To begin, I want to start with honoring those at Highland, and among the elders in particular, who disagree with me in calling for the full inclusion of women in our common life together. I am aware of those passages in the corpus of St. Paul that shape the consciences of many on this matter. I do not judge anyone for having their conscience so shaped. Nor do I claim to have the truth in this matter. I simply feel compelled to share with those in my church, as I already have to some in leadership, the vision of the Kingdom as I discern it to be manifest in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
For those looking in on this, some background context about my church.
Highland is a part of the Churches of Christ. Historically, the Churches of Christ have been sectarian and fundamentalist, but recent decades have seen changes in this regard among many of our congregations. Many of our churches are now ecumenical and grace-oriented in outlook. Historically, then, Churches of Christ have been patriarchal in practice. However, some churches are making progress on this front and my church, Highland, has been a part of this progress.
About ten years ago Highland went through a discernment process that changed many of our patriarchal practices. I was a part of this, serving as the Chair of the Steering Committee who oversaw the process. After this time of discernment a variety of public worship roles were opened up to women. At Highland women--by themselves--can teach adult bible classes (in fact, my wife Jana teaches with me and is a better bible teacher than I am) and during our times of worship woman can lead prayers, read Scripture, welcome and call us to worship, and offer the communion meditation.
These have been wonderful changes. The voices of women are heard every Sunday. In calling us to worship. In prayer. In the reading of Scripture. In welcoming us to the Table.
My two sons are growing up hearing the voice of their mother from the pulpit on Sunday morning.
For all this the Highland elders--the pastoral leaders of our church--are to be greatly commended. They endured and suffered much in making these changes.
And yet, our progress on this front has been stalled leading me to make, as a matter of conscience, some decisions about my participation in the life of Highland. These decisions have, until recently, been private. But since I've now shared these decisions with our leadership I'd like to make a public record of them in the hope that Highland would reengage this conversation.
As a part of Highland's discernment process regarding women's roles two roles were left off the table. First, we did not consider if a woman could preach. Second, we did not consider if a woman could be an elder of the church. These two roles--preaching and serving as an elder--were to remain in the hands of men as they represented more formal roles of "leadership" and "authority." In short, women can do anything at Highland except these two things, preach and serve as an elder.
Let me pause here to also register a disappointment in this regard. During our discernment process it was determined, and publicly stated by the elders, that women could lead the praise/singing time during our assemblies. And yet, while this role was formally opened up, to date no woman has been asked to lead our worship. This failure to move forward on something the elders publicly committed to has been most discouraging and disappointing.
But to offer some clarifications. In many ways the roles where woman are--formally or functionally--excluded do have an egalitarian feel. Women sing on our praise team and sing solos. Our preacher can invite women up as a part of a sermon and allow them to share, though they have to be "hosted" onstage by the male preacher. Elders are often introduced as couples and the elder couples are often called onstage to pray over and minister to people. Highland recognizes that the wives of the elders are carrying as much of if not more of a pastoral burden given the gifts of the particular couple (i.e., some of the wives, and this is often publicly acknowledged, are better pastors than their husbands). Still, there are many times when only the male elders are called forward and in the elder meetings only the men make the decisions.
I would also like to note that there are passionate egalitarians among our elders. These elders fight for gender justice within the larger group. So the elders don't speak with one voice on this issue. It's a live conversation among them.
In short, while patriarchal norms still govern how we see the preaching ministry, worship leading and eldership the lines are blurry and the conversation about gender justice ongoing.
Still, our progress on these fronts has stalled leading me to make some decisions that I've shared with the Highland leadership and now want to make public.
Specifically, about two years ago I decided that I could only be a part of Highland if I took concrete measures to express my solidarity with my sisters in Christ. To express this solidarity I decided that I would no longer participate in any activity at Highland where woman were excluded. (Let me pause to thank Jamey Walters for inspiring me with this idea.) This would mean that I would decline all invitations to preach at Highland as well as any invitation to serve as an elder.
Where women in our church are excluded I will stand in that same position.
Let me rush to say this isn't as heroic or courageous as it might be sounding. I've not been invited to be an elder. I don't sing well enough to lead worship. So these are pretty easy commitments to keep. And I'm not invited all that much to preach. I might preach once every year or two.
However, I have begun to decline preaching invitations. Because of this my commitment has now been made known to some of the Highland staff and eldership. I've let them know that I won't preach at Highland until we allow women to preach. I'm writing this make that decision more public.
Let me also clarify that this is not a criticism of Highland's ministers and staff. The staff is wanting to move this conversation forward and has, in fact, tried to extend invitations to women to preach. So the sticking point isn't with the staff or ministers. At the end of the day this boils down to how Highland needs to rethink how power and authority are to be used in the Kingdom.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.It should not be so among us, these exercises of power. It should not be so.
Let me end on a confessional note. We are all seeing through a glass darkly. One day, we will see Christ face to face.
Until then, may God have mercy on us all.