Excursus: On Gifts and Gender

I am pretty reluctant to say anything on this subject, because it can be a contentious one among Christians and offensive to those looking in from the outside.  But because of who I am, these questions inevitably arise.  It seems only fair to address them for you briefly here.  The questions I hear most often are:

“How do you interpret the passages that seem to indicate that women should not teach mixed company in the church?”

…and,

“How do you handle the restrictions you encounter in your PCA church?”

As to the exegesis of the relevant passages, I must leave the interpretive decisions to wiser heads than mine.  I have read extensively from both the “egalitarian” and the “complementarian” shelves of the Christian bookstores, and while I reject the egalitarian arguments, I find myself reasonably convinced of two mutually exclusive complementarian conclusions — one, that Paul teaches that it is inappropriate for a woman to instruct men at all; and two, that there is room within his prohibitions to allow a woman to instruct mixed groups in less-than-official contemporary teaching situations, like Sunday school classes or Bible studies.  I know that my personal preference would sway me in the direction of the latter option, which is hardly a responsible hermeneutic (even if it were correct!).  So I will cede this field to others.  The following things I can say with conviction, however:

1. Sometimes it’s tempting to interpret biblical commands as historically bound (and therefore not applicable to Christians today) because they make us feel uncomfortable.  My liberal, secular educational background and my previous experiences teaching in an egalitarian evangelical setting certainly predispose me to wish for the freedom to do whatever I want as a woman.  I suspect my own preferences of interfering with my reading here.

2.  I understand the biblical model of leadership to involve male headship in the family and the church.  I see this pattern in Scripture, and I recognize that my husband and my Elder brothers have  the particular and very weighty responsibility of being accountable for family and flock.  I conclude from this that I ought not to do anything to sabotage their work, but ought instead to support it with all my energies — and repent if I find myself doing the opposite.

3.  I have voluntarily obligated myself, as a member of an elder-led church, to submit to the decisions of the elders in areas of church government.  The “elder-led” idea is itself flabbergasting to contemporary Americans (and I have written about this odd model of “doing church” in my essay “A Necessary Gift,” originally published in Modern Reformation Magazine). Naturally we’d want to hedge that leadership with appropriate checks and balances, acknowledging the reality of human error and sinfulness and the limitations of the elders’ authority to the areas of church government and spiritual shepherding.  But the bottom line is, I do not get to call the shots about whether I teach mixed groups or not at my PCA church.  That decision is out of my hands.

4.  If gifts are truly from God, he will arrange for their use.  …as I have observed in my own life, whenever I’ve stumbled into the next work that he has planned in advance for me to do.

5. People in Reformed circles will differ over where they “draw the line” regarding a woman communicating about theological things to mixed audiences.  I need to remind myself of this fact, lest I be shocked or hurt to find that it is unacceptable to some of my brethren that I even write about biblical and  theological things.  I am blessed to know many wonderful brothers who imaginatively make use of my gifts and affirm me as a fellow-worker, whether or not they are comfortable with me teaching mixed groups.

6. Women will differ in their comfort level regarding teaching or participating in mixed groups and all-female groups for Bible study.  Frankly, I have usually found this a difficult thing to communicate to others.  It is often expected that because I am a woman, I will naturally feel comfortable teaching and learning in all-female groups.  It’s been my observation that most women are more comfortable in a single-gender group; some are equally comfortable in either all-female or mixed groups.  But a few of us are acutely sensitive to the cultural differences between these settings, and we find that the relational and content-related expectations of mixed groups are more compatible with our mental and emotional makeup.  (That is, generally speaking, in a mixed group the instructor is expected to provide more content than relationship; usually in an all-female group, these expectations are reversed.)   Note that this does not preclude my teaching all-female groups; it is just a factor of my personality that I need to take into account when choosing the work that I will do in the Body of Christ, insofar as I may choose it.

7.  Being an anomaly is a lonely thing: Christ understands this loneliness.  It’s a fairly rare thing to become a female Reformed theologian, especially without benefit of seminary; in my experience, it’s often a lonely and discouraging thing to be.  But I am alert now to others who are outliers in the Body of Christ, and aware, too, that the Pioneer of my salvation was the Anomaly of anomalies.  I am grateful for his presence as I navigate this odd combination of gifts and gender in a PCA setting.