Christian Feminism? (XVII)
The Bible “Messes” with Our Lives
Before I get back to what John Smed of Grace Vancouver has written about women in the PCA, I want to take an excerpt from a paper written by two former classmates from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary: Tim and Kathy Keller. They were cited by another PCA pastor, Mark Bates, previously of University Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida, who is now in route to Village Seven Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Let me give you a lead in to what Rev. Bates said.
On the web site of UPC, Pastor Bates has written a piece entitled “The Role of Women in the Church” (http://www.upc-orlando.com). He begins by stating that “Few issues are as controversial in religious circles as the role of women.” (Role, 1). Really? I thought we just got through fighting about one the most historically controversial issues at the 35th General Assembly of the PCA: justification by faith. What about the doctrine of transubstantiation? Wasn’t that one a “biggy” too? We have argued about the nature of the Church from Roman Catholic and Reformed perspective, the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture (isn’t this one rather important as well?), creation vs. evolution, the doctrine of sin from Pelagian, Semi-Pelagian, and Augustinian perspectives, the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and which comes first faith or regeneration, just to give you a sampling of the historical controversies. But Pastor Bates is correct that the issue of the “role of women” is becoming an increasingly controversial topic even though at the outset the PCA was pretty settled about what it believed and taught on the issue. Times have changed.
Pastor Bates and his Session at UPC state that their desire is to be biblical above all else and that they are committed to the Bible as the authoritative Word of God (Ibid.). That’s good news. As a Session they investigated the controversial issue and “saw errors in both the ‘traditional’ and the ‘progressive’ views of women.” (Ibid.) That’s interesting—sort of. Since we’re not really told what precisely constitutes “traditional” and “progressive” we’re once again left with little more than vagaries. Each one of those words is a “loaded” term and can run a rather wide gamut of connotations. The description given by the Session at UPC doesn’t help much: “In the traditional model, women have been oppressed and marginalized.” (Ibid. Italics mine.)
Let me explain why this isn’t helpful. The word “traditional” has become a wax nose in this definition. It can mean anything or everything “traditional” so it ends up meaning nothing. In the definition given by UPC, however, it most definitely carries a very negative connotation. My home church, Grace Presbyterian Church in Yorba Linda, CA, is a traditional church, but we hardly oppress and marginalize our women. Allow me to illustrate what I mean. We recently held a church car wash out on the lawn. The Session set up a collapsible awning to protect us from the sun while we watched our WIC Board and other women who volunteered wash the cars. One of my Elders noted that some of our women were slipping and falling down due to the slick nature of the grass. Within no time we had gone out and purchased football cleats for them so they wouldn’t fall down anymore. No one can accuse us of being traditionally insensitive. (I know I’m going to email and comments on my blog, so let me explain that I’m only kidding!)
On a more serious note, we are, at Grace, what would be termed “traditional” in many regards, but I cannot think of an instance where our women were either oppressed or marginalized. In fact, we value our women highly and support and encourage them in performing biblical works of service in the Kingdom of Christ. The negative language of what the Session of UPC decided is quite unfortunate because it paints all that might be considered or perceived to be “traditional” as those who oppress and marginalize women and this is simply fodder to encourage the “better” use of women and their gifts, but in what I’ve read recently this tends to mean going beyond Scripture, the Westminster Standards, and the Book of Church Order. It happens in my own Presbytery.
According to UPC, “the progressive model obliterates the God-given differences of women and men.” (Ibid.) Okay. Next, there is a qualification: “While the traditional model fails to give women the freedom to use their spiritual gifts fully within the church, the progressive model ignores the Bible’s teaching on the different ways in which men and women may serve in the church.” (Ibid.) What precisely does it mean to give women the freedom to use their spiritual gifts fully within the church? Does it mean that if a woman says to you that she has the gift of teaching, or if a number of women come supporting this one woman’s gift to teach that she must then be allowed to teach men based on the notion that she has the gift? If that is what is meant then the Session at UPC has just nullified its statement about adherence to the mandates and commands of Scripture.
In one of the bullet points, however, Pastor Bates and the Session at UPC tell us what they mean: “Women may serve in any capacity in the church and may use their spiritual gifts in every way that any non-elder man may serve, except that women may not shepherd men.” (Ibid. Italics mine.) This is a mantra that is being “ohmed” more and more in the PCA. Bruce Ware, professor of theology at Southern Baptist Seminary has warned, “Today…the primary areas in which Christianity is pressured to conform are on issues of gender and sexuality.” Ware continues, “The women have used Bible studies that are not consistent with the doctrine of the church. Strong personalities have led the ministry, and there have been significant numbers of women who chose not to be involved rather than risk conflict with these leaders. As a result our older women are not equipped to disciple, and younger women are unaware of their need to be discipled by older women.” Finally, “When the elders realized the consequences of our neglect and tried to slowly and gently bring the women’s ministry back into the mainstream of the church, we were met with resistance and criticism.”
These comments by Ware touch on another aspect of the issue at hand. Lig Duncan and Susan Hunt write that “The crisis of womanhood is too critical for the church to be passive. Scores of evangelical women are functional feminists, because the world’s paradigm for womanhood is the only one they have heard.” My point here is that neither John Smed nor Mark Bates (and his Session) have pondered the possibility that the problem might not lie with those stodgy old traditional churches, but rather with women tainted with strong doses of feminism. I raise this point because UPC hosted Carolyn Custis James two months ago to teach Scripture on the subject of sexuality. I’ll bypass the notion of whether this was the scriptural thing to do in order to get to the point. According to Pastor Bates’ comments on his blog (Certain Hope), Mrs. James’ comments created some misunderstanding of UPC’s position on women within his congregation. That’s very helpful. Thank you, Mrs. James and yet another thanks to the Session for inviting her in the first place. Apparently James’ message “left some people with a number of important questions about the role of women at UPC. In fact, some may even have left with the impression that there are no distinctions between the roles of men and women in home or in the church.” That just had to be such a helpful talk from Mrs. James. Thankfully UPC is not one of those traditional churches that oppress and marginalize but allow confusion to take its course!
All of this explanation by Pastor Bates is merely an introduction to an article written by Tim and Kathy Keller entitled “Women and Ministry.” Under the heading “The Problem of ‘Objectivity’” Tim Keller writes, “I (Tim) recognize that it may seem easy for me to talk in an objective, studied way about what this or that verse means about this subject. I have had women say to me in the midst of such a discussion, ‘For you this is a discussion, but for me this is my life you’re messing with!’”
There’s truth in the saying that you have to start somewhere and where better to begin a discussion about what the Bible says on any given topic than the Bible itself? (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.9 & 10.) Moreover, if you’re going to discuss what Scripture says wouldn’t it be more helpful if we discussed it in a “studied” fashion rather than merely talking off of the tops of our heads or by pulling our opinions from the proverbial place? Let’s say for the sake of argument that Tim has done his homework and is presenting scriptural truth to his audience in a Bible study. Is it then correct and proper for a woman to say to him, “For you this is a discussion, but for me this is my life you’re messing with!”? No, it’s wrong for a number of reasons.
First, it’s incorrect because for Tim it isn’t merely a discussion. He is engaged in conveying biblical truth that he has derived from the Word of God. That being the case—and Tim as a Calvinist knows what Calvin taught about what occurred when a minister of the Word spoke truthfully about the content of Scripture—it really isn’t Tim who’s saying these things it’s the Holy Spirit speaking through Tim.
Second, when the Holy Spirit sanctifies God’s people he is doing a lot more that “messing” with their lives. He is conforming them to the image of Christ, putting the old man of sin to death, and causing the new man in Christ Jesus to come alive more and more. Is it difficult to hear what God says to me in Scripture? Sometimes, yes, it is; it is very difficult, but every time the Word of God cuts me (cf. Heb. 4:12), I must know that it is good (cf. Ps. 119:68). I believe that it is tawdry and cheap to assert that because another Christian speaks the truth to me that he or she is “messing” with my life. I suggest that such a statement comes not from a well informed Christian, but rather from one who doesn’t want to submit to God.
Look, I’m not saying that we never have to struggle with implementing God’s Word in our lives or that we always do it well or even willingly; but I am saying that submitting to the truth of Scripture is a matter of disposition, heart, and attitude. If I have a practical view of Scripture as infallible and inerrant, then I will comprehend that, like it or not, God is working in me to make me more like Jesus. That is my desire more than anything else and I must be willing to put myself aside and let him have his way.
Power and Decision-Making
In John Smed’s article that we began looking at in our last issue, one of his theses is “When authority and leadership are confused, power and decision making are concentrated in the hands of a few.” (The Genius and Joy of Lay Leadership, 2.) My first response as I read those words was that in real church leadership it isn’t about power. Perhaps to some it is, but that is not what Scripture, the Westminster Standards, or the BCO teach. By fiat Smed has placed us in the midst of a power struggle and whenever that occurs, someone is attempting to get the 51st percentile. But is this the image that Scripture gives us of biblical leadership? We are told of instances when members of Israel railed and groused against Moses and perhaps they perceived it to be a power issue, but they were wrong.
It surprises me that in these discussions I don’t hear much about how Session members, for example, are truly striving to do God’s will and to lead God’s people in a biblically humble fashion. I hear about oppression, marginalization, power, and decision-making in the hands of a few. Whether few or many, the Presbyterian form of church government clearly teaches that certain aspects of decision-making are in the hands of the Session and also the Deacons. What they do is not up for grabs unless it is believed that they are clearly violating biblical principles.
But if we allow Smed’s undefined and undefended thesis to stand, then it is possible that if it’s all about power then frustration is produced “for those who are gifted leaders, but not ordained.” (Ibid.) Is this a necessary result, consequence? Isn’t it true that there are a number of people with various gifts who are not ordained office bearers? In any congregation this will be the case. Are we to believe, then, that each of the members is frustrated to the point that it “either leads to disconnection or to opposition”? (Ibid.) Smed believes that a number of men and women struggle with precisely this. He writes, “There is not great challenge and opportunity for them to stay. Relegated to singing hymns and going to Bible study hardly resonates as exciting or worthwhile for anyone who is created and gifted to be a leader.” (Ibid.)
Let me see if I’ve gotten this right. Singing hymns to the Lord God Almighty is tantamount to being relegated to an unexciting and unworthy use of our gifts. I always thought that worshiping God was kind of a “big deal.” When I worship away from my home church I don’t think of that time as wasted simply because I’m sitting in the pew and not standing in the pulpit. I also take exception to the notion that leaders are created; I think, rather, that they are made and that their making is a long, sometimes arduous process of coming up through the ranks. Militarily, Second Lieutenants are not normally put in charge for a Brigade.
What does it mean to be “gifted” to be a leader? There are leaders and there are leaders. Surely, hopefully, Rev. Smed does not equate leadership in the world with the ability to lead Christ’s people in the Church. Book after book has been written about how disastrous this approach can be; about how having CEOs on the Session can be disastrous. But since Rev. Smed just leaves his statement hanging in the air, we are left to our own devices to decipher what he means. Once again, it can mean almost anything.
Is Rev. Smed suggesting that we allow people who are gifted leaders in the world come into the congregation and use their gifts in an unchecked manner? I was talking to a man not long ago who was attending Grace but eventually decided to leave. When I asked him why, he told me that he wanted his son-in-law to attend church more regularly and that he would not come to Grace. I thought the reason why was because we were a traditional congregation that oppressed and marginalized everyone not just the women. But that wasn’t the reason. His son-in-law, who had gifts of leadership, demanded that any church he would attend had to have at least 1,000 members on the rolls, be seeker-sensitive, and sing praise songs. This happens all the time with those who fancy themselves to be “leaders.” It also happens with both men and women.
In spite of this, Rev. Smed is convinced that “In spite of all the ‘sound and fury’ about women’s ordination, I would argue that this is not the most important leadership issue before the church.” I would add: not yet it isn’t. Lord willing, more next time.
 Bruce Ware, “Ethics in a New Millennium,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 4, No. 1 (Spring 2000): 91.
 Ibid., 92. Italics mine.
 J. Ligon Duncan & Susan Hunt, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), p. 42.
Labels: Christian Feminism