Rev. Dr. Katie Hays is the founding pastor of Galileo Church in Mansfield, TX; at the time of this writing she was co-minister at the West Islip Church of Christ with her husband, Lance Pape, now Granville and Erline Walker Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Brite Divinity School.

In Our Lifetime?

A faithful follower of Jesus, and a member of a Church of Christ, watched the church change over the course of his lifetime. When he died and was received at Heaven’s pearly gates, he was told he would have one chance to ask God anything he wanted to know. It didn’t take any time at all for him to formulate his question. He had died right in the middle of one of the biggest transitions the church had ever experienced. He wanted to know how it would turn out for his brothers and sisters back on earth.

He asked God, “Holy Father, will the Churches of Christ allow women to exercise their full range of gifts in the worship and leadership of the church?”

God sighed and said, “Yes, they will.” But he looked glum as he said it.

“Wow!” said the man, and he could not resist another question. “When will it happen?”

God shook his head. “That’s the bad news,” he said. “Not in my lifetime.”

I remember the intense frustration I felt while I was studying for ministry. Ninety-nine percent of it was based on the reality that the majority of congregations in the Churches of Christ were not considering gender equity in the least.

The remaining one percent, however, was generated by a growing realization that some churches, and many individuals in many churches, were open to the idea that gender equity might not be such a bad thing, after all–and still, the tangible gains in women’s participation were infinitesimal.

There had been a time when telling a fellow Church of Christ member that I wanted to be a minister provoked argument and anger. That reaction was giving way to something I liked even less: “Oh, really? That’s neat. That’s great…for you. Interesting. I’ve been hearing some things about that, and it seems like there’ll be some opportunities out there for you.”

Well-meaning friends and family members would call me with news meant to encourage. “So-and-So’s sister-in-law visited at church last Sunday. She heard that the Church of Christ in the next town over from hers had a woman say the blessing over the potluck meal two months ago.” Many people that I knew optimistically collected these rumors on my behalf, hoping to (a) make me feel a little less crazy for pursuing an M.Div. I would never use, and (b) let me know that they were “on my side” (their words, not mine), even if they worshipped in a traditional Church of Christ with an all-male revue every single Sunday.

A few years after I actually got a preaching job in a Church of Christ, I sat with a friend who is a professor at a Church of Christ university. He had recently completed a Bible study about gender equity with the elders of the congregation where he, his wife, and his daughters worshipped.

The study had gone well. My friend is a thorough scholar and an approachable, gentle teacher. The material was covered at a pace that allowed plenty of discussion and prayer. The elders came to the study at the urging of their flock and committed themselves to learn all they could about the issue. In the end, they agreed with my friend that the Bible supports an equal role for women in the work, worship, and leadership of the church.

You might guess, then, that the congregation forthwith adopted a strategy to include women, according to their gifts, in all aspects of the church’s ministries. You would be wrong. Instead, the elders concluded that for the sake of unity (or to avoid a fight, which I’m not sure is the same thing) they would not pursue an increased role for women in any area of church life. “What happened?” my disappointed friend asked rhetorically. “How could all that mind-blowing study and heart-wrenching discussion lead to a conclusion of ‘It’s fine for others but we don’t have to do it’?”

This story can be duplicated many times over, substituting different congregations and different individuals around the country. I have heard it so many times I’ve given a short-hand name to the dilemma: “It’s Okay vs. It’s Imperative.”

Is an equal role for women in the churches okay? I hear from so many who answer, “Sure.” When they slog through the studies, the books, the articles, and the discussions, they do indeed find “scriptural, theological, and experiential warrants” (see this website’s purpose statement) for expanding opportunities for women to serve in the church according to their gifts. But deciding that it’s okay does not lead to changes in the work and worship of a congregation.

Deciding that it’s okay means you no longer have to disfellowship individuals or entire congregations that practice it. Deciding that it’s okay means you can entertain lively discussion when 1 Corinthians 14 comes up in Wednesday night Bible study, and no one has to go home mad. Deciding that it’s okay means that when your kids go to college and get involved in ecumenical church groups where young women participate and even run the show, it doesn’t cause a family crisis.

It does not mean, however, that you are ready to accept the imperative, and thus pay a price to see it come to life in your church. It does not mean that you have a sense of urgency born of conviction. It does not mean that you have committed yourself completely to this truth: that male exclusivity dishonors the God who gives gifts irrespective of gender or other outward characteristics, like race or class.

Speaking of race and class, here’s another way to explain my distaste for the “it’s okay” position. Suppose Christians had said about the American practice of slavery in the 19th century, “I can see that freeing slaves is supported by scripture, even though specific New Testament texts allow and even give a theological basis for the idea that one human being can own another. I understand that other texts, including the formulaic statement in Galatians 3:28, can be used to support the idea that in Christ, the false human divisions of race and class have been eliminated. I think it’s neat, interesting, fine, okay if folks want to free their slaves. But if I press for that, it will cause division and heartache in the church. Why would I want to bring that issue to the church, with all the pain it could cause for those I love?”

Oh, wait a minute. Some Christians did say that before and during the American Civil War. And some Christians were still saying it about racial integration during the Civil Rights era of the 20th century. And are we not embarrassed by this legacy of practicing what the U.S. Supreme Court calls the “NIMBY Syndrome”? NIMBY stands for “not in my back yard,” as in, “It’s okay to desegregate inner city schools in the north, but not in my back yard (or my home town or my school district).”

Paul the Apostle didn’t show a lot of patience for Peter’s display of the NIMBY syndrome in Antioch. For Paul, it was imperative that first-generation Christians banish the separate menus and dining rooms for Jews and Gentiles–not merely permitted by the gospel, but demanded by it. “In Christ,” he said, “you all share the same family tree…you all wear the same Christ-clothes…you are all one. No more divisions that relegate some to a separate table. No Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. You are all one in Christ Jesus, who has redeemed us from human distinctions like those” (Galatians 3:27-28, ever so loosely).

Galatians 3:27-28 and its on-the-ground imperative for the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Paul’s churches laid the groundwork for Christians many centuries later to discover the imperative of racial and social equality in the gospel (some regrettably later than others). It also lays the groundwork for the contemporary assertion that gender equality in the churches is an imperative of the gospel. Paul’s decision in the first century to zero in on one prong of the formulaic triad (“neither Jew nor Greek”) does not render the remaining two (“neither slave nor free, neither male and female”) any less essential to the truth of the gospel he preached: “In Christ Jesus, all of you are one.”

The founders of this website sat in my living room many months ago debating how to say what it is we’re shooting for: expanded women’s role? gender equality? gender justice? “Gender justice” won the day (again, see the purpose statement of the site) because it conveys the imperative we believe is at stake.

So I have to ask you, reader: are you one of the many who has studied and prayed your way to believing that the Holy Spirit is gender-blind? And if you are, what are the odds that tangible changes in the actual practice of your congregation will happen in your lifetime? Do you have in mind how far God might call you to go in service of the imperative of gender justice? Is that distance any further than the miles traveled by first-century Jews who were wrenched from their kosher kitchens to break bread with their Gentile siblings? Will you pay as great a price as those courageous American Christians who stood against slavery and for civil rights despite the pleas of many who begged for “unity” at any cost?

Some church leaders who have signed on for “it’s okay” have rightly pointed out that their churches are just not ready for the strain a discussion about gender would put on their fellowship. As a minister myself, I understand that concern. A bull in a china shop could not do more damage than a bull-headed minister, elder, or teacher in a fragile congregation. But are there not steps church leaders can and should take to move their congregations toward readiness over the long haul? Congregations that have already introduced expanded opportunities for women’s ministry have in common that their long, slow journeys toward gender justice began years and years before Sunday morning worship practice changed one whit. (Read accounts of Cahaba Valley’s and Brookline’s journeys on this website. Stamford’s progress has also been extensively documented. Witness Highland’s standing committees for study, prayer, and communication.)

We owe an immense debt of gratitude to those individuals and church families who have already responded to the imperative for gender justice they see in scripture. They have paid a price I can only imagine. They did it for their daughters and wives, in honor of their mothers and grandmothers in the faith, and on behalf of all those girls and boys who will grow up in the Churches of Christ believing that God’s gracious gifts are bestowed freely on all. May it be so in our lifetime.