I grew up in a home where male authority was the norm. My father learned from his father that men are supposed to be “leaders.” The denomination my father was raised in also taught that men alone should teach and lead in the church. When I first embraced Christianity, I faithfully attended a “complementarian” church. Like my father, they taught me that men should be leaders, and that women should submit to this leadership. They not only taught this verbally, they lived it every Sunday. Only men could teach and preach from the pulpit. Only men could be elders. Only men could be ushers. Only men served communion. I was asked to lead Bible studies; not because I knew the Bible (I didn’t), but because I was male. I was also encouraged to pursue a career in “ministry.”
I was taught that men are supposed to be “servant-leaders.” Feminists, I was told, simply didn’t understand that men were actually serving women by providing them with godly leadership. In a strange kind of way, this seemed to make sense. I was encouraged to guard my faith against the “sinful ways of the world;” namely, “women’s liberation.”
So why in the world do I now advocate the equality of women in the Christian faith?
It all started at a leadership conference I attended with representatives from churches all across Canada and the United States. It was big. One of the speakers challenged us to respond in faith and obedience if we believed God was calling us to full-time ministry as pastors. Many young men went to the front of the auditorium to answer this call—along with one young woman.
What I saw that day made an impact. The young men at the front actually began yelling at her. She was accused of heresy and rebellion for daring to think that God would call a woman to be a pastor. In her defense, she mentioned something about a verse in Galatians that said there is neither male nor female in Christ. She was asked to provide the exact chapter and verse number, and when she could not, she was mocked for her lack of Bible knowledge. She left the conference in tears, and I never saw her again.
What in the world was I witnessing? I couldn’t help thinking of a Bible story concerning a woman caught in adultery and the crowd of religious men who wanted to stone her to death. The woman at the conference, however, simply wanted to obey God and preach the gospel! The religious men in the Bible story were rebuked by Jesus. What would he say to my male friends and colleagues who shouted accusations at this women, mocked her, and drove her from our meeting? I began to wonder.
Shortly after this troubling experience, I went to Bible College. Here I met dozens of women who claimed that they had received a call from God to lead and/or teach in the church. Some women felt called to be pastors; one felt called to be a priest. They shared their stories and pointed out passages in the Bible where women were clearly depicted as prophets, teachers or leaders. One of these women explained to me that a woman named Junia was even an apostle! She further explained that hundreds of years after the New Testament was written, translators began to change this female apostle’s name to a man’s. I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t believe it. My church taught me that the inerrancy of our English Bible had been providentially preserved by the sovereignty of God. My church certainly wouldn’t lie about something that important; and they couldn’t possibly be mistaken, could they?
I became troubled. Firmly believing that we should bring our troubles to God in prayer and ask him for guidance, I did just that. I told God that I was bothered by what I was seeing and hearing. I asked him to help me understand his heart for women, and sort through the conflicting messages I was getting from other Christians.
In answer to this prayer, I believe God responded. At first, it seemed that he asked me if I really wanted to know the answers to my questions. He seemed to be saying that I would find the answers difficult. Not knowing what to expect, and truly wanting to learn, I said, “Yes Lord, please teach me.”
There are two large universities close to my home. Each has a number of church colleges and/or a seminary on campus. I felt compelled to access the library resources there concerning the Bible, church history and women.
I’ll never forget what I found, or how I felt when I first discovered it. It began with a review of what the early church fathers said about women:
”For it is improper for a woman to speak in an assembly, no matter what she says, even if she says admirable things, or even saintly things, that is of little consequence, since they come from the mouth of a woman.” (Origen, 258 A.D., Fragments on First Corinthians)
“What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.” (Saint Augustine, 354 – 430 A.D., De genesi ad litteram)
I then read similar comments from Protestant Reformers, who were strongly influenced by the church fathers who came before them:
“[A woman] is formed to obey; for gunaikokratia (the government of women) has always been regarded by all wise persons as a monstrous thing; and, therefore, so to speak, it will be a mingling of heaven and earth, if women usurp the right to teach.” (John Calvin, commentary on 1 Timothy 2:12).
“The word and works of God are quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.” (Martin Luther, Works)
Then I came across a historical book that continues to haunt me. It contained court transcripts of all of the women killed by men, acting on the authority of the church, during the Inquisition. It had their names, and the charges against them. Many of the women were found guilty of “witchcraft;” specifically, something called “love magic.” This meant that a man had allegedly been so bewitched by a woman that he couldn’t help committing adultery with her, or perhaps even raping her. Sexual sins committed by men were blamed exclusively on their female partners or victims. I read hundreds of names, maybe thousands. I lost count. I became dizzy. I didn’t realize it at first, but I had stopped breathing. I felt like I was going to die. Something inside me broke.
This notion that women must be subject to men had nothing to do with God, the gospel, servant-leadership, or the love of Jesus Christ. It was born of fear, hatred, and a felt “need” for control. It was prejudice, and it had led to subjugation, oppression and even mass murder.
“Now do you understand?” I felt the Spirit of God say to me. I was speechless. “Teach what you have learned.”
Since those early days, I have learned that many of the church’s most influential theologians had a profound prejudice against women. It shows itself in their commentary work, and even in their Bible translation. Old Testament passages have been changed by the addition of vowel marks. Verses that once condemned excessive taxation now criticize the leadership of women (c.f. Isaiah 3:12, LXX vs. Masoretic Text). Greek words used to prohibit violence or murder now prohibit women from “exercising authority” (c.f. 1 Timothy 2:12, “authentein” in New Testament Manuscripts & “authentas” in the LXX vs. English translations). Phoebe, a woman who was a “leader” in the early church (prostatis), is now referred to as “a good friend” (Romans 16:2, Good News for Modern Man). “Junia” the apostle, or “Julia” according to the earliest Greek manuscript, became Junias—a man. Commands such as, “Wives submit to your husbands” (Eph. 5:22), are not found in the earliest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. They are only found in later manuscripts and today’s English translations. In the earliest manuscripts the only command in this passage is addressed to all Christians, regardless of their sex: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).
Today’s complementarian theology is built on a legacy of fear, control and prejudice. Terms like “servant-leadership” have a pleasant sound to them, but Jesus did not use them. Rather, he told all of his followers, “Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ” (Matthew 23:10).
The young woman at the leadership conference, who said “yes” to the Lord’s call to be a pastor, was right: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
My male friends, who mocked and shouted at her, were wrong. More to the point, I was wrong. I had unknowingly been influenced by the patriarchal norms of a prejudiced and fallen world. These norms had found their way into my home as a child, into our society, and yes even into the church. Paul wrote to the church in Rome concerning this very influence: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
Why do I advocate women’s equality? The love of Christ compels me.