December 17, 2008

My Wife the Preacher

Two Sundays ago (December 7), my beloved wife preached a sermon, her first ever. The text was Luke 1:26-38, the story of the angel Gabriel's visit to Mary. It was a beautiful, challenging, simple and profound message all at the same time, complete with vivid illustrations, careful exposition, reflective stories and solid theology. While it goes without saying that I am a biased listener who had the benefit of hearing her practice it several times before Sunday morning, my glowing appraisal was confirmed by the feedback she received from others who were in attendance.

Sadly, but not totally unexpectedly, a small number of people walked out of the service when she began to speak, presumably because of her gender. There were also a few complaints from others who are opposed to the concept of a woman preaching, regardless of her gifting or ability, even though the elders and pastors of our church are supportive of the idea. Since I can't pinpoint the exact reasoning and motivation behind the objections, I'm not sure if the disagreement was theological, cultural, or both. Perhaps they had never heard a woman preach before and wanted to keep it that way. Perhaps they were graciously removing themselves from an awkward situation, thereby preventing a heated confrontation so that others could listen without distraction. Either way, they missed out on an excellent sermon.

Out of respect for my complementarian friends who object to women preachers on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 which, in their view, prohibits all women from teaching or having "spiritual authority" over men, I recognize that there are mature and authentic Christians on both sides this debate. Even in 2008, the majority of evangelical churches in this country do not ordain female pastors and the debate over gender roles within evangelicalism is not likely to be resolved anytime soon. I will not take the time here to explain why I believe the Scriptures provide strong support for women preachers and teachers, but if you're interested, here's a link to a pretty good summary of the egalitarian point of view.

I don't pull any punches about the fact that I am an egalitarian, but I owe much of my spiritual growth to the godly influence of complementarian writers and preachers, most of them men. Of the half-dozen or so churches I've been a part of in my lifetime, only one has had a female pastor on staff. Of the 1000+ sermons I've heard over the course of my life, I'd be surprised if more than 5% were preached by women. I am not proud of these realities, but they have shaped who I am.

My egalitarian theological position is what it is, but what good would it do if I were to blacklist or throw shoes at anyone who is against women preaching? What would my bookshelf look like without the Reformed theological rigor of complementarians like J.I. Packer, John Piper and Sam Storms? Should I categorically write off everything they've written about the truth of Scripture because I disagree with them on this particular issue? Besides, there is an abundance of books on my shelves authored by egalitarians including Dallas Willard, Richard Mouw, Stan Grenz and Eugene Peterson to balance them out!

For better or worse, my wife and I belong to a church community that is part of a denomination that restricts the positions of pastor and elder to men only. We do not agree with this policy, but we willingly submit to it nonetheless. The rules may or may not change someday, but for now, my contention is that women should still be encouraged to develop their giftings even if the rules never change. We shouldn't need to wait for the ordination of women to come along before we can allow women to start sharpening their teaching and preaching skills. Rather than focusing on what is prohibited, we should be empowering women to use their gifts for the Kingdom wherever God has currently placed them, blooming where they've been planted.

Apart from serving as an elder or pastor, there are many opportunities and positions already open to women in our local body. Unlike more conservative churches, I'm proud of the fact that we encourage women to serve as ministry team leaders, worship leaders, small group leaders, Bible class teachers and other positions where both men and women are being taught. There is nothing in the doctrinal statements or policies of either our denomination or local church that prohibits women from leading a ministry team that may include men or teaching the Bible to a group that may include men. In the case of our particular church and denomination, the only rules against women preaching are unwritten, unspoken ones like "men should lead, women should follow" or "a woman's place is in the home."

With respect to these gender role assumptions, is it reasonable to assume that women teachers are needed for children and other women, but not for men? As a man, should I expect to gain a balanced and well-rounded perspective of the Scriptures without ever having to be taught by a woman? Are men the only ones who can ever be intellectually and spiritually gifted by God to exegete biblical texts and preach His Word? If God calls and gifts a woman to teach Sunday School lessons for children, we welcome her. If God calls and gifts a woman to lead a prayer group or start a new ministry, we affirm her. If God calls and gifts a woman to lead a Bible study, we support her. If God calls and gifts a woman to lead the congregation in worship, we recognize her gifts and cultivate a place for those gifts to be developed.

And yet, if God calls and gifts a woman to preach the Word on occasion, we dismiss this calling as "out of bounds" without even listening to the sermon first? I've heard my share of theologically irresponsible and poorly delivered sermons in my day, but I sincerely hope that I evaluated each message on the basis of its content and delivery, not the speaker's gender.

If I were to walk out of a sermon because I found out that the preacher was an African-American or a Native Hawaiian, I would hope that one of my brothers or sisters in Christ would kindly point me to the words of Galatians 3:28 where Paul writes, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." If I were to rationalize my point by saying, "I'm just not comfortable with black preachers because I was raised listening to Caucasian preachers," I would hope that someone would be bold enough to lovingly speak the truth to correct my prejudices. I'm not a radical feminist who derives any joy from humiliating or taking revenge on the entire male species for the oppression of women that has taken place throughout history. I'm not trying to blur every distinction between male and female. I believe that God, in His infinite wisdom and artistry, created plenty of healthy differences between men and women, but the ability to preach a good sermon is not one of them. My wife's homily last week was proof of that.

So the question is this: How do we resolve the thorny issues of day-to-day disagreements within the local church? What happens when people of sincere faith disagree about the role of women in ministry? Should we call each other names like "feminist" and "sexist" and see who wins the verbal slug-fest? Should we wait until 100% of the congregation is "ready" before we allow women to use their gifts? Should we squelch the controversy and hope it will disappear if we sweep it under the rug? As Shane Claiborne likes to say, my hope is that we can learn to disagree without being disagreeable. We must learn to speak the truth in love. We must learn to tolerate, respect and even value differences of opinion when they are expressed with civility and Christ-like kindness. For the sake of our witness to the world, we must to learn to disagree well. The cost of disagreeing poorly is too great.

Theological or cultural differences within the body should not be grounds for severing a friendship or cutting off the lines of communication and dialogue. After all, if I never shared a pew with anyone who didn't have the exact same doctrinal convictions as me, I'd be missing out on a lot of great sermons.

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