An Open Letter to the Churches of Christ

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I’m bringing my part of this study to a close, but that by no means implies that the work is done. There is far more to this conversation than I have been able to cover in a simple blog series. But as this is the twelfth post on the matter, I believe this is a fitting point to end.

I’ve never written an open letter before. I don’t expect that this will get much wide circulation. This issue, though, is simply too important to let fizzle and die. Please feel free to share this with anyone you think needs to hear it. So…here it goes.

TO MY FELLOW BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN THE CHURCHES OF CHRIST,

Grace and peace to you from one of your own. I, too, am a lifelong member of the Churches of Christ. While no two churches are the same, we share a common history and mostly a common approach to Scripture in regards to matters of faith, salvation, and church.

We rally behind our mottos and mantras. “No Creed but Christ. No Book but the Bible. No law but love. No name but the divine.” Or “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” Or my personal favorite, “In essential matters, unity; in matter of opinion, liberty; in all things love.” But in practice, none of these things could be further from reality.

Our Creeds are written in the bi-laws of our educational institutions. To paraphrase, “One says, ‘I am of Harding.’ Another says, ‘I am of Freed-Hardeman,’ or ‘I am of Pepperdine.’ Still others say, ‘I am of Christ.’” I have seen churches who are more concerned about their affiliation with CoC universities than they are about being faithful to the call and witness of Scripture. And I’ve seen CoC universities care more about the opinions of wealthy donors than the critical understanding and application of the gospel.

We claim not to speak where the Bible is silent, but again - that could not be further from the truth. We have church buildings and song leaders and youth ministers and camps and schools and bulletins. And everyone has very strong opinions on these matters. I mean, have you ever been a member of a church during the transition from hymnals to PowerPoint? Yikes! We probably have more exceptions to this rule of silence than actual instances of remaining silent.

But the kicker is “in essential matters, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty…” Who gets to say what’s essential and what’s an opinion? One man’s strong essential could be another man’s loosely held opinion. When a member is raised thinking certain things are essential and another member is raised to consider those same issues simple matters of opinion or preference (a cappella worship, for BIG example), then that will simply lead to conflict. Who cares about “love in all things” when playing a video clip with instruments during the sermon will condemn us all to hell?!

Do you see the problem? The problem is us. The problem is nothing new. The problem is with bringing a diversity of people together. Some hold firmly to the traditions with which they were raised. Others look to the future and want to adapt to fit the ever changing culture. Each group has its own proof-texts, and we get into a never ending game of “my verse beats your verse.”

As Paul would say, “Men and brethren, this ought not be!” (See, I’m reverting to the translation in which I first learned that line.)

Is there a better way? Is there a possibility of course-correction? I certainly hope so. As a thirty-something, passionate minister with a wife and kids - the key demographic that every church seems to want on staff - I’m tired of feeling like I’m piloting a sinking ship. I see the trajectory ahead of us, and it’s not good. Has the grand unifying experiment of the restoration movement failed? I’m not willing to say that it has…yet.

But as one recent article (that I also linked to in an earlier post) shows, there is a strong correlation, if not a direct causal link, between the decline of Churches of Christ across the nation and the continuing prohibition of female leadership in worship and ministries. This seems to be the easiest change to make a biblical case for!

Well, but what about 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2? Go back and read my (and countless others’) explanation of those texts and how they fit into the broader context of the day and the larger narrative of the Bible. Churches often read the rest of Scripture through the lens of “women must remain silent.” When what we should be doing is looking at Scripture as a whole and seeing how we might reconcile Paul’s seemingly outrageous, unwarranted comments about women in these few verses.

SOME THOUGHTS ON PAUL
Let me remind you of a few things.

1) We follow Christ, not Paul. As critical as Paul’s mission was in the first century, Paul is not our Savior. Paul has not been raised from the dead for our sins. Paul was not the Word made flesh.
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. (1 Corinthians 3:5)
Do you remember that story in Acts when Paul and Barnabas were thought to be Greek gods in the flesh? It seems like that’s exactly what we still do with Paul. Karl Barth once said he thinks Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we had turned his letters into Torah. Does that mean we disregard Paul’s letters? Certainly not! It simply means we need to weigh Paul’s words against The Word. Christ is the head of the church, not Paul.

2) We have a biblical precedent for doing just that. We SHOULD be weighing what Paul says against the rest of Scripture. We should be reading his letters with a critical eye. Just like the Bereans of Acts 17.
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men. (Acts 17:11-12)
If these Jewish believers can fact-check Paul against the rest of the Bible, then so can and should we. The Bible is not the be-all-end-all revelation of God. Jesus is. We have every right to be in conversation and even arguments with Paul - just as he would expect us to be. That’s the exact method of training Paul would have received as a rabbi. Rabbis didn’t learn simply from lecture. They learned (and still do to this day) through debates and well reasoned arguments. The name Israel means One who Wrestles with God. If we can’t question, disagree, and argue with the Bible, then we are trying to out-Christian Paul.

3) Which leads me to my final point - Paul is confusing. He just is. Paul is really difficult to understand sometimes. I mean, Ephesians 1:3-14 is ONE SENTENCE in the Greek. And it’s been 2,000 years, and we still miss the whole point of the book of Romans. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16)
Even Peter concedes that Paul’s writings can be hard to understand. And -surprise!- ignorant and unstable people distort the writings of Paul to make them say what they want. For example, a sexist man with a low view of women could read a couple verses from Paul’s letters and come away thinking that Paul was also sexist and that women should be silent and in full submission to men, period. If Peter, Jesus’ closest disciple, thought Paul was confusing, why do we think it would be so easy to simply “read the Bible and do what it says”?

Don't hear me saying that we can disregard Paul and his writings. His letters have stood the test of time and were added to the New Testament canon for a reason. We can and should learn from them. Let's just keep these things in mind as we do so.

CONSISTENTLY INCONSISTENT
Like I said, I was born and raised Church of Christ. Even as a kid I picked up on some of the oddities (or inconsistencies, or…hypocrisies) concerning our application of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. Let me list a few examples.

During Bible class (not biblically sanctioned), girls and women were free to ask and answer questions, even read Scripture, and contribute to the discussion and overall learning for everyone involved. But then a bell rings, and suddenly the rules changed. Now, in the same building just fifteen minutes later, the women had to turn everything over to the men and learn in complete silence and submission.

But then I noticed that women could pass the communion trays to other men while they were seated, they just weren’t allowed to stand in the aisles and pass the trays (also, none of which is biblically sanctioned).

And women couldn’t lead the singing, but we would whole-heartedly sing the songs of Fanny Crosby, like Blessed Assurance and To God Be the Glory. Not to mention the fact that many songs had split or echo parts where the men and women sang different lines. If we are to “teach one another” through songs and hymns and spiritual songs, but women aren’t supposed to teach or have authority over a man, then wouldn’t songs with a soprano/alto lead and a tenor/bass echo be unbiblical?

And why could we have special female speakers and presentations in the assembly only if it’s before the “opening prayer” or after the “closing prayer”? Like that makes any sense at all.

Probably the most heartbreaking example I can think of concerns young girls and their fathers. As a kid I participated in a program called Lads to Leaders. We were trained in using our gifts and talents in areas like song leading, public speaking, debate, Bible Bowl, and also puppets. Yep. But it wasn’t just for boys. Girls could participate, too! But get this, they didn’t call it “Lads and Lasses to Leaders.” They called it “Lads to Leaders and Leaderettes.” Leaderettes! Anyway, girls could also participate in the speech competition; however, because of those few verses in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, they had separate competitions from the boys. What’s worse, the fathers of these girls, many of whom probably helped their daughters write and rehearse that speech, were not allowed in the room during the competition. These dads could not share in the proud moment their girls had been working for all year. That’s not gospel.

LITTLE RULES VS. BIG PICTURE
I simply can’t get over all the little rules we put in place to make sure that we kinda sorta included girls and women without actually including them. We placed all these barriers around ourselves to make sure we didn’t violate Paul’s everlasting, universal command prohibiting all women everywhere from ever teaching a man. At the same time, we were complete hypocrites about it.

Didn’t Jesus have something to say about this kind of behavior?
“And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? … You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’”
(Matthew 15:3-9)
The Pharisees were so caught up on making sure all the little rules were kept that they ended up missing the bigger picture. Jesus’ harshest conversations were with people who set up all sorts of man-made rules and boundaries just to keep people from getting close to breaking the actual command. But in doing so, they lost the point of the command.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
(Matthew 23:23-24)
We have not only been misguided in our prohibition against female leadership, we have been completely hypocritical about it. Our churches would not function if it weren’t for the hard working women in our communities, yet we refuse to let them have a voice. They can tend the flowerbeds and make casseroles, but God forbid they should ever pass out a communion tray or help make bigger decisions for the church.

We’re hypocrites!

We say we have no book but the Bible. The Bible is FULL of women serving in amazing leadership roles. They were prophets and worship leaders and commanders-in-chief and teachers and church planters and deacons and apostles. Jesus commended Mary for joining the all-male disciples. Joel foresaw a day when men and women would be filled with the Spirit and prophesy in his name. Paul had female coworkers and gave instructions for how women should pray and prophesy in the assembly. And yet women are allowed to do none of these things in our churches. The Bible is not silent on what women can and did do. We shouldn't be either.

In essential matters, unity? It should be essential that our churches be bastions of New Creation. Paul speaks to unity most clearly in Galatians 3:28. He makes it clear that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, nor is there “male and female.” We are all one in Christ. That is essential. We should not discriminate based on ethnicity, nationality, language, socioeconomic status, or gender. Full inclusion of all God’s people is an essential matter that will lead to unity. Full inclusion cannot be a matter of opinion.

Our local church is on the brink of becoming more inclusive. We’ve done and are doing the exegetical work. I am convinced now more than ever that the church has gotten this wrong, and Churches of Christ are among the worst offenders. I for one will never work in another church that is not gender-inclusive. This is not a battle I want to fight anymore. But I will keep on fighting for the sake of my amazingly talented wife and for the sake of the teenage girls in my youth group and for the women in church who have a much greater gift and passion than most men. I will fight for the women currently crushing it in seminaries across the country whose only hope for getting a foot in the door is "children's ministry." I will fight for my sons to see women and men as equals before God, so they will know that women are to be respected and empowered and admired and entrusted.

I love the Churches of Christ. I believe we are uniquely positioned to make these kinds of changes. We have no governing body. Each church is autonomous and can make its own decisions. (In theory, at least.)

I urge you, bothers and sisters, to take the calling toward unity in the bond of peace seriously. I urge you to study the Scriptures with an open heart and mind. Weigh those few verses of Paul against the cultural backdrop of his day. Weigh them against the teachings and example of Christ. Weigh them against the entirety of Scripture and the hope of New Creation.

At the end of my study -and I could be wrong - I can find no reason to exclude women from the same roles as men (save eldership - I’m still on the fence about that one, honestly). What is holding us back? Is it fear that we will be disfellowshipped by other churches? Is it fear that we will lose our board positions at our Church of Christ summer camps? Is it fear that we will somehow be leading others astray and condemning our entire church to hell?

Remember the words of John: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

What does love require of us? I believe love requires us to give women a voice and to empower ALL believers to use their Spirit-given gifts for the sake of the kingdom. In doing so, I believe we will find ourselves living less in the old, fallen creation and living more and more into the hope of New Creation.

May it be so now, and forevermore. Amen.

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