It’s not just outsiders that look at Christian conferences—especially those with conservative stances on gender roles—and ask, “Where do women fit in here?”

Even for "insiders" like me, theological alignment doesn't dissolve the difficulties of navigating contexts like The Gospel Coalition, which held its national conference this week.

In an age where diverse representation is morally demanded of Christian conference organizers, the absence of women from the main stage—with the exception of a panel discussion moderated by TGC editor Bethany Jenkins—was apparent. The plenary speakers were men. These male pastors were introduced and prayed for by men. And of the scores of workshops, women led a mere handful.

When it comes to gender roles, consent to TGC’s confessional statement doesn't ensure agreement on practice. For example, Tim Keller, pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, gives wide latitude to women in his congregation, encouraging them toward all the rights and responsibilities of unordained men. By contrast, John Piper, co-author with Wayne Grudem for Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, sticks more strictly the biblical text, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man," (1 Tim. 2:12). These differences are inherent to a coalition of Christians, and they represent an inevitable, if sometimes confusing, diversity.

Even if TGC men and women agree that the pastor/elder role—and authoritative teaching—is reserved for men, practical ambiguities remain. Can a woman pray from the main stage at a national conference? Is a plenary, biblically expositional talk to conference attendees equal to an authoritative sermon? If not, can a woman be permitted to address the mixed crowd? (On alternating years, TGC holds a national conference just for women; at the main conference, attendance is about 60-70 percent male.)

If the search for these answers seems to belie a spirit of theological hairsplitting, it also represents The Gospel Coalition's desire to promote a "biblically grounded and united mission [as] the only enduring future for the church." Unity in the midst of diversity: this is a challenge for any church whatever her theological stripes. And the Bible counsels hard words for those prone to aggressively assert their way: cherish each member of Christ's body (1 Cor. 12) and always choose love (1 Cor. 13).

Article continues below

Some would insist that women (like me), who stay in complementarian churches and organizations, aid and abet injustice against women. They advise leaving. But it's not that easy.

In his introduction to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis opens with a beautiful metaphor of conversion and church membership. Coming to Christian faith is like entering a great hall opening to many different rooms. Lewis imagined his apologetic would bring people into the hall. But he did not imagine they should be left there: "It is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals." And should one wonder which door to try and which room to enter, Lewis advises:

The question should never be: “Do I like that kind of service?” but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me toward this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of the door-keeper?”

I have tried the complementarian door, and I don't wish to leave. There is holiness in the crowd. Tim Keller has shaped my vision for God's kingdom. Despite disagreements with Piper, there is no one who booms more powerfully and persuasively about the glory of God. Most importantly, my local church, committedly complementarian, is a source of joy to me and justice in my city.

In an informal address to TGC writers at the recent Orlando conference, Jen Wilkin, a frequent writer for The Gospel Coalition and author of Women of the Word, described her desire to promote the gospel and her willingness, as a woman, to be conciliatory for the sake of that message. I am not as instinctively committed to being conciliatory ("gaining goodwill by pleasing acts"). But for the sake of unity, I might wish to learn, even if I also hope to promote more visible female presence at future TGC national conferences.

In her book, Just A Housewife, Glenna Matthews tells the story of Ellen Swallow Richards, America's leading woman scientist in the 19th century. In 1868, at the age of 25, Richards entered Vassar College. She pursued further study at MIT, although she was never seriously considered as a doctoral candidate.

As a young student of applied chemistry, this bright, ambitious woman kept needles and pins on hand to mend for her male professors. "I am winning a way which others will keep open,” she said. “Perhaps the fact that I am not a Radical or a believer in the all-powerful ballot for women to right her wrongs and that I do not scorn womanly duties, but claim it as a privilege to clean up and sort of supervise the room and sew things, etc. is winning me stronger allies than anything else."

Article continues below

Some will call Richards a fool: she was on the wrong side of suffrage and history. But others might understand her willingness to be conciliatory in the effort to gain incremental influence in her circles, however painfully slow.

Women belong in The Gospel Coalition because they belong in the church. And if we must sew buttons for the sake of Christ and his kingdom, I pray for our willingness. Conciliation is not always cowardice: with Christ as our example, it can also be courage (1 Pet. 3:21).

And still, I long for the day when the "mending" will no longer be necessary.