Introduction: Bronwyn Lea

Bronwyn Lea

I confess that I am not sure how or why I got invited to sit at this virtual table and join in this conversation about women, men, and the life of faith. I have far more questions than answers, and being here reminds me of that daring feeling in adolescence of getting to sit at the dinner table with the grown-ups: participating in Conversations That Matter, even though I was not always sure what to say.

However, I care about this conversation. And more than that, I care about the way in which it is conducted. So I accept this invitation with no small measure of excitement-and-uncertainty.

None of us come to a conversation about faith and gender without some self-examination and self-disclosure as to our origins. Jesus meets us all in a time and place bound by particular familial, religious and cultural contexts. Much of the life of faith involves us seeking to understand the ‘norm’ we were born into and replace it with a cruciform worldview: a new ‘norm’ shaped by the gospel. Yet this new norm still exists within a particular familial, religious and cultural context.

My journey thus far has been this: I was born in South Africa into a family that did not profess faith. My parents divorced when I was young, and most of my childhood was spent in a life full of women: raised by a single mom, attending a girls-only parochial school, having only sisters as siblings. Heck, we even had exclusively female pets. I became a Christian during these years and attended Sunday School and Vacation Bible Camps in the same way as I did ballet: extra-curricular activities which were supported by my parents. There was neither a need nor an occasion to think about what the different roles of women and men might be.

I pursued political philosophy and law at university, and along with my regular classes I received a rapid and unwelcome introduction into the world of Christian Bickering. I had no idea there were so many different groups all claiming to be Christian, nor how deeply (and nastily) many of them disagreed. At college I learned that it was important to know which “type” of Christian you were. Labels were necessary evils, apparently. As it turned out, I was “charismatic” with a leaning towards the “prosperity gospel” and “dispensational theology”. Who knew?

I started dating a guy who wore the labels “reformed”, “calvinist” and “evangelical”. Our first argument was over predestination. The way he handled the bible (thoroughly, contextually, holistically) was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Although I had called myself a Christian for twelve years at that point, it was only then that my biblical education began. I had always known Jesus was my Saviour: it just took a dozen years to think through what I had been saved from.

With my introduction to reformed theology came a package-deal understanding of “biblical womanhood”: wives were to submit, and ideally be home makers. Book after book was passed my way and the logic seemed persuasive to me, even though some of it made my blood boil. I recall yelling at my boyfriend one afternoon: “What is the point of me being at law school at all if the only thing it will be good for is for me to one day be better equipped for me to educate sons?!” Girls, apparently, were not worth educating.

I graduated from law school and an unexpected sequence of events led me to pursue ministry. In particular, I had a passion for Christian women in the workplace. At first, I had wanted to be a strong Christian witness in business, but over time this developed into a passion for equipping other women to fulfill that role. I reluctantly began my first year at a small Anglican bible college (seminary). The questions about the roles of women in the life of faith bubbled beneath the surface: I was being equipped and trained in exactly the same way as those training to be pastors; but those were roles I could never fulfill. I was trained in preaching (and was told I had some aptitude for it), but it was understood that any teaching or pastoring I did would be towards women. I felt called to teach and equip women anyway, so I was completely content with that.

After graduating from seminary, I began working as “women’s worker” (for want of a better title) in the city. A year later, I married a man who was set on pursuing a doctorate. A path opened up for him to do so in the USA, and so I packed up my fledgling ministry and we relocated to California.

We found ourselves in a very big Baptist church: among people who loved God and loved his people, but whose expression of faith often had different language and customs to those with which I had become familiar. I volunteered with the local college ministry, and when the college pastor resigned a year later, I became the Director of the ministry… with all the duties of the pastor, but half the salary, half the leave, and no retirement contribution. Such benefits were for Pastors. And women could not be pastors.

If a worker is worth their wages, then if you pay a worker half, does that mean you consider them to be worth half? Sometimes, it felt that way, even though I was well-treated and well-supported during my tenure there.

In the meanwhile, I found myself reading more and more on the topic of women in ministry. I learned the labels “egalitarian” and “complementarian” (all-important in the American church, apparently) and found that I was sympathetic to viewpoints from both sides. I appreciated that some of the complementarian hermeneutic read more like a 1950’s textbook’s lessons in patriarchy, and yet at the same time I wasn’t ready to jump ship.

I had entered marriage believing in the men-sacrifically-lead and women-willingly-follow model of marriage. However, as the years passed I was hard-pressed to give one single example of a time when this played out in a “he makes the final decision” trump card. I think a healthy, other-person-centered marriage looks much the same no matter whether you have Comp. or Egal. pencilled in on your business card.

Am I a complementarian or an egalitarian? Both. Neither. I’m not sure. Nate Pyle once described himself as a “non-hierarchical complegalitarian”, and I think I shouted an audible “Yes!” at that label. As I said, I have more questions than answers.

I’m not sure the labels matter, but the conversation matters very much. Even though motherhood has taken me out of the realm of paid, vocational ministry; I still care very much how this discussion is parsed. It matters because I still speak and write on matters of faith. It matters because I am raising a daughter and sons. It matters because both women and men are made in the image of God and He calls us all to serve and flourish in His Kingdom, and yet we are to do so within the loving boundaries of Scripture. He defines service and flourishing, not us.

I am so grateful to part of the Passing the Salt Shaker discussion – not just because these issues matter and truth matters. I am grateful to be here because people matter, and the way we talk about gender is at least as important as (if not more so) what we say. Jesus said they will know we are Christians by our love.

Not by our doctrine. Or our rightness.

I’m excited to welcome you all to this table where we can gather as a family who love each other and who can talk about hard, important things. As with all family gatherings, there will be variety and disagreement, and the voices of both mothers and fathers. Sometimes we may feel frustrated. Sometimes we will laugh. But there will also be learning and listening and togetherness.

One of my great joys as a mom is to watch my children learn how to love each other and interact well. There is always room for improvement, but I delight in seeing them mature together in understanding and character. My hope for this blog is that our Heavenly Father watching us, His children, at this virtual table, will be pleased to watch us grow too.