Categories
Commentary Theology

The Difference of Pentecost

We come to Pentecost in Acts 2. It is, without a doubt, one of the most electrifying, motivating, and mystifying passages in the New Testament. 

It also helps us make sense of gender roles in the post-resurrection era of the Kingdom of God.

Think of this post as a sequel to the last two on Jesus and women. In those, we looked at how Jesus’ interactions with women changed the game on gender in the first century. Now, we’ll see how Jesus begins to carry on his work through his people, including women, by his Spirit.

What Happened at Pentecost?

Pentecost was a Jewish feast to celebrate the first-fruits of harvest. Because it was a religious observance, thousands of faithful Jews from other parts of the world made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God during the festival.

There were about 120 believers gathered together for prayer on the day of Pentecost. The group included both men and women (see Acts 1:14). Luke, the author, writes while they were praying a mighty wind rushed upon them. Something like “tongues of fire” came to rest above their heads and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.

The disciples began sharing “the wonders of God,” and everyone heard what they said in their native language. The crowd was quite confused. Some even said that they were drunk.[1]

Joel foretold of a day when God would pour out his Spirit on all who believe without regard to status, ethnicity, or gender.

But Peter stood up to explain that they weren’t drunk. (It was only 9am!) This was the fulfillment of what the prophet Joel had written centuries before. His speech is found in Acts 2:14-36. His opening words in Acts 2:17-18 (quoting Joel 2:28-30) are the most important for our discussion. Here it is in the NIV:

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.

In the Old Testament, God poured out his Spirit for certain occasions and on particular people. No longer. Joel foretold of a day when God would pour out his Spirit on all who believe without regard to status, ethnicity, or gender (cf. Acts 2:39).

At Pentecost, that day had finally come. God now lives in and with his people–men and women–for good.

What Does Pentecost Mean?

Pentecost means a whole lot. As it relates to gender roles, I’ll mention three important take-aways:

1. Pentecost means God has come to dwell with both men and women, equally.  

This was the goal of creation all along. In the beginning, God dwelt with humanity in perfect fellowship. The story of the Old Testament is God’s pursuit of his people Israel to dwell with them in spite of their sin. Nothing is a permanent solution. 

Until Jesus. 

All who believe in him become the place where God’s presence dwells on earth. We are God’s temple—his sacred space.

Jesus is God’s sacred space—the “place” where God dwells. He calls himself the temple to prove the point (John 2:19-21). He is where heaven and earth meet. 

And through his life, death, and resurrection, he reconciles people back to God and gives them his Spirit. Now, all who believe in him become the place where God’s presence dwells on earth. We are God’s temple—his sacred space.[2] 

This is a major theme in the New Testament, and it was foundational for the early Church’s understanding of what it meant to be God’s people. (see 1 Cor 6:18; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21-22; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 2:5). 

This has nothing to do with worshiping in a building or particular liturgies or churches operating as organizations. It has everything to do with being a people-movement energized and empowered by God’s Spirit for a specific identify and function: being with God as his people and being his witnesses to the rest of the world.

2. Pentecost means men and women are both his authoritative witnesses to the world.

Because God now dwells in us, we represent him to the world. This was, again, God’s intention from the beginning. He created man and woman in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-28), meaning they represented God in their activity in the world.

Sin did not entirely remove God’s image from humanity. But it brought destructive effects so that we sought to rule ourselves, rather than joyfully represent God as we were created to. 

Women, along with men, are authoritative witnesses for God because they, like men, have the Spirit.

Pentecost reverses this curse. The indwelling Spirit brings redemption and restoration to whoever believes in Jesus. Revelation 1:6 and 5:10 call the Church “a kingdom…and priests to our God,” echoing the language of image and likeness from Genesis.[3] Believers in Jesus can now fulfill humanity’s original intent.

Peter’s choice of the Joel passage especially highlights the mutuality between men and women in this new era of the Spirit. To prophesy in the context of Pentecost means to speak on God’s behalf with his authority. Women, along with men, are authoritative witnesses for God because they, like men, have the Spirit.[4]

There’s no hierarchy here. There’s no male-only leadership. The Kingdom of God, through the event of Pentecost, ushers in a new ministry paradigm in which men and women labor side-by-side in the work of the gospel.

3. Pentecost means the Church previews the world to come.

Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated the new creation. But it didn’t end with him. He is called the “firstborn” of a new creation (Col 1:15-20; cf. Rev 1:5). Now, whoever has the Spirit dwelling in them is “in Christ” and is, therefore, a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).[5] This will take its full effect when we are with Christ and receive our resurrected bodies in the new creation. 

As “new creation” beings, we are a “sneak peak” of the “coming attraction.” We’re a preview of what it will be like when we will reign with Jesus in the new heavens and new earth.

We do this in many ways, don’t we? We fight sin, pursue Christ-centered community, give justice to the disadvantaged and oppressed, care for the environment, bring hope to the hopeless, healing to the hurting, food to the hungry, and so on.

All of these are a faint whisper of life without sin, brokenness, and death.

In other words, we fight the curse.

Why wouldn’t we do the same with gender hierarchy? 

If men and women will live together in a redeemed world serving God equally as a kingdom and priests, shouldn’t we align our beliefs and practices with that reality now? Shouldn’t our ministries reflect the equality and mutuality God gave men and women at creation and in redemption?[6]

For me, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

If men and women will live together in a redeemed world serving God equally as a kingdom and priests, shouldn’t we align our beliefs and practices with that reality now?

What’s Next?

Now, on to Paul. In the next post, we’ll look at how Paul included women in gospel ministry. We’ll also consider some of his general teaching that should help us set a “baseline” for how Paul would think about women in ministry.

After that, we’ll start to dive in to the specific, controversial texts by Paul on women’s roles in the Church.


Notes

[1] For our purposes, what this language phenomenon actually was isn’t important. I have my own take. But that’s for another post. 

[2] If the concept of “sacred space” is new to you, please read my previous posts on Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 for context. 

[3] This is a major theme in 1 Peter. I’ll also show in the next post on Paul, that it’s a significant reason for his focus on the entire body of Christ contributing to its growth through spiritual gifts. Which, as we know, are not gendered.

[4] Of course, Peter, a man, takes the lead in his Pentecost speech. But as I’ve shown previously, we can’t overlook the fact that Jesus’ closest disciples were male for cultural reasons. Jesus accommodated himself to the culture he came to live in.

[5] A literal translation of 2 Corinthians 5:17 goes something like this, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ—new creation!” (2 For 5:17). There is no gendered pronoun in the verse. When a committee translates this passage as “he is a new creation,” we may know that Paul is talking about a generic person, but the gender bias damage has already been done. The focus of the verse is not “he” but “anyone” (Gk tis). Why is this text important for gender roles? Because it’s in a section where Paul talks about the ministry of reconciliation. If anyone is in Christ and is therefore a new creation, Paul writes, they have the distinct role of being his ambassador—to preach the message of Christ to a lost world. This ministry is for men and women. The theology of Acts 2 is no doubt in the forefront of Paul’s mind as he writes these words to the Corinthians. We have to ask ourselves: why would any woman be able to have this high identity and calling of “ambassador of Christ” to the world and yet not be a local church elder/pastor?

[6] I have heard some complementarians argue that there will be gendered hierarchy in the new heavens and new earth, based on the fact that there was a hierarchy built into the original creation. I have not found an actual article or book that explains the idea of “gender roles” in the new creation, however. Still, I remain unconvinced by this argument based on my conviction that Genesis 1-2 does not teach men are inherently “over” women as leaders. If there was no hierarchy in the Garden, it doesn’t make sense to me that there would be in the new creation. See my posts on Genesis 1, 2, and 3 for more on this. Other complementarians may argue that if a gender hierarchy is the result of the fall, that’s “just the way world is” and we should live with it. I may write an interlude post soon responding to the issue of birth order and whether or not we should fight against the curse. 

Categories
Commentary Life Theology

Finally Seeing the Blind Spots

Anyone who has had conversation with me on a biblical text or a theological topic knows that I hate the answer, “Well, the Bible says so.” I want to get to the why behind the what. Sometimes it’s impossible to know, of course. But often, “The Bible say so,” is a lazy answer.

When it came to the debate on women’s roles in gender, I often answered genuine questions with, “Well, the Bible says so.”

Far too often I resorted to that rigid, biblical literalism I mentioned in a previous post. And it kept me from seeing an obvious blind spot which produced all kinds of inconsistent–if not awkward–applications.

The glaring blind spot of complementarianism that I missed for so long is fairly easy to explain. Here it is:

Complementarianism holds that women are equal to men, but separate from–namely, underneath–them

Proponents say they value women because women are “created equal with men.” Functionally, however, complementarians devalue women because, in any family or ministry setting, women are separated from men since they are “called” to place themselves under the authority of men–even if the men are not as mature, wise, gifted, or experienced.

We’ve heard “separate but equal” before, haven’t we?

How did that work out for us?

Equal But Separate No Longer

The Civil Rights movement in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States fought against the idea and practice of “separate but equal.” We all know how this produced all kinds of evils against black people.

Women in the church have been fighting against this same kind of thing for a very long time. It’s just harder to notice.

I’m not just trying to shock you by making the link between the struggle of women in the church and racism. Preachers and theologians in the United States used Scripture to argue that slavery and racism was God’s design for black people. They also argued that patriarchy was God’s design.

Complementarianism is simply patriarchy in our modern world.[1]

At some point a shift happened. Any respectable preacher or theologian in America today would say the slavery texts are reflective of a sinful system within a particular culture and should not be repeated today.

Yet the same preachers and theologians will defend the subjugation of women.

Historian Beth Allison Barr makes this exact case in her wonderful new book The Making of Biblical Womanhood.

Barr’s point is clear:

When we rightly understand that biblical passages discussing slavery must be framed within their historical context and that, through the lens of this historical context, we can better understand slavery as an ungodly system that stands contrary to the gospel of Christ, how can we not then apply the same standards to biblical texts about women?[2]

Patriarchy is designed to keep one half of humanity in power and the other half in submission.

Now, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. I’ll have an entire post soon on how we can know whether a Bible passage is culture-bound or not. So, we’ll discuss the connection between slaves and women.

For now, the point I’m making is that slavery and segregation were designed to keep an entire group of people in submission. In the same way, patriarchy (aka complementarianism) is designed to keep one half of humanity in power and the other half in submission.

This does not reflect the spirit of Christ’s humility, love, and freedom.

We cannot keep saying women are “equal to men” and they must be “separate” from “a man’s work” in ministry. As someone has rightly said, “Separate but equal is not equal.”[3]

Now, please don’t hear something I’m definitely not saying. I am not saying that women and men are the same. Women and men are obviously different. 

And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s exactly why men need women at the leadership table. If women were the same, we men wouldn’t need them, and vice versa.

But complementarians believe the difference between men and women goes beyond their biological and anatomical differences.

They argue that because of their gender, our roles and functions are different. Men lead and direct. Women follow and submit in the home and the church. In every culture. For all time.[4]

You already know this. That’s why you’re reading.

The reason I’ve gone to such great lengths to talk about my experiences in and observations of complementarianism is to show how these provided the right conditions for me to see how dangerous complementarianism really is.

A woman’s voice is essential for a ministry to function faithfully and fruitfully. Not a token voice, but one that holds the same weight as a man’s. It reminds me of Mary Magdalene, the first person to give voice to the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

A woman’s testimony had no weight in a Jewish trial. Yet here is the risen Jesus sending a woman to be the first witness to his male friends about the greatest news in history. 

Here is the risen Jesus sending a woman to be the first witness to his male friends about the greatest news in history.

How’s that for weighty? A woman. Authorized by Jesus. Teaching men about the One who is Truth.

But women today aren’t permitted to lead and shepherd and teach people–men–who want to follow Jesus?

There it is. The blind spot, finally, exposed.

Equal but separate no longer.

Inconsistent (and Awkward) Application

Seeing this canyon-sized blind spot opened up the door for my wife and me to ask more pointed questions about the way complementarianism is broadly applied in churches.

Here are many inconsistencies both of us wrestled with. We either noticed these in our own ministry contexts or others:

Can a mother teach the Bible to her 18-year old son at home on Saturday night, but not the next morning in church? 

  • Can a woman lead or co-lead a mixed gender small group that meets in a home? Can a woman teach other men anything about God, the Bible, doctrine, etc. in a small group setting?[5]
  • Assuming our worship songs teach theology and Scripture (and they do), can a woman sing and lead musically in a church?
  • Assuming our prayers teach theology and Scripture (and they do), can a woman pray in a church?
  • Does leadership really just boil down to being the one who initiates and makes the final decision? What is uniquely “male” about that?
  • What do women do with their gifts of teaching, prophecy, exhortation, wisdom, knowledge, and discernment–gifts that are traditionally valued in (male) pastors/elders, leaders, and men in general?
  • What are women who are mature, humble, strong leaders actually allowed to do in a church if they aren’t allowed lead?
  • If a woman can give a short reflection on Scripture at a Good Friday service, why can’t she do the same for a bit longer–say “sermon length” longer–on Easter Sunday?
  • If women can’t teach men publicly because it is “having authority” over them and if “teaching” is a function of the elders, then should a non-elder man ever teach publicly? Wouldn’t he be assuming an authority over the elders that is not rightfully his?
  • Are men allowed to read a doctrinal book written by a woman?
  • Why can a woman teach a man in private conversation (see Acts 18:26), but not many men in a public church gathering? Is the difference that there is a formal service, in a building, with a pulpit?
  • If a woman shares her story in a church gathering and happens to explain a Bible verse or expounds a point of Christian doctrine, is she in violation of 1 Timothy 2:12?
  • Can a mother teach the Bible to her 18-year old son at home on Saturday night, but not the next morning in front of him and the whole congregation?
  • At what age does a boy become a man and is exempt from being taught by a woman? At 13? 16? 18? 21? 30?
  • Why can a woman teach a mixed group of college students in a parachurch setting on a weeknight but not on a Sunday morning in a local church setting? Or are women in parachurch settings not allowed to teach college-aged men?
  • Why can a woman preach, teach, evangelize, disciple, and even start churches overseas but not at home?
  • Why would a group of male-only elders ignore, at best, or reject, at worst, female input on major decisions when, as statistics show, more than half of Christian congregations are female?
  • Does a single female have to submit to any male? Or every male? Or just her pastor? Or just her father? Or her father and her pastor? What if she is 37 years old…or 65 years old?
  • Why would God tell women they can’t lead men simply because he made them female? 

These were inconsistencies I had shrugged off before because I was convinced there was no other way to interpret the most controversial passages on women in ministry. 

I didn’t want to just shrug these off anymore.

But What Does the Bible Say?

The past several posts, including this one, have been about my experiences and observations living within complementarianism. This is my reality.

But I’ll be the first to say that experience is not a valid reason to change your mind on a biblical teaching.

We need to let God’s word have the final say. 

Perhaps what I started to feel as a complementarian pastor was hogwash. Perhaps my inclination that we need women’s voices at the leadership table is just caving to modern culture. Perhaps my desire to honor and champion my wife and daughters–not to mention the many other many women I’ve worked alongside in ministry–is misguided. 

Perhaps I’m full of it.

Only a deep-dive into the entire story of Scripture–and the ancient world in which it was written–can help me find out.


Notes

[1] I’m not trying to be harsh by calling complementarianism “patriarchy.” I’m simply repeating what some of the most well-known complementarians have said. Owen Strachan, former president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, wrote, “For millennia, followers of God have practiced what used to be called patriarchy and is now called complementarianism” (my emphasis). See “Of ‘Dad Moms’ and ‘Dad Fails’: An Essay on Men and Awesomeness,” The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 17/1 (2012), 23-26.

Similarly, Russell Moore, former president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote, “If complementarians are to reclaim the debate, we must not fear making a claim that is disturbingly counter-cultural and yet strikingly biblical, a claim that the less-than-evangelical feminists understand increasingly: Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy” (my emphasis). Generally, I’m a fan of what Moore says and writes, but not here. See “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Willing the Gender Debate,” Journal of the Evangelical Society 49/3 (September 2006), 569–76. This article was written back in 2006. I agree with Barr when she says that she hopes Moore has changed his stance. I’m not aware that he has, however.

[2] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 34. See 32-35 for her entire discussion on the connection between the struggle of women in the church and racism. You really should just buy this book and read it. It’s truly spectacular.

[3] As far as I can tell, this quote is attributed to Paul Martin, the 21st Prime Minister of Canada.

[4] Even John Piper and Wayne Grudem, fathers of biblical manhood and womanhood movement, teach that women are not designed by God to lead in secular vocations.

[5] Since churches in the first century met in homes, this question is very relevant! As we’ll see in our exploration of 1 Corinthians 11, we absolutely know that there were women who “prayed and prophesied” in house church gatherings in Corinth. The concept of a sermon given by one person in a pulpit or behind a lectern is foreign to the biblical writers. Multiple communicators of biblical truth, not just one, was more typical of worship gatherings in the first century.

Categories
Commentary Life

How Being a Complementarian Pastor Changed Everything

Our experiences powerfully shape our understanding of the Scriptures. As I said in my first post, the truth of the Bible does not change, but our understanding and applications of it do depending on our culture, community, and circumstances.

How can we be sure this is true? Here are several obvious examples.

If you have never spent much time with the poor, much of Jesus’ ministry and teaching may not impact you all that much (it also may make little sense). But if you take a month, a week, or even a day to live among the poor, your eyes will probably be enlightened to what was already there, but you had missed. Jesus’ words will likely land on you with the force he originally intended.

Or say you have a strong conviction about what a worship service should look and sound like. But then you visit a worship gathering in another culture where people obviously love Jesus and want to honor the Scriptures. Hopefully, going forward, you will read those passages about corporate worship with a little more flexibility and less conviction about your own culture’s way of doing things.

Many of us (myself included), last summer, began to see the call for justice throughout the Scriptures quite differently in light of George Floyd’s death and the conversations on race and injustice that followed.[1]

If you see the Bible in accord with a particular denomination, chances are you grew up in that denomination or the people welcomed you and were nice to you at a critical juncture in your life. If not, you wouldn’t be a part of that church![2]

If nothing else, we can understand this simply because we mature both chronologically and spiritually. Parts of the Bible hit us differently at various stages of life. We hear it all the time: I’ve never noticed this before but since becoming a parent…a widow…a foreigner…etc.

The Scriptures never change. But we do.

The Scriptures never change. But we do. And that’s the point I’m making. Can we agree on that?

Not having certain experiences and therefore not seeing all Scripture “evenly” doesn’t make us rotten people who are actively rebelling against God. It’s just part of being human.

I believe that God is compassionate and the he accommodates us. We’ll talk about “accommodation” in a future post, but in a nutshell, it means God meets us where we’re at. Isn’t that the whole point of him becoming human? And he’s bringing us along on a journey. Isn’t that the whole point of spiritual growth?[3]

Our experiences in the world are the “lenses” we look through to interpret the Bible. Right or wrong. But that’s not the only lens we wear. Our experience and familiarity with the world of the biblical authors (or lack thereof) also helps (or hinders) us in understanding and applying the Bible.

Our experiences in the world are the “lenses” we look through to interpret the Bible.

In this post and the next one (or two), I want to share how God graciously provided me with experiences and observations to help me see the passages about women’s roles in a fresh way. My experiences weren’t the conclusive evidence. They just opened the door to a new possibility.

After these posts on my story, and before getting into specific Bible passages, I’ll talk about how knowing the world of the biblical authors can help us, particularly as it relates to women’s roles.

Forgive me in advance for the length. I want to share as much as possible as quickly as possible so we can get on to considering what the Bible has to say.


Complementarianism: Case Closed?

As a white, middle-class, Midwestern kid who grew up in North American megachurch culture, I didn’t give much thought to gender roles in ministry.

There was never a debate to be had.

The church I grew up in was a part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) denomination. Our church only had male leaders (pastors/elders).[4]

Every Sunday, a male pastor preached from the Bible. Our church also only had male music leaders/directors.[5] Women did serve in a number other capacities, most notably women’s and children’s ministries. I assume this is similar, if not identical, to the experience of most people reading.[6]

Growing up, I simply assumed that men did the “big church leading” and that women taught other women and kids.

I lived in a male-dominated church world.

It didn’t feel wrong. It just was.

I assumed this was the correct stance not only because of our church’s practice, but also because of how I was taught to read the Bible: it is literal in what it says. I don’t mean that the Bible is literally true. That’s a different thing–which I believe. What I mean is that from home to church to private school, I was taught that we believe the words as they exist on the page.

Case closed.

I was in this church–and don’t get me wrong, it was a good church–until I went to college.

One memory from this church stands out that, perhaps, planted a seed of doubt that the issue was actually closed. It certainly added a level of complexity, if not inconsistency, to the male-only paradigm. Every year, our church had a missions conference. Missionaries came back home to share what God had been doing in the mission field. Every year an older, single woman came back to share about God’s work in the small West African country where she ministered. Her name was Mary.

I’m not sure what her ministry specifically involved, and I didn’t give it much thought then. But recently, I’ve wondered, as I’m sure some of you are wondering right now: Was Mary able to preach the gospel to a mixed group? Did she ever share Jesus with men? Did she ever teach new Christian men how to study the Bible and pray?

These women were likely doing the exact kind of ministry overseas they were not permitted to do at home.

I have to believe she did. At least once, right?

There are countless stories of faithful women who served as missionaries throughout church history, just like Mary. They were likely doing the exact kind of ministry overseas they were not permitted to do at home.

Mary wasn’t called “pastor” or “elder.” But she was (probably) doing the job of one.

The One Passage I Couldn’t Avoid

My first eighteen years of life in this church weren’t very formative theologically speaking. (I got bored with Jesus in middle school, but that’s another story entirely.) Instead, it was during college, then serving with a parachurch ministry in Nebraska and South Africa after graduation, and finally during seminary that I really started to establish myself theologically.

To make a long story short, I listened to and read just about every Reformed, complementarian pastor, author, and blogger there was. You name him, and I knew everything about him. Like so many other millennial Christian men, I wanted to be a strong, godly leader. So complementarianism was the obvious place to pitch my tent.

My position was simple. And it all hinged on one, precious verse. I once heard a well-known complementarian pastor and theologian quip: “If you can get the Bible to say, ‘I do permit’ when it says, ‘I do not permit,’ then you can get it to say whatever you want.”

He was talking about 1 Timothy 2:12, of course: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (NIV).[8]

I identified with what he said, but not mainly because of the gender issue, as important as that was for me. I wanted to be a “strong, godly leader.” But even more, I wanted to take the Bible seriously. What I found in Reformed complementarianism was a group of (male) teachers who did that. So I grasped on to everything they taught–lock, stock, and barrel.

I had been converted to Jesus. Now, I was being converted to biblical literalism.[7] I became convinced that if someone doubted the straightforward, literal reading of 1 Timothy 2:12, they were on a slippery slope toward rejecting the authority of the Bible and, eventually, Jesus himself.

Granted, I didn’t personally know anyone who believed in female church leadership. But if I ever meet someone who does, how can I be sure they won’t twist other Scriptures if they can’t see what Paul is OBVIOUSLY saying in 1 Timothy 2:12?!

I knew there were other passages in the New Testament that seemed to suggest that local church leaders should be men. But, for me, everything hung on 1 Timothy 2:12.

To me, it seemed like a watertight argument.

Pastoring Among Female Spiritual Giants

Ironically, it was my experience as a pastor in a non-denominational, evangelical, complementarian church in Upstate New York, that paved the way for me to consider the egalitarian / co-laborer position.

Early in the interview process for the role of associate pastor, I was asked to articulate my position on women in ministry. I explained that I believed the office of elder/pastor was reserved for men, only men could preach during a formal worship gathering of the whole church, but that women could exercise their gifts in any other capacity.

Check. Passed with flying colors.

The church did not have an official position on women’s roles in ministry that I knew of. In tradition and practice, however, the church subscribed to complementarianism.

Here’s how it played out for this church:

  • Only men were permitted to serve as elders.
  • Only men were allowed to give the sermon on a Sunday morning.
  • Only men could formally teach the Bible/theology in an adult education class (i.e. Sunday school).
  • Women could lead worship, read Scripture, pray, give the call to worship, and even give biblical reflections during special services.

In terms of ministry activities, this looks a lot like “soft complementarianism.” The other side of the coin is the leadership’s attitude toward women. That is so much harder to quantify than what ministry activities women can do/lead! I’ll discuss the general dynamics of that in the next post.

Once I was immersed in the life of this church, I started to realize how fuzzy things really got when it came to gender roles.

When you minister to a church you’ve never been a part of before, it doesn’t take long to find out who the spiritual giants are–those people everyone else looks up to and wants to be like.

This church had a lot of these people.

And many, many, many of them were women.

These women had an insatiable hunger to know Jesus and his word. They explained Bible passages and Christian theology with passion and ease. They shared the gospel with non-Christians. They served the poor. They welcomed foreigners into their homes. They prayed–oh, did they pray! They were honest, gracious, compassionate, and patient.

So patient.

They were (and still are) women of whom the world was not worthy.

And there I was, 30-something, first-time, male pastor, leading among these female spiritual giants. I went in thinking I needed to teach them. I left realizing how much they had taught me.

I went in thinking I needed to teach them. I left realizing how much they had taught me.

The women in our church never demanded a female elder. They never demanded that a woman preach a sermon. Their vision was simpler–and grander–than that. They wanted their voice, their gifts, their passions, their person, their womanhood to matter. They didn’t want to be ignored, silenced, or marginalized.

An older, retired pastor befriended and mentored me while we lived in New York. We spent Wednesday mornings at IHOP talking ministry and drinking bad coffee. He constantly nudged me toward including and empowering our women without ever trying to convince me of one theological position or the other.

His counsel, time after time, was to recognize and celebrate the spiritual gifts of women by actually letting them use their gifts, and, most importantly, ask for and listen to their insights, opinions, and preferences on church matters.

“If you want to see ‘church’ become a movement,” he’d always say, “you need women.”

Even as a complementarian, I recognized this and wanted it. I knew women were not second-class kingdom citizens and they had amazing things to offer.

The bigger question was, How does this fit in my theological framework?

That Time A Woman Preached

Over several months, I worked with many of these women on various things. Women even helped lead teams, and our elders had started a women’s advisory group that met with some of our elders to share their thoughts and concerns about the church.

We were making progress. But the progress was primarily behind the scenes. Women still did not have much of a voice when it came to big picture leadership or discipleship issues, including, of course, proclaiming God’s word to the whole congregation.

But I sensed a change on Good Friday 2015, during a Tenebrae service. In this type of worship gathering, various people prepare brief reflections on the sayings of Jesus from the cross. In a “hard complementarian” church, this would be reserved for men only. But we had a mixture of men and women give what truly was a “sermonette.”

One woman spoke on “I thirst” from John 19:28-29.

Angst shot out from her face while she whispered as if her lips were dry, cracked, and bleeding, “I’m thirsty!” Reciting the psalmist’s searching cry in Psalm 63, she showed that Jesus fulfilled that ancient song in his statement from the cross. Jesus didn’t simply need physical water, she pointed out. He wanted–needed–his Father. That’s who he was thirsty for. Jesus died of (spiritual) thirst.

It was the one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.

Everyone in the room knew she was preaching. And she was preaching like she was born to do it.

And I knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was preaching. Everyone in the room knew she was preaching.

And she was preaching like she was born to do it.

I can’t remember if I felt conflicted in the moment. (I hope I wasn’t debating the legitimacy of it–it was Good Friday!) Besides, everyone seemed edified because of what she said.

Whatever I thought about the role of women that night didn’t matter at all.

What mattered is that I wanted to know Jesus, love Jesus, and be like Jesus more because of what she said during that beautiful, dark, haunting Tenebrae service.

“What About Sunday School?”

Months later in late 2015, I had transitioned to interim pastor after our senior pastor had resigned. Discussions on the precise roles of women continued to increase. By spring 2016, our elder team had to deal with the most significant theological and practical question during my years as a pastor: can a woman teach and lead a Sunday school adult education class?

Prior to this, the church had an unwritten rule that only men could teach the Bible or theology proper.[9] But we had capable, knowledgeable, and willing women who wanted to teach on various topics, particularly books of the Bible, theology, or spiritual formation. They wanted to know if that was an acceptable way to use their gifts.

We (the elder team) had to answer in a way that 1) honored these women, and 2) upheld our complementarian framework. Our position was not up for debate–we weren’t all of a sudden going to have women elders or a woman preach to the whole church on a Sunday morning. But the application of our position wasn’t set in stone.

I spent weeks studying and praying about this issue. I read and re-read the Scriptures and consumed just about every article and opinion you could find online. I agonized over it.

I came to the conclusion that there was nothing in the Scripture that prevented a woman from teaching mixed groups in a “Sunday School-like” setting. I believed, as some complementarian churches do, if the person teaching and what is being taught are under elder oversight, it would be acceptable. I shared my view with the other elders and after many conversations, we agreed to start allowing women to teach adults the Bible and theology.[10]

Feeling the Foundation Crumble

What I’ve shared in this post is a tiny glimpse into the people and events God used opened my eyes to the value of women in the church, which then allowed me to see Scripture in a different light. Obviously, I don’t have the space to share every experience that deeply influenced me–private conversations, email exchanges, prayer times, planning sessions. I wish I did.

Ironically, while I was a complementarian pastor, my complementarian foundation began to crumble. By the time I stepped down as a pastor of the church my heart had ripened enough to at least be open to other options. After all, my wife and I were both transitioning to work with Cru as campus ministers together.

Carly, my wife, is tremendously gifted and, while I was a pastor, desired to use her gifts for the good of the church, too. But how could she use her gifts of teaching, wisdom, and discernment as the wife of a complementarian pastor in a complementarian church? How could we co-labor to serve both genders together? It seemed impossible.

In the next post, I’ll share more of our story, focusing on my wife’s influence on my journey and our experience together in the church as we started to notice the major blind spots of complementarianism.


Notes

[1] I’m not talking about the politics of race. I’m talking about Christian empathy, compassion, justice, and God’s heart for all people groups, especially marginalized ones, which, as we’ll see, relates to the issue of women in the church.

[2] I recognize that some people join a church or denomination based on doctrine or the “statement of faith” alone. But I’d be willing to bet my retirement account those people are by far the exception.

[3] In Christian theology, the term for this is “sanctification.” Sanctification comes from the Latin word sanctus which means “to make holy, to set apart.”

[4] The CMA has a long history of empowering women in ministry. However, their current position is still that only men can serve as local church elders. Their website states: “Women may fulfill any function in the local church which the senior pastor and elders may choose to delegate to them…and may properly engage in any kind of ministry except that which involves elder authority.” However, just two weeks ago Christianity Today reported that the CMA is reconsidering their position. CMA President John Stumbo said, “It’s become clear to me that some of our policies unnecessarily restrict otherwise called and qualified ministers. This grieves me.”

[5] Different churches have different names for their leaders: elders or pastors are most common in North American churches. In some baptist churches, “deacon” is used for the men who lead the church. Biblically speaking, however, “deacon” can refer to someone who is a minister-at-large (see Rom 16:1-2) or someone in a specific local church who helps with more practical, material needs (see Acts 6).

[6] For my friends and family who grew up in Pentecostal traditions, they are much more likely to have experienced female leadership in some capacity. The official position of the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination, is that women are not restricted in any sense: “We conclude that we cannot find convincing evidence that the ministry of women is restricted according to some sacred or immutable principle.”

[7] “Biblical Literalism is the method of interpreting Scripture that holds that, except in places where the text is obviously allegorical, poetic, or figurative, it should be taken literally.” GotQuestions.org, “What is biblical literalism?”

[8] Essentially every major English Bible translation says the same thing for 1 Tim 2:12. See the comparisons.

[9] “Theology proper” in our church’s context would be something like the content of our statement of faith, which primarily covered the essential doctrines of Christianity (the Trinity, atonement, salvation by faith, etc.). A parenting class, for example, would deal with aspects of theology, but would not be “theology proper,” therefore a woman would be allowed to teach it.

[10] You might be asking, “What happened next?!” About 5-6 months later , we announced that we’d be joining staff with Cru. We left the following spring. So, I can’t add much because my part in this church’s story came to an end.

Categories
Commentary Theology

Defining Terms in the Gender Conversation

Before we get going much further in this series, I want to define my terms. Maybe you are new to the “gender debate” in the church. Or maybe you are all-too-familiar with it, but don’t know the lingo.

I’ll try to make this less boring than it sounds, but, we’re talking about definitions here, so I can’t promise much. My goal is not to provide every possible definition of a term or every possible exception to the way a term is lived-out!

The point is just to provide general definitions so that we are all on the same page going forward.

There are primarily two words we often hear in the gender conversation that need defining. They are: complementarianism and egalitarianism.

Complementarianism is the theological position that believes God has created men and women equal in their dignity and worth, but that they are different and complementary in their functions and roles. In this paradigm, leadership is limited to men in the home and the church, regardless of gifting and calling.

Throughout the series, I may refer to this as the “male-only leadership” position.

Egalitarianism is the theological position that believes God has created men and women equal in their dignity and worth, and that there should be full partnership between men and women in the home and the church. In this paradigm, functions/roles and leadership should be determined by gifting and calling rather than gender.

I may refer to this as the “co-laborer” or “full partnership” position.

It’s worth noting, as with anything, that there is a spectrum of belief and practice in both of these positions. The extreme positions usually get the most air time in popular culture. Unfortunately, that leads to all sorts of caricatures and misrepresentations.

For example:

  • There are complementarians who say that a woman should never even be allowed to work outside the home or speak in a public worship gathering.
  • There are egalitarians who say that there are no differences at all between male and female.

Because advocates of the extremes tend to have the loudest voices, those extreme positions are what we typically think of when “complementarian” or “egalitarian” come to mind!

Sidebar: As I move through this series, I will do my very best to not set up a theological straw man for the complementarian position–meaning, I won’t attack the extremes. That’s not helpful to anyone. That said, the most passionate proponents of complementarianism have very influential voices in our public spaces (e.g. Twitter, Instagram, podcasts, etc.). They have nearly become synonymous with “complementarianism” itself, and they exercise undue influence over the average pastor, ministry leader, husband, father, and single man who reads, follows, and listens to them.

Finally, one more thing. As with anything, often one’s practice of a particular belief doesn’t actually align with the belief itself. In my definition of complementarianism, I wrote “men and women are equal in dignity and worth.” I have never met a complementarian who holds this position who said otherwise. But that doesn’t mean functionally their behavior is always consistent with that.

Because of all this, especially the spectrum of belief and practice in each position, I find the terms themselves unhelpful. But I can’t change this all by myself.

And the men who wrote theological dictionaries never asked me to begin with.

In spite of this, for the sake of helping people build categories in their mind to understand my approach, I’m fine with being labeled an “egalitarian.”

But if you really press me, I would prefer to use one of Paul’s favorite terms for his teammates–both women and men–in ministry: “coworkers / co-laborers in the gospel.”

So, I hold to the “Gospel Co-Laborer” position.

Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Categories
Commentary Ministry

Interlude: Why I’m Writing About Women Now

Throughout this summer series that I’m calling Let Her Lead, I’ll occasionally write a short “interludes” (like this one) to help bridge from article to article, provide context, or say something I think is timely but just doesn’t seem to fit elsewhere. Most likely, these thoughts will be far less organized than a normal series post.

Earlier today, a friend of mine–a woman–sent me a message wondering if I intentionally wrote the first post in the series at the same time that certain male leaders in a large North American denomination spoke out against women in church leadership. (They did this on Mother’s Day of all days.)

You might ask, “What was it?!” Well, I’m not going to link to anything, but I read some posts on Twitter and Instagram on Sunday that broke my heart. You can easily find them and if this conversation has interested you for a while, you have probably already seen what I’m talking about. Suffice to say that what was said didn’t strike the note of Christian charity.

Back to the timing of my post. The answer is “no” but “yes.”

What I wrote wasn’t a direct, flurried response to those very sad and disheartening things I read. I wasn’t on Twitter one moment and then pounding the keyboard the next.

That said, I began this series now because I had been considering it for quite some time anyway. The Christian social media subculture just provided the right opportunity for it. In the words of Dr. King, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

The heartbreak (okay, anger is what I felt first, let’s be honest) is what moved me to say Enough is enough! I have a wife who is so talented and gifted and full of zeal for the gospel and justice (if you know her, you already know this). I have two brilliant, young daughters who love Jesus and know more Scripture than I did at their age. I know many women who have influenced and inspired me at a very deep level. I work on a ministry team with some amazing, talented women. (I’ll share more on all this soon.)

So here’s the thing. Here’s why I started writing: how we talk about and relate to and labor with these women–all women–matters.

And if the Church keeps putting “women” in their “place,” we lose. Every single time. Why?

Because Jesus never did that. And that is where this all starts.

Wherever you’re at in this conversation, it must start and end with Jesus. I want to be like him. And I hope you do, too.

(It’s worth mentioning that not all people who hold to male-only leadership put women down. We’ll talk more about that, too.)

One last reason I’m writing this now. As a white, Christian man who has benefited from a theology of male-only leadership, I sense a holy responsibility to help my brothers in Christ consider a legitimate, biblically faithful alternative. I also sense a holy responsibility to empower my sisters in Christ who for far too long have been marginalized and (let’s be honest) flat-out ignored simply because of their gender.

Doing justice means that the advantaged stand up, speak out, and lay down their perceived rights to uphold and give advantage to others. Or, as Tim Keller has written, doing justice is giving people their due. In other words, what they are owed.

I’ve taken too long to realize this when it comes to women in the church.

But it’s never too late to do what’s right.