I grew up in a church with a woman pastor. Indeed most of the ministers and preachers I knew from my youth were women. My Sunday School teacher was a woman (and also my mother) and included in the doctrines of my church was a clause asserting the equality of male and female before God with the implicit assumption that women could and should function at all levels of service within the church. If that were not enough, I work for an organization that has a very clear and strong stand on issues of women in leadership; permitting their full participation without prejudice. I’ve know many gifted women preachers, teachers, and pastors. I’ve defended the rights of women to do all of the above and more, as the Lord leads
Why I am then troubled?
As a historian, I am aware of the countless ways women have been devalued and oppressed by men and by the systems that men have constructed to protect their power and privilege. I know that these systems have not just been social and political, but theological as well. And I know that women struggled and still struggle for due consideration as joint heirs of God along with men.
Still I struggle.
I struggle because I am aware of history and how readily Christians have shaped by the prevailing winds of culture whether the Church-state alliances of the Crusades era, or the consecration of slave ships and the slave trade in the 18th century. We find it difficult to mount ourselves on the solid rock of Christ, and too often are carried to and fro by every wind of doctrine. I struggle because 50 years ago divorce in the church was a blessedly rare occurrence, not because the people were any holier or committed than we, but because it was socially unacceptable and that now divorce is as common or more in Christian communities than in the “world.” I struggle because what was unthinkable in a conservative Christian church 50 years ago is now becoming commonplace and I fear what “unthinkables” will be common fifty years from now.
I am troubled by the fact that the discussion of women in ministry is in large part made possible by the fact that in the past fifty years we have embraced unhesitatingly medical and social practices that have freed women from what had heretofore kept them bound to home and heath, that is to say childbirth. That is not to say that I oppose birth control, but really our attitude towards it is much the same as those who advocate for abortion: it is our body and our choice – it really is only a matter of degree.
I am troubled that despite my mental assent to the idea of women in ministry, I would find it very difficult to join a church with a woman as senior pastor, and that I would probably suspect that her husband was less than a man. I am disturbed my own hypocrisy.
I am troubled that the whole issue of mutual submission is drummed up in any discussion of Ephesians 5 when it relates to the husband and wife relationship but not when it comes to children. No one is arguing that parents ought to be subject to their children under the “mutual submission” clause even though it falls in the same passage.
I am troubled by the many women I see who are devalued, or valued only for their looks or lack thereof, or who doubt their God given worth. Even more I am troubled by the ways I do all of those things to them.
I struggle to reconcile the godly and gifted women I see who have ministered to me and poured out their lives to others with the somewhat contrived exegesis I sometimes read that justifies their ministry – as if it needed justification. And yet it often does. I struggle with that.
I am troubled by the feeling I sometimes get that if I don’t believe that women should serve in all levels of leadership in the church that I am somehow a theological reactionary and quite possible a misogynist, and most assuredly a chauvinist. It disturbs me that I feel as if I must edit myself in certain company lest I offend people.
I am troubled by many things, and most of these things have no easy answer. I wrestle with them and live with the ambiguity. For me the settled certainties of women serving at any level of leadership in the church are not so settled anymore. I am not sure what has changed for me. Perhaps I have simply grown more prejudiced as I have grown older. Perhaps I see more broadly than I did when I was young. In many ways nothing has changed: I still support women in ministry. In other ways everything has changed and still I struggle.