God-given desire to pursue ministry. I received the same oppressive message women in non-egalitarian churches receive: accept second-place status, stay quiet, and don’t rock the boat.
If things were different, would I have pursued pastoral ministry training? I don’t know, but here’s what’s sad: my church had every reason to equip and encourage me to pursue any ministry role God might lead me into and yet they didn’t. So much is lost when churches fail to live out in practice what they claim to believe about the equality of men and women.
The church must do more than give a hypothetical a “yes” to the idea of women in ministry. We must actively help them get there.