Part Two: Women In Church (This One’s For Ashwin)

So I get up early this morning to continue my series, prompted by Tim Bayly’s headspinning comments on women in Church leadership, when I find this comment from Ashwin in my Inbox. It bears highlighting apart from the “Comments” section because it touches on three critical points in the debate I had planned on addressing. Indeed, Ashwin has hit a triple without managing to move the debate from first base.

Here’s what my erstwhile correspondent has to say in reference to Part One:

“I wonder why this is important to you. There is plenty of opportunity for women to speak and teach in small groups. There is no need for demanding a formal role of “pastor” or “minister” or such.

Your Biblical case is weak at best. The words written by Paul in 1 Corinthians by themselves shut down your line of reasoning. I don’t know why he wrote as he did, but anyway it does not matter much. What is the tearing hurry to say one’s piece anyway? It can always wait for later.

You have explain why it is so important to have women indistinguishable from men. It is to be right with God or it is to appeal to contemporary culture?

Because from the way you write it does seem that you had made up your mind before you started looking through the Bible for corroboration. That is never a good idea.”
(Ashwin, Prevailing Winds comment, July 19, 2010)

I always appreciate Ashwin’s comments, and I’m struck by how closely his objections mirror the ones I had planned to address today — why the issue is so important, why Biblical egalitarianism is not at all interested in blurring gender identities in the Church, and why my argument for it came over my initial, and strong, objections, objections that gave way to the testimony of Scripture long before they fell to my evangelical culture-steeped mind.

His first question is why on earth this is worth such fuss and bother anyway. Why can’t women be satisfied teaching in small, women-only groups? Why do we agitate for full inclusion in ecclesiastical ministry? Surely, Ashwin suggests, there are more important issues to pursue, and I know he’s not alone in dismissing all of this as just so much extraneous, unnecessary queening by a few of his chronically dissatisfied sisters.

But this — the idea that service in the Church ought to be based on Spirit-gifting, not gender — is fundamentally a justice issue; secondarily, it’s one of the Body’s effectiveness in living and sharing the Gospel. Unfortunately, my Moscow readers have been saturated over the years with Wilsonian teachings that provide a primer on how to avoid “doing justice.” Virtually every “justice” issue now facing the Church — poverty, war, environmental issues, racism — has been subject to treatises that counsel the disciple in ways to shrug off any particular imperative to adjust his or her behavior and beliefs in service of the greater social good, all in the name of robust Reformed theology and clearheaded Christian engagement with the world. Even something as simple and universally applauded as attempting to eat locally-grown, healthier food, both for environmental and for physical benefit, is subject to derision and dismissal. Frankly, those who have followed Wilson’s teachings on women, their roles, and the joys of Christian patriarchy likely see righteousness in gender relations as a justice issue only insofar as my constant harping on it unfairly annoys them.

But if the Christ disciple is charged with doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with his God (Micah 6:8), then clearly seeking, living, and fighting for justice is a Christian imperative. If any group is discriminated against, that’s a wrong that the Church must object to. Vehemently. And if any group faces discrimination inside the sanctuary in serving the God who calls them, the Church must repent. May it never be that Christ’s own Body refuses to cooperate with — in fact, fights against — the Holy Spirit who indwells it, gifting women and men with spiritual gifts defined and distributed not by gender, but by his own good counsel. Even if there were no “real-world” consequences to this battle against the Spirit, and of course injustice and unrighteousness are never without toxic effect, gender discrimination in Church and society is a fundamental justice issue, as repugnant to the testimony of Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”) as if Jews or poor people were barred from leadership positions in the Church. We wouldn’t stand for it. We ought not stand for this.

But the Church’s “two-thirds only” adherence to the New Testament’s message of inclusion and freedom described in Galatians 3:28 has enormous consequences. There is the terrible reality of a Church limping along in this world with a masculine mind that displays just one aspect of the One in whose image, male and female, all of humanity is created, denying itself and the world around it the riches of all that God is and fueling disregard, even hatred, of women as “less than.” Instead, the Body of Christ does its work in this world with one hand tied behind its back, fully making use of the Spiritual gifts of only half of its members while those same gifts — distributed by the will of the Spirit, not by gender — languish for lack of full expression in the women to whom they were given. It’s not at all hard to imagine the applause of Satan as he witnesses the Church engaged in full-on battle at only half strength. But where Satan exults, the Lord Jesus mourns.

Next, Ashwin mentions what he takes as my interest in making men and women “indistinguishable” from each other via Biblical egalitarianism. In this, he and other complementarians confuse ontology with gifting, denying the full expression of all that God has for his Church. In doing so, they betray a healthy, Biblical understanding of the inviolable identity of women and men and the richness that results from their full development as Spirit-led, Christ-serving disciples. Those of us who believe the Word teaches the full inclusion of women in all positions in the Church, as well as their full expression in the home and society, have no interest whatsoever in blurring the lines of gender identity. We seek to encourage the Body to do justice as it walks, and walks humbly, with our God, and we see gender-role segregation in the Church as unBiblical. But this is a discussion of roles, positions and opportunities that ought to correspond to a person’s gifts, not gender; it’s an issue of eliminating gender segregation in Church service, not gender itself. The full image of God in humankind, male and female, requires that every woman live and serve in the joy and strength of full Spirit-power — as women, defined by sex in their ontology and by gifting in their service. Likewise, every Christian man ought to experience the fullness of the Holy Spirit by serving freely where he’s gifted, relieved of obligations and rules of “maleness” that conflict with his own Spirit-gifting.

If “the glory of God is man fully alive,” then glorious, too, is “woman fully alive.” The aims of Biblical egalitarianism insist on celebrating the ontological differences and diversity in the Body — while making sure that no one, slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female, be denied the full expression of the gifts the Holy Spirit has given them. Nothing in Galatians 3:28 requires the homogenization of the Church, and everything in Galatians 3:28 insists that the Body of Christ never be satisfied with witnessing at only two-thirds strength.

Finally, Ashwin chastises me for coming to a social or political conclusion, then trying to find Biblical support in favor of it. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I wish that Ashwin knew me personally, knew of my own theological and religious journey, before judging me so freely. He would be surprised, I think, to learn that my egalitarianism came to me only after doing battle with my tendency to be lead by the Church, by evangelical culture, and not by the teaching of Scripture. It’s true that I was a feminist when I came to Christ some 30 years ago; it’s also true that, trying to fit in and be Super Disciple, I jettisoned my beliefs and stuck to the rigid teaching of rigid gender roles that permeated the rigid community I found myself. My Navigators discipler had warned me that the “former things” of my life, like feminism, had no place in my new, evangelical, conservative world. Anyone who’s ever been discipled by a Navigator knows not to argue. So I determined, as most young believers do, to be the most correct new Christian as humanly possible, which, looking back, was the problem; human power, no matter how earnest and energetic, won’t benefit the Christian life. In fact, it’s a guarantee of spiritual shipwreck, and — mixing metaphors here for a moment — I soon found myself shipwrecked and moored on the dusty desert sands of Tucson’s evangelical community.

I did all the right stuff. I worked hard, and I worked hard relying on God’s grace long before I simply rested in it. But something kept bothering me, and it wasn’t resurgent sin, or politics, in my life; they were pretty much considered to be the same thing. It felt like a rock in my shoe, something that vexed and hampered but didn’t quite cripple me in my walk with the Lord. I was able to journey far in my spiritual growth, memorizing my verses, getting baptized, attending twice-weekly Bible study and doggedly keeping to my morning “quiet time.” By all outward appearances, it looked like my conversion “took” — I was growing alongside my newly-saved peers, convincing my Bible study teacher, discipler, and church friends that I was, indeed, able to escape the liberalism, feminism, activism and other -isms that had marked my former, unsaved life. I was conforming to the image of Young Evangelical Woman, unaware that that had little to do with being conformed by the Spirit to the image and character of Jesus Christ. And it was in my personal devotions, my intimate walk with the Lord Jesus, that this “rock in my shoe” seemed to hamper me the most.

I knew that I had certain spiritual gifts, even before I took the C. Peter Wagner inventory thereof; I had experienced, and had affirmed by others, gifts of prophecy, teaching, and evangelism. What I thought was just my personality, just “being Keely,” was clearly the presence of God’s gifts in my life — I spoke well, taught well, and, as one pastor put it, exercised the gift of prophecy in “seeing what others don’t want to see, and saying what others don’t think they can.” The Lord brought me instance after instance where the gift he’d given me to “say the hard stuff” was evident, and so was the fruit. But no one could help me reconcile what everyone taught, what everyone said the Bible said, with what God was doing in my life, and I despaired of ever being able to be fully yielded to God, who, it seemed, had given me gifts it would be sinful to use. My gifts had become stumbling blocks; I felt like a sprinter invited to race and yet penalized for competing.

A decade or so into my Christian life, I decided to serve God with all I had, including with all he’d given me — even though I didn’t understand how to reconcile what the Bible apparently said with what I knew, and knew with all my heart and had confirmed by Bible-believing, God-fearing, Spirit-filled men and women, that God had set before me in ministry. (This was in the 1990s, when I began my one-woman ministry to Mexican immigrants in the Snohomish County area of Western Washington; I later co-pastored, with another woman, a Spanish-language church until moving to Moscow in 2002). Like creation and evolution, or eschatology or speaking in tongues, it was an example of different things, both true, that seemed to conflict or that I didn’t understand. God worked through me in my ministry; I saw tremendous fruit, all glory for which is his and his alone. We moved to Moscow. Finally, though, after a disastrously hurtful, savage encounter in 2004 with an elder at a Moscow church, the Lord brought me to Christians for Biblical Equality and my first exposure to thoroughly evangelical, conservative, feminist/egalitarian Bible scholarship.

It was like finding grapes in the desert, receiving a balm to my soul, and taking pure oxygen into my heaving, parched lungs.

Much of what I learned I’ve discussed in Prevailing Winds. There is much more to discuss, much more to learn and to share. But I call myself an evangelical feminist, and see Jesus as an evangelical feminist, entirely because of my study of the Scriptures. My evolution as an egalitarian involved — necessitated — my repentance for having thrown myself early on into conforming to Christian culture, not to Christ himself. The yearning for justice and equality that my parents had instilled in me, the desire I had early in life to live passionately for a cause with eternal meaning, was not, it turned out, something to be jettisoned. It wasn’t a phase; it wasn’t the clinging filth of pre-conversion sin. It was the nascent seeds of Spirit-gifting stirring in my life, even in the dry, toxic soil I was cultivating before I came to Christ. It was Truth — truth, justice, and the Jesus Way, not the “truth, justice, and the American way” my early Christian experience had substituted for life in Christ. And since I discovered — thanks be to God — the true testimony of Scripture in regards to gender roles and equality, I have developed an even deeper reverence for Scripture, an even more profound devotion to the Word. If it required a break from conservative American Christiandom, then so be it. Because when the Spirit illumines the Word, plants it in your heart, and nurtures its growth, you can’t go back to pruning it so as to please Lori, the Navigator.

If there were a common town square all of my readers were gathered in, and a rooftop and megaphone made available to me, I would shout it out: If the Scriptures teach it, if the Lord commands it, if the Spirit illumines it, I will follow it, and follow it unabashedly and proclaim it passionately. The Lord has done that for me when it comes to gender roles in the Church, showing me that it is, at its core, a justice issue for the Church. The continuation of rigid gender roles in Church, home, and society is the continuation of Satan’s illegitimate, ugly involvement in our world. Christ came to restore and reconcile, reversing the curse of sin in our hearts and in our lives. The Enemy loathes reconciliation and restoration, but he certainly welcomes the cooperation of the Church in its own weakening.

Why the Church clings so desperately to a sin-sodden, curse-captured framework of gender relationships is a mystery to me. There’s no suspense, however, in what the Lord requires, and walking humbly and with mercy alongside my God requires that I walk in gender justice, according to the Scriptures. I’ve had many a taste of walking in “justice” apart from the Word, and I know the difference — perhaps markedly more than my complementarian audience could possibly understand.

Part Three, back to Tim Bayly, should be up by Wednesday — stay tuned!

One Response to “Part Two: Women In Church (This One’s For Ashwin)”

  1. Ashwin says:

    I don’t agree that women’s ministry is a justice issue. Even if it is, it is not the most pressing justice issue in this broken world. And even if it were, it does not do for a Christian to demand his own rights.

    Christ has already glorified women as well as men. But Christ is male. He referred to God as Father. The Holy Spirit is also referred to as male by our Lord.

    Why do you think that is? To appeal to contemporary culture? To that same culture that had Him nailed to the Cross? I think not.

    Mr Wilson is wrong about that silly tirade of his against organic food and such like. But because he is wrong does not make you right. You are also wrong.

    What you should be doing is teaching men how to think like women. What you are doing is teaching women to aspire to be men.

    You are barking up the wrong tree. The way to end the abuses of the patriarchy is not to tackle them head-on. The way to tackle their abuses is to pray for them. The Holy Spirit will tackle them head on.

    We must preach Christ crucified on the streets. And that is enough. Railing against “male domination” and “injustice” and “iniquity” is right and proper if the Holy Spirit compels one – as He did the prophets of old. But to develop a systematic ideology devoted to vituperation is quite sad.

    If there is injustice, He will make amends. If there is hunger, He will fill. If there is want, He is sufficient.

    If you think some people and not doing their bit, that does not give you the right to rail against them – for all you know they might be doing much more that you think in secret (as they are supposed to do).

    Anyhow, in light of the Living Lord, to demand something as silly as the right to wear a dress and swing incense is quite ridiculous.

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