Saturday, April 26, 2014

First at the Cradle, Last at the Cross. Women and Leadership, Part One

 This is the first in an as-of-yet undetermined number of posts about the subject of women in leadership in churches and families. It is my hope that these posts can enter into a grace-filled and respectful dialogue (comments are invited).

 Mary and Jesus, Veljusa Monastery, Macedonia

“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man - there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as "The women, God help us!" or "The ladies, God bless them!"; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything "funny" about woman's nature.” 
~ Dorothy L. Sayers

Mary & Martha with Jesus

As a preschooler, my younger sister went through a stage in which she wanted to be a Daddy, a cowboy, and a fireman when she grew up. The stage was probably short-lived, but memorable in its cuteness. My two sisters and I were raised to know that we were able to do anything we set our minds to. Well, almost anything. A cowgirl, and a firewoman (we hadn’t thought of firefighters yet) were in the realm of possibilities, but we had to break the news to little sister that fatherhood was not in the future for her.  

It wasn’t until I started attending a private Christian school as a twelve year old that I became aware of the spectrum of views regarding the roles of men and women in the church and in the home. I was surprised to learn that some Christians believe that the roles of teaching authority in the church and the sole leadership role in the home are reserved for men only. A number of my classmates and I were more interested in carrying on the lively discussion than others, so our teacher agreed to mediate a debate on the issue outside of class time. During lunch break, while most classmates were outside playing foursquare or whatever else kids played before Rainbow Looms took over the world, we tried to make sense of the verses that we had encountered in Bible class. These weren’t among the verses that we memorized to earn stickers and prizes in Sunday School, and I certainly hadn’t seen them printed on any greeting cards or other giftware at the Christian book store. 

1 Timothy 2:9-15

1 Corinthians 11:1-16

1 Corinthians 14:34-35

I puzzled over these verses, ached over them, and resented them, and soon enough my friends and I squared off against each other in a debate with plenty of emotion, and not nearly enough knowledge, nor understanding and grace for the opposing viewpoints. Accusations of chauvinism, and disrespect for scriptural accuracy and authority flew like emotional spitballs across the table. 

It was deeply unsettling. I knew that historical context must be tangled up in these uncomfortable verses, because nobody was arguing about head coverings, or about wearing gold and pearls. I felt something was amiss in interpreting women to be subordinate, but I did not have the knowledge to justify my intuition. It was the first time that I heard the phrase that women are “equal, but different,” to mean that men and women are equal in value, but not in function. It was a difficult concept to understand. To say that men and women are equal but different, to say that women are just as valuable as men but not permitted to teach or have authority, did not compute in my mind. It was akin to “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others,” a point which struck me as I read Animal Farm a couple of years later.  

Sometime in the last decade, I became familiar with the terms “complementarian” and “egalitarian” to describe the different views on women in leadership. I must admit that it was challenging for me to remember which term pertained to which ideology because they both sound really…nice. I believe that men and women work together in complementary ways; we are not the same. I also believe that men and women are equal. So how do the two perspectives differ? According to the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an organization formed in 1987 that strongly advocates for complementarianism, this ideology holds that:

“The Old Testament, as well as the New Testament, manifests the equally high value and dignity which God attached to the roles of both men and women (Gen 1:26-27, 2:18; Gal 3:28). Both Old and New Testaments also affirm the principle of male headship in the family and in the covenant community (Gen 2:18; Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Tim 2:11-15).”

“Redemption in Christ aims at removing the distortions introduced by the curse.
1. In the family, husbands should forsake harsh or selfish leadership and grow in love and care for their wives; wives should forsake resistance to their husbands’ authority and grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands’ leadership (Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:18-19; Tit 2:3-5; 1 Pet 3:1-7).
2. In the church, redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation; nevertheless, some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 11:2-16; 1 Tim 2:11-15).”

Egalitarians, conversely, believe that men and women are equally gifted and can fulfill any roles, regardless of gender. Christians for Biblical Equality, a group that promotes egalitarianism, believes “that the Bible, properly interpreted, teaches the fundamental equality of men and women of all ethnic groups, all economic classes, and all age groups, based on the teachings of Scriptures.” They hold that:
1. Believers are called to mutual submission, love and service.
2. God distributes spiritual gifts without regard to gender, ethnicity or class.
3. Believers must develop and exercise their God-given gifts in church, home and world.
4. Believers have equal authority and equal responsibility to exercise their gifts without regard to gender, ethnicity or class and without the limits of culturally-defined roles.
5. Restricting believers from exercising their gifts—on the basis of their gender, ethnicity or class—resists the work of the Spirit of God and is unjust.
6. Believers must promote righteousness and oppose injustice in all its forms.


In seventh grade, however, I only knew that my perception of my place in the world had been upended. I am the second of three daughters, and my occasional childhood worries about whether my parents would have preferred boys were never justified. My parents did not love me less for being a girl, or have low expectations of me in leadership because of my gender, but suddenly I wondered if God did. I felt like Anne of Green Gables, asking “You don’t want me because I’m not a boy?” 

I feel like I sat at that seventh-grade lunchroom table for years, decidedly on one side, but with more questions than answers, wondering if my reluctance to embrace unreciprocated submission was justified or, as some complementarians suggest, sinful. Resources that supported equality for women, and mutual submission between a husband and a wife were scarce, or perhaps I was just not aware of any at the time. The messages I received, implicitly and explicitly from church and mainstream Christian media through my teens and early twenties all supported a complementarian version of Christianity. In the early years of our relationship, my husband and I would often talk about the opposing views of women in leadership in the church and the home. 
It seemed that the only way to uphold Biblical authority was to accept the complementarian interpretation. But I couldn’t escape the dissonance that rang within me when I thought of all the women I knew who were truly gifted in leadership. My mother. My grandmothers. Sunday school teachers, including one who became a Member of Parliament. School teachers. Misssionaries. Business Owners. Adhering to the complementarian interpretation was, as my husband says, like wearing a shoe that just didn’t fit. You can only walk in ill-fitting shoes for so long.

I have many, many friends and family who support complementarian theology. I love and respect them, and they are brothers and sisters in faith. Complementarians are not the enemy, and we have more things in common than differences in our walk with Jesus. I appreciate the honour that they give to motherhood. I admire and share their desire to uphold the authority of scripture, though we disagree on the interpretation of this matter. 

I don’t  regret my hesitance to hold firmly to one position for as long as I did, because intuition and emotion alone are not enough. I only wish that I had seriously investigated the issue earlier in my life. I’ve been reading voraciously on the subject for the past couple of months, stealing my husband’s books from his last master’s course, and my head has finally caught up to heart. I wish I could slide back through time for a few minutes and visit my kilt-clad twelve year old self. I would tell her to persevere in seeking out answers. I would tell her that God wouldn’t trade her for a dozen boys, and that God’s vision for her and for every girl is so much more than being second string, more than muted thoughts, and prescribed roles. I would share with her that those troubling verses, hurtful and confusing to women in my time upon first glance, are actually radically subversive of that culture’s patriarchy, and provided support and hope to the women in their time. I would tell her that mutual submission in marriage is a thing of beauty. I would also tell her to spend more time talking to her grandparents, remember to take those calcium supplements, and that her parents really do want what is best for her. I would tell her that even though the 33 year old version of us still can’t answer every question, I know that mutual submission in marriage, and freeing women to serve in any capacity in the church are not mutually exclusive to respecting scriptural authority and accuracy.

I’ve realized anew the love of the One who created me female, and the taste of freedom is sweet. 


Join the discussion in the days to come as I post some more thoughts on how I’ve found myself in this place, and why this issue matters, or should matter, to everyone in the church.

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