Towards a Balanced View of Christian Womanhood

Towards a Balanced View of Christian Womanhood May 17, 2019

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Christian social media has been buzzing of late with a fierce renewal of the long-standing debate over the role of women in the Church. It was catalyzed by this blog post from my friend and Patheos colleague Owen Strachan, which strongly censured female preaching in any context.

By itself, the assertion that women should not be ordained as pastors isn’t controversial in conservative evangelical circles. But Strachan goes farther. Apropos of the announcement that popular speaker Beth Moore was going to address a gathered church assembly for Mother’s Day morning, he writes, “If we take the Bible at its word, then we recognize that there is no way for a woman to instruct the gathered church, whether in an authoritative or ‘non-authoritative’ way. Congregational preaching and teaching is authoritative, for the Word of God is authoritative.” He repeats further down, “Whether a woman is called to marriage or singleness, women should not preach or offer public teaching in the gathered worship service in local churches. The call to local church leadership is not dependent upon gifting or talent; it is based on the creation order of almighty God. For a woman to teach and preach to adult men is to defy God’s Word and God’s design. Elders must not allow such a sinful practice; to do so is to bring the church body into disobedience against God.”

This raised some eyebrows—in my view, understandably so.

Some background: I like Owen Strachan. I know him well enough to call him friend, though we’ve never met in person. We’ve exchanged writing and thoughts in a spirit of mutual respect on topics of mutual interest. In fact, he approached and commissioned me to write the cover story for the launch of his forthcoming magazine venture Permanent Things (a piece examining the Intellectual Dark Web from a Christian perspective). He’s even encouraged me to write a book on the subject (which probably won’t happen, or at least not quite like he envisioned, but I don’t want to give too much away—follow me on Twitter so you won’t miss a thing, natch). So, despite the various comments various people have been making in the wake of his post, I as a certified woman can confirm: Owen does not hate women, nor is he threatened by Intelligent Females, nor is he on a mission to make sure women in the church talk publicly about nothing but making casserole and sewing felt Christmas tree ornaments. Beth Moore tweeted that she would be “terrified” to be the kind of woman Owen approves of. I can only say that as far as I’m concerned, Owen is an all-round Stand-Up Guy. In technical parlance, a Mensch.

With that out of the way, I do have some thoughts on all this that, true to form, will probably leave everyone on both sides mildly annoyed. This appears to be my lot in life. I choose to think of it as a spiritual gift.

To put my cards on the table, like other conservative Christians I too have no disagreement with Owen on the question of women’s ordination. I also agree in broad outline with him that the universe is divinely ordered, and that male leadership in the church and in the home properly reflects this divine order.

However, my own eyebrows were among the eyebrows that went up at Strachan’s extension of this thesis to the assertion that it’s a sin not only for women to be ministers, but to instruct an “assembled church body” in any capacity at all. One context that I’m not sure had occurred to Owen is the context of a conference. Many churches, when they host conferences on apologetics and the like, will schedule speaker sessions during Sunday morning assembly. These sessions could cover a variety of topics, ranging from psychology and sexuality to New Testament scholarship. If a female psychologist or biblical scholar has been invited to come help educate Christians on these topics while grounding her presentation in the Word (as, indeed, we would hope she would!) is it “sinful” for her to be slotted into a Sunday morning session but not a Saturday night session? That is, assuming “adult men” are attending the session? Should only women be in attendance for her Sunday morning slot?

Owen’s phrase “preaching or teaching” additionally raises the question of female college Bible teachers. I’m old enough to remember both when Cedarville College was in a shambles and when those Augean stables finally got cleaned in perhaps more dramatic fashion than people were expecting. Firing all the female professors was certainly one approach, but I’m not entirely sure it was precisely tailored to what was actually needed. A part of me wonders how many theologically solid women were put out of a job while the male evanjellyfish who actually needed to be fired got off scot-free.

This brings me to a broader issue I have with Owen’s post: It leaves unclear exactly what the place is for women whose gifts and interests are not distinctively feminine. He envisions older women instructing younger women in various domestic arts, but not all women are equally competent or motivated to offer such instruction. And some might be highly competent to offer instruction in a skill or a discipline that is less domestic in nature. Not to put too fine a point on it, what if I’m the kind of woman who lets the Pillsbury Dough Boy make all my pie crusts and buys my Christmas tree ornaments from Meijer, but I can really kick ass on the finer points of Bayes’s Theorem, or the poetry of T. S. Eliot, or the abject failure of biblical higher criticism?

Then again, as mentioned earlier, our own interactions can speak to this question. I have, after all, been entrusted with a generous amount of space in his new magazine, writing on a topic that is not exactly water-cooler fodder for most evangelical women, addressing an audience that will include not just adult men but pastors. I also learned about a woman working in New Testament scholarship whom I’d never heard of before he mentioned her name in an exchange. So perhaps it would be fair to say that in this respect, his actions bring clarity where his writing raises questions.

All of these questions are, of course, delicately entangled with the vocations of singleness and motherhood. Owen recently quoted a tweet from a woman expressing frustration at women who complain they don’t “just” want to work with babies and little children all their lives. She found this sentiment shallow and shot back that women should regard the nurturing of children as the noblest possible calling.

I, too, have felt that frustration. I feel it particularly when I see Christian women defensively pushing the idea that deliberate childlessness is an acceptable choice for a married Christian woman who wants to focus on “kingdom work” instead. I’m no Catholic, but I will take a Catholic friend in this particular fight any day. Meanwhile, in some Protestant circles, “Able Christian couples should not make themselves permanently and purposefully infertile” is still an “I can’t believe I need to argue this, but here we are” kind of concept. (This probably has something to do with how the tunnel-visioned focus on sola Scriptura has made evangelicals incapable of availing themselves of the rich resources of natural law, but anyway, another day.)

On this topic, my attention was recently drawn to this now two-year-old post by Karen Swallow Prior, which she re-shared for Mother’s Day. I know Karen less well than Owen but have enjoyed some exchanges with her (including an interview for this blog, which you can read here). I value her voice and found value in this article. She uses her own personal story of (unwanted) childlessness and the profiles of other childless Christian women throughout church history to argue that childlessness can be a “calling.” Inter alia, I appreciated her very clear moral stance against IVF (which Prior is right to note many evangelicals don’t consider with due thoughtfulness). Her historical examples are a mix of women who never married and women like herself in childless marriages. Her concluding thesis that “women do not have to be mothers in order to contribute meaningfully to the world” is unarguably true. However, certain natural questions arise that aren’t clarified within the piece. For example, it’s not clear what stance she takes on deliberate childlessness within a marriage.

Singleness, of course, is another issue yet again. Whereas it’s easy to tell men to man up and set themselves to the task of choosing and pursuing a godly woman, it’s more than a bit cruel to ask a single young woman “Why don’t you have yourself a nice boy yet?” The blunt truth is that men can be pornified cads and sexual selection can be harsh, even in the church. In the process, many good women who would have gladly poured themselves into a family will be passed over. And evangelicalism, unlike Catholicism, does not have a very clearly defined vocation of singleness by which such women can easily navigate. (Nor such men, for that matter.)

To acknowledge that single and/or childless women can bear fruit to the glory of God is not to deny that these things are privations. To acknowledge that God may intend and use tragedy for good is not to pretend that a thing is not tragic. Two things can be true at once: Yes, the natural telos of womanhood bends towards motherhood and homemaking, and also yes, individual women may have talents to offer the church that extend beyond motherhood and homemaking. And for many women, this will take the form of teaching.

Women should not be ministers. Women should not play a pastoral role in adult men’s lives. On this Owen and I are agreed. The need for men to be spiritually nurtured and mentored by a male authority figure is imperative. But there should be a place in the church for women with the gift of teaching more than homemaking skills. Such women have much to offer men and women alike. A scholar can offer knowledge of biblical languages to a seminary student. A conference speaker can offer expert advice in her area of specialty. I don’t see how either of these contexts would constitute a disruption of the divine order for male and female.

Since no post of mine these days would be complete without a Jordan Peterson reference, I note that the title for Owen’s original piece plays on the words “order” and “chaos” in a way that probably unintentionally evokes Peterson’s work. Peterson has frequently been nagged by feminist journalists who press him to “admit” that what he’s really saying is women are the agents of chaos and men need to come along and straighten them out with manly order. This, of course, is a ridiculously shallow distortion of Peterson’s actual message, as people discovered on a viral scale when he winningly disarmed Cathy Newman last year.

Likewise, someone could read the title of Owen’s post and conclude after reading the body that he is prescribing divine order as the masculine antidote to feminine chaos. I think this, too, would be unfair, since Owen clearly has in mind many different forms of chaos that are encroaching on the Church, and he has proven that he hardly views strong-willed women as inherently chaotic and dangerous.

At the same time, I suggest more balance is required than his post provides on its face. As Peterson often points out, the goal is not to overwhelm chaos with order, but to mediate optimally between the two. We should seek to discern God’s good order for man and woman both by revelation and by natural law. At the same time, we should consider carefully where God’s plainly proscribed will for this order ends and where our prudential choices for living it out begin.

This is thorny work. But for the sake of the body, I think it’s worth doing.

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