Hey lady, call the Fire Department to extinguish the fire in your bones


Yesterday’s announcement from the nice people at Zondervan that they were going to suspend publication of the TNIV provoked intense reaction from its readers across the theological spectrum. One of the most virulent I read came from an egalitarian Christian woman who felt as though the decision diminished her ministry and was an attempt to muzzle her identity.

Whoa.

In the interest of fair disclosure, I must tell you I’ve never been a fan of the version. When it released, I was working at the Trinity Bookstore, and I had to keep a stone face when discussing its merits with customers. I’m a NASB girl, with some NLT and Message stirred into the mix. As my husband pointed out yesterday, we should all be thanking God we have Bibles – period. The fact that we have choices is gilding on the lily.

That revealed, I can’t stop thinking about the intense anger I heard from my sister in the Lord. Though I don’t know her personally, I understood she was reacting to a religious culture that has sometimes marginalized women. In her honor today, I am posting the introduction from the chapter about women in the church from in my book trapped in publishing no-man’s-land (The Church For Skeptics: A Conversation For Thinking People).

Hey lady, call the Fire Department to extinguish that fire in your bones

Six year-old Nancy arranged her entire collection of stuffed animals in rows and then stood in front of them with her Just 4 Kids Bible in her hands. Most little girls cuddled their stuffed critters. Nancy preached to hers. “God doesn’t want just a part of your life. He wants all of you.”

She was getting warmed up, but she could tell it was going to be a good sermon today. She got that burning feeling deep in the marrow of her bones when she was preaching to her bears, puppies and the giant giraffe her mom and dad gave after she got her appendix removed last summer. Her own sermon moved her to kneel in front of her stuffed congregation and pray, “Lord, you can have all of me.” In that moment, she felt sure of it. She would grow up and become a preacher. She felt God smile at her.

Nancy’s family attended a very conservative church where all the leadership was male. Nancy learned early that good Christian women could best use the gifts God had given them by being good wives and homemakers. She learned that church women were supposed to enjoy teacups and scrapbooking and sentimental messages about hearth and home. She loved God, and wanted to feel His smile on her life always. So she learned to be a good Christian woman.

Nancy married young and settled into her assigned role in the church, attending Christmas cookie exchanges and Mother’s Day luncheons. Her leadership gifts eventually placed her as the head of women’s ministries at her church. This meant she was responsible for creating social events like the ones she’d attended her whole life long. It also meant she was responsible for coordinating the yearly women’s retreat where she’d invite a prim outside speaker who usually spent most of her preaching time exhorting the women to be submissive keepers at home.

Nancy helped lead the weekly women’s Bible study, and discovered how much she enjoyed digging past the workbook questions into the rich soil of Scripture. She’d do a devotional introduction to the material each week, and would feel the marrow of her bones warming as she shared what God had been teaching her.

Change of plans

But Nancy had muffled the calling she’d felt as a young girl, and didn’t dwell on it in her busy “keeper at home and head of women’s ministries at church” life…until one year, the retreat speaker cancelled at the last moment. Nancy stepped into the role of keynote speaker as if she’d been training for it her whole life. Though the response from the women was incredible, what lingered in her was the sense that she was doing exactly what she’d been created to do in the body of Christ.

Nancy began receiving invitations to speak at other women’s retreats. Her husband was fairly supportive, which enabled her to use her spiritual gifts to encourage other women to connect with God more deeply. Whenever she spoke, she felt the fire in her bones she first felt that day she ministered to her stuffed animals.

But in the aftermath of these speaking invitations, she found herself quietly questioning some of the assumptions she’d always believed were true and Biblical:

  • “Women may teach other women, and of course, children. Women can teach boys, but must never teach men.”
  • “Women must be meek and submissive to the men in her life, as they’re in authority over her.”
  • “Women of course have equal value before God, but are assigned different roles in the Body of Christ.”
  • “All women preachers are feminists”

Were these things true? Nancy had believed these things for years, but wondered how it could be that a few conservative evangelical women slipped past these restrictions without being shunned by the rest of the tribe. Billy Graham’s own daughter, Anne Graham Lotz was a woman preacher who spoke regularly to large crowds of men and women. Bible teachers like Beth Moore and Kay Arthur began their ministries by teaching women only, but drew men who appreciated their skill and insight.

Female missionaries in Nancy’s denomination had been responsible for planting numerous churches on foreign soil. It had always been explained to Nancy that God would use a woman if he couldn’t find a man to do the job. But when one of these missionaries visited Nancy’s church, the pastor allowed her a few minutes during the Sunday morning service to “share” her work. She was supposed to tell a couple of missionary stories, but the woman opened her Bible, and preached a 15 minute sermon, using her stories of life in a foreign culture as sermon illustrations.

Some of the churches at which Nancy had been invited to speak had women preachers. She’d once wondered if these churches had capitulated to feminism and had compromised their biblical authority, but as she visited with the church staffers, she discovered that these congregations were just as committed to the gospel as her more conservative home church was.

Nancy didn’t quite know what to do with her questions about women in ministry. Though her husband had been quietly supportive of her speaking engagements, she also knew he basically agreed with the men at church who tossed misogynist comments into casual conversation with one another: “She’s just a feminazi”, “Women should be seen and not heard” and “Remember the good old days when the father was the head of the house and the mother stayed home barefoot and pregnant to raise the children?”

Though these attitudes had always been present among the men (and pretty much all of the women) at church, Nancy began to notice how much these careless comments smarted, inflaming the questions that kept forming within her. Were these patronizing attitudes the way God saw her, too? She knew His answer was no. No, no, no. So with increasing frequency, Nancy found herself swallowing hard, hoping she could find a way to gulp down her questions and figure out how to quench that fire in her bones at the same time.

Question, dear readers of both genders: Have you experienced this dynamic at your church? How have you handled it if you have?

About Michelle Van Loon
  • Papa Bear

    I hesitate to comment because a well-thought-out response would take a long time to write, and I don't know how my response would be received. You have portrayed two extremes: righteous feminists and chauvinist traditionalists. Yes, I classify female pastors as feminists, but I recognize the many and varied flavors of feminism, just as I recognize people have different reasons for adhering to tradition, and choose different elements of that tradition to adhere to. I agree with the feminists on some things, but not on others. I agree with the traditionalists on some things, but not on others. Naturally, how I handle this dynamic is the result of my own convictions. Do you really want a list of my positions and reasons for them?

  • Michelle Van Loon

    You're right, Papa Bear – I definitely sketched a bit of a charicature. I wouldn't characterize it as an extreme, however. It reflects the experiences of many women I've known who love and serve at congregations on the conservative end of the evangelical spectrum such as many independent Bible churches, Gen'l Association Regular Baptist, Christian & Missionary Alliance.

    I was hoping to hear from a pastor/leader or two from a traditionalist church who might want to share a bit about how they interact with and respond to women who demonstrate both Biblical fidelity and a leadership gifting. What do you do with a "Nancy" in your church? (I wasn't looking to debate complementarianism/egalitarianism – honest!)


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