I remember when I was first exposed to the notion of women pastors–probably at the age of seven or eight. We attended a small Messianic congregation in Yonkers, NY, that met in the building of Crescent Place Reformed Church. I think that the arrangement was a marriage of convenience; they probably didn’t appreciate our theological conservatism and premillennialism, but needed our money to stay afloat. When folks in our congregation expressed unease at the arrangement over CPRC’s “liberalism,” one of the chief indicators was that they had female elders. When the church hired a female pastor, that was the end of the marriage–Abraham’s true children packed up and headed over to Dunwoody Baptist down the street!
Fast-forward to my years at Cairn University as a seminarian, I had ordained women as classmates, many of whom were leading African-American charismatic churches. I liked many of them and respected their experience in ministry that greatly exceeded my own. But I didn’t give much thought to what this might mean for my complementarian assumptions–I subconsciously conflated their continuationism on the sign gifts (which I rejected, and still reject) with their permissiveness on women’s ordination. Yet the seeds were planted here: these women could certainly preach and possessed a love for God’s Word and God’s people. They were not fire-breathing feminist liberals intent on destroying the church.
I did get the feeling that my experience as a male undergrad in Biblical Studies at Cairn, and later as a seminarian, was different from that of a female student in those programs, because Cairn’s Biblical Studies faculty was (and remains) exclusively male. This meant that I could have closer relationships with professors outside the classroom, being invited over to their homes, out for coffee, etc., than my female classmates could.
(Now, we can debate whether healthier social conventions about professional, academic, non-romantic friendships between men and women would ameliorate this situation somewhat–but I do not blame these men for avoiding situations in which they could succumb to temptation or be falsely accused.)
I thought to myself many times, “I wish we had some Bible professors who are women, so that women students can have those mentoring relationships.” Even though I still held my default position that women should not hold ordained office in the church, those rules didn’t seem like they should apply to the academic realm. (As I will point out in a future post, I think that the complementarian position is inconsistent for this very reason–the logic that seems to apply in the church cannot be applied in other realms without reaching levels of absurdity.) After all, some of my male Bible and theology professors were not ordained–though the concept of ordination in the sorts of independent, baptistic, Bible-church, dispensational churches that most of our professors inhabited was less formal than it is in denominations with non-congregational polity.
As far as I know, there was and is no formal rule against women teaching Bible or theology at Cairn. (There was the legendary administrator, Mae Stewart, who–it was whispered–had allegedly taught Biblical Greek at one time.) But there were certainly male professors who opposed hiring women to teach Bible or theology and would have resigned had a woman been hired.
As I learned more about the path to becoming an evangelical Bible/theology professor, it seemed to me that a woman who was sufficiently conservative on other theological issues would not be likely to get very far down that path. Even if she completed seminary and grad school, she would be unlikely to gain the sort of practical ministry experience that a place like Cairn valued in a candidate, because she could not be a pastor in most conservative, non-charismatic evangelical churches.
Another turning point occurred when I served at LCC International University on a Theology faculty with two ordained women, and two men who were ordained in egalitarian denominations. Moreover, I found that some of the main conservative evangelical groups in Lithuania also had ordained women leading churches.
Let me stress again: these experiences are not arguments. But they caused me to see that many of my beliefs were not derived strictly from Scripture but also from my own cultural background (American, conservative white evangelical). When we returned from LCC and my denominational situation became unstable for other theological reasons, I took the opportunity as a denominational “free agent” to assess the best arguments from Scripture and tradition for and against women’s ordination.
In the next post, I will mention some of the key arguments that I think are the strongest for both sides, and (finally) explain why I came to the conclusion I did.