What’s a nice egalitarian woman like you doing…?

What’s a nice egalitarian woman like you doing in a complementarian church?

When we started attending this church a year and a half ago, a friend said to me, “You know they’re Gospel Coalition people, right?”

Yes, I did know. In fact, during our decision/discernment process about whether this church would be a good fit for us, we’d invited both pastors over to our home for some frank conversation about how their neo-Reformed theology worked itself out in the congregation. The conversation touched on topics including their view of Israel (an urgent question for us, since Reformed theology is typically supersecessionist in its interpretation of Scripture’s story, a position my husband and I find untenable and anti-Semitic) as well as the role of women in the congregation.

The funny thing about at least one of those conversations is that neither my husband nor I brought up the subject of women’s roles. The pastor did, perhaps because he knew that I am a writer and do some speaking.

He didn’t know that my husband is probably more of an egalitarian than I am. Bill had sifted through the hysteria and hyperbole surrounding these issues early in his seminary days. He’d enrolled in seminary in his forties after a couple of decades of experience in the church. As a result, he was not in the market for a ticket to ride on whatever popular “issue of the week” theological bandwagon that happened to be rolling by. At Trinity, that bandwagon was a faddish devotion to Calvin-flavored fundamentalism. Bill noted that when he was an undergrad at Trinity in the 1970’s, most of the faculty were dedicated Arminians – in other words, the bandwagon was heading in the opposite direction back then.

Because I began my church life in a very conservative “non”denomination, I accepted this group’s take on women’s roles without question – though I never donned a head covering for worship like the really spiritual women did. Though we moved on from that church shortly after we married, I didn’t really do much serious reflection on the topic of women in ministry for several years. I wrote and spoke, gradually finding my voice and embracing the ministry and gifts God gave me. When I read Dr. Sarah Sumner’s Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership a few years ago (while working at Trinity’s bookstore!), I felt that she’d put words to who God had called me to be. The book launched some new conversations in my life, including a few with my husband, who had often wondered what took me so long to believe about myself what he had long believed about me – and so many other God-gifted women. Everyone’s gifts are needed in order to so the church can both be and become the Bride of Christ.

It is a wonderful blessing in the truest sense of the word to have someone else affirm your ministry. Bill’s ongoing blessing of my writing and speaking ministry has had an unexpected side effect: it has stripped the gears from my propensity to agitate against institutional injustice when it comes to this issue. Perhaps because I am free to step behind a pulpit on a Sunday morning or in a seminar as a guest speaker if I am asked (just as Bill, a gifted teacher in his own right, is), I don’t feel any urge to fight this particular church on these issues. Or, more likely, maybe I’m just battle-weary at this point in my life.

I appreciate the preaching at this church, which thus far has been mercifully free from agendas and politics, and value the humility and service orientation I see among both men and women there. The women I’ve met there are smart and curious. I do feel a bit sad the church is limiting their voices in areas that could benefit this local body. But male and female members alike have chosen to affirm the complementarian position in order to structure their life together, and I can respect their choice to do so.

They’ve been supportive of our Jewishness, our connection to Caspari and love for Israel as well as the other ministries (Bill is a Mundelein police chaplain, I handle communications for Christ Together) of which we’re a part. I am so grateful for their prayers and kindness in that way. We always have to suck it up in some area or other when we become a part of a local body, right?

So, I’m curious – what do you think? Is the issue of women in ministry a deal-breaker for you when it comes to choosing a local congregation?
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9 thoughts on “What’s a nice egalitarian woman like you doing…?”

  1. Great post, Michelle, and a very good and difficult question. I think a lot depends on the church itself and how their theology works itself out in practice. I'm really glad you feel the freedom to be and to minister as who you are — to me, that's the main thing, for the church to be empowering every individual to use his or her gifts in the body,

    That being said, for me personally, I think the issue is a deal-breaker at this point, in part just because of my own (sinful?) gut reaction against complementarianism a la the Gospel Coalition. It's true — we're always going to have to "suck it up" in some way when we join a church. Thankfully, we can pray for the strength to submit to the body AND to work to make the church the place God wants it to be.

  2. Hi Michelle! I am very happy to see you addressing this issue in a sane and real-life way. I am just finishing my thesis at TEDS on the topic of Women in Ministry in the EFCA so this is very present in my mind and life right now. Regarding the difference in viewpoints on this as a doctrinal question in the church, I do respect our "agree to disagree" policy, however, it is hard to justify one side of the table prohibiting the other from living out her conviction and call of the Holy Spirit. I believe the church, and we as individuals, should continually practice the self examen necessary to uphold the principle "ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda."

  3. Believe me, Amanda, I am a fan of working to make a local body all it can and should be. Agitating for change when a church has already decided who they are sometimes needs to happen – but I am glad to let the Holy Spirit lead on this one in this particular congregation. God knows I've been involved in fighting for change (not over women's ministry issues) at a few other congregations along the way, and the score is Other Congregations 3, Michelle 0. Endless meetings and discussions and angsty prayer sessions and schism and division – and in the end, I ask myself "What was accomplished in all that?" It seems that people with agendas different than that of the leadership get branded pretty quickly as problem children.

    I'm so glad you are being affirmed in your gifts, are free to use them and have the vestments to prove it. 🙂 I am discovering that if I stop looking at a single congregation (or denomination) as the definer of my place in the body of Christ, I am more spiritually healthy. There are other places besides a local church/denom to minister.

    Carol, I would love to have a peek at your paper and hear about your thought process once you've finished and have some time. It would be wonderful to grab a cup of coffee sometime when your schedule clears. 🙂

  4. I am seriously considering joining a church that is 'egalitarian' when I am not (according to the way the boxes have been drawn). The reason is because I think neither the church nor I define ourselves by that singular issue.

    When the minor issues stay minor and the major issues stay major, there is lots of room for diversity. And unity doesn't have to be the same as uniformity.

  5. Michelle. I am so glad you posted this. I also wrestled with this issue when joining the church and chose not to fight that battle. I can also relate to not feeling like I need to because I am able to use my gifts in the church. Thanks for your thoughts, as always.

  6. Thanks for writing this. I loved how you put "it has stripped the gears from my propensity to agitate against institutional injustice when it comes to this issue." I "agitate" on my blog and with the elders and others, all the time and it's draining and not life affirming. My present church is evangelical free and does not allow women to be elders. but they do serve all over. never, rarely, preach. as an elder in my previous church (Presbyterian) it is difficult for me to want to become a member at my present church. EFCA seems to leave it to the individual church to decide the roles of women. I would love to talk with other women about this whole conundrum.

  7. Thanks for writing, Melody! I worked at Trinity International University (Bookstore and Chapel Office) off and on over a five-year period, and heard many female students say that though the denomination leaves it to individual congregations to set policy, most tend to veer away from tackling the issue. There may be individual EFCA pastors and elders who may be affirming of the idea of women in leadership, but lack the courage to advocate for change in a traditionalist congregation. It seems as though the denomination's policy might actually create confusion and frustration, because it seems to imply that there is a possibility that a women may be able to lead in a congregation – when in actuality, most of the churches in the denom are pretty traditionalist.

  8. Like you I did the same thing, attended a complementarian church although I am egalitarian. I did interview the one egalitarian on the church board to see where he thought the church was going, whether it would move for greater access to ministry or become more restrictive. At that time, it was generally a non-issue for me, though.

    With my current church, however, I know that I could never do in that other church what I am doing in this one. I have incredible support and empowerment from the church leadership. Indeed, I am given incredible freedom.

    Having a church that empowers women is an amazing treasure.

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