Very few issues divide biblically-informed Christians from one another quite like the debate over the role of men and women in Scripture and the church. Over sixty-plus years of life I have discovered a wide-range of responses and views. From almost every view I have heard I have discovered a new way to read a particular text and to understand what the commentator believes this means for the modern church. Many of these claims to precise certitude were quite common on the side I once held. This prompted me to rethink how I read Scripture and what conclusions I should draw from my reading.
Within evangelical Protestant circles the two most common stances are called egalitarianism and complementarianism. I move in churches and among people on both sides of this debate. Broadly speaking, I do not generally advocate one position over the other because my mission is to promote unity among all churches and Christians. But I can’t avoid the debate since I do hold a view. I try to express that view in a way that respects those I disagree with. But at times some will not allow this to happen regardless of my efforts.
Having said this I have openly explained how I changed my mind on the role of women in the church. My story is included in what I believe to be an excellent collection of personal stories written by fellow evangelicals. My former Bible professor at Wheaton College, Dr. Alan Johnson, graciously invited me to contribute to this unique volume several years ago. I was pleased to offer my own narrative. The book was published late last year. If you would like to see how many of us were led to change our minds on this matter the book makes for interesting reading.
The simple, self-evident truth is that we have two groups of solid Christian leaders promoting two quite different positions by means of publishing, teaching and conferencing. The egalitarian group is called Christians for Biblical Equality. CBE says that it is “advancing a biblical foundation for gift-based rather than gender-based ministry and service.” That is the way I understand my view. I obviously believe that my thinking is rooted in biblical teaching and theology or I would not hold it, much less teach it in any context (including this blog). The complementarian group is called Christians for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. CBMW says it is “promoting God’s glorious design for men and women.” Who could disagree with that goal in a simple sense? But of course the issue is in the details. In short, the CBE position comes down to this—leadership and ministry is completely open to women. Gender is not an issue in leadership. Moral excellence, God-given gifts and divine calling are the issue. CBMW believes that it is not this simple. Women are not to (formally) lead (or teach) men as pastors/elders/bishops, etc. The unique difference between men and women makes this so because of creation, as well as several New Testament injunctions that seem to forbid women from teaching men or holding (pastoral) ecclesial office.
Both groups are represented by respected and beloved Bible scholars and teachers. Both groups are led by people that I count as my friends and as fellow Christians. The simple fact is that in churches of all types and sorts you will find pastors and leaders on one side or the other in this debate/disagreement. (I am excluding non-Protestants here since the priesthood is closed to women in Catholicism and Orthodoxy.) While I hold to a position that I believe rightly understands both the Scripture and the church I do not disdain or attack those who disagree with me. I once held the other position on this matter so how arrogant would it be for me to now condemn faithful Christians who do not agree with my present understanding? But I am willing to discuss this issue in an atmosphere of mutual respect. I do the same on many similar issues. I do not understand why this doctrine should be placed in the center of doctrinal faithfulness, especially among evangelical Protestants. This is not an “essential” doctrinal stance so we can, and should, pursue it in liberty and with charity.
But, and this is important, this is an issue that will not go away because of good will. This should prompt us to think about it very, very carefully. Healthy discussion is welcomed by healthy and mature Christians. I feel called to make my own views known in certain contexts. This is not my explicit mission but it is my decided view. I think one’s view does impact how they actually handle some very important issues so all of us should be persuaded in our own minds as to what we believe and why. I encourage churches and church leaders to faithfully seek better understanding of this issue and then to have the courage to pursue what it is they believe the Scripture teaches about it. I would begin by listening to the other side. I make it a practice to always begin here when I see godly and good Christians who disagree with me. When I began to do this about fifteen years ago I was stunned at what I had not seen. When I listened without fear to a view that I did not want to emotionally embrace for decades I was moved to rethink. Can we not do this kind of listening and learning without rancor toward one another? I believe that we can but I am not sure all of us want to try at times.
Having said this I would like to commend the work of my friend Mimi Haddad and CBE. If you’ve never seen their ministry or their excellent and wide-ranging material please check it out. With her permission I reprint (below) Dr. Haddad’s most recent CBE news article called “The Paradox of Faith.” I hope you find it helpful. I also hope that some of you will be led to rethink your position. If you find yourself agreeing with me and Dr. Haddad then please support CBE. I support them as a committed member. I believe they are deserving of your support if you agree with them. Frankly, I love what this ministry does around the globe for more than half the members of the Christian Church—women!
The tragedy of how women are treated in many male-dominated cultures should alarm us, regardless of our view of the biblical text. CBE actually helps Christians like me understand why I should support our sisters in Christ more openly. For this I am truly thankful.
Paradox of Faith
Have you ever wondered why the Bible remains a best-seller? After all, the teachings of Scripture can be downright unappealing. This is never more the case than in the words and deeds of Jesus. The gospels, for example, make it clear that each human being, regardless of their upbringing, accomplishments, or fine intentions is spiritually bankrupt and in need of salvation. Furthermore, despite our rebirth in Christ, becoming holy is arduous work. And, throughout our lives we are called to some very unpleasant efforts in our relationships, like turning the other cheek, forgiving the offenses of others, going an extra mile, loving our neighbor as ourselves (whether or not they are lovable!), giving our cloaks away, and more! Now, I ask you, why is this book a best-seller?
If you've been around Jesus and the Holy Spirit, you realize that there is a paradox in these seemingly impossible commands. For example, we find that in casting our bread upon the water when we give of our resources, even though small, they actually return to us in some unexpected and manifold way. Every time you extend yourself to others, even when exhausted, you find that something deep within you is refreshed and restored. While Scripture asks us to store our riches in heaven, instead of on Earth, in doing so, we also discover that the more we give away, strangely, the more we seem to have to give away again. The paradox of faith runs so entirely counter to any culture in history. It consistently challenges us where humanity has been so often misguided—that in caring for others, we too, are nurtured.
Perhaps this is why Scripture remains a best-seller, that in trusting the teachings of the Bible we experience the expansive joy that comes not from saving our lives, but, paradoxically, from giving them away as Christ did. The creator and ruler of heaven and earth came not to be served, but to serve sacrificially. Christ's leadership was not control, power, domination, or entitlement, which humans so often pursue. Rather, as Jesus said in Matthew 20:25, to be great is to be last, to be first is to become the servant of all—as he was. As we join Christ in serving others, we encounter, ironically, a release from the toxic and self-minimizing need to hold power over others, to be first, and to be served.
In my work at CBE, I have had the pleasure of working beside our founders and members—Christians who have walked many miles with Jesus, so much so that they embody the paradox of faith in ways that inspire me each day. They have imbibed the teachings of Scripture and have allowed the Spirit in the Text to shape and change them into radical people who embrace leadership as service and service as leadership; that in giving to others we receive even more. The largeness of their spirits is dazzling! I remember one member who, after giving sacrificially to CBE, said, "You will never know how much joy it brings me to give and serve CBE." This is indeed, the paradox of faith. And, it is because of so many like her that CBE is able to give generously to others asking for resources on biblical equality in their contexts and languages.
If there was ever a time to remember the paradox of faith, it is next week, on Wednesday, November 16—Give to the Max Day. For 24 hours there are many opportunities to make your simple donation count for more. To learn more click here. Thank you!