Dear Mr. Lough:
Okay, here’s a question I have wanted to ask you for some time, even before we decided to do this email series during Lent. I read something that you posted on Facebook, and it surprised me so much that I wrote it down and made a note to ask you about it. Today’s the day to pose that question, I guess.
The Facebook post I’m referring to appeared late last year on December 20. Here is what you wrote:
An odd post, I know, but prompted by several other posts I’ve read today, so it’s time to dispel any uncertainty. I now believe that every position or role of leadership ministry in the church, without exception, should be open to women as well as men.
I think I got the quote right. Do you remember posting that? If so, could you say a bit more about what brought you to that position? If I remember correctly, that was not your belief when I was your student 12-14 years ago.
I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but I have several questions of a specific nature like this one that I want to be sure to ask, and if I don’t start doing that right now, we will all-too-soon come to the end of Lent and the end of this series. I look forward to reading your response, as always.
Yes, I remember posting that on Facebook. I was surprised at how little reaction it generated. I didn’t write it for that purpose, of course, but I was prepared to offer a substantial defense of my position if it was called for. It wasn’t. I guess most people who would be surprised or perturbed or offended by such a statement from me have stopped reading what I write or at least have stopped caring.
In any event, I’m happy to respond to your request to say a bit more about the change in my thinking on this matter. In fact, it will serve as a good follow-up to my last letter and a good example of a point I tried to make there. Namely, that sometimes we make decisions and come to conclusions for reasons other than, or in addition to, a rational argument.
For many years, as a conservative steeped in a tradition that taught the inerrancy of scripture, I understood a few passages in the New Testament—mainly from the letters by Paul—to prohibit women from serving as leaders and teachers in the church. Male “headship” in marriage and the home, male leadership in the church. That’s what I was taught, and in that patriarchal community, it made perfect sense.
I stood by the “traditional” interpretation in this area all the way through seminary and beyond. The text, it seemed to me, was clear and irrefutable. Women were equal to men in every way—intellectually, socially, spiritually—but the sexes had separate and distinct roles to fill. Men could not be mothers; women could not be pastors.
And then I met some women who challenged the stereotype I had accepted up until then. They didn’t do it by force or with strident demands. They did it with servant hearts and a serious question: “If you believe that I am not supposed to serve as a teacher or leader in the church, then what am I to do with this call I have from God?”
For a while, I was able to rationalize that they were misunderstanding or misinterpreting God’s will when they talked about a call to the ministry of preaching or pastoral leadership. Eventually, however, I could no longer convince myself with that reasoning. The call and the accompanying gifting were simply too obvious to deny.
That’s when I began to question the conservative approach to hermeneutics (or biblical interpretation). It seemed to me that, at least in the case of women in ministry leadership, maintaining a hard-line, literalist interpretation of the so-called “limiting” passages forced me to take a position in theory at odds with what I perceived to be reality in practice. I could formulate an argument with my mind, but my heart no longer found it persuasive.
And that’s also when I began to reconsider the whole question of how to read and interpret the Bible. I began to see that my literalist, inerrantist presuppositions forced me to embrace beliefs which I found increasingly uncomfortable and indefensible in contemporary culture.
Eventually, I decided that, if I had to be wrong on these issues, I would err on the side of being “too kind” or “too accepting” or “too generous” instead of taking the chance that, in my literalism, I might misconstrue the actual intent of the heart of God and end up being too restrictive or too limiting or too exclusive. And this is by no means the only issue where I have had to apply this principle.
I am now guided by what I call “the ethic of the kingdom” in matters like this, Kathryn, and I’ll pick up at this point in my next letter.