A week ago, I responded to a young woman’s Facebook question, “I’ve always been taught that women should only teach women and children. Have I missed something?” Then, last night I began a class with twenty women, ages 28–70, teaching God’s design for women. They are excited. They’ve never heard of most of the ten women we will be studying from the Old and New Testaments, nor have they been exposed to teaching that explains Genesis 1–3 from an egalitarian viewpoint. They have no idea how Paul’s words can be positive and life-giving for women as well as for men since they’ve also been fed the idea of “pink and blue” gift lists. But I’m not in some estranged part of the world where women cannot read or do not have Bibles. I am in the United States of America. Sometimes it’s hard to believe we are still having this conversation in 2023.
Last year I turned 80. For sixty years, I’ve carried in my heart and on my lips a mantle that God placed upon me from a very young age: to instruct women in God’s love and to empower them to stand as pillars in their God-given giftedness.
I grew up in a loving Christian family in mid-west America. We attended a good-sized Baptist church in a small town. I came to Christ at age four and was baptized at five. There are people who still remember my tears during that baptism as God’s love completely overwhelmed me. I loved the Bible stories, prayer, and memorizing God’s Word. I heard God’s call to missions. But from a very early age, I sensed a problem.
My father was a dedicated Christian, very loving, and a deacon at our church. My mother was a strong, discerning woman. When Dad would return from the deacons’ meetings, I would hear a discussion. Dad would be frustrated with decisions made, and Mom would say what should have been done, and how, and forecast the outcome of the men’s poor choices. Early on, I surmised that Mom, not Dad, should have been the deacon. But of course, Mom could not be on that governing board; she was a woman.
Other strong, godly women mentored me as well in those early years. I’ve never forgotten them. Without realizing it at the time, these women were my spiritual leaders and primary mentors. As a teenager, one woman explained to me in detail how to defend my faith. They all asked me in-depth spiritual questions and prayed fervently for me. Later, in my darkest hours as a young missionary in Peru, these women were the ones the Holy Spirit brought to my mind when encouraging me to pray and persevere.
In the 1960s, I attended a conservative Bible school. I was elected president of the women’s student council (men and women’s councils were separated), and later, was nominated as the women’s class speaker. But throughout Bible school the question still burned deep within: “What about the place of women in God’s kingdom?” My love for Christ grew; my questions did also, but they went unanswered.
In 1964, at age 21, I married my husband Bill, our hearts bound together by God’s call. Within three months we left as missionaries for Peru, South America. We pooled our resources with two other young men, then boarded the prop plane with two suitcases and a typewriter in hand. It was also in the ’60s, while in Peru, that we were invited to join a different denomination in church planting. I loved the missionaries who proposed this change for us, but I did have misgivings. Women were required to cover their heads and be completely quiet during the Sunday morning hour-long service. Only men could rise and speak. The meaning of 1 Corinthians 11 was not up for discussion, though I asked repeatedly for an explanation.
I was stretched almost to the breaking point during those early missionary years. I learned Spanish, bounced around in trucks, birthed three children, and taught God’s love and freedom to the women in my charge. I studied the Scriptures. I voiced my thoughts on God’s view of women to very few people because I soon learned that women, like children, were to be seen and not heard. I found more open thinking and practice among my Pentecostal and Anglican friends. I appreciated their freedom, and I preached at an interdenominational gathering of women and men at one of our city’s Pentecostal churches.
Then, in the 1970s, I had a breakthrough while we were on furlough. Unexpectedly, I stumbled across a book at Wheaton College by former missionary Dorothy R. Pape, In Search of God’s Ideal Woman: A Personal Examination of the New Testament. I breathed fresh air! I wasn’t crazy; others believed as I did. I hid the book to read alone. I knew my missionary colleagues would not appreciate it, and I felt too angry to discuss the topic. It was only after moving to Mexico City, where God gave me the support of an egalitarian friend, that I felt strengthened.
Finally, after twenty years in Latin America, we moved back to the United States. Wonderful women and men in our denomination supported us, helped our family readjust, and cared for us. Many are still our dearest friends today. But the complementarian system was choking the life out of me. In every congregation we attended — we lived in three different states over the next ten years — I would, with great fear, ask for a meeting with the elders. I presented biblical reasons why I believed the patriarchal system was unscriptural and unhealthy for the body of Christ, especially for women.
While I found these times extremely uncomfortable, I knew the Holy Spirit had sent me on each encounter. In the long run, it greatly strengthened my voice, my beliefs, and in some instances, it was beneficial for the congregation. Nevertheless, after twenty-nine years in a complementarian church setting, one Sunday morning, we decided to leave.
God had remained with me over the years, through all the international moves, the struggles with my denomination, and even during near-death experiences from typhoid, amoebas, and serious cancer. Now, rejoicing in my newfound freedom, I formed a nonprofit organization called Designed to Be Pillars, taken from Psalm 144:12b, which I led for seventeen years, supported by a council of ten women and men. I then began working at Bethel University and Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I was introduced to the discipline of silence and solitude. I also began to meet monthly with a spiritual director. The Holy Spirit used these new steps to help me honestly know myself, hear God’s desires clearly, and walk in obedience with courage.
At age sixty, I graduated with a Master of Divinity; at sixty-two, I was ordained within a Baptist denomination, and in my seventies, I received a Doctor of Ministry. During these two decades, I was invited into over twenty countries to preach and teach God’s Word to women and men. There was pushback in almost every country, but I now knew that I was engaged in a spiritual battle. God gave me grace and spiritual strength to be a voice among the oppressed women of the church.
Though I’ve preached to both women and men on six continents, today I find myself again in a more restricted church. The leaders acknowledge me as “Pastor Ruth,” but I am not invited to preach. Nevertheless, I’ve decided this is where God wants to use me. A young man I was counseling about marriage invited me to speak at his conservative college chapel on Jesus and women. A young woman recently commented with tears, “I’ve never heard these teachings before. My heart is filled with hope once again, to realize how much God loves even me and has a place for women!” On Sunday, praying with another woman: “Your counsel and prayer fill me with courage . . . I now see the steps to accomplish Christ’s purpose for me!” Over and over, God has shown me that He will move me into unexpected places. My part is to keep preparing.
If you, like me, seek ways to help the women around you become pillars in God’s kingdom, recognizing His love and gifting of them, the following four suggestions have kept me in tune with God and with His desire to shepherd His daughters:
LOVE GOD: PRAY and READ the Scriptures continually, to receive hope and not give up.
TRUST that God ALWAYS OPENS DOORS: Within every church setting, I’ve been able to use some spiritual gift. We all have more than one.
SEEK FAITHFUL FRIENDS outside your own setting who understand you and will encourage you forward. You must realize you are not alone in this kingdom battle.
STUDY; READ widely. Reading will give you words to clearly express your feelings, emotions, thoughts, and desires.
Lastly, as women and men, we must embrace completely who each other is in Jesus Christ. Psalm 144:12 says, “May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars, cut for the building of a palace” (NRSV). Brothers and sisters, wherever God takes us, we must stand strong and tall as trees and pillars — side by side in respect, humility, and God-giftedness with prayer, as together we continue to advance the kingdom of God.
Still Side by Side: A Concise Explanation of Biblical Gender Equality
Women in the Great Missionary Movements: What God Did for Women that Plato Never Could
Why We Need to Model Egalitarianism for the Next Generation