“Nowhere does the Scripture command us to develop our sex role awareness as males or females. It calls us–both men and women–to acquire the mind of Christ and to be transformed in his image…Genuine Christian spirituality is located beyond the entrapments of gender roles.” –Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles
These were the kinds of words I grew up hearing in my large evangelical church. Gilbert–Dr. B, as he was affectionately known–was a charter member and elder at Willow Creek, and it was from Dr. B and Bill and dozens of others that I heard, over and over again, that a woman with gifts of teaching and leadership had every bit as much claim on these roles within the church as a man. In fact, it wasn’t until I left for (a Christian) college that I really began to understand how widespread the notion was that women were prohibited from “positions of authority” in the church, a vague and indefensible term if I’ve ever heard one.
But let’s back up a bit. Like I mentioned in Parts I, II, and III, this series is about growing up evangelical–and how I’m really glad I did. One of the primary objections leveled against the evangelical church (and it isn’t restricted to evangelicalism) is the restriction against women in leadership roles. When I was in college, I experienced this firsthand at a woman’s Bible study in which the pastor’s wife (again, teaching only to women–teaching to men would have been verboten) said to the women: “You know you want to wear the pants in your relationship. And that is sinful. Sometimes, you’ve got to take off the pants and put on a skirt.”
I walked out.
There are so many things I could talk about–the way cultural mores of the 1950s have come to replace “Biblical” gender roles; the way the notion of “Biblical” gender roles is pretty radical and nuanced (cf. A Year of Biblical Womanhood for more on that); the way that Jesus elevated the position of women over and over again in his lifetime. And I’ve talked about that before and will again, I’m sure, but I’m not quite done talking about my story.
Growing up evangelical made me a feminist. (I’ve been reading Jesus Feminist, by the way, and can’t recommend it highly enough–especially since Sarah Bessey’s experience of egalitarianism in the church echoes my own.) From the outset at Willow Creek, there was nothing being done anywhere in the church that could not or was not being done by a woman. Every Sunday morning I took the thick gray brochure with green embossing and read five names under the “teaching pastor” positions: three men, and two women. One of those women happened to be my mother, which deserves its own separate post–she’s remarkable in ways I cannot even name–but the reality of the situation remained that I was reminded every single week that women were called to follow their gifts, too, and that their gifts weren’t relegated to the domestic sphere and that gifts of leadership and teaching did not require an all-female audience. I never once got the message that women were weaker, more emotional, less able, or needed caring for. I was part of the largest evangelical church in the country, and my dreams for the future were never limited by my gender.
(I will say, though, I was NOT so much a fan of this the evening my mom gave the sex talk to a group of high school students in our youth group. Not that I would have preferred my dad do it; I wouldn’t have wanted either of them there at all. I mostly tried to tune her out while my friends ribbed me throughout.)
In high school, we had women teach and lead music and men pray and prepare food. From that young age, when so much of my worldview was being shaped, I was aware that women could do whatever it was we were called to do in the church. Had that not been the case, I cannot imagine what repercussions that would have had on my faith life. Rather, I can imagine–I’ve seen it play out dozens of times in disillusioned friends who have left the church because they did not see any place for them to fit. But the legacy of all my friends from Willow–wherever they are in their faith right now–is that there is a deeply engrained respect
for the giftedness of men and women alike. And my own gift of teaching was cultivated at Willow by some people who took a great deal of interest in my growth. This wasn’t some radical, liberal, fringe-y place. This was evangelicalism.
The issue has always been framed, in my experience, in terms of giftedness. If there is a man who is gifted in the areas of hospitality and care, we shouldn’t put him in a preaching position simply because he’s a man. And if there is a woman who is gifted in areas of leading and teaching, then she ought to be leading and she ought to be teaching. Not to do so would to be unfaithful to our Lord.
Sometimes, I wonder if we have all bought into a kind of theology that tells us that women are still essentially fallen, and men are fully redeemed. Not overtly, of course. But there’s the danger–when we start to operate from the assumption that our culture defines our theology, we forget the radical message of Jesus that includes everyone as part of God’s redemptive plan. When we think and live this way, we forget that the message in Galatians 3:28 was the first egalitarian statement ever made. As Dr. B wrote, “[People] still remain male or female, but such distinctions become immaterial to their equal participation in the life of the church” (Beyond Sex Roles, p. 95).
When I say there is nothing that remains unspeakable for me at the intersection of my gender and my faith, I don’t mean to say that the church has completely resolved this issue and that we need to put it behind us. Not at all. I’m speaking for myself from my history, my family, my sense of self. We have a long way to go—that much is clear.
But I do mean that one of the arguments against evangelicalism can also be flipped on its head–has been flipped on its head–in the work of this church and so many others that are faithfully calling and preparing and encouraging women and men for all roles within the church. If the body of Christ requires all of us to participate in order to be whole, then the person of Jesus as God is the one to whom we must be faithful–not some idea of masculinity or femininity constructed decades ago. And that is happening already across the world, and that is a really, really good thing.