“Where are you headed,” asked the man seated beside me on a plane to Philadelphia. I paused, debating whether or not to say that I was on the way to a conference on biblical equality. “Just a conference. What about you?”
I felt relieved when the conversation turned to his business trip and he didn’t ask anything further about the conference. Not knowing where he stood religiously, whether or not he had a relationship with Jesus, I hesitated to admit that gender equality is even an issue in Christian communities. If he didn’t know God and I admitted the necessity of a conference devoted to biblical equality in the Christian community, I worried that he might think less of God. Considering the many struggles souls encounter in knowing God, I decided to steer clear of biblical equality.
I did admit that I went to seminary in the Boston area. That piqued his interest immediately. He asked questions about my major. I told him I was pursuing a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in theology and women’s studies. He then asked a few more questions about my classes. The discussion eventually turned to the recent conversion of his brother and sister-in-law to Christianity.
“It happened suddenly,” he explained. “They were having marriage problems, and a friend of theirs told them that faith in God and going to church had turned their own marriage around.”
I listened, curiously, wondering where the conversation was going. Silently, I asked the Spirit to help me know how to respond. I felt as if I were walking on a tightrope. As a woman, I wrestled over what to say to an unknown man sharing very personal things about his family and life.
“My brother and sister-in-law started going to church and a Bible study. They have become Christians and their marriage has gotten so much better.”
We exchanged a few more comments on the nature of Christianity, comparing the faith to other religions and analyzing people’s reactions to Jesus. The conversation didn’t go any further. The man seemed deep in thought, so I picked up a magazine, leaving him alone to consider our faith dialogue. As we approached Philadelphia, we chitchatted about the weather and the Red Sox. The conversation reminded me of a time when I would have felt uncomfortable teaching this man about faith. Seminary was changing that–I was gaining tools for studying Scripture and theology and learning as I went along that many support the equal function of men and women in Christ’s body.
To that point, I’d wrestled greatly over what I could and could not do in churches as a woman, according to some church doctrines. Some experiences had been friendlier than others. Thankfully, I’d landed in an egalitarian-minded community after moving to Boston. I was fortunate to receive my training from an excellent pastor. Together with a talented team of musicians, I organized and led worship services. I enjoyed writing congregational readings and prayers. I also led a spiritual formation class for men and women. Sadly, that changed when God called that pastor and mentor to another ministry and the church hired a new pastor who did not support women using their gifts in ministry.
During that confusing period, the females on the worship team experienced extreme limitations. The new pastor called for a congregational study of women in ministry. He led a two-part class demonstrating why women should not speak, pray, or write things for men to speak and pray during worship services. He also argued that women should not teach men, although in some situations outside of a worship setting–such as giving directions–a woman could tell him the way to the grocery store. As the plane approached the landing strip, it occurred to me that some Christians would approve of a woman teaching a man the way to Jesus on a plane, but not from a pulpit.
I recalled how painful it was to resign from the worship team and move to another church so I could use my gifts. For a time, I felt lost. I floundered, although I knew God loved me and wanted me to exercise my gifts in Christ’s body for his glory. I reflected on how glad I was to know Dr. Catherine Clark Kroeger in seminary. Her eyes always sparkled whenever the discussion turned to women in the Bible. Eagerly, I had signed up for her course “Women in the Early Church.” I’d always wondered about women who seemed to occupy the margins.
Cathie–as she asked to be called–challenged me and other students to learn a variety of disciplines for studying the Bible: ancient Near Eastern context, Greek and Roman classical evidence, original languages, hermeneutics, church history, biblical theology, and more. She explained: “Plain readings of modern Bible translations–that are far removed from original contexts–tend to color our modern understandings.” This happens, for example, when 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is used to universally exclude women from ministry, leadership, and teaching. Patiently, she explained that Paul meant to address cultic practices creeping into the newly birthed church from the nearby Temple of Artemis. “In this context,” she added, “it is appropriate to silence loud, out of control, recently converted women who dominate men for selfish gain.” Cathie answered numerous questions about other passages that endorse the ministry, leadership, and teaching of women including Lydia, Dorcas, Priscilla, Tryphena, Euodia, Synteche, and Junia.
Gaining tools for studying Scripture rescued me from confusion about my identity as a woman in Christ. It alleviated frustrations that I’d long felt because I didn’t know any other ways of reading the Bible. Over time, I became more and more comfortable in my female skin. I grew more secure in using my gifts to further the kingdom, on a plane and from the pulpit. As the plane landed in Philadelphia, I thanked God for enabling women and men to know true freedom in Christ.