Tag Archives: Women in Ministry

The Assumption We Cannot Afford

We ended another year of women’s Bible study last Tuesday: eleven weeks in the epistles of John and eleven weeks in James. Fifty-four different churches were represented in our enrollment this year. A couple thousand more women podcast from around the country. At the conclusion I was deluged with cards and e-mails from participants expressing their gratitude, reflecting on what they had learned, and, almost uniformly, uttering a confession I have heard so often that it no longer surprises. I still waver between joy and discouragement as I read that confession on card after beautiful thank you card. I still vacillate between celebration and grief each time it turns up in my inbox. I still hesitate between thankfulness and frustration every time it is spoken to me over coffee. Their confession is this:

I’ve been in church for years, but no one has taught me to study my Bible until now.

I remember confessing the same thing myself almost 20 years ago. It is gratifying to know that our efforts at Flower Mound Women’s Bible Study to help women know the Bible are changing the way they understand their God and their faith. But it is terrifying to me that so many women log years in the church and remain unlearned in the Scriptures. This is not their fault, and it is not acceptable.

thank you notes

Church leaders, I fear we have made a costly and erroneous assumption about those we lead. I fear that in our enthusiasm to teach about finances, gender roles, healthy relationships, purity, culture wars, and even theology we have neglected to build foundational understanding of the Scriptures among our people. We have assumed that the time they spend in personal interaction with their Bible is accumulating for them a basic firsthand knowledge of what it says, what it means, and how it should change them. Or perhaps we have assumed that kind of knowledge isn’t really that important.

So we continue to tell people this is what you should believe about marriage and this is what you need to know about doctrine and this is what your idolatry looks like. But because we never train them in the Scriptures, they have no framework to attach these exhortations to beyond their church membership or their pastor’s personality or their group leader’s opinion. More importantly, they have no plumb line to measure these exhortations against. It never occurs to them to disagree with what they are being taught because they cannot distinguish between our interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself, having little to no firsthand knowledge of what it says.

And they’ve been in church for years.

We Must Teach the Bible

When we offer topical help—even if the topic is doctrine—without first offering Bible literacy, we attempt to furnish a house we have neglected to construct. As a friend and seminarian said to me this week, “There is a reason that seminaries offer hermeneutics before systematic theology.” He is right. But it would seem many who have enjoyed the rare privilege of seminary have forgotten to pass on this basic principle to the churches they now lead.

We must teach the Bible. Please hear me. We must teach the Bible, and we must do so in such a way that those sitting under our teaching learn to feed themselves rather than rely solely on us to feed them. We cannot assume that our people know the first thing about where to start or how to proceed. It is not sufficient to send them a link to a reading plan or a study method. It is our job to give them good tools and to model how to use them. There is a reason many love Jesus Calling more than they love the Gospel of John. If we equip them with the greater thing, they will lose their desire for the lesser thing.

I wish you could see how the women in our studies come alive like well-watered plants after a drought. I wish you could hear their excitement over finally, finally being given some tools to build Bible literacy.

I can’t believe how much I’ve grown since I started studying. . . . I had only done topical studies. . . . I didn’t know you could study like this. . . . I was so tired of navel-gazing. . . . I’ve never been asked to love God with my mind. . . . My husband teases me about how excited I am to tell him what we’re learning. . . . I’ve never studied a book of the Bible from start to finish.

They are so humble in admitting what they don’t know. We must be humble in admitting what we have left undone.

As I read their notes joy always trumps discouragement. Celebration overturns grief. Thankfulness overrides frustration. And because the need is great, I commit myself to wade through another stack of commentaries, to write another curriculum on another book of the Bible, to give another year to building the house of Bible literacy in which the furnishings of doctrine and other worthy topics can take their rightful places. We owe our people more than assertions of what is biblical and what is not. We owe them the Bible, and the tools necessary to soberly and reverently “take up and read.”

The task requires resolve, but the reward is great. Will you join me?

* * * * *

Join Jen Wilkin and learn from dozens more women’s Bible study leaders at The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference, June 27 to 29 in Orlando. Workshops allow you to learn introductory theology from Don Carson, basic Bible competency with Paige Brown, one-to-one Bible study from Jenny Salt, and much more.

Women, Come and Grow with Us!

Last year’s inaugural TGC Women’s Conference was for women but not all about women. And the 2013 National Conference (TGC13) in April is for women but not just for women. It’s for God’s people and the good of the church.

Women, we are not only welcome at this conference; we are needed! For the church to operate as God intended, with all God’s people growing and serving effectively, we must regularly encourage one another by the Spirit according to the Word. We’re all doing it already in local contexts where we live and serve, but TGC13 provides a unique opportunity to hear from those ministering in contexts outside our own. Men and women from all over the world will gather in Orlando, offering a wide diversity of teaching and interaction that represents God’s global gospel work.

The speakers at TGC13 form a grand mixed chorus. In addition to the rich preaching and teaching of pastors in the plenary sessions, there will be a varied assortment of workshops and focus gatherings offered by men and women addressing a host of gospel-related topics. Women will be interested in many of these workshops—not only but perhaps especially those led by women. From the pre-conference through the post-conference, we will hear the voices of women involved in missions, in teaching the Bible to women and to children, in issues of medical ethics and counseling, in Christian publishing, in churches where they’re learning to live out the gospel in ways we need to hear about . . . and more.

Are you interested in better understanding the ramifications of assisted reproduction and new trends in IVF use? What a privilege to hear from Dr. Megan Best, who speaks to a number of issues in medical ethics with not only professional expertise but also unrelenting biblical focus and faithfulness. How about Scripture’s teaching concerning men and women? Are we really able to articulate such teaching clearly and compellingly? Dr. Claire Smith comes to help us deal in careful detail with the “hard passages” we so often struggle to discuss. Megan and Claire both happen to be Australian, but we have an amazing group of women from all over the world—from China to California, Dubai to Delaware.

Women, come and grow with us! Men, please encourage the women in your lives and churches to come and grow with us, too. TGC13 is for  God’s people to grow together around his Word.

Isn’t Scripture Enough for the Gender Debate?

Gerald Hiestand recently wrote a review of How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership (Zondervan) for The Gospel Coalition. He makes the point that the book serves “a useful purpose for complementarians who desire to better understand the existential angst that drove their egalitarian brethren beyond the complementarian fold.” His takeaway is four suggestions as to how complementarians can address that “existential angst.”

The common objection raised against Hiestand’s review was, “Do we need to address the egalitarian existential dilemma? Isn’t Scripture enough?” For Protestants, that’s a fair question. Scripture is sufficient and, for complementarians, it is clear about matters concerning women in ministry. However, the existential dilemma for egalitarians is real and complementarians should not be too dismissive.

Let me clarify what I mean by “existential dilemma.” I don’t have in mind the angst of Jean Paul Sartre, but rather, that complementarianism is unsatisfying to egalitarians. It doesn’t make sense of reality to some. A woman could say, “I am gifted at teaching and preaching. Why would God give me these gifts and desires if I’m not supposed to use them? There must be a different explanation for the restrictive passages in the Bible.” Or there’s the argument that, “Evangelicals have been on the wrong side of justice issues before, such as slavery. How are we sure that we’re not on the wrong side of the women-in-ministry debate?” Pastors should take these concerns seriously and labor to answer them appropriately.

I find John Frame’s “tri-perspectivalism” helpful here. For Frame, knowledge has three perspectives to it: the normative perspective, situational perspective, and existential perspective.

  1. The normative perspective asks, “What do God’s norms [the Bible] direct us to believe?”
  2. The situational perspective asks, “What are the facts?”
  3. The existential perspective asks, “What belief is most satisfying to a believing heart?”

According to Frame (and I think he’s right), “You can’t have one perspective without the others, and with each, you will have the others.” All three perspectives are interdependent.

Now let’s adapt this to the discussion of women in ministry. For complementarians, we believe that God directs us by his Word to restrict women from particular ministry positions (normative). We believe it makes sense of how God created us, both male and female (situational). And assuming that we happily hold to this position, it’s satisfying (existential). We should conform our worldview and feelings around the Word of God—the norm above all norms. But, as with the examples above, one perspective can affect the other two since they are dependent upon each other. A situational perspective can dramatically affect the way the we interpret Scripture, a normative perspective. Therefore, our arguments—especially for pastors—should be persuasive to the situational and existential perspective, as well as the normative.

If we believe complementarianism is biblical, then we can trust that complementarianism makes sense of reality and can be satisfying to believing hearts. To borrow an illustration David Powlison uses for biblical counseling, making the case for complementarianism to another is like jazz. Jazz demands the ability to improvise around a “call-and-response” pattern to a composition. It’s not chaos. It’s centered around one reality—one musical reality—as it bobs and weaves. In the same way, we shouldn’t be scared to move the discussion beyond biblical imperatives, bobbing and weaving from one perspective to the next, knowing full well that each is a perspective of the same reality of God’s design. We can be compelling about interpretive matters in Scripture, as well as to the matters of the human heart. Complementarians are strong on Scripture—praise God for it—but we often perform poorly as we move from the normative perspective to the situational and existential perspectives.

Below are ways, especially for pastors, that might help us think more clearly about the situational and existential realities of our listeners:

  1. Be mindful that there may be women listening to you who have been abused by their husbands or there may be some who have watched their mothers be mistreated by their fathers. A complementarian vision for the family and local church can often times feel like a knife in the ribs. Any argument for authority will sound like a breeding ground for abuse cases. We should be mindful that there are some who may need complementarianism packaged more sensitively. We must not only be mindful of such listeners, but defend them against the abusers. Abuse is horribly sinful and church leaders should actively defend the abused. To be complacent in such matters is grievous. However, complementarianism can be very compelling when men defend the helpless.
  2. We should understand that more and more Christians, especially in the last 20 years, have grown up in local churches where women are in explicit or functional leadership. Or they grew up in homes where the father hasn’t faithfully led his family, leaving much of the decision making and leadership to the wife. Egalitarianism makes perfect sense of their reality and such interpretations of Scripture can seem very compelling. As pastors bring Scripture to bear upon the hearts and lives of such people, keeping these situations in mind can help make a case for complementarianism more persuasive.
  3. I remember sitting with 60,000 other college students, enthralled by the life-changing message of “Don’t Waste Your Life” by John Piper at Passion OneDay 2000 in Memphis, Tennessee. I had never heard anyone preach like that. Like most young Christians, Piper had a huge impact on me. I picked up as many of his books as I could, including Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which he edited with Wayne Grudem. I can’t imagine that book having the same impact on me without Piper already having affected my life in other areas. So I’m sympathetic to those who shape their views on women in ministry based on someone else’s view—a pastor or author—who has helped shape so many other areas of their lives. We should not be so quick to accuse them of not taking the Bible seriously. To be sure, we should bring the Bible to bear on them, all the while being careful not to undermine the impact someone else has had on their life (in other ways) for good.
  4. Some just need to see it worked out in the life of the church. They need to see that women can joyfully submit to the leadership of their husbands and their pastors. They need to see men who are faithful and kind, strong and loving, courageous and humble in leading their family. For some, consistently watching faithful Christians delighting in God’s design finally causes an “It works!” reaction.

Let’s be quick to recognize that the hangups people often have with complementarianism aren’t just interpretive issues. Unfortunately, they often are more complicated and time-consuming than a rumble over Ephesians 5 or 1 Timothy 2. But the slow plodding, patient appealing, and faithful example will often bear much fruit.