In yesterday’s post I described the difficulties involved in changing one’s mind on a theological position, especially for those who are conservative evangelicals. For those who do so, it is painful on many levels—spiritually (it affects your relationship with God), emotionally (it affects your relationship with yourself), and socially (it affects your relationship with others).
For many people, as was my own case, correct theology is equated with faithfulness. Rethinking an issue that I was so convinced of, such as the role of women in ministry, plagued me with the fear of being wrong and therefore unfaithful.
So why would I ever be willing to rethink my position on the role of women in ministry? What would cause me to do so? What did this mean for my relationship with God, with myself, and with others? And why did I ultimately change my mind?
I should tell you up front that I don’t intend to get into specific passages (such as 1 Timothy 2:11-14 and others). There are so many things already said about the biblical text, in fact so many volumes written, that it would take years to read them all. My aim here is not to change your mind on women in ministry, or even on a particular verse. My aim is to get you to think about the way you read the Bible and therefore create enough space for topics such as women in ministry to be something you are willing to consider afresh.
In The Context of A Story
It’s important to understand that I didn’t simply change my mind on women in ministry. I changed my mind about the Bible and how it should be read. There were two things that led to this.
The first thing that happened was I began preaching verse-by-verse through books of the Bible.
While I would have never admitted it, no one ever will, I treated the Bible like a systematic theology book. If you needed doctrinal proof for one of my many held beliefs, I had a book bound in fine leather that contained hundreds of supporting verses. The only problem was that I had learned systematic theology before I had learned the in-depth context of each verse, each chapter, and each book in the Bible. When I read the Bible I read it through the lens of my systematic theology (ironically I did so while talking about the Reformers who taught us how to read the Bible without looking through the lenses of the Roman Catholic Church).
Once I began preaching verse-by-verse through books of the Bible, I actually started running into problems with my systematic theology. My solution was to keep buying commentaries until I found one that adequately explained away my problem. After a while those commentaries didn’t take long to find, I simply learned which publishers to look for when searching for a commentary. But the longer I worked in the text, the more contextual problems I continued to discover—my systematic theology was not as airtight as I once thought it was. My weekly exposition of the Bible in context was causing me to rethink the way I handled the text.
The second thing that happened was I began reading the Bible as a grand narrative of God’s redemption of the world.
The result of reading the Bible as story, as opposed to systematic theology, was that the background of the story—people, places, circumstances, etc.—became absolutely essential to understanding what was actually taking place in the text. One day I realized that I had very little understanding of the world of the 1st century; instead I had a whole lot of understanding of the world of the 16th century. I began studying 1st century Judaism and the Roman Empire and when I did the New Testament began to come alive. It sounds cliché, but it was literally like going from black and white to color television, which makes you want to go back and re-watch your favorite shows in order to see what color their clothes actually were—I was re-reading the Bible and picking up on colors I’d never seen before.
Leaving My Ghetto
The result of my renewed relationship with the Bible was that it took me out of my small (but loud and influential) theological ghetto. I was willing to listen to other voices—voices from other generations, voices from other parts of the world, and voices from other Christian traditions. I quit dismissing everything that didn’t sound the way I said it and I quit labeling people. For the first time in my life I was actually attempting to honor Jesus’ prayer for unity in the body. This did not mean that I agreed with all the voices (that’s impossible to do), but it did mean that I was open to prayer and fellowship with THE church, not just MY church.
This exposure to the broader church was absolutely essential for me. Remember that in my circle correct theology was equated with faithfulness. Leaving behind what I had once deemed “correct theology” carried with it the risk of being unfaithful. The broader ecumenical church helped me realize that there is so much diversity in the body of Christ that it would be impossible for any one person to claim that he or she had cornered the market on “correct theology.” Yes, I was leaving behind my “camp” but I was not leaving behind the “campground.”
So What About Women?
I didn’t change my mind about women in ministry; I changed my mind about the Bible, which demanded that I at least be open to changing my mind on women in ministry. I know that many of you are in the same place I was. You are worried that if you change your mind on a doctrine, like the role of women in ministry, it will mean that you have sold out and become a liberal. Fine. Don’t change your mind. Nobody is forcing you to do so, especially not Jesus. However, I do believe that Jesus is asking the church, his bride, to love one another and to be open to listening to one another. He is asking us to take serious his prayer for Christian unity (John 17), and that unity does not mean lack of diversity. It means we must welcome one another in the name of Jesus as we break bread together and, as all good dinner parties go, we must listen to one another.
Personally I have come to believe that qualification for ministry roles should be determined by gifting, not by gender. I didn’t come to this decision by rejecting certain biblical texts, but rather by elevating the concept of what it means to be biblical. I don’t need you to agree with me, but for the sake of Jesus and his bride, I need you to listen to me, as I am willing to listen to you.
And, together, we need to listen to the voices of women…be they our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our daughters, and yes, even our pastors.