The church is unaware that the role of women has undergone a revolution to which it does not relate.

Here i stand in the middle of the mystery of the meaning of human sexuality. One hand stretches to grasp a flagpole secured firmly in the earth beside me. The banner that flaps from its tip bears the design of male headship with its nuances of order and authority. My other hand struggles to grasp the opposite pole, anchored as firmly as the first. Halyard clanging, this staff flies the standard of equality of the sexes, the utter corelationship of man and woman through the miracle of the continuing incarnation of the God-man, Christ.

I stand here, woman that I am, frequently uncomfortable, mentally spread-eagled, pinioned between two basic scriptural tenets that are apparently opposite to each other, refusing to bow together despite my efforts. The changing winds of theological exposition blow. Headship I can reach only with my fingertips; equality is almost beyond my grasp. My shoulders ache.

I am painfully aware that my between-pole-standing will please few. I am neither feminist nor antifeminist, and I look ridiculous in my struggle to hold onto both flagpoles. Although in some ways I am laughable, that is often the nature of truth, particularly spiritual truth. In spite of the best of my rational efforts, I am often left touching paradox when what I wish for most is firm conclusion.

Truth often has this elusive quality. It refuses satisfaction like that which comes from a completed jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table. Somehow, the pieces don’t all fit, and others are obviously missing.

Take the Incarnation: how can Christ be both God and man? Surely he is either one or the other. How about a ratio of 60 percent to 40 percent? Of 80 percent to 20 percent? Because we live in the twentieth century, with the arguments of the early church fathers behind us, we understand the folly of such mental gymnastics. What we don’t understand is that we are already living comfortably with mystery, that we are standing between poles, squarely in the middle between opposites—the supernatural and the human.

Or how can we be foreordained and yet be responsible? How can Scripture be both human and divine? How can Communion be both natural and supernatural—is it symbol or miracle? Firm sets of flagpoles such as these stand all over biblical terrain, the rallying points for doctrinal disputations.

It is not that I am against rational struggle—on the contrary, I enjoy healthy theological inquiry. I am becoming aware, however, that if intellectual investigation does not allow for the paradoxical, for the mysterious, for the incomprehensible, it leads to arrogance, a dominant sin in the church. It lurks in my own heart. So I am concerned that much of the discussion concerning women is floundering in doctrine when it should be majoring in pragmatics. But there has never been a more dramatic time to minister to women.

That the church is still discussing the “changing” role of women shows we are woefully unaware of what has already happened in this revolution. For all practical purposes, the role of women has already changed, and ministry is obliged to deal with what exists now. The working woman, for example, represents one dynamic aspect of this change.

In her book, The Two-Paycheck Marriage, Caroline Bird maintains that the full-time homemaker is now “obsolete” because of economic pressures. For example, at the beginning of the 1980s, well over 40 million American women were working for pay, constituting about 50 percent of the civilian labor force. According to U.S. News & World Report, “Women are swelling the work force at a rate of almost two million every year—a phenomenon that is beginning to transform everyday life in the United States.” Eli Ginzberg, former head of the National Commission for Manpower Policy, stated in the same article, “It changes the relationship of men to women; it changes the relationship of mothers to children. And the future of the suburbs may also be in doubt.”

Article continues below

A new study by the Urban Institute suggests that by 1990 three-fourths of all married women and two-thirds of all mothers will hold jobs. And not only are women working, they are working longer, joining the work force for 22.9 years as opposed to 12 years in 1940.

For women to work is not new. Throughout history, financial necessity has forced many to do so. But it is new that millions of middle-class women are leaving their suburban homes to enter the marketplace. Corporations are coining new phrases such as “dual careerism” to describe working couples, and are considering relocation assignments and job promotions in terms of “spouse accommodation.” For the first time, the wife’s job may be as important as the husband’s.

These facts alone demand that the church take a different attitude toward women’s ministries. And it is here that there is such a woeful gap of information, discussion, and investigation. The feminist revolution has opened up incredible opportunities for women; it has also created undeniable negative fallout. Both are a challenge to the local church: it can no longer limit its ministry to a traditional women’s missionary society that is fast becoming an anachronism for a majority.

Where are the churches that conduct successful women’s ministries, and what is the nature of that outreach? What are the felt needs of women, inside the church as well as outside, and how can these needs be met? How effective are divorce recovery groups, child-sitting services for children of working parents, day-care centers for preschool youngsters?

Within our churches, members should seriously discuss the nature of simple lifestyle. From that could come practical approaches to sharing both limited and extensive financial resources within the community of the body, and provide options for wives who prefer not to work.

But other questions arise. What is the church’s responsibility toward battered wives? Do single women, whether divorced, never married, or widowed, feel essential to a local congregation? Do working women see the church as ministering to their special pressures and needs?

The church will have to create opportunities to enable the organizational and intellectual abilities of its female members to be developed—or resign itself to losing them. When asked to name the most efficiently run organization in the country, management consultant Peter Drucker responded, “the Girl Scouts.” He commented that when a dedicated group of women who have no funds need to organize, they develop systems that are prototypical in their efficiency.

There is a developing phenomenon among church women that is little noticed in the evangelical press: because the church has refused to be sensitive to their needs, dedicated Christian women are organizing to meet those needs outside the church. They range from liberal biblical feminists who deal with the fine edge of complicated social issues, to conservative women who philosophically adhere to the importance of hearth and home.

One example is the women’s retreat movement. It has received little attention or analysis, but it is a significant lay movement. Even now there is somewhere a small group of women becoming concerned about women’s needs. They will pray, then start a retreat ministry that may attract 300 in attendance the first time—and possibly 3,000 to 5,000 within the next five years. This movement is spreading across the U.S. and Canada, partly because the local church is not serious about trying to understand the nature of women’s needs today.

Article continues below

Euripides said, “Woman is woman’s natural ally.” While that may often have been true down through the centuries, the church can no longer afford to perpetuate such an attitude—intentionally or otherwise. Feminist issues are too crucial for attitudes that do not reflect Christ.

He allowed a prostitute to embrace him publicly, and he did not chide a woman with a “female disease” when she clutched at his cloak. He showed tender compassion for a bereaved widow. He allowed all those middle-aged, neurotic, menopausal types to be a part of his inner band of disciples and to minister to his needs.

The amazing truth is that Christ, our example, loved women. There is no room for hidden misogyny. The Christian man cannot hate mother or wife or daughter or sister; the feminist cannot hate the woman who does not think as she does; the proponents of male headship cannot disdain those who adamantly espouse equality. Neither dare we hate the womanly parts of ourselves. Hatred for women is un-Christlike.

All discussions and all final opinions about the role of women, conservative or liberal, must be rooted firmly in the example of Christ’s attitude toward women as revealed in the Gospels. Until our doctrine is similarly grounded in that kind of love, we will be of little use to needy women, both inside and outside the church—no matter which pole of truth we rally around. I personally need the men in the body of Christ who can demonstrate that kind of Christ-love to me. As a teen-ager 25 years ago, I wore no make-up, and carried my red Bible on top of my school books. I would not meet my future husband for another two years. I had no inkling then of the incredible revolution in thought regarding my role as a woman that was to challenge my generation.

My life today traces a circuit of recording studio, production meeting, laundry room, editorial conference, school play, refrigerator and kitchen sink, writing desk, prayer closet, and Mustang baseball game. I would have seen myself doing few of these things 25 years ago.

I have learned to say no, to outline a radio broadcast while jogging, regretfully to limit my circle of friends, to think at all times, to minister to a few through counseling, to keep prayer notebooks, and to listen completely when the children talk to me. And although the most overwhelming human influence in my life is my husband, I haven’t even mentioned my relationship with him.

I agree with a friend who said, “The opportunities for women are expanding so quickly, it’s enough to destroy you.”

In the middle of all this, I’m undone when a male says to me, “Hey, friend, are you sure you’re doing okay? Is there anything I can do for you?” I am prepared for sermons from 1 Timothy 2:11–15; I am not prepared for those rare males who know how to live out the Christ-love of 1 Timothy 5:1–3, with all purity. I have been wonderfully fathered, strongly husbanded, garmented with a secure self-image. What an incredible ministry the giving of Christ’s love will be for the modern woman who has had none of these advantages!

Often I would like to throw the whole discussion of human sexuality out the window, and about half the time I think I do, forgetting myself and that I am female. The other half the time it is all I think about. It intrigues me, fascinates me, frustrates me, eludes my understanding. It is the source of all my feelings about myself. But the more my need to hold it firmly, the more it mocks me.

So I return to mystery, and I stand uncomfortably in the tension of the paradox of “male and female he created them.” I stretch my arms to the two poles, shaking my head and exclaiming with the apostle Paul, who expressed wonder at the male/female roles in marriage: “This mystery is a profound one …” (Eph. 5:32).

Can any one of us ultimately conclude anything else?

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.

Tags:
Issue: