Several years back, I was one of the delegates sent from my church to my denomination’s annual convention. Both men and women can be delegates, and convention is like a family reunion for me, so I jump at the chance to go whenever I can. One of the breakout session was a reading and discussion of a position paper that was being presented on the role of women in the church. I found that fascinating, so I chose that one. I was thinking it would be a large room of people, but it ended up being 8 or so men—and me, the only woman who chose to came to this breakout on the role of women. I looked around the small group and saw the faces of pastors, seminary professors, synod leaders, and…me…the only layperson, and the only woman. I wanted to crawl in a hole, and actually tried to leave, but the guys convinced me to stay.
I can only try to explain what it’s like sitting in a room full of men. Vulnerable, in every sense of the word. I didn’t think these men would attack me, I don’t mean that. I don’t think there was a man in the room with anything less than a masters of divinity. I have a bachelor’s in English. Would my questions sound stupid? Should I speak up? Does everyone in the room know things I don’t?
The paper was read, and there were parts where men raised their hands and asked for clarification. Several pages in, I asked for clarification on one particular sentence, as it could grammatically be taken two different ways. One of the men waved off my concern that “no one would take it that way” and started to move on, but another man said, “wait a minute. She has a good point. This sentence needs to be clarified.” I almost cried. It wasn’t a big deal for them, but it was huge for me. I was in a discussion with these great men, and one of them took my question as valid, and worth noting.
Men in my workshop
A few years later at convention, I was talking with a pastor friend. That year at convention, I was giving a workshop for the women on my Gospel Mentoring program, and some pastors showed up and sat in the front row and took notes. Afterward, one of them came up to me and thanked me, and said it was very useful. I had never taught a man something in this context before, and I didn’t even know how to feel about that. As I was trying to process it, I ran into an old pastor friend who was in that small meeting where the theological paper was read a few years earlier. I explained to him how weird it was, and he pointed out that I did nothing out of line with the complementation position paper that we read a few years earlier. He was cheering me on to keep going with what I was doing.
“No.” I told him. “Don’t cheer me on. I don’t want to break barriers. I’m extremely content to be in women’s ministry. You don’t understand, women need to understand the law and the gospel, and I’m not trying to climb up to a position where I’m teaching men. Women need this as much as men do. I don’t want to be a poster child for those in the denomination who might have desires to push for ordination of women. I don’t want that.”
He assured me he wasn’t trying to ordain women either. “But Gretchen,” he said, “I have daughters, and they talk to me, and they don’t see any women involved in the work of the church outside of the kitchen and baby showers. They wonder if there’s a place for them here. They wonder why God bothered giving them gifts, and I can show them the theological positions that our church has, but in practice, we need to show them that there’s a place for them. We shouldn’t be scared of them walking in the full extent of their freedom. You being bold enough to open your mouth shows them that our church doesn’t ignore women, and they don’t live in the shadows.”
His words made me silent as I just had to think on them. I thought about them for months, even years.
That afternoon, after I talked to him, I went over to a group of older women at the convention to say hi. I made the same comments to them as I did to my pastor friend, that there were some men in my workshop, and it was weird. “For their wives” they all nodded in agreement. “They came to your class to make sure you were teaching their wives correctly.” They assured me that because the men were there to check on their wives theological instruction, I didn’t break any rules. They weren’t really listening.
Weren’t they though? They came up to me afterwards. They said I taught them things they hadn’t considered. They took notes. Also, in that whole theological position paper that was read years earlier, there was nothing about “you can listen to women for the sake of your wife’s instruction, but ignore women otherwise” paragraph. The older women’s metric for what was right and wrong as far as women’s teaching wasn’t based on our church’s position.
I don’t want conflict, I don’t want power. I just want to proclaim Christ crucified, and teach others about discipleship without doing something wrong.
When I was a little girl my grandpa convinced me that I could share the gospel too. As a retired church planter in my denomination, and pastor, he was obsessed about sharing the gospel, and recruiting people to sharing the gospel. At 6 years old, I decided I was going to share the gospel like grandpa. He told me that God had a plan for me in the kingdom, and that he would use me.
My grandma took me aside after grandpa left the room, and said it was wonderful I wanted to share the gospel. “You should plan to be a missionary overseas. If you want to share the gospel here in America, you’ll have to marry a pastor to be in ministry, and that’s not easy to find someone who wants to be a pastor. You can’t count on finding that. Women have more freedom to share the gospel overseas.” Ok, I thought, I’ll be a missionary. God can use me there. I was 6 years old.
Fast forward several years, where I’m dropping out of Moody Bible Institute, where I was intending to major in linguistics so I could be a Bible translator. As I went deep into Bible reading and prayer that year, and tried to get direction from the Lord, I couldn’t help but know deep in me that I was supposed to stay in America. What made it worse, was that my boyfriend had no interest in being a pastor. I felt demoted. I felt rejected from ministry. If I couldn’t be a missionary, and I couldn’t be married to a pastor—then there wasn’t a place for me to use my gifts. That was the end of the teaching ministry road for me. It’s ok. I actually like being in the nursery.
God needed to humble me, big time, which is another, longer story for another time. I learned to be content with small. I learned to be content at home. I gave birth to half dozen children. I homeschooled. If I was going to do this mom thing, I was going to do it fully, as my ministry with my whole heart. Honestly, it was all I had. It was good.
But then, as they got older, I saw in my oldest children this thinking that I lived to serve them, not serve God. I saw evidence in their speech and attitudes that they believed that they came in my life before God. I existed to serve them, not serve our neighbors. I tried to explain that I serve God, and as I serve him, my primary vocation God called me to is to be a wife and mother, but that’s not my only vocation. If I ceased to be a wife, or ceased to be a mother, I would still be called by God. I tried explaining my identity was in him, not in them.
It was then when I realized that I needed to show them. Not to prove to myself, but prove to them that I belong to God first, and God’s plan for our family was bigger than the comfort of my children. Our family had a purpose outside of the sports and activities and academics (all the things that are for our own development). As a family we were a part of the Great Commission. I went from writing for fun, to intentionally writing for ministry, and soon I was invited to speak at some events, and then some more.
I wish I had freedom
I’m going to be honest. Really honest. I haven’t told anyone this before. I’ve cried more than once that I wasn’t a boy. There are multiple reasons for this. I guess you could say my dad values boys more than girls, by far. He shows interest in his boys, but leaves the girls to the women to raise, which (when it comes to abuse) at times has been a blessing, and times it’s been a curse. (I didn’t grow up with him much in my life.)
The other reason had to do with my heavenly father. If I was a boy, I could be a pastor. I could be hired by a church. I could be in full time ministry. It’s not that I want to be a pastor—I don’t. I just want to tell people about Jesus, and girls get really mixed messages about whether or not we can do that. I’ve sat through more than one training session in various events, in various denominations, on what I am and am not allowed to do, who I am and am not allowed to speak to, and it’s confusing. Getting the micro-fencing-of-God-laws right is a juggling act.
For awhile, I figured I would be as pious and on the safe side as possible. The last thing I wanted was to be labeled a “liberal Christian” or have anyone think I was power hungry, or attention seeking. Quiet is safe. Silent is safe. You look very religious and extra spiritual as a women if you’re quiet.
But, what if God calls you to tell people about Jesus—and you’re a women? What if you want to proclaim the gospel from the rooftops, but you’re female, and you don’t know how to make your proclamation fall on only female ears? Does God even call women? Not a single missionary women either, but a wife, mother, homeschooler. You do all the conservative things, and you run in the super-ultra conservative circles. You can teach your children about Jesus. That’s your vocation. Absolutely it is. I spend 95% of my time doing that, and I don’t intend to stop.
But am I allowed to tell others about Jesus? Do I have to sift through people to find the “acceptable people” I can talk to? Does the great commission extend to me, and did I get a limited commission?
The larger church is so confused about the issue of women, that women like me feel like we are being wild and liberal for wanting to share Jesus with any person they come across.
In my growing writing ministry, I have asked this question to some men I’ve worked with on some projects. They have pointed me to Elyse and when I went to an event (held by a ministry I wrote for) to meet Elyse in person and hear her speak. Eric crashed the party and showed up too. I had no idea they were writing a book about this topic at the time. Another pastor friend introduced me to Elyse, and I also got to meet Eric, who was this guy I just encountered on twitter. He gave away some awesome theological resources and books to women often, and was a pastor who encouraged women to study theology deeply.
When Worthy came out, I was honestly afraid to read it. “I don’t want to turn liberal” my pride said, as I felt further pushed out of my comfort zone. “I want to hold fast to the Scriptures, and to fix my eyes on Jesus.” I couldn’t help but sense the Holy Spirit prodding me with a follow up question “wherever it leads?”
With all the books out there propping up women with some kind of prosperity gospel with a feminine flare, of women power, and you can and should do all the things, I was skeptical— even knowing the conservative theology of the authors but most of all, their passion for the gospel. How can you be passionate about the gospel, and passionate about holding up any one sex? Aren’t we all sinners? Are women more worthy than men? What are they trying to say? I was worried that in an effort to build up women, core theological truths would have to be torn down, and I wanted none of that.
There was no way around it. I just had to read it and judge for myself. It took me awhile. I had to take a week or two between each chapter to cry. I had to stop and reach for my Bible as I would check a reference they made as I said “I don’t remember reading that!” Is it true? Is this what it says? For real?
I cried, many times. This wasn’t a book extolling women over men, or saying they were more worthy, or promising some kind of prosperity gospel for women. This was a book about God, and what he thought about women. This was a book that showed me a part of the character of God that I have heard about, but no one showed me using Scriptures in such detail to reveal.
As a daughter of a man who didn’t value women, it made me weep. As the daughter of God, who wondered if there was a place for me in his church, in ministry, I cried. I cried just knowing God better, and seeing how we weren’t just an add-on to his perfect plan, we weren’t in the way, we were part of his plan from the beginning. We aren’t an afterthought.
I was trying to explain to my husband as I was trying to get him to read it, that this book should be ready by everyone, as it’s just in line with the theological paper our denomination presented on women, but it expands on that topic so thoroughly and has such practical thoughts and implications to it.
“Do you feel that our church doesn’t treat women well?” he asked, defensively. “We work hard to intentionally include women in a lot of parts of the service.” I thought about it, and it’s true. I love our church. I love our pastors who have always been so kind and supportive of me. Sure, there’s a rare situation of being overlooked or disregarded by men in our church, but it’s rare.
But it’s not just about my church. You see, I go to a great church, but I have so much baggage, that this book made me cry. I saw things I hadn’t seen before. Men should know the mixed messages women get at various churches, or even from various people of various generations inside their church. We all come to church with baggage, messages about who we are, and not having any understanding of our freedom.
Leaders, husbands, fathers, and brothers should know the baggage that is particular to women. It will help them understand how to love us. This book lays it out so Biblically. (As I’m not in the same denomination of either Elyse or Eric, I didn’t agree with 100% of this book, but I appreciate their high view of scripture, and their commitment to hold fast to the gospel of Christ crucified.)
If you are a women, read this book, as it will be healing. If you are a man, read this book so that you know how to care for the women in your life better–especially if you are shepherding them in any capacity. If you ever wished there was a manual for how to handle women, this is it: or at least an point by point Biblical explanation of how God handles women, and I can’t think of a better place to start.
P.S. As another resource, I have found this video by Jen Wilkin also very helpful in understanding women’s place in the church from a conservative yet freedom-motivated perspective. I encourage men and women alike to watch that as well.