Bill Love wrote “Four Questions” during his tenure as minister of the Bering Drive Church of Christ in Houston, Texas. The article appeared originally in Leaven Vol. 4/2 Spring 1996. It is reproduced here with permission.
The Editors asked me to present four questions I have heard in discussions about women’s roles in the church, along with my answers. The questions are important. The answers are, as I have said, my own.
1.) How is it that this generation of scholars and preachers knows more than all of those who have gone before? As I understand it, we have been studying the Bible seriously for almost two hundred years and have never come up with this!
We are not saying that we are smarter than those who have gone before. In terms of sheer intelligence, few of us would measure up to Augustine, Luther and Alexander Campbell. There is something true about what you are suggesting: we twentieth-century people are always tempted to worship the god Modernity. It is easy to believe that anything new is always better than anything old. But we treasure the writings of Christians over the centuries. In their walk with God they discovered profound insights into the Scripture.
While we are not smarter than those giants of the past, biblical research in the last two centuries has given us much more data vital to biblical interpretation. Scholars have more information in several important areas: the original settings of the writings, religions of the first century, social customs of the times, New Testament backgrounds in Judaism, ancient languages, and the nature and meaning of the various literary forms found in the Bible. As a result, scholars have new insights into what was going on when the New Testament was written. For example, it has become clear that some statements were meant for Christians in all times and places (the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor), while others are occasional pieces addressed only to particular situations back then and there (“Greet one another with a holy kiss”). It is probable that the passages which prohibit women speaking out in the worship are occasional instructions intended to correct problems in local churches at Corinth and Ephesus.
We are not smarter than our predecessors. But additional information about the writings may lead us to different conclusions. The best part of our Restoration heritage, it seems to me, is that we continually study the Scripture in the best light we have and attempt to go where it leads us.
2.) Why is this discussion about women’s roles so important? Can’t you see that this is causing disagreements among Christians? Surely the unity of the church is the first and most important priority!
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians in explanation of his own ministry. To the Ephesians he said that God’s grand purpose for all time and creation is “to unite all things in Christ.” God’s purpose and program are to bind up what is broken in creation in our relationships with him, with one another and within ourselves. It was to achieve this reconciliation that Jesus died. Reconciliation is the final goal.
But before reconciliation is achieved in a troubled marriage, both partners have to endure painful probing of their attitudes and actions. During that phase in their treatment, what is happening feels like anything but reconciliation and peace. The issue that tormented the early church was Jew/Gentile relations. More specifically, should we Gentiles be accepted into the faith community solely on the basis of our confession and baptism into Jesus? The Jerusalem conference in Acts 15 shows how divisive the issue was. Peter’s resistance to the vision calling him to the house of Cornelius shows how painful the idea was for him. At Antioch he caved in to sectarian pressures and withdrew fellowship from the Gentiles. It is possible that Jesus’ right-hand man never achieved complete comfort with the “outsiders” in the fellowship. Nevertheless, the Lord kept the pressure on. Peter’s discomfort was not decisive. We Gentiles are the beneficiaries. The point is, God does not hesitate to give us pain to achieve his ultimate purpose of an inclusive fellowship in Christ crucified.
Some scholars have observed that the three groupings mentioned in Galatians 3:28 have been the painful issues at different times in church history: Jews and Gentiles in the first two centuries, slaves and masters (in our American experience) in the nineteenth century, and male and female in the twentieth century. If that is true–if God intends full partnership for women in the church and if the time has come–there will be a painful period of adjustment just as in previous times. Nor is the pain only between Christians who differ on women’s roles. The discomfort is in each of our hearts. Even those who are most convinced about the expanded role of women in worship-leadership experience uneasiness when the changes are first introduced.
3.) What’s the problem with all of this hand-wringing? If it is right, why not just announce the change next Sunday morning and let the church deal with it? If people cannot handle it they can leave.
God worked out the Jew/Gentile issue over a couple of centuries. Peter and the others were brought gradually (kicking and screaming) into an awareness that the gospel was for all. Before Jesus left his disciples he said, “I have more to say to you, but you cannot bear it now.” He promised the Spirit, who would lead them along gradually to a fuller knowledge of who he was and what his life really meant.
There is a mentality that says, “While you have the head off the motor, why not grind the valves, replace the rings and put in new rods. And if we’re going to make changes at church, let’s do it all at once and get it over with.” But this analogy is wrong for the church. The doctor never says, “Well, while we’re in there we might as well do the four bypasses, remove that diseased lung and remove the gall bladder.” Is the church a machine or an organism? If it is an organism, surgery must be done carefully and drugs prescribed only within the limits of what promotes survival and health for the patient.
4.) What does it matter what others in the Church of Christ think? If the Lord wants women to know full dignity and to exercise their gifts fully why should church opinion be a consideration?
There are times when we should dismiss widely held opinion rather quickly. At Antioch Paul confronted Peter in front of the visiting delegation from Jerusalem. Their objections to table fellowship with the Gentiles could not be honored. To do so would have been to give up ground already gained for the gospel.
On the other hand, there is a difference between confronting willful pride like the Jerusalem leaders had and running over sincere brothers and sisters who have never considered the issue or who have a conscience against change. The church matters for the same reason that our families matter. On the one hand, individual family members must not dictate the beliefs and actions of the family as a whole. On the other hand, they are family and should be treated with respect and consideration. These are the people who gave us life, supported our existence, shared our experiences of joy and sorrow and, in many cases, introduced us to the Lord.
I have good friends who have left the Church of Christ for other traditions. I have stayed, not because I think we are the only church or because we have a corner on Christian truth and devotion, but for two reasons: First, the distinctives (believer baptism, weekly communion, priesthood of believers, local church autonomy, etc.) seem to be more faithful to Scripture than the alternatives. Second, this is my family. I was born spiritually into this family. I know the family secrets; I speak the family language with the family accent. I feel called to make my contributions here. By “here” I do not mean the congregation where I live and worship, but the tradition of which I am a part. For these reasons, I think that any changes must be introduced with a willingness to hear the concerns of my family and with a sense of responsibility to give an account for my actions. Having done so, I must not allow the family to have the final say. There is something sacred about the individual human heart and about the sovereignty of each congregation under its Lord. With due love and consideration for one another, each person and each church must meet God in the Holy of Holies and seek to follow his will.