culture

There, But Not Here: Bible and Culture in Conflict

“They offered me the role of pastor at my church,” my friend told me with a smile. Originally from South America, she had been serving as a missionary for many years in the Balkans. Continuing with a touch of resignation, she added, “but back home, when I started a vibrant church plant with my friend, the denomination took it over because it needed a male pastor.”

These stories are not uncommon. Women are sent into mission by churches who support them prayerfully and financially. They are commissioned to evangelize, disciple, care, preach, teach and pastor. They are received back into silence and submission. As long as they preach and teach away from home, it is not a problem. As soon as they come back, it is. Women are equal ‘there’, but not ‘here’.

I am not sure why this is the case. Maybe there is some sort of cultural superiority at play. Things apply differently to ‘them’ than to ‘us’. Maybe there are not enough men to go, so we compromise and let women do the job. Maybe it does not matter, as long as we are not seeing it. Maybe we have never thought about it.

Complementarians often point to passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 to bolster their position that women should not be allowed to teach. In it Paul writes, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” They assert that Paul’s instruction to Timothy was trans-cultural, and so should be applied in a similar way today, even though our context is different.

But the apparent double standard between a woman’s permissions at home versus in mission sends a confusing message. Are women really equal with men? Or are they not? Are women really permitted to engage in the same ministry with the same authority as men? Or are they not? It seems to me that if Paul’s exhortation was truly trans-cultural, then it would apply as equally in mission as it does at home.

A pastor once told me, “we’ll just call it a missional encouragement, not a sermon. That way no one will get upset.” I had taught and preached in a variety of settings around the world as a missionary, but at home, it was different. The inconsistency in application leads me to believe the real issue is our culture and comfort levels, not Biblical adherence. For whatever reason, people are not comfortable with women in positions of influence and authority, so we limit when and where it can happen. If it were anything else, would mere semantics put us at ease?

Either Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:12 are trans-cultural, or they are not. Either women can engage in the same ministry with the same authority as men, or they cannot. Either women are equal to men, or they are not. We cannot pick and choose in which geographic location Scripture applies.

God is using women in mission around the world. Many are hearing about Christ for the first time because of women. Churches are being planted because of women. Relief and development projects are thriving because of women. Justice is happening because of women. If it is okay ‘there’, but not ‘here’, ‘here’ is what is missing out. Women will always take advantage of opportunities and serve God however they can. Let us clarify our message: women, you are commissioned to evangelize, disciple, care, preach, teach and pastor. Everywhere.

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A Handshake and a Foreign Word

I recently went through the process of church shopping, and discovered it is not all it is cracked up to be. I have no idea why people would pursue it almost as a leisure option. It pretty much sucks, especially for an introvert.

Disregarding my introverted preferences, I drove myself to church after church. After countless handshakes and some admittedly awkward small talk, I sat alone in the pew. I was lost. Metaphorically and, not surprisingly, iChrist Church Stellartonn thought.

The songs, words, and customs displayed themselves like a play I’d never seen in a language I’d never heard. There was no explanation, just an unspoken assumption that I really should’ve known what was happening. And I should mention that I am a church veteran. I started going to church before I was even out of the womb. Yet here I was, silently crying out for a church culture guide. Someone to help me navigate these foreign practices. Then I wondered, if I were struggling, how would it be for a new churchgoer? Would they be greeted with a handshake, only to be verbally and customarily excluded?

If the answer to that question is yes, and by my own experience, I would say that too often it probably is, then I can’t help but draw the conclusion that our handshakes are deceptive. We’re pretending to welcome people when we really don’t want them there. 

At this point, many ask the question, do we even need to be accessible? And if we do, what does being accessible look like? Can’t we live out our Christian culture and just be different? How much accommodation is needed? How far do we have to go? These questions can be complicated, but I believe we can go a long way with the typical Sunday school answer: Jesus.

Yes, Jesus. John 1:14 from the Message version says, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.” The Word, aka Jesus, became a human being, completely inconveniencing himself to come in a way that we would understand. Philippians 2, also from the Message, adds that Jesus “set aside all the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human…he didn’t claim special privileges.” If that’s how important accessibility was to God, how can we even question that we need to prioritize it too?

I used to attend a church that repeatedly emphasized, “we want to be a church that non-churched people want to come to.” They showed this by explaining typical Christian words and customs, providing programs to explain the Christian faith, finding connecting points in popular culture, and removing barriers to people finding Jesus. It isn’t easy, and I think it has been a continual process for them to figure out what being accessible looks like, but they’re trying, and that’s what counts.

It is becoming more and more the case that we can no longer assume that the average person understands the Christian story and all that goes along with it. Some people call this ‘post-Christendom.’ The way I see it, we have two options. We either fight and attempt a white-knuckle grip on ‘the way it used to be,’ or we proactively find ways to make our life and message accessible. I’m not talking about compromising on core aspects of truth, but figuring out what needs to happen for it to be understood. Let’s not offer a handshake only to alienate with a foreign word. Let’s lay down our privileges, like Jesus did, and move into the neighbourhood. Are you with me?

How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership

I remember sitting across from my mentor and her telling me that she was thinking about becoming a vicar. I looked at her with a puzzled face and said, “But, doesn’t the Bible say that women can’t be pastors?” She replied, “Tami, I’ve read the same Bible and I don’t see it that way.” I was confused: how could two people read the Bible and come to such different conclusions on the same issue?

I’d grown up in a church where women in leadership wasn’t really discussed, but all I ever saw were men up on the stage. Sometimes a woman would sing a solo or do a children’s story, but that’s about it. Men led and men made the decisions. My mentor had me thinking, though, could women be in church leadership without going against Scripture?

I couldn’t get it out of my head, and so, when I went to a Christian university soon afterward, I decided to take a course on the topic to learn more. I’m not someone who is easily convinced, so I entered the class, taught jointly by a female and a male professor, as a sceptic.

I learned a lot about gender, stereotypes, the background of feminism, and how history and culture have influenced peoples’ beliefs around what it means to be female or male. I even saw how society could play a part in shaping how one reads and understands the Bible. All of this was important for me to learn, but it was studying how Jesus interacted with women that tipped the scales for me. Jesus affirmed women as his disciples (Lk. 10:39), reinterpreted laws to protect them (Mt. 5:27-28), and even compared himself to them (Mt. 23:37-39). When women were not allowed as legal witnesses in court, Jesus chose them as the first preachers of his resurrection (Jn. 20:11-18). Jesus intentionally turned cultural and religious ideals upside-down to free women from bondage. Jesus saw women as equal to, not less than, men.

As I learned in the course, studied the Bible for myself, and prayed, my eyes were opened. Scripture didn’t prohibit women from church leadership; it encouraged it! Leadership and ministry were never supposed to be about gender – they were supposed to be about giftedness.

Where is my mentor now? She became a vicar in an Anglican church in England. And me? I think she’s well gifted for the position and I support her 100%.

I firmly believe that equality of the sexes is one more step towards the actualization of the Kingdom of God. We see glimpses of it in Jesus and throughout Scripture, and we can be a part of bringing it in now by how we live out the reality of gender equality in the church, in our homes, in society, and wherever we are. Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

The title for this blog post came from a book I read recently by the same name. I highly recommend it. Check it out on Amazon here.

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