Just because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should (and other arguments)

Bronwyn, thank you for speaking into the question of application with such insight! I appreciate your openness and willingness to wrestle with these questions.

I also really appreciate your reminder, Hannah, that not all gender conservatives are complementarians. If I’m honest, I didn’t realize that until you explained it.

I can’t speak to the questions posed here from a complementarian point of view, as that is not my own conviction. But, the fuzziness of what it means to be in authority over a man is something I’ve wrestled with a great deal as I have tried to be faithful to God’s calling on my life.

As a recent college graduate preparing to head off to seminary, I met with a local pastor to talk about what might be ahead for me in my seminary journey. At that time I was adamant that I had no intentions to be ordained. I believed that women could not be called into ordained ministry. But, I did have gifts for teaching, and had been recommended by many of my professors to pursue an academic path. I also had a profound love for Scripture, and as God called me to seminary, I believed the Mdiv. would be step one on a journey towards becoming a professor.

I sat down on a couch in a dimly lit room with my husband by my side and a pastor in front of both of us. The pastor spoke kindly to my husband and to me about our upcoming seminary journey. He lauded my gifts for teaching and ministry, and he praised my husband’s faithfulness in pursuing his calling to pastoral ministry. And, then his face became very serious.

“April, I worry about you,” he said. “You’ve got gifts, to be sure, but you have to be careful how you use them. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

Interestingly, he never gave the same warning to my husband. And, though he never specified why he addressed this concern only to me, I knew that he was worried I’d start sliding down the “slippery slope” and soon become an advocate for the ordination of women.

In that regard, he was right, I suppose, though I don’t really believe in the idea of a slippery slope. And though it was the first time I had heard the can vs. should argument, it would not be the last.

Though he did not say it directly, I think what the pastor was getting at was the idea that even though a woman theoretically could take a position as a pastor it does not mean she should. He was taking his interpretation of the way God speaks to women and men and was applying it to the realm of vocation. If the Bible says women are not permitted to have authority over a man, how do we apply this to a woman who has leadership and teaching gifts?

What about situations in which men recognize a woman’s gifts and ask for her direction?

How does one discern the difference between what can be done and what should be done?

I also want to admit that I struggle in responding to this conversation as someone who is convinced that women can (and are) called into positions of leadership in the church. I struggle because I do not believe women and men have no differences whatsoever. But, I do not think God speaks to men and women differently in the Bible. I think God speaks to each person regardless of that person’s gender differently because we are all different people.

This is why we read the Bible in community, rather than in isolation, because we are a body and what one hears may be what we all need to hear.

It’s Getting a Little Athanasian up in Here

Oh dear, Graham! I’m afraid everything I post in response to Alastair’s intriguing initial conversation starter will have, “That’s modalism, Patrick!” ringing in the background.

Alastair, thank you for kicking off this conversation, and thank you Bronwyn and Graham for your excellent responses and questions.

If I may, I’d like to ask a different question, one that I think all of our other questions are attempting to answer: Is the Trinity a helpful analogy for how men and women ought to relate to each other?

Genesis 1:27 says this: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NRSV).  But what does that mean for human relationships? More specifically, what does it mean for marriages?

I’ll go ahead and stick my neck out there and say that it’s dangerous for us to speculate too much about the inner life of the Trinity, especially if we are doing so in an attempt to understand what godly human relationships ought to look like. Creeds have been written, people deemed heretics, churches split, battles (verbal or otherwise) waged over the exact nature of the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the Trinity. And frankly, most of it is speculation.

The Gospel of John goes to great lengths to assert the divinity of Christ. John 1 talks about the pre-existence of the Son, that he was not created, and that he was present at creation. And while, 1 Corinthians 11:3 seems to suggest the subordination of Jesus, when read in the context of the rest of Scripture (the Gospel of John, Philippians 2:6-11, and more), the subordination of Jesus within the Trinity is decidedly less clear.

It’s interesting to me that this idea of subordinationism is still hanging on as the majority of the Athanasian Creed was written to refute it.  Truly there is nothing new under the sun. Here’s just a portion of that creed:

The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten; the Son was neither made nor created, but was alone begotten of the Father; the Spirit was neither made nor created, but is proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Thus there is one Father, not three fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three spirits.

And in this Trinity, no one is before or after, greater or less than the other; but all three persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal; and so we must worship the Trinity in unity and the one God in three persons.

Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity.

Well, all righty then.

Whenever we think about the inner nature of the Trinity, I think we have to do so with great humility, and with our sandals off. Indeed, this is holy ground, and we can never fully conceptualize God as God truly is. Because of this, I think we need to be very careful with social trinitarianism. Our human relationships should honor God. They should reflect the fruits of the spirit, which also means in some way they should reflect God. But, they cannot perfectly reflect the Trinity, nor should we insist that they do.

What can we learn from the Trinity that can be applied to our human relationships? Things like humility, sacrificial love, self-giving, and grace. In my own marriage, we strive for mutuality and mutual submission, but rather than claim that we live this way because the trinity is mutually submissive, we live this way because we believe all Christians are called to submit out of love.

Rather than social trinitarianism, it is the example of Christ’s radical self-giving and the call for all Christians to do likewise that compels us.

As a Female Pastor, It’s Complicated

Welcome, Jem!

Thank you, Hannah A. for your insightful and important questions. And thanks, Graham for wrestling openly and sharing your “I don’t knows.” I appreciate you both so much.

These questions are difficult, and are ones that I encounter and wrestle with on a regular basis. As I read both Hannah’s questions and Graham’s response, I wondered if my answer might need to be different from answers others find acceptable when it comes to Christian liberty – both in belief and in application.

To get to the point directly: I am an ordained minister serving in church leadership. I am also a woman. My very presence at an event has the potential to communicate something about the beliefs undergirding the event, or the theological beliefs and practices of the sponsoring organization. Even if it is believed that I might have something to contribute at a conference on a particular topic, I realize that my very presence could be divisive.

In these kinds of situations, I absolutely extend liberty to my brothers and sisters in Christ who are trying hard to maintain the unity of the faith. I also believe that my brothers and sisters in Christ who do not believe women should serve in positions of ordained leadership belong to God in Christ just as much as I do.

So, to answer the questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are? 

I absolutely do allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than I am. I’m honestly not even sure where to place myself on the conservative-liberal spectrum, as there are many who would be far more conservative, and many who would be far more liberal than I would consider myself to be. To me, the most important thing is that we are all trying to be faithful insofar as it is possible for us.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake?

This is where I wonder if my ordination muddies the waters a bit. While I would possibly consider participating in an organization that did not support female ordination, my guess is that my participation would be very complicated for that organization. My participation could very well undermine the message they are hoping to convey, and I would not want to cause difficulty for them in any way.

I would not belong to an organization that did not support the ordination of women, but I would not shut the door on participating from time to time.

What is more important to you personally—differences in application or differences in core beliefs?

This is a tough one. I’m not sure if there is one that I view as more important than the other, in part because I think they work together. What’s most important to me is that, when it comes to Christian liberty, Christian organizations view both men and women as created in the image of God. This may find itself applied in a variety of ways, and I would allow for latitude in that application.

Marriage and Family as Idols of the Church

Graham, thank you for starting this conversation on singleness in the church!

My husband and I were relatively new to married life when we began seminary, and I remember sitting in my Pastoral Care and Counseling class and hearing my professor remark that she wondered if the western church had made an idol out of marriage and family. At the time, as a newly married person, I laughed at that idea. The truth was, however, that I had never experienced the church as an unmarried person over a “marriageable age.”

Shortly before I turned 21, I was married. At 26 I had my first child. These all fell into place within the expectations of many people in the churches where I found myself.

It wasn’t until I began interviewing for church ministry positions that I realized the noticeable slant in favor of married ministers. And even better, we were married with a newborn child. I think there are several things at play that lead to preferencing married ministers, but for this conversation, I want to address two of them.

1. For churches in numerical decline, or churches longing for more young families and children in their midst, a married minister (preferably with a child or two, or more) seems to be step one in quickly fixing a perceived void in the life of the church. If a church has no children, but calls a minister with 2-3 children, suddenly there are kids in the church again.

Unfortunately, not only does quickly adding a child or two to the congregation not create needed adaptive change in which children are actually welcome in a congregation, but a minister who is married with a family may not be any better equipped to minister to young families than an unmarried minister with gifts for children’s ministries.

2. I’m not exactly sure when this began, but it seems to me that for quite some time, marriage has been viewed as a sign that someone has successfully launched into adulthood. Those who do not get married are often viewed suspiciously, as though there is something wrong or broken with those who remain unmarried. Women might be blamed for having too dominant a personality. Men might be viewed as not stepping up, as Alistair wrote about in his response. For men and women, remaining unmarried has also contributed to speculation about their sexuality.

Viewing marriage as the point when someone has “arrived” at adulthood is problematic in so many ways. Not only does it neglect the Apostle Paul’s discussion on the calling to remain unmarried (as Graham mentioned earlier), it also defines adulthood as something an unmarried person is unable to enter into on his/her own. This view of marriage is something that comes far more from the 1st century idea of the nuclear family as the building block of society than it does from Scripture.

I also want to say thanks to Alastair for challenging the language of “singleness.” I deeply appreciate the push for viewing the church as a new family, and that none of us should be “singles” even if we are unmarried.

Can Authority Be Taken Away?

Great conversation, everyone! I think the best place for me to start is with Bronwyn’s question.

Is it really possible in practice to ask questions about men, women and authority in the church and “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, when deep in your heart you believe that anything other than your position actually would amount to usurping?

This is an excellent question, and it gets right at the heart of Wilkin’s piece, I think, and at the heart of much of the struggle in the church with regards to women in ordained leadership. For many, the answer would be “No, you cannot banish the usurper.”

I disagree, and I think we not only can banish the usurper, but that it is our Christian imperative to do so, regardless of our beliefs surrounding the legitimacy of the ordination of women. My reasons for this are both rooted in Hannah A.’s question and in a first century worldview that has continued to impede the church.

Hannah A. asked:

It seems to me that the question under the question is this: Where does a man in pastoral leadership derive his sense of authority? Does he see it as stemming more from his maleness or from his office?

And it gets right to the heart of it, but I’d like to take it a step further. Pastoral authority comes neither from one’s gender, nor from one’s office, but ultimately from God. If God has given one authority, no one will be capable of usurping it. “The Usurper” is code language for anxiety about the relationship between men and women in the church, an anxiety rooted in the idea that women are capable of taking authority away from men in office. If we believe that God is the one who gives authority, we will not be afraid that others can take that authority away.

From my perspective, this anxiety is rooted in a first century worldview of “limited goods.” Basically, this worldview contends that there is a limited supply of authority, and if one person is given authority, someone else must have lost authority. I do not think authority is limited in this way since it is given by God, who does not operate within our human limitations.

Graham made an excellent point when he said:

But even if authority comes from the office regardless of gender, a challenge can still be threatening. In egalitarian congregations, laity, or educated/trained but non-ordained persons can still play the role of child, seductress or usurper.

And as Alastair stated in his response, often times there are power dynamics at play in conversations where “the Usurper” is present. But the hope in Wilkin’s piece (if I’m reading her correctly) is that we will not fall prey to the temptation of seeing men and women as enemies who are engaged in a battle for authority. If we believe that authority comes from God and cannot be taken away by others, we will effectively banish the usurper and begin working together as the body of Christ.

Introduction: April Fiet

CroppedHeadShotA sense of calling permeates many of my earliest childhood memories. From wondering if God might want me to serve as a missionary while listening to stories of people who served without fear, to quiet moments sitting in our row at church and listening to God in prayer, I have long sensed that God would call me out of my comfort zone.

I went to church every Sunday with my parents and my younger brother, and our church ordained women to all offices of leadership, though I had never heard a woman preach. I was young enough that I accepted it as something normal, something that people did in churches everywhere. My mom taught Sunday School, and my dad served in leadership (as a deacon, and then as an elder). I was encouraged to participate in church musicals, choir, scripture reading, and anything else that was of interest to me.

My sophomore year of high school, we moved to a new state. We found a new church, and became very involved. I never noticed women in leadership, but I never heard it spoken against either. I didn’t know if women could preach or be pastors only because I had never seen it done and never really heard it talked about. At that time, I began to focus on music. I played clarinet and guitar, and I began to experiment with writing my own music.

I struggled greatly during my time in high school, and I threw myself into music and language studies to cope. On a whim, I applied to an evangelical Christian college to study music, never thinking that I would get in. I was accepted as a “largely self-trained musician with lots of potential.” Self-trained also meant too many years of bad habits to break. And after many hours in a practice room trying to correct my poorly-formed clarinet embouchure, I started to feel an intense pain in my jaw.

At the clinic on campus, my doctor told me that she advised I seriously consider dropping out of the music program before I did irreparable damage to my jaw. I was devastated. And confused.

Shortly before being told my career in music was over before it started, I had met a wonderful guy named Jeff. We connected nearly instantly, and I was thankful to have him by my side as I navigated the uncertainty and sadness. After a lot of prayer and discernment, I changed my major to communications and fell in love with learning about interpersonal relationships, abuse and power dynamics, and teaching.

The vast majority of students in my classes came from a complementarian perspective, but on one particular day in my speech course, someone gave a persuasive speech on why women should never be allowed into ordained positions of church leadership. Repeatedly he used the phrase “the Bible clearly teaches” to describe the importance of women filling background roles in the church and home. Following his speech, there was a time for questions and rebuttals.

A young woman sitting behind me in class raised her hand and spoke with authority. “I heard you say that the Bible clearly teaches that women may not be ordained. My mother and father both have doctorates in biblical studies, and they would both disagree with you on that.” For the first time in my life, someone said that it was possible to take the Bible seriously and believe that women could serve in ordained positions of church leadership.

Jeff and I were married just over a year later, and as I helped him look at and apply to seminaries as he pursued his calling into ministry, I wondered what his calling might mean for my own life. I had always felt called into some kind of ministry, but I was still on the fence about whether that could include ordained positions of leadership. I applied for a few jobs near where my husband hoped to go to seminary, but I also inquired about the seminary’s Master of Religious Education (M.R.E.) program.

The program was no longer accepting applicants, but the director of admissions encouraged me to take a semester of classes in the MDiv. program. There was no pressure to be ordained, and many of the first semester courses were the same as what had been offered in the M.R.E. track. I was scared. It was financially risky. It wasn’t what I had planned. But, I had loved the class I had sat in on at the seminary. I knew God was calling me to something. My husband told me to go for it and the finances would work themselves out.

“Fine. I’ll take a semester, but I won’t preach,” I said.

I decided to take another semester, and that one involved preaching class. “Fine. I’ll take the class, but my only sermons will ever be the two required sermons for class.”

I prayed fervently, “Please, Lord, let me hate preaching.” I spent an hour in prayer before I gave my very first sermon pleading with God to let me hate it, tears in my eyes because I was so afraid. I was afraid to preach, and I was afraid I’d feel called to preaching because if I felt called to preaching there would be a lot of people “out there” who opposed what I was doing.

I never wanted to be divisive. I never wanted to be a stumbling block to someone else’s faith. I wanted everyone to like me.

To make a long story short: after preaching that first sermon, I knew God wasn’t done with me. There would be more sermons to come, more ministry in store for me, and it wasn’t going to be easy. My husband and I grappled with what that might look like, and together we came to the realization that God was calling us to co-ministry.

My husband Jeff and I have served as co-pastors in a rural church for the past 7 1/2 years. We have two wonderful kids together, and I am passionate about seeing women’s gifts called out and encouraged. I am also passionate about re-framing the dialogue about gender roles, leadership, and the church. For too long, conversations have been divisive, ugly, and unproductive. As the Church, we can do so much better.

The Passing the Salt Shaker community gives me so much hope, and I am eager to pull up a chair at the table. I believe that we all have a great deal to learn from each other, from our stories, and from the Bible as we seek to faithfully affirm the gifts God has given to women, and as we wrestle with what that looks like in practice. Even though we may not always agree in our conclusions, I have confidence that the conversations we have can bring glory to God, and that together we may work for the upbuilding of God’s reign as it breaks into this world.