Level Ground at the Foot of the Cross: Gender Roles in the Church, Part 1

I’ve never written or spoken publicly on the issue of gender roles in the church. My philosophy about my personal ministry work has long been: “Lord, here I am, send me, and I will go.” A prayer I pray persistently is, “Open the doors I am to walk through, but seal tight the ones that would displease you.” I trust that the Lord hears me and knows my heart, and I proceed in my work with caution, doing all I can to be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. (Although, I do admit that sometimes I plead for the proverbial neon sign. ūüôā )

I’ve given public lectures¬†by invitation, and I’ve taught classes for churches of which I was a member. At Houston Baptist University, I teach a course I designed on Science and Christianity, and¬†many (but not all) of my students are Christians. Once in a while, over the course of my years in ministry, my audience has been exclusively female, but that has, surprisingly, been the exception rather than the rule.

Don’t get me wrong; I love teaching a room full of women! In fact, I¬†recently¬†developed a talk entitled “Womanhood and the Life of the Mind,” which is based upon some of the material in the cover article I wrote for the spring issue of Christian Research Journal, “Motherhood and the Life of the Mind.” I gave the talk for the first time¬†at a beautiful women’s tea¬†in Richmond, Virginia last weekend, and it was a sweet time of sharing my heart and doing my best to encourage sisters in Christ towards developing a more robust intellectual life. The content of the talk really isn’t gender-specific, with the exception of my exhortation to mothers and grandmothers about mentoring children intellectually. It’s a Scripture-based exhortation to love the Lord with our minds so that we can be and make excellent disciples.

The morning after I delivered the talk in Richmond, the event organizer sent me a note, and something that really stuck out to me was her remark that the men who had worked as servers at the tea (in spiffy black bow ties, no less!), who had stood in the back of the room during my talk, approached her at church the next morning to tell her of their appreciation for what I’d had to say.

I’m painfully aware¬†that there are some Christians¬†who would condemn me for teaching within the walls of the church where men are in attendance¬†and/or¬†condemn the men for listening to my teaching. More than once, I have received indirect criticism for teaching mixed audiences.¬†At a¬†church where I¬†served as a¬†Sunday morning class teacher, the disapproval from some was subtle but unmistakable. Fellow members¬†(thankfully only a very few), who had been gracious and friendly in the years prior to me assuming a teaching role, immediately began doing the cold-shoulder routine, and when I would smile and greet them¬†in the hallway, the response was always a tight-lipped, begrudging¬†half-smile with a curt nod. I know that, in their eyes, my teaching was a form of open disobedience, of outright sin. Nevermind that some of my male class members were open¬†about¬†how the knowledge I shared from week to week was helping them have more effective¬†faith conversations at the workplace and with their own children. Some might reply: “Well, God can even use sinful actions for His own glory.”¬†

I have often been asked to articulate my position on the role of women in the church, and, honestly, I’ve just avoided the controversy as much as possible; it gives me a headache. But, at the end of the day, the fact that I am a woman who teaches in churches means that I truly¬†need to be willing to talk about it, to justify my actions on biblical¬†grounds.¬†So,¬†I’ve been reading more deeply, more broadly, and meditating upon¬†the words of Scripture pertaining to this issue.¬†

How do we define “teaching in the church”? By “church” do we mean specific brick-and-mortar locations? Or, do we mean teaching the people that make up “the church” regardless of the setting in which the¬†teaching happens? If we mean the latter, then any and all Scripture-related teaching a woman does, whether in the university setting, a home-based study, on television, by writing books, or even blogging¬†counts as “teaching in the church.” Obviously, there’s no way to limit the readers and hearers to women. Do we mean that Scripture is referring to the teaching that goes on only in the worship service setting on Sunday morning? That would imply that worship only happens in specific corporate gatherings on specific days. We know that’s not true. ¬†What’s the deal, then?¬†

This post will be the first in a short series, because I hope to give this topic more than a cursory treatment. I want to wrap up this first installment by highlighting what I think is a key general observation about the relevant Scripture.

st_junia2.jpg_w540Within the New Testament, there seems to be significant tension among¬†various passages that communicate, whether implicitly or explicitly, anything¬†about the place of women¬†in the body of Christ. For example, if some of the words of Paul are taken at plain face value and applied to all Christians¬†in all times and cultures, they seem to be at odds with Jesus’ attitude towards women and even with some of Paul’s other remarks and actions regarding women. When we find such tension, it’s intellectually and theologically irresponsible to ignore it, or worse, to pick out a “proof text” that seems to justify our preferred view. There is complexity that must¬†be explored for a comprehensive and viable understanding. What we need is a harmonious integration of the texts that pays very careful attention to the cultural context in which the passage was written, recognizes¬†the nuances of the original language, and considers the intended audience of an epistle.¬†

New Testament scholar (and retired Anglican Bishop)¬†N.T. Wright is fond of saying, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” We are made male and female for purposes beyond procreation, I am certain. Separately, we have been given some special ways in which we are uniquely equipped to serve the body. But in addition, the testimony of Scripture seems to¬†indicate¬†that, whether in the marital union or the corporate church, men and women together reflect the image of God most fully, and this includes some overlap in our roles as Christ followers. The question is, where is the overlap and how far does it extend?

In my next post, we’ll examine Jesus’ attitude towards women, particularly how women¬†were treated and used in his pre-ascension ministry. Remember, this was before the birth of the church proper, which happened on the day of Pentecost¬†(a day¬†commemorated as a Principal¬†Holy Day in my church tradition). It will be interesting to compare and contrast the Gospels with¬†Paul’s epistolary instructions to various churches of his day.