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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

How-to Friday: Be a Woman

(We interrupt this regularly scheduled blog for the second in a two-part series concerning gender issues in the church.) I have been put up to the topic of Biblical femininity by my pastor. I spoke with him by phone yesterday for a little over a half an hour after he reviewed  the essay I sent him (and posted here yesterday) regarding John Piper's recent comments about Christianity's necessarily "masculine" feel. I am grateful for my pastor's carefully reading of that essay as well as his courage to voice his criticism and push back. I believe that our theological thinking and study is best done in this way -  in community and dialogue. I grant it is not easy; quite the contrary. It is complicated and charged with emotion. Both he and I shared our own sense of outrage - me, over Piper's comments, him over some of my own biases and exegetical missteps.

I fear I have waded into waters deeper than I imagined. The gender issues debate is not new for me: I went to Wheaton College, a Christian college which is routinely criticized for its liberal leanings. And it was indeed at Wheaton that I had (and enjoyed) my first taste of feminism. I remember how both Ryan and I had both cheered Ruth Tucker on when she stood opposite John Piper in an auditorium as they debated gender roles, she defending an egalitarian view.

Ryan and I married happily egalitarian - believing that male and female were equal in Christ, neither having any unique roles or responsibility.

Gradually, that shifted to a complementarian understanding of Scripture. I cannot remember at what moment exactly, except that perhaps living together and working out the mechanics of marriage on the ground forced us to keep looking back to the Scriptures and meet with stubborn passages like Ephesians 5. Why are women called to submit? Why are men called to love? Why is Christ compared to the husband, the wife compared to the church? The texts seem to indicate real differences not easily argued away. 1 Corinthians 11 was also a turning point for me: "The head of Christ is God." The passage teaches that within the Trinity, Christ submits to God. And for eight years, I've been writing for a devotional publication, a job for which I am asked to do careful Bible study and reflection. Years back, I wrote an issue on 1 and 2 Timothy, and again, I was faced to think through more difficult, thorny passages regarding the roles of women.

It is really not my intention to argue for either view here, only to explain a little of our own path. My pastor challenged me to the topic of Biblical femininity for a number of reasons.

1. It is very difficult to moderate the discussion when you are male. I couldn't agree more, and to be honest, that may have been in part why I reacted so strongly to what Piper said. We need women also speaking up and weighing in.

2. There are gender distinctions that are universally true if we hold to the Biblical account that He created us, male and female, and understand gender distinctions, not as cultural constructs or products of patriarchy, but as right and fitting differences according to the purposes of God. This is the view of John Stott, who was very influential in my evolution of thinking on this issue a number of years ago. I came to agree with him.

3. Both men and women share a great deal of confusion on this issue, and it has led to paralysis in the church, neither men nor women understanding what they can and should do. This is an unfortunate tying of our hands.

I realize that until this point, I said nothing concrete about what it means to be a godly woman. The truth is, I can't. I don't know that I've really clearly thought this through. I will, however, stick my neck out and say why I think this is an important issue.

1. The family is in a state of deterioration. Just today in the New York Times, there was an article about the rising incidence of divorce for people over the age of 50. And if you read my blog earlier this week, I also commented on the rising trend of people who choose not to marry, preferring to live alone. This deserves a response from the church, where marriage and family are obviously to be highly valued. If we don't see at least some correlation between the confusion on gender roles and the waning support of the family, I think we've missed something significant.

2. Feminism hasn't lived up to its promises. Please here me say that I believe women are gifted and capable to do a great many things. Hello! I am one. But I do not believe that women can work and tend to their families and pursue their hobbies and run for public office and volunteer in the children's classroom and serve at their local church. The do-it-all pill women have swallowed makes for feeling terrifically exhausted and chronically guilty. There has got to be a better way than this path cleared for us by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinham.

3. The roles of wife and mother, disdained as they might be by our culture, are sacred  responsibilities. The church needs to recapture language for helping us understand these roles and find joy and purpose in them. I am one who has very rarely, if ever, heard clear teaching about this. Where in my church growing up and at the Christian college I attended was I challenged to see these roles as good and God-given? This omission was serious, causing me not less than a few growing pains on my journey.

4. Women share and enjoy the spiritual gift of teaching. I realize that this debate hits me hardest here, and I understand firsthand the clear tension between points 3 and 4. How and when is it appropriate for women to exercise this gift? Back to an earlier point where I agreed that men find it difficult to moderate this debate, it must also be acknowledged that as women who affirm a complementarian view, we have to necessarily look to our male leaders to find suitable places for us to exercise this gift. My greatest fear? That they won't. That they don't find it an urgent enough issue. Scot McKnight's ebook, Junia is Not Alone, makes the provocative claim that we have actually silenced women in our churches, and he cites a number of Biblical and historical examples of women, first of all Junia, female "apostle" cited in Romans 16:7. I am not necessarily advocating his view, but I do think it's compelling enough to consider.

There you have it folks. I hope to be back to our regularly scheduled, lighter content fare on Monday. I do actually need to do some laundry and get a little more sleep.