Introduction: Jem Bloomfield

I was brought up in an evangelical Anglican family just south of London.  My parents had met at Baptist Sunday School, I went to a rather ultramontane Roman Catholic prep school and we were part of the local Church of England parish.  I left Christianity in my mid-teens, and in fact I was only baptized a couple of years ago.  Coming back to the Church was the result of a long process, which only makes sense in retrospect.  As an undergraduate there were isolated moments when I glimpsed the excitement and depth of Christianity: hearing Nick Shrimpton lecture on the Tractarians, or Peter McCullough preach, or Rowan Williams speak on the poetics of the Book of Job.  But it wasn’t until I was doing postgraduate work that I began to pay more attention.  Preparing a seminar on Genesis for a first-year course I was teaching brought me into contact with Biblical Criticism, when a colleague was kind enough to share her notes and a whole field opened up which I hadn’t known about.

For the next few years I slunk round the cheaper pubs in Exeter during my spare time, with paperback editions from the library on theology, church history and Biblical scholarship.  If asked, I would have explained I was interested in a remarkable historical tradition, though it wasn’t officially my field.  At the same time, I was starting to engage with feminism, and gradually getting a sense of basic injustices in society.  Work took me back to Oxford, and I fell in with some people who had been friends of friends when I was an undergraduate.  They were mostly Christians, and all feminists, and I was interested by their assumption that being either was reasonable and unremarkable.  Not to mention being both.  I started attending a church regularly, though a very different kind of church than I had been used to.  St Mary Magdalen’s in the centre of the city has brought an awful lot of people to God over the centuries, and I became one of them.  Like many before me, I found the Catholic tradition’s intensely spiritual and intellectual faith spoke to something inside me which I had not really known was there.

I was also aware, though, of divisions within the Church.  I was coming to faith around the time of the debates in the Church of England over the consecration of women as bishops, and over the ministry of gay clergy.  As a straight man I was dimly conscious that others were being told they had to make choices – between their love and their faith, between their vocation and their church – that would never be forced upon me.  In my professional life I could see a backlash against women’s rights making itself felt on campus, and in society at large gender and sexuality were the basis for the abuse and degradation of marginalized groups.  I come to these discussions with a lot to learn, and a hope that both experience and scholarship can be shared in ways which will enable us all to take part in the work of reconciling.  My research often involves setting the characteristic languages of different fields in dialogue with each other, and the work of some of my favourite theological thinkers – Rachel Mann and Rowan Williams spring to mind – provides a model for this activity.  That’s one of the reasons why I like the metaphor of the conversation around which this project is structured, and am looking forward to listening to the others around the table.

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Introduction: Kristen Padilla

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As I pull up a chair to this virtual table, I am humbled to be a part of such a great group of people and to join in the conversation about women, especially in regards to their role in the Church. This issue is one of great importance to me, and it is an area where conversation is needed.

 

My story begins in east Texas, where I grew up in a rural, Southern Baptist church where my dad served as pastor. My mom was supportive of my dad’s ministry and performed the typical duties that many pastors’ wives at that time filled – pianist and Sunday School teacher. It was also in this American evangelical context that I was introduced to the gospel.

 

At a very early age I felt a “call” to ministry; basically, I began sensing a desire to serve God in some full-time capacity. As a seven- or eight-year-old girl, I didn’t know what complementarian or egalitarian meant or that there was even a debate about what women could or could not do. All I knew is what I saw lived out in my context. I had a fierce desire as a young girl to preach the gospel, and if not for my gender would have said at age eight that God was calling me to be a preacher. Instead, I distinctly remember crying to my mom, “Why didn’t God make me a boy so that I could be a preacher?” I simply assumed that God would make me into a missionary because that was the only calling I knew women doing, even though I had no desire to plant churches or go overseas (you see, even my understanding of being a missionary was limited).

 

Despite what I saw around me for women in ministry, which was almost nonexistent, this desire to commit myself to a ministry of the gospel only increased with time. I also credit my parents for affirming me so that I would follow my calling. They never framed the discussion about my calling around my gender, but instead taught me what it meant to be faithful.

 

I vocalized my call to ministry when I was 15, followed this calling to a Baptist college to major in Christian ministry, and then continued on to higher theological education at Beeson Divinity School where I received an M.Div.

 

(As an aside, I wanted to go to seminary because I believed that even as a woman called to ministry I needed the same training as my male peers. I also believed I was called to a high calling that deserved the best training, and I did not want to give my male peers any reason to question or doubt my call or teaching of Scripture.)

 

It wasn’t until I was in college that I was introduced to the debate about women in ministry. One defining moment for me took place in a theology class where we were to debate a fellow student on a topic. I was assigned the egalitarian view of which I was to defend against the complementarian view. In order to prepare for the debate, I read a book that has impacted me the most in regards to this issue called, Two Views on Women in Ministry. Craig Keener, one of the contributors, had some rather convincing arguments from which I drew upon for the debate. That debate coupled with my own calling ushered me into this journey of exploration on how to understand Scripture concerning women and on what roles within vocational ministry were available for women like me.

 

To be honest, despite my calling, I was resistant to want to push my own desires and experiences onto Scripture. I wanted Scripture to inform my views (not the other way around), and the complementarian arguments from 1 Timothy seemed too compelling. Yet, I was open and curious as to if I, as a complementarian by default, had been misreading Scripture and if a compelling case for egalitarianism or something not as strict as complementarianism could be made from Scripture. One of the many aspects that I loved about Beeson was that I sat under professors who were complementarian, others who were egalitarian and still others in between, which allowed me to hear voices from all sides and made me more well-rounded. It also was during my time at Beeson that I heard compelling egalitarian views from N.T. Wright, in particular on his interpretation of the 1 Timothy passage. Yet, I still was unsure as to how to interpret Scripture on the issue.

 

By far the most influential person on this issue for me has been my husband. We met when I was finishing up my M.Div. He was a new, New Testament professor at Beeson. We later dated and married. He is a very competent scholar, has a high view of Scripture and is characterized by humility. His nuanced understanding of Scripture on this issue has helped me work out some of my own beliefs.

 

So where am I today?

 

In regards to my views, I find myself on a journey where I am not quite on board with all the complementarian views and yet neither completely on board with all the egalitarian views. I am open to my views being challenged and reshaped if a convincing and compelling argument from Scripture is made. This past summer and Fall we lived in Cambridge, England for my husband’s sabbatical. While there we were part of a small, Anglican church which had ordained women ministers on staff and who would preach on occasion. Being part of a church committed to Scripture and which used both men and women within the worship service was a beautiful picture of the Imago Dei and challenged me in several areas.

 

One part of the current debate that has bothered me is this idea that you must be either/or. On both sides I have heard that there is no middle ground or grey area. I disagree.

 

Like the other contributors have voiced, I, too, am tired of and discouraged by the attitudes and tones that have for too long dominated the conversation. For too long the conversation has centered on what women cannot do instead of how the Church can involve more women in the community of faith. There is much to be explored here.

 

I also believe that we, as the Church, can do better. I believe that we need to approach each other and this issue with greater humility.

 

In regards to my ministry, I am writing, teaching and will have some preaching opportunities soon. But, the going has been slow and often times discouraging for me as a woman called to ministry. Besides teaching Scripture, I believe God has given me a vision to guide and encourage young females who feel called to ministry. This is a group of people who, from my experience and from talking with others, largely have been ignored and left on their own. How do we cultivate the next generation of female ministers? The problem is that I don’t see this as an important question in my denomination and within a significant area of the greater American evangelical community.

 

I am excited to discuss these things here, and my prayer is that these discussions will spur action and change within our contexts.

 

 

 

 

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.

Introduction: Graham Ware

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I grew up in a home numerically dominated by males.

I look back and pity my poor mother. I am the second of three boys, and my mother was a single mom from the time we were 9, 7 and 4 years old. So I spent evenings and weekends in the summer at the baseball field, and at the winter the hockey rink- you know, “guy stuff”. But I was never really comfortable being a “jock”. I failed at it miserably, really. Not because I was bad at sports (I wasn’t great, but certainly not terrible). I disliked the “machismo”, the swagger, the arrogance of my male peers. In High School, most of the peers I hung out with were female. I was socially awkward (still am in some ways). I was tall, skinny, and quiet, and silently dealing with severe depression. Even with a decent throwing arm, and the ability to track a fly ball, I was not really comfortable among the jocks. I didn’t fit the bill for everything a guy was supposed to be. Many of my peers developed their ideas about masculinity from piecing it together from Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, and dirty jokes they heard older siblings tell. Suffice to say, I didn’t fit that mould. It wasn’t until the university classroom that I “found my groove” as they say.

I had little faith input in my childhood, and didn’t attend church regularly until I was 17. When I came to faith, it was in the context of an egalitarian community, and the person most responsible for my conversion is transgendered (atypical for an evangelical, I know). The Church I was involved with had a pastoral staff of 3 people- a married couple co-pastoring, and female associate pastor. When I left that Church after seminary to accept a call to pastor another church, my home congregation had gone through staff changes, and had a female lead pastor, a female youth & family pastor and a female worship director. I went to a seminary which is firmly supportive of women in ministry. The denomination to which I belong debated and decided to begin ordaining women in 1947. This to me was normal; calling and giftedness was not gender specific. It wasn’t until well into my faith journey that I even heard of complementarianism. When I became aware of this rising wave of complementarian churches, conferences, coalitions, organizations and movements I was caught somewhat off guard. I am still firmly egalitarian in my views of church leadership and ordination. I wrote a few things about it a few years back, which I considered deleting. The tone is somewhat antagonistic. I recently wrote this which is, I think, a more mature tone (includes links to the older posts).

In recent years, the denomination I am part of (my “tribe”) has seen a renewed debate on issues of gender and sexuality. There has always been objections from some people and congregations within our denomination on this front. But recently the dissent has become much more loud and increasingly confrontational in tone. So, as I ponder my own role as a pastor of a local church, it raises several questions in regard to the role of women in the church:

1. How do egalitarians and complementarians have conversations which are gracious and constructive? If unanimity is not possible (no signs of that happening any time soon), how can Christians maintain fellowship, when both sides have entrenched views, especially on the poles, where they are convinced faithfulness to Scripture demands their position be upheld? Can those who believe the other side are in violation of Scripture continue in partnership?

2. How do denominational bodies handle opposition voices on issues of gender roles in the Church (or any issue really)?

3. How do I, as a male pastor in single pastor congregation, find ways to support women in their callings within the Church?

4. What hermeneutical assumptions do I bring to the “clobber texts” for both sides of the debate? How does my early development in faith in the context of an egalitarian congregation shape my reading of the text?

5. How much do I weigh in on the decisions and positions of other congregations? My role is to lead the folks entrusted to me, so do I risk becoming distracted and entangled with other groups battling over this issue? To what extant does my position allow/expect me to engage in broader conversations?

6. To echo Alastair’s concern: how much do we allow the views from the ends of the spectrum to dominate the conversation? The moving of the discussion to the poles creates problems, so how do we balance the discussion to reflect the full spectrum and allow all places on the spectrum to speak?

 

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I now live in a home numerically dominated by females.

I am married, and I have 3 daughters (5, 3, and 9 months) My house is full of barbies, pink frilly things, and giggling. My mother always pondered how would things have been different if she had at least one daughter. She now has 6 grandchildren… all girls. Family get-togethers are very different than they were when I was a child. My wife and I met at Christian Youth retreat (how cliche), and got married in 2006. Our first daughter was born in 2010. While expecting we had long discussions about how to structure our lives, and how would work and raising children look. After a long conversation, we did mutually decide Jenelle would be a stay-at-home mom. To the casual observer, we might look like the ideal complementarian family. I pastor a church. She stays at home with our 3 kids. I drive a mini van. Of course this is far from the total picture. Jenelle and I made this decision together, not based on an assumption of patriarchy and family values, but as a result of a whole host of considerations. My wife, interestingly, leans slightly to the side of complementarian views of the family (not at all dogmatically though, and she is firmly supportive of women in ministry). This keeps life interesting. When it’s time to make decisions, just getting a conversation to happen is half the challenge. I want to practice mutuality, she wants me to make a decisive call.

Having struggled with ideas about masculinity in my own life, and being negatively impacted by the trend of emphasis on being “macho”, being a supportive husband, and now finding myself raising girls creates a new and significant tension in my mind. It also raises a bunch of tough questions for me on gender and family:

1. How much sway should I, as a father, exercise in forming my daughters views of how they understand being females made in the image of God?

2. How do I help my daughters, as they get older, to engage with the pressures of a culture which commodifies female sexuality?

3. How do I support my wife, who plays a “traditional gender role” even though we don’t necessarily have traditional views on gender roles? What does the way my family operates communicate about our views on gender roles to others?

4. With the creation of humanity, both male and female, in God’s image, and the design for companionship, how do we honour singleness within the Church? What is my role, as father in influencing my daughter’s views on marriage?

On both the discussions, that of gender in family, and gender in the Church, I am doing my best to be a gracious conversation partner. The usual polemics, and scripted critiques (“you don’t have a high view of Scripture”, “your views are oppressive and archaic”, “the Bible is clear”, “this is misogynistic” and so on and so forth) removes any chance of fruitful discussion. I am glad to be part of an exchange of people I can trust to be both honest and gracious when discussing a tough topic.

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.

Introduction: Hannah Malcolm

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I have a B.A. in Theology from the University of Cambridge and am currently studying towards an M.A.R. in ‘World Christianities’ at Yale Divinity School. Follow me on twitter at @hannahmmalcolm, and read my other musings at youhaveanaccent.wordpress.com. I talk too much.

I was born in London to evangelical Christian parents, who met at medical school and both came from Christian families. They were both ‘working’ parents, though their decision to have five children meant that my mother stopped working for a few years/went part-time. Both parents ‘led’ at home, and I never had the impression that either was making ‘final’ decisions (and if someone was, most days it was my mother, who is terrifyingly organized and efficient).

I promise this won’t be my entire life story. We’ll skip some bits.

In my teens, as a reaction against a secular school environment and a desire to explore what it would mean to fully express my faith, I began writing and blogging about being a Christian woman. At the time I called myself ‘complementarian’, believing that ‘equal but different’ meant what it sounded like – that men and women were actually equal, but that they were ‘different’ – and, from my teen perspective, I could see they were different. They looked different, they smelled different, and they thought differently about things. I never thought that women shouldn’t preach, but I did think there were bigger concerns. I did, however, react violently against the dating books, the language of ‘warrior princes’ and ‘pure princesses’ and the flowery skirts brigade that still infects many evangelical churches today. I would sit there in my trackies and jumper (and sometimes jeans if I were feeling really gracious toward my parents) and feel disgust at the guilt piled onto girls about their sexuality in particular. I understood wanting to dress modestly, but my frame of reference was the fact that, to me, most immodest or revealing clothing was just another patriarchal imposition – high heels, after all, are shoes designed to make it harder for women to run away. In church, teenage boys talked about their struggle with porn, teenage girls talked about their low self-esteem. I felt fine about the way I looked, and had definitely watched porn. Where was that conversation? Once, at university, I tried to bring that up in a flowery-skirted bible study, and was greeted with relieved I’m-not-the-only-one faces, but also silence.

At university I also discovered that many of my evangelical male friends were pleased that I described myself as ‘complementarian’, and I began to understand what that word really meant –men had the final say, women were ‘naturally’ submissive, and working mothers were, at best, a no-other-option choice – not a good model for raising a family. I had seen none of that in my parents’ own marriage, and began to think that maybe I didn’t belong in this camp. I was too brash, too outspoken, wanted to argue theology when that was a ‘male’ domain, and I began to resent my ‘female’-ness.

And so the word ‘complementarian’ slowly dropped out of my vocabulary, and I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the insidious male/female gender divides I saw in my (in other ways absolutely wonderful) evangelical church. Men went out for curry, beer, and theology, women had afternoon tea and craft days. Male students had male mentors in positions of church leadership, and there were no such leaders/elders amongst the female mentors. I had switched to the theology faculty for my final two years of study, and had several concerned conservative male friends suggest that it wasn’t a great idea. No women suggested that to me. In fact, I rarely heard evangelical female friends make theological assertions or discuss theological ideas at all, outside of the need for evangelism and personal Bible study. Like all of academia, Theology conferences were predominantly white and male, in both speakers and attendees.

I began reading more anthropology, and found that, as I did so, it was becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the sexes beyond the fact that women could birth and feed children and men had greater physical strength. There were no universal norms as to ability to lead, intelligence or subtlety of thought, fierceness of spirit, or preference for quiet, sitting down activities. In fact, the only true universal was that male physical strength led to male dominance, and that meant that male names were far more prevalent for both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ activities (e.g. the most famous sports people, warriors, chefs, artists, craftspeople, writers, politicians, teachers, doctors, etc. are, for most of history, male, even though assumptions still prevail that little boys will want to run around outside and poke insects and little girls will want to bake and paint and play teacher). The most genuine ‘difference’ seemed to be one of opportunity, not natural tendency. (No one calls Van Gogh ‘girly’, but Cleopatra led ‘like a man’, because it was the men who led.)

If nature doesn’t really support gendered norms, should the Church? Of course, the Church is not bound by society, or even by what humans find ‘natural’ – even if it were ‘natural’ for humans to want to seek out multiple sexual partners (and some scientists argue that this is the case) I would still support marriage and one person commitment as the model God wants. And so, the questions became –

1) How much Spirit, and how much culture, do I read into any given Bible passage?

2) How much do I take seriously the feeling of call to leadership that many women in the Church claim to experience?

And 3) Why is the Church so slow to cry out against the oppression of women in all walks of life?

So, this is where I begin – a gender structuralist, who wants to take scripture seriously. A proponent for women in leadership, but who also understands the perspective of those who do not want it. Someone who wants to increase space for women in theological conversations, not by reducing male voices, but by making the space even bigger – I know that there are many white male theologians who have taught me a great deal, and I would not want to lose that, but I also don’t want to be limited to that. It’s exciting to me that all of us are going find our theological limits challenged in the next generation. The Church no longer looks white, male and western. It’s time for all of us to catch up.

Introduction: Hannah Anderson

I grew up in a conservative home that was decidedly anti-establishment. (Cue irony.) My parents had met at a Christian university, eventually married, and moved to the country to raise five children. Their vision of the “good life” included hard work, creativity, living close to the land, education, and serving others. It did not include money.

I realize now how significant this was. Because we lived in a rural area and lacked financial resources, we also lacked the ability to participate in mainstream culture—including mainstream religious culture. We lived our lives in our small community of friends and family; our church experience was decidedly local. In many ways, we (almost) missed the gender wars entirely.

It wasn’t until college that I began to hear about biblical notions of “manhood” and “womanhood.” At first, it was refreshing; to an eighteen-year-old on the cusp of womanhood, it was relevant and timely. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been taught a conservative reading of gender—my father was definitely the “head of the home”—but growing up, gender was a minor question compared to all the others. My church would not have ordained women, but women served in every other major capacity of church life. I had also been schooled in the “greats” of the Christian faith. So while I believed that men, like Charles Spurgeon, may be the only ones called to ordination; I also believed that women, like Mary Slessor, could tame the jungles of Africa with nothing more than fierce determination and the gospel.

Having grown up outside the genders wars, I didn’t initially understand the landscape. I embraced a label of conservatism, assuming that a complementarian position best expressed the views with which I had been raised. But the more I listened to both sides of the conversation, the more I realized that few of the definitions and paradigms on either side described my experience or values.

There was no category for my paternal grandmother who was the first in her family to graduate from high school, mothered five children, and retired as a factory worker. There was no category for my maternal grandmother who was the first in her family to receive a college degree but was also a submissive wife and partner in ministry with her husband. There was no category for my mother who, though doggedly conservative, was more likely to quote Abigail Adams or Amy Carmichael than Elizabeth Elliot.

The conflict between the conservatism I’d received from my upbringing and the conservatism being promoted in the gender wars forced me to return to core principles. This meant starting with a clear understanding of what it means to be made in God’s image—what it means to be human. For me, the nuances of being made “male and female” are meaningless if we don’t understand what it means to be image bearers in the first place.

At the same time, perhaps because of my conservative reading of Scripture, I don’t see gender as peripheral to the human experience. I strongly affirm the goodness of gender and believe that God was purposeful in creating us male and female—that gender reflects something about Him that we would not understand otherwise. In the end, the tension between what men and women share in common as image bearers and what differentiates us from each other is, itself, a mystery of Divine proportion.

Introduction: Alastair Roberts

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I have been given the privilege of being the first to post here. Within this first round of posts, we intend to introduce ourselves, briefly to sketch our backgrounds, mention some of the concerns and interests that we bring to the conversation, and to share what we hope that it will achieve

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home in the Republic of Ireland, where my parents were missionaries and church planters, starting a Reformed Baptist congregation in the town of Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. Although I am now an Anglican with high church sympathies and have moved away from my background in a number of other respects theologically, I retain many of the conservative evangelical instincts and convictions with which I grew up. Growing up in an evangelical home, but outside of a wider evangelical culture and as a Protestant English boy among Catholic Irish peers, I have never lost some sense of myself as an interloper and still relate to evangelicalism as one who can’t fully identify with it. Although I had been taught the Scripture from the earliest age (as were my three younger brothers), my theological passion first developed during a few years of prolonged illness during my later teens. Since that point, I have read and written voluminously.

I studied Theology at the Evangelical Theological College of Wales (now WEST), did a Master of Theology in the University of St Andrews in Scotland and have just successfully defended my doctoral thesis at Durham University, in the north of England. My more recent work has focused upon liturgy and biblical typology (for any who are interested, my thesis title is The Red Sea Crossing and Christian Baptism: A Study in Liturgy and Typology). I have been an active blogger since 2003 and currently blog of a wide range of subjects at Alastair’s Adversaria. My Twitter handle is @zugzwanged. I am also a regular participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast.

There are a number of concerns that I bring to the current conversation. Here are some of them:

  1. I believe that in the debates about gender and the Church very little receptive communication is occurring between the sides. I would like to see more of this taking place, as I think that we have much to learn from engagement with each other.
  2. I believe that the extremes on each side tend to receive more attention than they merit: there are moderates of differing persuasions who could achieve significant rapprochement. I think that a lot of pointless polarization is also created by a focus on labels that distracts from substantial engagement with the underlying issues.
  3. I believe that our differences could be broken down to a much less threatening size, were we to work at mutual understanding. I also believe that there is much common ground to be identified and worked upon together.
  4. I believe that our thinking and positions are honed as we spar with intelligent people who differ from us and that our understanding will be enriched as we learn to be attentive and sensitive to concerns that we might not otherwise hear.
  5. I don’t believe that close enough attention has been given to the contingency of the current form of the debate, to the ways in which it is provoked and moulded by particular historical, economic, social, and political circumstances.
  6. I don’t believe that the role of prudence, imagination, and creativity have been given their due place on account of an evangelical focus upon universal systems and legalistic ideologies.
  7. I don’t believe that enough thought is given to identifying the factors that frame the debate and the effects that these can have. For instance, the question of women as priests and pastors is frequently tackled without any attention being given to the role that our ecclesiologies and broader theologies will play in shaping this.
  8. I don’t believe that either side has yet done justice to the biblical witness on these matters.
  9. I believe that conservative evangelical teaching on gender is frequently unbiblical, overly prescriptive, claustrophobic, and rests too heavily on gender stereotypes. While I don’t find most of the alternatives provided persuasive, I am convinced that we can do much better.
  10. I believe that we need a positive theology of men and women, one that neither focuses primarily on what women are supposedly not allowed to do nor downplays the significance of the fact that God created the human race male and female.
  11. I don’t believe that women and their gifts have been given their due place and honour in the life of the Church. I would like for this to be registered as a problem and to work together to provide a theological foundation upon which this situation can be addressed.
  12. I would love to see this conversation encourage and inform concrete change on the ground in various quarters, with the effect of recognizing and employing the gifts of women more fully in the Church’s life.

One of my favourite theologians, Oliver O’Donovan, writes:

When really serious issues are at stake and talk of doctrines ‘upon which the church stands or falls’ begins to rumble like thunder, urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning. It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other’s interpretation. It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important, in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure.

But that is all a trick of the light…

None of this is implied in the search for agreement. The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape – a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think – and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject! – is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.

My hope is that together we will create a place where this happens. I doubt that any unanimous position will ever be reached, but I hope that our differences would be broken down to size, situated within a loving and respectful context, and that we might all learn and grow through the engagement.