Thursday, April 24, 2014

Why Bother with Women's Role at ACU Summit

This year marks an historic first in the history of Churches of Christ and in her longest running annual event the ACU Summit formerly known as Lectureship, Bible Lecture Week, and Preacher’s week.  For more than a century ACU has not only been located in the center of the United States, but has also been a center of conversation about how Christians faithfully follow God in their own time.  There have been many firsts. For example, the time the issue of racism was confronted head on by Carl Spain in his historic 1960 ACU lectureship sermon.  Some of these firsts are notable only in looking back, which is an important practice for Christians—we look back in order to look forward.

Women have been teaching, speaking, and preaching at ACU for many decades.  Women have even been speaking to large crowds in Moody Coliseum during Summit (since 2009).  Very good people, whom I love and admire have asked me, “Why bother with the issue of women’s role?”  For most of us it is easier to do things the way we have always done them and to take the stance we have always taken.  This is comfortable.  In some cases, a strong biblical case can be made for things to stay the same.  However, more often than not to stay the same person, thinking the same things, and remaining in the same position is an escapist stance, living in static denial of the active, ongoing work of God.  If I pretend things are the same, then things are the same.

Much about life needs to stay the same.  We pursue justice over evil.  We punish crime.  We protect the powerless.  People who work hard should be paid.  There is one God.  Jesus is Lord.  The Spirit empowers us with gifts.  Some things need to stay the same.  As much as life does stay the same (seasons, patterns, rituals, similar problems since time began), there is just as much about life that does not stay the same.  It is natural for things to change.  We don’t want babies to stay the same – we want them to grow.  We don’t want math skills to remain the same-we want them to improve.  We don’t want sinful lifestyles to remain the same-we want forgiveness and change.  It is normal for things to change and even to expect change and growth.

When it comes to the position of women in the church, there are many people who point back to the fall, who point back to “some” of the words of Paul to church situations, and shrug their shoulders and say, “Even if I wanted to change, these roles are all the result of the fall.  Paul said we women should be quiet.  We are stuck.  So, let us choose to be biblical and let things remain the same.”

God created women and men.  While much in the OT is male-dominated and even abusive toward women, there are hints of God’s work for the protection of women especially when compared to other Ancient Near Eastern cultures.  Scripture shows God empowering women and using the leadership of women.  Today in “our” world, women run countries and businesses, corporations and government agencies.  However, when women come to church, we tell them to sit down and be quiet or to serve in the background.  The whiplash is most obvious to outsiders and to our children, not to mention our women gifted for leadership.  Today is a different world and in some ways a better world.  In many ways our world has worked for justice for women in ways that far surpass the church.

This question of women’s participation must be answered because it affects our witness to the world – a world that looks at us as strange because of how we limit the gifts and abilities of more than half of our participants.  (Again, I quickly add it is good for us to look strange to the world. . . when it comes to our stance against sin and our stance with the poor, etc., but we must have good reasons for why we look strange to the world.  We must ensure that our strangeness aligns with the gospel and ultimate reign of God.) When it comes to an understanding of women and men, our world is not the world of Genesis 1 nor of the first century nor of the Reformation nor of even the last one hundred years.

When I cut across all the debate and summarize why this issue is important, it is because this issue is closely tied to the gospel.  I offer three considerations.  First, the sin of humanity that resulted in hierarchal practice and trouble recounted Genesis 1-3 is real.  It is a sinful rebellion SHARED by women AND men against the rule of God.  It is not establishing a pristine gender hierarchy.  Secondly, one thing often forgotten is that the fall is something Jesus has over turned with his life, death, and resurrection. His presence brought the reign of God (kingdom of God) to earth in a very real way.  Jesus’ presence as the son of God incarnated as a human being invites us to work for and live in the kingdom of God, the world God intended and the world God will create.  It is a world where there is no separation of race, culture, religious insiders and outsiders, or even of gender. The result of fall is not a good place to locate God’s ideal, once and for all regarding relationship of genders.  It is the Fall!  We live the resurrection.

In addition to what Jesus’ presence signaled to reverse the fall, thirdly, the action of Jesus’ ministry also changed things.  In the first century, Jesus chose to associate with people across religious lines, across cultural lines, across the lines of sinfulness, across purity lines, and across gender lines.  He publicly spoke with women to whom he was not married in circumstances (like a well) known for being “pick up” places.  Jesus broke social rules to welcome people into relationship with God.  Jesus’ ministry indicates change.

Fourth, we can say that women and men are different and they are the same.  In the case of gender, we can say that women and men have differences.  They are distinct from one another physically and in other ways.  But men and women are the same in how God created them as human beings. . . in the image of God.  Together both serve as expressions of God.  Together both share consequence of rebellion against God sometime manifest in different ways.

So, it seems to me that Christians have a choice between at least two interpretive options.  Will we continue the logic that upholds the fall’s punishment as the once for all ideal for our teaching and practice on gender roles or will we lean into the reality of the arrival of the Kingdom of God?  My claim is that no longer should gender be the default determiner on what a woman or man can do in service to God whether that service is public or private.  These actions of service and ministry should be left up to the gifting of the Spirit.

This interpretation is a God focused, God-following and theological understanding that takes into consideration the whole of God’s activity represented in Scripture and our present witness to our world.  Some of the more challenging words from Paul are the following:

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:23-29).

Jesus’ resurrection reverses the curse of the fall.  I believe men have a God given responsibility to work for the glory of women and to live in mutuality with them.  Further if being a man is required and so important for leadership, then I intend to use my maleness to work for the full rights of women.  There are many things that women offer the body of Christ that men do not.  There are things that men offer the body of Christ that women do not.  Rather than making gender the determiner of who cannot serve, we should make the gifting of the Holy Spirit and the discernment of the body of Christ the determiner.  If gender is not recognized in the age to come and if Jesus brought down the barrier between Jew and non-Jew, Slave and Free, Male and Female, then the church should represent this clear manifestation of the coming kingdom now.  This is preferable to preserving a false “ideal” that women are lesser because of the fall, which is not a logical practice (nor is it in line with the gospel Jesus preached or lived).  So, on a personal level, if Jesus brought down these barriers, then so should I work to bring down barriers.

My most important point follows.  When all is said and done, this practice of women’s active participation is not an issue upon which our church or our family or our fellowship of churches should divide.  This statement today and this practice of ACU at Summit this fall is NOT an ultimatum.  This is not even a statement of the ultimate true way.

ACU does not determine the doctrine of churches—as if ACU herself were some static and uniform collection of belief and practice.  ACU is a collection of diverse and faithful and unfaithful believers, who together are seeking God in the practice of educating people for Christ-centered service and leadership throughout the world.

It must be acceptable to object to this practice and remain in fellowship.  There needs to be space for people to see things differently, reason to a different point and to practice a different approach in churches.  People have ALWAYS seen things differently and always will until the age to come.  However, it is not okay to sever a fellowship of this.  Our fellowship must remain together.  Our fellowship needs reasons to remain united on something other than the self-determined correctness of our perspectives and opinions.  That basis for unity is Jesus Christ.  This is actually something that makes Churches of Christ so great – fellowship even in diversity, organization without a structure to make mandates.  Unity cannot be based upon our opinions or perspectives, unity is based upon Jesus who lived, died and rose for all of us – equally.  If I believe he loves me, then I must believe he loves others (who think, believe, and act differently than I do).

So, there is no “agenda” to force people neither to think a certain way nor to make churches practice a certain form of women’s participation.  This is not one person or group asserting their will on a fellowship (or an institution or denomination).  ACU is simply one place where people will be able to see that a woman is equal to a man in ability, talent, and opportunity to give witness to the good news of God.  It is also a place where we can recognize that gender represents difference and unique expression of God.  We need both male and female to reflect God’s image.  In the same way a fellowship needs to honor differences and yet have one God and one fellowship.  I will say again we are all children of God and we are all one through faith in Jesus Christ (and by inference not one through uniform understanding).

Well, that was long winded of me.  But I’m glad to think out loud about this important historic move.  I am thankful to my dean, to the provost and to the president of this university for their vision and support of this practice.