Half the Church – Living In the Debate Zone

I have been reading ‘Half the Church’ by Carolyn Custis James and blogging my thoughts on it. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 and Part 5 are available here. This was going to be a three part series. However this is my sixth and final installment….

I’ve finished reading Half the Church. I’ve blogged about God’s Vision, and if it is big enough to include us all, Image Bearing, and how we live to reflect God’s image into the world, male and female. I’ve blogged about the Trinity, and what it teaches us about human relationships, about Submission and if it means what we think it means, and Servant Leadership, the hardest and least appreciated aspect of following Jesus.

Now what?

We are still left with the great debate.

Has God placed limits on what women can or cannot do in the home and in the church?

So many volumes have been written on the subject. So many experts disagree. That this issue has come to a stalemate should at least inject a significant dose of humility into this discussion, that there is not a clear answer. Even Dr John Stackhouse has been in both camps (egalitarian and complementarian) at various times, and has said, on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (one of the most contested passages on this topic), that no one can explain this passage. The answer to if there are limits placed on women in the home or church, is not going to be found by puzzling out the ‘right’ interpretation of these specific, contested passages.

Meanwhile, half the church is living in the debate zone. This creates a boatload of uncertainty and anxiety for many women: am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Am I too independent, too competent? Or too deferential, too hesitant? We are making choices and trying to move forward with flashing lights of caution at every intersection and people we love and respect pointing us in opposite directions. Even those in the ‘same camp’ draw different, conflicting boundary lines of what is okay!

I have spun myself dizzy trying to live in a way that pleases everyone on this issue. Feminist, but not angry feminist, independent but not too independent. Being told to make up my own mind, and then being informed what that mind should be. Both sides are guilty of this – and all those in-between. Perhaps the worst are those that constantly try to drag me back to the safe middle ground only because it is safe.

So far almost everything I have said in previous posts and all the key ideas in this book do not fall into a strictly complementarian or egalitarian view (though I appreciate others might disagree with me on this). I know you can be a proponent of biblical equality and be a complementarian. You can be a feminist and be a complementarian. But what I really want to know is can you be an egalitarian and be biblically and theologically sound? I am fairly confident you can. But what does that look like in practice?

The fact of the matter is, most egalitarians attend churches pastored by men. There are many egalitarians who choose to belong to complementarian churches because they agree on other theological issues.

So is a egalitarian biblically obliged to challenge the local status quo or leave? Often, women who disagree with their church’s views on women tend to go elsewhere rather than fight a doomed battle that does nothing to improve things.

I love my church. I am not going to leave anytime soon. It is a mix of official complementarian theology but a practice of equality and inclusion for women. I am allowed to read the Bible and pray in my own words up the front. Women do not preach. Women lead ministries – but not mixed growth groups on their own (though most growth groups are lead by a male and female together). I am deeply committed to my church. Most women who stay are. They want to contribute, be part of the conversation and to be valued members of the team.

This is all even more confusing because we don’t live in a patriarchal society anymore. The West still has sexism deep in its DNA, but women mostly enjoy the same education, career opportunities and potential for success as men. I have experienced this as a very lucky, privileged girl in the West studying at university. Yet in the church I feel frozen, not going backwards but scared to move too far forwards, too quickly in case I disturb things too much. Yet still, my question remains unanswered.

Has God placed limits on what women can or cannot do in the home and in the church?

Are we investing crazy amounts of resources and energy and time on contested passages instead of looking at the passages that clearly outline other parts of living God’s way? Let’s begin with the two greatest commandments – to love God with all we are, and to love others as ourselves. Do these commands push us towards or away from this great debate? Or do they push us into action?

While we argue, millions of girls are sold as sex slaves, made child brides and traded like property. This does not diminish the seriousness of the debate, but increases it – for unlike most theological debates in our churches, this ongoing argument has a face – it has millions of faces, of the women caught in the firing line. The debate happens in an ivory tower, but how it plays out in the real world is far from academic and safe.

So – is the gospel truly good news for women who live in entrenched patriarchal cultures? Is it good news to them if the gospel reinforces men as leaders and women as followers? How bone-chilling does this message sound in the ears of women who are being oppressed or who have been caught in the clutches of human trafficking?

Neither side of the debate is okay with abuse, but are we interpreting Scripture rightly when our conclusions create scenarios where abuse can thrive unchecked? Just as injustice ignites God’s wrath, so we are called to share his outrage at any injustice. For injustice in God’s world means we, his image bearers, have failed.

How we develop and employ the gifts the Holy Spirit has entrusted to us and what we do with the blessings, freedoms and privileges we have been granted are serious matters to us, and more importantly, to God. For when women bring less of themselves to the task at hand, men are overburden and our gifts are wasted – and on both counts we, women, are culpable.

What is helpful when living in the debate zone is to study the big picture of the Bible – to see God’s vision for us in the beginning, to see how it broke and how Jesus came to restore. Rather than building our understanding on God’s ideal for women on disputed, rare Scripture passages, let’s focus on the lives of women in Scripture to see what God actually calls women to do and how they join their brothers in recovering God’s vision for the world. For without each other, male and female, we are pursuing kingdom work at a serious disadvantage. Let’s look at what Jesus calls believers too, and starting living though this applies to us all – because it does. Each of us are called to follow Jesus, to bear God’s image and live out servant leadership, whether we are men or women.

For we are all part of the body of Christ. All parts need to be working and included for the body to work – each and every part. Women are half the church and half the body of Christ – imagine what could be accomplished with the whole church working together, on mission for Christ?

Half the Church Part 5 – Servant Leadership

I have been reading ‘Half the Church’ by Carolyn Custis James and blogging my thoughts on it. Part 1Part 2Part 3 and Part 4 are available here. 

Let’s recap what we know to be true. Authority belongs to God. Equality between male and female (and all humans) was firmly established at creation and comes from our image bearer identities (as discussed here). But the concepts of authority and equality have been distorted by the fall, along with everything else. Instead of jointly ruling, we turned authority on each other and equality has gone missing from human relationships.

Jesus came and he rejected our pattern of abusing authority, and made it clear to his disciples he would not be ‘lording and exercising authority over others,’ as the earthly rulers do. Therefore, neither will his disciples, or will we. This is a new pattern of leadership, not seen since the garden – this is servant leadership.

Jesus chose and invited those who have been looked over by everyone else for his kingdom mission. His interactions with women violated patriarchal propriety and repeatedly shocked his disciples. He engaged women publicly in deep theological conversations in a culture where respectable men avoided conversation with women. He entered into their sorrow, weeping with them. He included them, valued their friendship and devotion – and recruited them as leaders.

This continued Jesus’ pattern of subverting the expectations, even of his own followers, of what leadership looks like by extending a radical call to selflessness. He demonstrates that authority is not achieved by right, or pedigree or cultural privilege or self-promotion, but by becoming servants who pour themselves out for the sake of others. Of course, Jesus practices what he preaches by pouring himself out for us at the cross.

The gospel is not a call to an easy life. It is a hard ask. None of us is naturally inclined to servant leadership. I am learning day by day how at odds with my inbuilt sinful nature it is. Yet Jesus is clear – any power or privilege we have is to be held loosely, and used for the benefit of others.

Jesus introduces a new kind of leader and a new way of living – men and women who live sacrificially and with open hands – who would willingly lay down their lives for the good of others – especially their eternal good in hearing God’s saving plan for them. This is a reversal of all human ideas of greatness and rank. This is a practical application of loving our neighbours. This is following in Jesus’ steps. This is the gospel.