After I wrote three books in early 2016, I felt somewhat in a vacuum afterwards because I didn’t have any other area to pursue about which I felt passionate. Through a series of events, I discovered one and that led me to start a blog on racial issues. While I don’t think we have much overt racism in our fellowship of churches, I do think that we have far more systemic racism in our midst then we are aware of. Recently another series of events led me to delve into a similar area, that of systemic sexism. I agreed to be a sounding board and adviser to one of my sisters in Christ who was researching the subject, which started the ball rolling for me. To be honest, I was a reluctant adviser at the outset, but in time I became motivated to do a lot of my own study of male/female role relationships in the church.
Then, the region evangelist in my home region of the Dallas church, Derik Vett, asked me to teach a special series of midweek lessons on topics that he felt we really needed. One of these was on relationships in the church, and after we talked about my new area of interest, he encouraged me to make that aspect of relationships a part of the lesson. I just taught it Wednesday night. On the day before, I was finishing up my outline, which I write in some detail since we are sending them out via email after the lessons are taught. It occurred to me that such a detailed outline would be fairly easy to format into article form, which I did over the next few days.
The segment in my oral presentation Wednesday night was not too long, although the outline provided was longer. The article is even longer by quite a bit. However, it is not an exhaustive study of the topic and certainly not intended to be the “last word” on it. But it is intended to prompt some reexamination of the subject, and I believe it will. A number of individuals and groups in our fellowship of churches are currently studying the topic with renewed interest because the need is pretty obvious to many. Some may not appreciate a deeper examination of our traditionally held positions and practices, but most will welcome it. With that as a backdrop, I invite you to read the article and encourage your friends to do the same. God bless!
The Need For Discussion
Much discussion about the woman’s role is taking place in most church groups today who are identified as biblically conservative. That is certainly true of the ICOC group of churches, although most of the present discussion is taking place among the membership (especially the younger people) rather than among the leaders. Thankfully, some leaders and groups of leaders are delving into the subject. Several aspects of the discussion are much more important issues than most imagine. Although it is not the purpose of this article to dig into these issues too deeply, and certainly not to present a position paper for others to follow, I do want to prompt more dialogue on a subject that I believe is highly important right now.
Its importance is based on the fact that it involves one of the most visible current trends in our society, especially in the United States. Our young people are more influenced by trends than we older folks are, and although trends often go against biblical teaching, sometimes they prompt needed examination and re-examination of traditionally held views and practices. In my firm opinion, this area fits into the latter category. I have been thus motivated to restudy some of my own viewpoints recently, but this isn’t my first time to dig back into the topic. Quite the contrary. I have studied the role of women in the Bible for many years, although I have never been able to tie up all of the loose ends of the topic in a way that fully satisfied me – yet.
Some years back, shortly after Douglas Jacoby wrote an article entitled, “Wine, Women and Song,” I presented a similar lesson in the Boston Garden to the whole Boston church, which was followed by a presentation by Kay McKean, the congregational women’s ministry leader at the time. Doug’s lesson addressed three topics: social drinking in moderation, women’s roles and the use of instrumental music in worship. Mine addressed only the women’s role and is posted on my teaching website (gordonferguson.org). This present article will show that I have progressed in my teaching and conclusions on the topic since that original article. Continuing learning usually means changing some of our thinking. One thing about which we should totally agree is that this is a difficult subject and as such, dogmatism should be eschewed firmly.
Fear and Trepidation or Excitement and Adventure?
When we enter a discussion of these roles, I do so with at least some sense of fear and trepidation. It is a historically controversial area, and without spiritual guidelines being fully in place, one that often produces more heat than light. For whatever reasons, emotions are more likely to get hooked in contemplating this subject than in talking about most other biblical subjects. Like all such discussions that may take us in directions other than our traditional viewpoints, we need to tread carefully and spiritually. We also need to enter the learning arena with a spirit of excitement and adventure. Learning and changing are essential for us imperfect humans.
We cannot let our traditions keep us from examining and re-examining the positions that we hold currently. In our movement of churches, it took a painful re-examination before women were allowed to baptize other women, serve as ushers, and do any sharing at all in public worship services. Are we willing to be as open to discovering truth now as we were then, or have we reached the stage expressed by this somewhat humorous comment: “We have the truth in a wee small box and we have the keys to all of the locks!” May God protect us from such a mindset!
I am aware that a study of this subject has historically caused initially strong reactions and I’m sure will again. However, when we are dealing with areas that seem to fit into the “disputable matters” category (Romans 14:1), dogmatism, emotionalism and refusal to engage in such discussions are simply not spiritual responses. Although this article has been reviewed and encouraged by other respected teachers, I am speaking for no one but myself, but speak I will. Advice and input are always welcome and appreciated, but reactions aimed at stifling open discussion of potentially controversial topics are just not spiritual reactions or acceptable reactions. That being said, you are certainly invited to give me your (spiritual) reactions to this article. My best email address for responses is firstname.lastname@example.org. Disagreements are fine as long as we can disagree without being disagreeable. Capisce?
Hermeneutics – An Inexact Science
In order to restudy this topic, we naturally enter into the sometimes-challenging world of hermeneutics (biblical interpretation). One of the most challenging aspects of New Testament interpretation is in trying to separate what is being taught merely because of the cultural setting from what is being taught as transcendent, enduring principle.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, women are told to pray and prophesy only with their heads covered, which we generally take to be based on the culture of the day in Corinth. Going bareheaded in that time and location indicated that the women doing so were loose morally. However, in Genesis 38:15, it was quite the opposite – the prostitutes covered their heads and faces. A comparison of those two passages makes it pretty much mandatory to view this practice as a matter of custom that varied in time and location.
But what of other passages – like 1 Corinthians 14:35?
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 – “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
The word “silent” here means absolute silence, and if applied generally, women could not even sing. As always, contextual considerations are essential. The word “women” here could be translated as women or wives – and contextually it has to be wives because they had husbands! In the immediate context, prophets are being addressed, so the most likely interpretation is that the wives of the prophets were interrupting them. Hence, Paul in essence says, “Don’t do it – ask them later at home.” I would never spend much time explaining this passage, given how clear the context is for those who can get past their preconceived ideas.
However, here is a similar passage with a context that isn’t so easy to interpret culturally.
1 Timothy 2:11-15 – A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
Paul does use an argument based on the beginning of mankind, but does that make it transcendent in application? Could it be that he is addressing only the need in this location and not setting forth a principle for all people in all places for all times? “Quietness and submission” was a stock phrase used for any student in ancient times. Rather than limiting women in some way, Paul appears to be granting them status as equal students/disciples. Such was certainly not the norm outside Christianity, nor had it been in Judaism prior to that. Verse 12 may be laying out a limitation in which he basically uses “teach” and “authority” in a technical, capital T and capital A sense. It’s almost, in the opinion of some, as if he is putting some hedges up and saying, “I’m talking about women elders or women running the show like they do up the street at the temple of Artemis.” No, they should not be elders, but rather be “quiet” – in first century vernacular like any other student where “quiet” seems to have equaled “learner.” This fits perfectly with the word translated “authority” (authentein), for it is only used this one time in the NT and its very etymology suggests a very harsh and controlling type of authority.
Consider verses 8-10 of this same chapter in this same type of cultural light:
Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
Should this passage be interpreted to mean that only males should pray and that only women should be concerned about modesty and discreetness in dress? Or does it make more sense to conclude that what is addressed about men and women is based on their particular sinful tendencies in Ephesus (lack of modesty on the part of women and praying without unity on the part of men)? Surely we should conclude it is the latter option and not the former.
Similarly, in 1 Timothy 5:11-15, younger widows had specific spiritual challenges with which to deal and were advised to remarry. This principle ties in well with 1 Timothy 2:15 – the need to be content with being wives and mothers, for that was the cultural practice and expectation of women generally. Taking that verse literally would mean that only married mothers would be saved. Literalism seems very positive when trying to support concepts that we are tied to emotionally, but it is in many biblical contexts a horrendous way to interpret God’s Word. The real estate world tells us that the three most important things in their realm are location, location and location. Similarly, the world of proper hermeneutics tells us that the three most important things in biblical interpretation are context, context and context.
What Type Equality?
Oddly, many discussions of the male/female role relationships in the church don’t pay much attention to Galatians 3:26-28, but it is indeed a very key passage in trying to understand those relationships.
Galatians 3:26-28 – So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Three examples of relationship areas are listed: Jew/Gentile; slave/free; and male/female.
All three were given biblical guidance in the NT, using principles that would help regulate these relationships in light of the then current cultural setting. Slavery was not condemned but rather regulated in passages like Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1 and 1 Timothy 6:1-2. However, Paul’s mentions of slaves are often similar to Galatians 3:28 in that slaves and free are to be regarded as equals in Christ (1 Corinthians 7:21-23; 12:13; Ephesians 6:8; Colossians 3:11).
Surely these passages prove that Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free and males and females are equal in value before God and must be considered equal in value by each other in Christ. It doesn’t matter what our ethnicity, social status or gender is, for we are all equal in value as fellow disciples. But let’s take it a step further. Did God intend that other distinctions in these three areas continue in functional ways?
I think we can quickly agree that ethnicity or race shouldn’t have any bearing on how we relate in Christ, since we are all a part of God’s family as his children. I think we can also agree that God didn’t want slavery to continue, but only tolerated it for a time because it was so ingrained in the culture outside of Christ that it couldn’t simply be obliterated quickly by divine edict. The principles of Christ did in fact eventually overcome this cultural sin in most of our world and eliminated slavery in a return to God’s ideal will.
The real question is how much of what is said about the “place of women” in Scripture is similar to what is said about slavery, in that the customs of culture were recognized and regulated until such time as God’s original principles could be once again recognized and accepted? If God intended distinctions between slave and free to end, could he have intended distinctions between males and females to end? If so, then roles in the home and in the church should be entirely gift-based and not gender-based. More on that point will come as we continue.
Arrow and Target – God’s Provisional and Ideal Wills
The difference between God’s provisional will and his ideal will must be understood. A very helpful illustration of how the two “wills” relate was given to me through Michael Burns, one of the best exegetical teachers in our movement of churches. It involves seeing God’s provisional will as an arrow in flight toward its target, and the target represents God’s ultimate goal, or ideal will. Anywhere along its flight path, the teaching will be provisional, but when it hits God’s intended target his ideal will is then achieved. The eventual elimination of polygamy and slavery provide us with two excellent examples of the arrow/target analogy.
We know that the teachings about Jews, Gentiles and slaves fell within God’s provisional will. We have already mentioned the regulations about slavery within that provisional will, and many passages could also be listed that regulated Jew and Gentile relationships in the church. The whole of Acts 15 addresses some of those regulations, as do Acts 21, Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. In time, the cultural differences between Jews and Gentiles lessened considerably, as would be logical after the temple was destroyed in AD 70.
In fact, as the writer of Hebrews described the legal replacement of the old covenant (the Old Testament covenant) by the new covenant, he predicted the practical end of the old covenant observations of customs. Hebrews 8:13: “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” Prior to this time, Jews were welcome to follow Jewish customs as a matter of their culture as long as they didn’t bind those customs on Gentiles or view them as salvation issues. Based on the Hebrews 8 passage, I think God provided a transitionary period that lasted about forty years, from the establishment of the church to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
Oddly, we now have some modern-day Gentiles in the church wanting to practice these customs, which is rather astounding to me. The Jewish Christians of the first century tended to hold on to their customs almost as firmly as to Christ, so it was Christ PLUS. Now some Gentile Christians of our day are returning to Christ-plus thinking. Strange indeed are the whims of those “Torah pursuant” folks! You would think that the Book of Hebrews, written to help Jewish Christians avoid returning to Jewish practices in the first century, might be equally effective in helping modern Gentiles avoid customs that were never meant for any Gentile in any age, ancient or modern.
But back to our topic. If God intended for distinctions between slave and free, Jew and Gentile to end, why would that not have been the case with males and females? We certainly wouldn’t argue that God-given regulations for Jews, Gentiles and slaves in the NT meant that God intended those regulations to be in force in all places for all times, would we? If no, how can we argue that the similar regulations for females are to be in force in all places for all times? I know that imagining the possible implications of such possible conclusions is causing some of my readers to generate stomach acid and elevate blood pressure right now but hang in there and keep your mind open!
Back to the Beginning
This might be a good time to go back to the beginning of all male/female relationships, to the Garden of Eden.
Genesis 3:16-19 — “To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” 17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Was this description of the consequences of sin for both males and females intended to be prescriptive (what should happen) or merely descriptive (what would happen)? If prescriptive, consistency would make it wrong for women to try to reduce their pain in giving birth and wrong for men to try to make earning a living easier. The most pressing question is whether Adam and Eve were equal before sin, and if so, would salvation in Christ provide us a return to spiritual life in a “Garden” state with God and each other in fully restored relationships? Just how powerful was the cross, in other words? Did it fully cure the curse or just partially cure it? I think Ephesians 2:6 has something to contribute in this regard: “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” But we still haven’t answered the question about Adam and Eve enjoying full equality prior to the Fall.
What about this passage – does it show that man is somehow superior to woman and thus to be her leader?
So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. 23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” 24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
For starters, it was obvious even to Adam that he needed help – indicating that he was not the complete package within himself. (Help the boy, Lord!) But does the term “suitable helper” (“help meet” in the KJV) indicate a role that is somehow inferior or subservient to the man? Since this word in Hebrew (“ezer”) is often used to describe God as our helper, it cannot possibly imply such. That may well have been the assumed implication in the minds of most folks for centuries, but it is not implied by the word itself.
My own life experience of 75 years would suggest that females are more spiritual inherently than males – superior in that way at least. We men need help, and but for our wives, would be more of a mess than we are! I call my wife an angel sent from God to help me get to heaven, because she is clearly more spiritually attuned than I and I genuinely don’t think I could have made it without her influence in my life.
And then you have the origination of man and woman, their source material. Does woman being made from a man’s rib make her inferior to man – who himself was made from dirt? As the quote from the old commentator, Matthew Henry, puts it: “Women were created from the rib of man to be beside him, not from his head to top him, nor from his feet to be trampled by him, but from under his arm to be protected by him, near to his heart to be loved by him.”
Equality is suggested in more than one way by this passage in Genesis 2. Marriage produces a unity of oneness, a virtual parallel to what Jesus prayed for in all of his followers and illustrated by his complete unity with the Father (John 17:20-21). Further, his teaching caused his enemies to say that he was making himself “equal” with the Father (John 10:33).
The man was incomplete, needing help and the woman provided this aid as his partner. Their mutual nakedness and all that goes with it in marriage, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5, makes them totally equal in both sexual desires and responsibilities. The concept that wives are designed by God simply to meet the sexual needs of their husband’s supposedly stronger sex drive is a sexist viewpoint and not a biblical one. It certainly has never been the case in my own marriage – my historically strong sex drive (though diminished by old age) has been more than matched by that of my wife (still is)! This sexist view, in my opinion, has significantly affected in a negative way the full enjoyment of the sexual relationship in marriage for many women. After all, our most important sex organ is the one between our ears!
But isn’t man the protector of woman, as Matthew Henry’s quote puts it? Often, yes – especially physically, for the male is stronger physically, and in some other areas, perhaps also stronger emotionally (more fitted for battle as one example). That being said, the woman’s emotional capabilities often provide the protection of the male’s limitations and weaknesses emotionally. We males are sometimes thought to be a bit “clueless” in some areas, and probably for good reason! In general, we are not as in touch with our emotions or the emotions of others as females are. Small children with boo-boos go first to their mothers to be comforted, understandably. Bottom line, the male is incomplete without the woman and the woman is incomplete without the male – neither of which makes one superior or inferior to the other.
Are Roles Gender-Based or Gift-Based?
A question that must be addressed in our discussion is whether roles in the church are determined by the spiritual gifts we have or merely by our gender? The gifts of Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 are not described in any gender sense at all. I don’t see any reason to confine the gifts of leadership or teaching to men, or the gifts of encouragement and serving to women. Some years ago, our Teacher Service Team was comprised only of men. When we discussed the possibility of adding women teachers, I was one of the most vocal in supporting such additions and suggested Kay McKean as one of the first women thus recognized. Thankfully, she was asked to join as several others have been since.
Of course, the discussions at the time focused on women teaching other women, but does God allow women to also teach men? In our physical family settings, you know quite well that women teach men – their husbands, their grown sons and grandsons, their brothers, etc. What about in God’s family? Acts 2 highlighted a very vocal role for them quite clearly:
Acts 2:17-18 — “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. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”
Peter quoted Joel 2, which predicted that women would prophesy, and prophesy they did, as 1 Corinthians 11 amply illustrates. Philip the evangelist had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9). Of course, we can insist that they only prophesied to other women if we want, but we cannot prove it biblically. It is only an assumption. Interestingly, in my study of Restoration history (composed of groups like the Church of Christ and Christian Churches), early leaders accepted the idea of women in the first century church prophesying to mixed groups of brothers and sisters but explained it in two different ways.
One approach was to say that such practices only applied in the miraculous age and the other approach stated that the same principles would apply in any age. In the latter instance, the accepted practices were far from the apparent accepted principles. Women were generally quite silent in most of those early restoration churches, with the exception of congregational singing. That being said, there are recorded instances of women being “exhorters” in church services, which is likely surprising to many of us coming out of that background. Comments of male leaders in those settings showed that they thought one’s gift-set and not gender should determine their role.
Does Pragmatic Evidence Have a Place?
Whatever you make of the passage in its entirety, experience has taught me some valuable lessons in my marriage. One, gifts are far more important than gender in determining function. If the wife has a gift of understanding finances and the husband does not, she had better quickly become the financial leader of the family. If the woman has a much stronger gift of discernment (emotional intelligence), she had better use that gift to help her husband learn how to relate to people generally and especially to his own children. We could give other examples of giftedness, but whoever in the marriage has the best gifts in any given area, they should be encouraged to use them. My wife and I recognize our strengths and weaknesses as individuals pretty well by now, and we are submissive to the leadership of the one with the stronger gifts. We have learned that leadership in the home cannot be determined simply by gender; it must be determined by strengths in any area, “gifts” to use a biblical term.
Two, leadership is a matter of both gifts and training. It takes time (along with some sparks) to determine giftedness, but training must help develop the practical use of the gifts. The goal is to maximize the use of our combined gifts, which results in an effective leadership team. When I first started teaching about leadership in marriage, I was more gender-based in my thinking than gift-based. That has decidedly changed over the years. In a later phase, I agreed that the husband shouldn’t make the big decisions singlehandedly, but in the event of a tie regarding smaller issues (smaller in his opinion, of course!), he should break the tie by just making the decision.
Now, we make decisions as a team and if we reach a stalemate on issues that we both agree are big ones, we ask someone else in to help us decide. When we reach stalemates on issues that we both agree are small ones, we each pick a number between 1 and 10 to indicate how important our choice is to us, and whoever has the higher number thus casts the deciding vote. We heard someone say that this is how they broke ties but decided to start practicing it when we were once arguing about a restaurant in which to eat. In the midst of our disagreement, it dawned on me that if we eat three times a day, that adds up to well over 1000 meals a year. So, just how important could any one of them be? I am not going to overpower my partner about any decision, nor she me. Pragmatism in many areas is just common sense involving practical applications of the Golden Rule and the intent to obey what Paul said in Philippians 2:3-4. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Making changes as time passes can be evidence of losing convictions and otherwise drifting away from the Scriptures. But gradual changes can also reflect practical learning experiences under the providential leadership of God. Consider these two passages in that light:
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
The first passage implies that in our following of God’s Word, truths (application of truths) dawn on us. We don’t see and understand them immediately and may never understand exactly how and why they work, but in time their effectiveness becomes clear. The second passage promises that God will continue to reveal the practical application of his truths and keep us on a maturing track if we will cooperate by doing our best with what we know in the meantime. In both cases, time is necessary to produce a better understanding of some things. Thus, an element of pragmatism is built into the Christian system by God himself.
We Have Already Accepted Pragmatism!
I find it interesting that we as a movement of churches have continued to adapt our practices both consciously and unconsciously. Women were hired to be “in the ministry” fairly early on but limited in other ways. A couple of decades ago, we discussed and accepted the concept of women baptizing women, women serving as ushers and passers of communion trays, and as sharers along with their husbands in giving communion talks.
Gradually we began to accept more public types of participation. Married couples taught together about marriage and parenting principles. We may have prefaced such team teaching with the statements that the women were addressing women, but the men didn’t insert earplugs when the women were teaching, and I was often as convicted and inspired by what the women taught as by the men’s teaching (sometimes more so). My wife and I have taught as a team on subjects beyond those of family, and I have heard others do the same.
On at least one occasion, I was assigned a class in a leadership conference where I co-taught with a woman not my wife, my good friend Linda Brumley in this case. Our topic was forgiveness and since she had just written a book on the subject, I suggested that she take the majority of the class time, which she did. Everyone in that audience seemed pretty comfortable with the approach, and I certainly was. I didn’t see one person, male or female, blocking their ears with their hands or walking out! Linda is a great teacher and she taught a great class. Of course, the question is whether we “drifted” into these changes or gradually adapted to the culture changes around us without violating scriptures. I believe it was the latter.
Although it took me some years to learn how a husband/wife relationship works best, some are faster learners than I. One young married disciple, a husband and father to daughters, had this to say after reading similar material of another writer.
First, it brought to the forefront my personal reflection on how being a dad of daughters and no sons affects my role in God’s kingdom. I’ve at times lamented the lesser influence I may have because the people I can most influence in this world are female. Some Old Testament narratives and earthly culture suggest the notion I have failed in some way by not having a son. It’s hard for me to separate from that notion, and I’ve felt that certain scriptures and how I’ve understood them only perpetuate it. I cry as I type this, tapping into this feeling that frankly I’ve suppressed unknowingly. If I feel less valuable because of this notion, I can only imagine how my daughters (wife, mothers, sisters, etc.) feel. The transcending gospel message rejects this notion, and I need to take that thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.
I commend this young man for coming to recognize and deal with his own form of subtle sexism, because it is hurtful to others and to ourselves. I only pray that my material helps some of those who read it to see their own hang-ups and biases more clearly.
Are Women Inferior to Men?
That’s a more relevant question than you might imagine. Charles Darwin wrote that women were definitely inferior to men, falling into his evolutionary chain about halfway between children and men. I was raised in a full-blown Southern chauvinistic cultural setting in which I often heard statements like this as I was growing up: “If you let women get in the middle of this, you are going to end up with a mess!” After all, a woman’s place was in the home minding her own business, a business which consisted of taking care of the children, cooking, washing and ironing, keeping the house in order and providing sex. Such thinking was blatant and easily identified, and it laid the foundation for what has now become systemic sexism or systemic chauvinism. As such, it is embedded in our cultural thinking in much more subtle ways – at least to males, although not nearly so subtle to females.
We wouldn’t succumb to such antiquated thinking in the church, right? Ask the women. Ask especially the women under 40. They will be happy to provide examples of how they feel marginalized. Our leadership groups are typically male dominated, especially when it comes to making decisions about the direction of the church. For years, I have pushed to have the wives of leaders in leadership meetings of all types. I began asking for such as a result of my own pragmatic nature. I don’t particularly like business type meetings but have spent thousands of hours in them. Often, after spending a considerable chunk of time in a meeting of men only, I would go home and tell Theresa about our wonderful decisions. She would frequently say something like this in response: “You decided what? Have you thought about this, this, this and that regarding the women?” Nuts! Now we had to go back into another meeting and reconsider what had already been decided by us brilliant males!
Encouraging the wives of leaders to be included in leadership groups is not the whole story. We have single women who have the gift of leadership who would provide great insights from their perspectives. We have women in other situations who have such gifts and are exercising them in the world but are not invited to do so in the church. Although I favor our normal approach of having married leaders serve together in leadership roles, that is not always possible. Some have the gift whereas their mates do not. Should the mate with the gift always be excluded because their mate’s gifts don’t coincide with theirs? And then we have another loose end hanging out on this subject. What about when a leader’s mate dies or is otherwise incapacitated – what then? The male may often stay in leadership but the female who loses her mate usually doesn’t. Where is the logic of that, and more importantly, where is the biblical foundation for such? If you can’t identify that customary practice of ours as pure tradition, please keep thinking about it. We have many aspects of male/female role relationships in the church with which to wrestle, do we not?
If over half the church is comprised of women, how can we make decisions about them without them having a voice? The movie title, “Dumb and Dumber” is pretty apropos in describing our modus operandi when we don’t have women in leadership groups consistently. That basic pragmatism put me on the track of trying to promote female inclusion in leadership meetings. Then in time, another type of pragmatism found its mark in my head and heart. Women are just flat-out smart, and often smart in ways that males are not.
In the mid-1990s, I was asked to head up a committee to develop a curriculum for our movement’s Children’s Ministry. How I ended up in that role is still a mystery, for although I was a recognized teacher in our churches, I had no experience with the children’s ministry. Thankfully, my wife had quite a bit of experience and quite a bit of interest in it. Knowing that the best leaders are those who seek assistance from others who are more qualified than they, beginning with the advice asking stage, I started putting together our Kingdom Kids Curriculum Committee. We ended up with some couples, giving us some males (who were really good in this field), but the majority of the group were females (who also really knew their stuff).
We spent hundreds of hours together over the next several years, and it was one of the highlights of my ministry career. I knew less than anybody in the group about what we were doing, but I was a pretty effective facilitator. However, near the end of the project, I hit my own wall, and persuaded Sheila Jones of Discipleship Publications (DPI) to take over my role. She very expertly brought the project to a conclusion. By the time we had a conference in Los Angeles to roll out the curriculum, any remnants of chauvinism that would make me question the abilities of women in any fashion, subtle or otherwise, were gone.
Of course, some males reading this may be thinking to themselves that if women are so talented, why are they not in more high-powered positions of leadership in the world? Ask a black person that question. They know the answer. From their perspective, they will say, “It’s a white man’s world,” meaning a white person’s world. But the black women know that it is also a white male’s world. The reason those of color know the answer is because they have to deal with the same question about why more people of color aren’t in those high-powered positions either. Bottom line, our systemic racism and systemic sexism produces in the majority a mistrust, however subtle it may be. These systemic issues are as real as raindrops in a hurricane, but often so incredibly subtle that only the ones affected realize their presence.
Going back to my early chauvinistic roots and the idea that women in the middle of things will somehow mess it up, I have a big question. As I look at the history of our male dominant leadership movement, do you really think that including women in much more prevalent ways could have messed up things more than we males did? (Yes, of course I include myself – I’m a male leader!) Our military style leadership put us in a place that a single letter in the early part of this century set off a timebomb that had been ticking for years. Although we have recovered pretty remarkably in some ways since that explosion, our growth rate as a whole has all but stalled out. So, I repeat: do you really think that including women in a much greater way in our leadership would have done worse than we males have done? I rest my case! (Smile…)
Systemic Issues Abound
For the past year and a half, I have been posting articles on my blogsite about racial issues (blacktaxandwhitebenefits.com). One of the biggest challenges I have faced is in helping white folks who are not conscious of having racial prejudices understand that they still have views and reactions coming out of the systemic racism ingrained into our American society. Calling anything systemic simply means that it so stamped in our psyche that we have it without being aware of it. In that sense it is somewhat like carrying a virus or having something embedded in our DNA string that may be unseen – until it becomes seen. Thus, we get “woke,” to use a common term in the racial discussion realm, and then see what we have been missing without having realized it prior.
Systemically present ills are not reserved for systemic racism. We also have systemic nationalism, systemic politicalism, and systemic sexism. The latter is what this article is addressing. It can be found in various aspects of systemic ageism as well – a topic we will address shortly. Here is how one sister helped me to see my chauvinism (which I very much appreciated, by the way). She quoted a section from my book on Romans as follows:
The differences here are in the realm of opinion, to be sure, but how can you tell if an area is an opinion area? Good question, but not an easy one. When good brothers [and sisters…I asked Gordon if I could add “and sisters,” while lovingly chiding him, “See what I mean?”] who love God and his word have consistent differences on a given subject, we had better guard ourselves from having dogmatic attitudes. To one, a given issue may seem quite clear, but the issue may be not at all clear to another. In such areas, abide by your own personal conscience, but avoid dogmatism.
Another evidence of systemic sexism in our churches is the very resistance of some males to the idea of women teaching about their own role as a woman. The resistance sometimes takes the form of suggesting that our sisters don’t have the formal training necessary to write about deeper doctrinal or academic subjects. However, we seem to recognize that the validity of one’s training doesn’t have to be tied inseparably to one’s time spent in an academically accredited institution of higher learning – at least in the case of males. I don’t recall Jesus or his apostles having such credentials, Paul being the exception, but I do recall both Jesus and his original Twelve being discredited for lack of same. Some of the most educated people I have ever known were self-educated or educated in ways other than in the ivy halls of academia. That’s about the only way that we have in years past encouraged our women leaders to be trained. Are you starting to understand what the term “systemic” means? I hope so, for we cannot change what we do not see.
Who Should Have a Voice?
Speaking of comments about the role of women in the home or church, most lessons (whether oral or written) are given by men and not women, at least in our movement. Does that not strike you as being a bit strange? Imagine an audience of blacks and whites in which only whites addressed racial issues? Honestly, that is too close to what we have practiced regarding the women’s role to leave me feeling comfortable. Our US Diversity Group is more black than white, and in a recent presentation to a group of leaders, a few of the presenters were white but most were black. In an upcoming leadership conference, two of our US presenters will likely be black (one male and one female) and the only white presenter is married to an African American. Isn’t it obvious that this should be the case? Then why in the name of common sense should it always be the role of men to examine and explain the role of women?
Ephesians 5 – Proof Positive?
Ephesians 5 is a passage that has received much attention in arguing for male leadership in the home. Verses 22-24 do say that the wife is to be submissive to her husband and that he is her head. But are the issues really as simple as that? Not to me, and I speak from the position of having taught male dominance in my early marriage and ministry, but I now speak from the position of having been married for 53 years. In those decades, I have learned quite a lot about leadership in the marriage relationship, many of those lessons coming from my own mistakes and stupidity.
Here are some considerations that should totally eliminate any idea that Ephesians 5 supports the husband being anything like the “boss” of the relationship. For starters, verse 21 states that we should “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Submission goes both ways in any form of true spiritual leadership. Then, verses 25-28 require that the husband love his wife in a Christ-like, sacrificial manner that helps her be holy – loving her as much as he loves himself. If you can get anything akin to “boss-man” out of that, you must have used a crowbar!
Also keep in mind that Jesus was using the marriage relationship to illustrate his relationship to the church, not vice-versa. Ephesians 5:32-33 – “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” Then you have to ask the question of this passage that we have asked of others. Is this one based on the then-current cultural viewpoints (in which women were often viewed as possessions – much like slaves were), offering the best regulations possible for that era, or is what was said intended to be understood as containing transcendent, enduring principles? I’m not settled out one way or another on this one – yet.
Many arguments pro and con have been offered in answer to my question. Two things I am pretty sure of is that Jesus’ relationship to the apostles fits into the equation and my 53 years of marital experience also fits into it. Regarding the former, Jesus was the Master, as God in the flesh, but he led his relationships with the apostles in a clearly discernable direction. His example shows us that all roles and relationships in God’s family are designed to move toward deeper friendships, shared responsibilities and equality through common purposes.
What Jesus taught about leadership is essential to understanding all roles and relationships in the church. Leadership is essential and followership is equally essential – no organization of any type can flourish well without both. But do we really understand the difference between spiritual leadership and worldly leadership? Given the fact that our movement was led in many of its early years by a military style leader, that question must be asked and answered. Listen to Jesus:
Mark 10:42-45 — “Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Broadly speaking, authority is of two basic types: position only authority (as in “I’m the boss around here!”) and influence authority. Influence authority can be divided into two parts also, that of knowledge (expertise) and relational influence. We go to the doctor and do just about anything they (I wrote “he” at first!) say, not because they have any positional authority over us at all, but because we trust their knowledge, training and experience. Outside of professional fields, we are more likely to trust the advice of a close friend than the advice of someone we just met at a bus stop.
In the church, authority should never be positional only, although sometimes positional authority is needed in combination with influence authority. For example, someone has to set our schedules for spiritual group activities, but even those decisions are best made by a leadership team rather than one individual. My books, “Golden Rule Leadership” (co-authored with Wyndham Shaw) and “Dynamic Leadership” give ample attention to team leadership principles.
In the church, authority in leadership is mainly influence authority and as such, moves toward those deepened relationships, shared responsibilities and equality as family members working together for shared purposes. Jesus modeled this kind of leadership perfectly. Note his words and actions in John 13 and John 15.
John 13:13 – “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.” (note that he said this right after washing the disciples’ feet)
John 15:15 – “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
No Stumbling Blocks Allowed!
If the cultural setting of the first century helped determine the role of women, should the cultural setting of the 21st century do the same? In other words, if some are disturbed by a re-examination of the women’s role and the idea of change in our practices, should not that cause us to back off of the subject and let well enough alone? While the answer to questions like this one may be “yes” at times, the answer is not a simple one.
Generational differences have to be considered, and how the younger generations view women’s roles is far different than how those of the older generations generally do. Holding on to traditions is another consideration, and it is a fact that those who tend to be traditionalists are the older ones who don’t see their traditionalism clearly, if at all. A related sad fact is that aging all too often (not always) ends up with those who were once new wine, breaking old wineskins, now having become old wineskins themselves – but they don’t see it.
Don’t suppose that the younger generations in our churches don’t see this clearly in us, and don’t suppose that it doesn’t present a real challenge to them! Those of us who have traveled a lot and are prone to ask probing questions of the younger generations will tell you the same things. Some of their peers are leaving the church, feeling that they don’t have a voice. Even those on the ministry staff often share similar feelings but are reluctant to voice their real concerns. They do seem comfortable voicing them to me, perhaps because they know I am gung-ho about changing anything personally that will help me be more like Jesus and that will help others do the same. They will also tell you that some young men and young women are refusing to become a part of our fellowship because they think we are out of touch, and the women’s role is one of the main issues behind their conclusions.
So the End Justifies the Means?
Some of you are thinking about now that I am suggesting that being open to changing our ideas and practices to attract more people to our churches justifies compromising the Scriptures. I have zero intention of changing the Bible’s teaching to fit our society, but I have every intention of changing our traditions to fit the Bible’s teaching. At present, I am teaching a five lesson midweek series in my home region in Dallas on “hot topics.” One is about relationships and includes some of what I have in this article regarding male/female role relationships. Another lesson is about alcohol, drugs (with marijuana being legalized in more and more places) and sex. What I will teach will be clear (and thus offensive) to some, particularly when using Romans 1 to address sex outside marriage and homosexuality. The final lesson will be about conversion, and yes, there will be water in the plan – taught strongly and unapologetically.
That being said, I am advocating what Paul said (and practiced) about adapting to save as many as possible, for that principle fits all generations, times and places.
1 Corinthians 9:19-22
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
Adaptations to cultural changes should be calculated carefully and knee-jerk reactions avoided. We shouldn’t be the first to institute changes that might be disturbing to the older generations, but we certainly should not be the last. Above all, we should be open to reconsidering anything from a biblical perspective that might make us more relatable to those we are trying to win for Christ.
Yes, I know that this subject and this article are disturbing to some. And I know that through Paul, Jesus taught that we shouldn’t cause the weak to stumble (lose their faith). But both Jesus and Paul caused many to grumble (and the difference between the two is huge)! Traditions and truths may or may not coincide, and when they don’t, viewing them as though they do was strongly denounced by Jesus in his earthly ministry. Some of our traditions are based on Scripture and some are not. Some are helpful and some are not. Whatever else may be said, a continuing pursuit of truth is at the very heart of the definition of a disciple – a learner!
A Final Plea
As I said near the beginning of the article, when I enter a discussion of the male/female roles in the church, I do so with some sense of fear and trepidation. Therefore, I humbly request of you several things. One, please understand that my critiques of us all (me included) are aimed at helping us become more like Jesus and like Paul, who did all they could to relate to and influence the masses for God. I am a fellow sinner, in need of much patience and grace from both God and my spiritual family. Two, please understand that I am not offering this article as the final word on the subject. Far from it. This is a complex topic and a controversial one. I am just requesting that we take it out of the closet and expose it to the invigorating light of renewed biblical investigation. Three, please understand that we are a family and that we must view and treat each other as dearly loved family members. All members of any family do not always agree on everything that affects them. We simply must be able to disagree without becoming disagreeable.
For sure I’m not implying that anyone who holds a different position or conviction on this topic than I do is a chauvinist or an oppressor of women, but those elements can be present to an appreciable degree in the church without our even realizing it. I keep using the term “systemic” because it best describes having some sexist underpinnings in our thinking without being conscious of it. I’m talking about all of us males, including me. When I wrote the section about influence authority via expertise, I used the example of our near certainty to follow a doctor’s orders in spite of the fact that they have neither positional nor relational authority in our lives. When describing that example, I used the male pronoun four times without even thinking about it (until I re-read it). I just used it again in writing this very paragraph but caught it and changed it! And yet in the past year, I’ve been treated by several female doctors, one of whom I trusted enough to cut me open and do hernia repair surgery. Even though our unconscious sexism is absent of evil intent, we may still make our sisters feel disrespected and marginalized. Regardless of where our deeper studies about these roles lead us in practice (which will vary as it does already), we are still brothers and sisters trying to be the best kids to our Father and each other that we can be. So, let the digging deeper process begin. That is all I am pleading for here.
The best closing verse that came to my mind is the following one, and it encapsulates the elements of my final plea quite well. “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). God, please be our “Ezer,” for we need much help as your feeble children! We know that you describe yourself as both mother and father at times, and we long for all of your loving care and guidance, especially when our spirituality might be tested!