I just finished reading How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership:Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals, edited by Alan F. Johnson. In the individual stories, each written by a different evangelical leader, one recurring theme began to stand out in my mind. Here it is articulated by John H. Armstrong, former pastor and current church consultant, president of a ministry known as ACT 3:
[In my childhood in 1950s America] Mom was a gifted teacher of the Bible. She was, in fact, the best Bible teacher I ever heard until I went to college. I honestly think she was the best Bible teacher in our town. Jealousy among local pastors, who knew how gifted (and popular) she was, surfaced when her Bible classes for teens drew large numbers of young adults from every church background to our home. . . I soon learned that the real question was not whether people like Mom could use their gifts. Most agreed about her gifts and their importance. The pressing troubling question came down to this: How should my mom have used her gifts in relationship to the men in the church? Should she have been encouraged to actually teach men? Many years after I became an adult, she was given a dying Sunday evening women’s class in a megachurch. The class began to grow rapidly. The women then began to bring their husbands, who gladly listened to Mom teach until the pastor stepped in to stop it! [Emphasis in original.]
Here’s a similar story by Olive Liefeld, former missionary to Ecuador, author and speaker:
I had been home from Ecuador for a few months after my husband, Peter Fleming, along with four other missionaries, were killed by the Auca (now properly known as the Waorani) Indians. . . [This] was one of a number of incidents that made me realize that there were many inconsistencies and ways to get around some of the strong beliefs about women speaking in front of men. . . Being [Plymouth] Brethren, I was not used to doing public speaking. . . I was asked to speak at women’s conferences and at their missionary meetings, but never to the church assembly.
In some places the men were determined to hear me. After one of the meetings, a door opened behind me and a group of men came out. They were listening to me behind the wall. At one women’s conference several men came and asked me if it would be all right if they listened to me in the lower auditorium. In other places, if they couldn’t hear me in the assembly building, then I was asked to speak in a home.
Again and again I saw this as I read. Devoted Christian churches trying to follow what they sincerely felt was God’s prohibition against women teaching men. Women trying to obey the rule that they were only to teach the Bible to other women or to children. And an odd side-effect, arising out of the simple fact that what these women had to give was actually beneficial and enriching to more people than those they were supposed to be ministering to.
Beneficial and enriching, in short, to men. And the men ended up as the ones losing out.
In the same book John Stackhouse, Jr., former professor of religion, currently Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, summarizes the issue:
My actual experience with women of faith raised further questions. . . I encountered female Christians who were the spiritual equal of men. Indeed, they seemed the equal of men in every way pertinent to leadership in church and society, and also to partnership at home. . . examples of women who simply were not inferior to men, who seemed to me in their respective ways to possess all that was necessary for full partnership in every social sphere. They were certainly feminine in classic ways– warm, nurturing, encouraging, patient and gentle– but also rational, discerning, insightful and pragmatic. So why . . . couldn’t we benefit from their leadership? [Emphasis added.]
You would think, if God really intended women to be limited to teaching their Bible insights and spiritual knowledge only to other women and to children, that the teaching of women would in all practicality be incapable of truly benefiting or lifting up men– at least, not in those venues where women are apparently forbidden. Shouldn’t God limit the abilities of women to what would suit their proper sphere? Shouldn’t men find, since God never intended women to have anything spiritually authoritative to teach men in a church setting, that they as men don’t actually learn anything valuable when they listen in on women teaching in church?
And yet the Father seems to keep on creating women who are so creative, intelligent and capable that they reach, almost despite themselves, outside that supposed proper sphere. And throughout Christian history, when it comes to divine giftings, the Holy Spirit has just never seemed willing to obey the rules. As I have detailed on this blog in the past, from Marcella of Rome in 350 AD, to Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century, to Margaret Fell in the England of the 1600s and Jerena Lee early in 19th-century America– a divine anointing for Bible ministry, uplifting people of both sexes, has been apparent in the lives of many women.
In 1711-1712 Susanna Wesley conducted evening gatherings at her home during the absence of her minister husband, which quickly escalated into community-attended Bible services. As she put it:
Other people’s coming out and joining with us was merely accidental. One lad told his parents. They first desired to be admitted; then others that heard of it, begged leave also. . . With those few neighbors that then came to me, I discoursed more freely and affectionately. I chose the best and most awakening sermons we have. And I spent somewhat more time with them in such exercises, without being careful about [i.e., without paying active attention to] the success of my undertaking. Since this, our company increased every night; for I dare deny none that ask admittance. . . Last Sunday I believe we had above two hundred. And yet many went away, for want of room to stand.*
Even in the pages of the Bible itself, Christian women are mentioned who seem to be commissioned for more than just the teaching of other women and children, such as deacon Phoebe and Junia the apostle, both mentioned in Romans 16.**
So what it comes down to is this. Many churches restrict women from teaching men. But men are finding many women’s teachings so good that they really want to hear them. Who, then, is actually being restricted? Who has to sneak around and listen behind walls and pretend they’re not breaking the rules?
Has any church in history ever taught or preached that men should be restricted and constrained from hearing good, anointed, life-changing Bible teaching?
Obviously not. Churches have taught only that women should be restricted and constrained from teaching men. And women who feel called into ministry have felt the restriction, and wept over it. They have wept particularly when they tried to speak to men and men have turned their backs. But women haven’t stopped teaching those they are allowed to teach.
And when the men won’t listen, or are told not to listen, or are shamed for listening, it’s the men who are losing out. Somehow I don’t think this result was anticipated or intended by evangelical gatekeepers who thought they were keeping men and women safe from the dangerous consequences of women overstepping authority.
The problem is that the dangerous consequences have somehow failed to materialize, while the real blessings of women’s giftings have.
When real life just won’t cooperate with the way a religious rule is suppose to work, doesn’t that mean the rule has somehow become more important than the people it was meant to help? And has the original purpose of the rule somehow gotten lost? Was the Sabbath made for man, or man for the Sabbath? (Mark 2:27)
If even the Pharisees would pull their donkey out of a pit on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5), and Jesus used this as a reason to do good on the Sabbath even if it seemed to break the rules, then should male Christians be deprived of good teaching in Sunday morning church just because it’s coming from the mouth of the other sex?
God really isn’t that schizophrenic and arbitrary. And if our view of the Bible is making Him so, perhaps its time we found another way to look at it
*Words of Susanna Wesley quoted by her son John Wesley in The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 1, page 386; requoted in Daughters of the Church, Tucker & Liefeld (Zondervan,1986), p. 238.