Why I am Speaking Out for Evangelical Women

By March 10, 2020No Comments

The same afternoon Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, one of my friends sent me a link to a devotional series for married couples from Desiring God. My heart just sank.
This is how it was tweeted on October 5, 2018: “She submits. He sacrifices. She follows. He leads. She affirms. He initiates. They both reflect Jesus.” The devotional book, Happily Ever After: Finding Grace in the Messes of Marriage, was a free digital download last weekend. I don’t know how many folk downloaded it, but the tweet was altogether liked, retweeted, and commented on more than 600 times.
Just the next day, on October 6, I ran across another Desiring God post (through twitter). In this post, Piper answered the question “can a woman preach if elders affirm it?” on his blog. It received 69,386 views on YouTube (by my count on October 12). You can watch the video (and read the really lively comment discussion), but the tweet already gave his answer: “All men and women should be active in ministry. The question is how. Pastor John explains why God reserves Sunday-morning preaching for men.”.
(As a church historian, I could spend the rest of this post just on that one sentence. Why is Sunday-morning singled out as the authoritative event reserved by God when Sunday-preaching itself as the focal event for churches is a late historical addition? By itself, this statement demonstrates how tied complementarian theology is to modern North American Christianity and not representative of either the historic past or the global present. Moreover, why is preaching so clearly reserved for men? In Women, Ministry, and the Gospel: Exploring New Paradigms, editor and Wheaton professor Timothy Larsen shows how evangelicals were ONCE committed to women in ministry. As he writes, “Many of the most prominent male leaders of evangelicalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were vocal champions of women in public ministry.” The Evangelical Free Church of America, for example, which is now committed to complementarianism was once more egalitarian. In 1925 the Evangelical Free Church specified that “a candidate for ordination shall request a reference from the church which he or she is a member.” Larsen unpacks this statement for us: “the Evangelical Free Church of America not only welcomed women into public ministry but also went out of its way to make this explicit by using gender-inclusive statements in its constitution.” I actually tweeted this article just a few days ago, and the response was really surprising. Evangelicals simply do not know the long history of women’s involvement in church leadership and ministry …..But I digress, for now, so back to my point…)
On the one hand, John Piper’s promotions of “godly patriarchy” on Desiring God has no explicit connection to the mixed reactions toward Christine Blasey Ford and the support for Brett Kavanaugh by conservative men and women. On the other hand, it has everything to do with it. Attitudes like those perpetuated by John Piper create, sustain, and promote a culture of patriarchy in North American Christianity that advocates for submissive women and aggressive males. What saddens me the most is how these portrayals of manhood and womanhood are marketed (and I really do mean marketed) as the “biblical” standard for godly behavior.
For women in my Christian world, we are taught that the Bible advocates women to be submissive followers of men. Just think about the implications of this for both men and women. Just think of what it means for women, 1 out of every 3 in my state of Texas, who find themselves in physically abusive relationships. Just think of what it means for women, who like me, find themselves in leadership positions over men who have been taught that all women should be submissive and not leaders. Think about the correlation between this and the data that shows how much more men interrupt women when they are speaking…..
Just think about it.
I really never meant to become an activist.
My Southern Baptist world of small town Texas preached the ‘divinely ordained’ roles of women. From sermons to Sunday School to well-meaning high school teachers, women were called to secondary roles in church and family with an emphasis on marriage and children. School-sponsored dances as early as 5th grade, along with other small town dating traditions, pushed girls into serious relationships long before we were ready. The irony of teaching on sexual purity while sponsoring couple-centered events for fourteen and fifteen-year-olds seemed lost on local churches. Church life for me was filled with the voices of conservative men, like James Dobson. Selected biblical passages wove through sermons, books, and bible studies to create a seamless picture of scriptural support for female subordination. Women were made to desire their husbands and let him rule (Genesis); women were to trust God and wait for their perfect husband (Ruth); men’s voices were public, women’s voices were private (Corinthians, Timothy); when women did take charge, it was either sin (Eve) or because men failed to do their job (Deborah). A woman’s lot was supportive and secondary, unless she had to (temporarily) step into leadership when men failed.
This was once my world. It is still the world of many women I know and love. It is to these women, and for these women, that I am mostly speaking.
I am not asking these women to change their minds. I really do get the complexity of life for conservative evangelical women. I really do understand that many women live in complementarian systems, often by their own choices. This was once my world too.
I am just asking these women to listen.
Listen not just from the experiences of other women, but also from the evidence of church history. I confess it was experiences in my life, my personal exposure to the ugliness and trauma inflicted by complementarian systems in the name of Jesus, that tipped me over the edge. I can no longer watch silently as gender hierarchies oppress and damage both women and men in the name of Jesus.
But what brought me to this edge was not experience; it was historical evidence.
Soon I am going to start a new series on The Historical Problem of Patriarchy for Modern Christians. It will highlight my journey to egalitarianism through historical evidence. I hope you will join me.

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