From her several decades of experience in women’s ministries and in seminary classrooms, Alice Mathews has gained an appreciation for the gifts godly women offer the church. In Gender Roles and the People of God: Rethinking What We Were Taught about Men and Women in the Church, the former professor and academic dean at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (and longtime cohost of the radio program Discover the Word) calls on church leaders to welcome women into leadership roles. Writer and frequent CT contributor Hannah Anderson spoke with Mathews about her vision of “egalitarian complementarity,” wherein men and women join hands as full partners in ministry.

At age 86, after having stepped away from the classroom, why do you feel compelled to continue being part of this conversation?

In many ways, this book is a continuation of work I’ve been involved in for much of my adult life. Back in 1985, I came to a very clear understanding of what I perceived as God’s call on my life. I had been involved with a number of female students on the campus of Denver Seminary, where I was teaching at that time. I saw gifted women who could not find opportunities to live out their callings within the structures that had sent them to seminary. Since that time, my mission in life has been to equip and encourage women trying to find out what they’re meant to do with the gifts that God has given them, particularly within churches that aren’t always quick to acknowledge those gifts.

Toward the end of the final chapter, I talk about a French woman, Madeleine Blocher-Saillens, who was a Protestant pastor. Back in 1970, when I read her interpretation of Genesis 3:15 [“I will put enmity between you and the woman”], it just knocked my pins loose. Her conclusion is that Satan is at war against women. Satan knows that if he can keep women out of service, in the church and in the world, he will have won an enormous victory.

And so this isn’t just a matter of letting women into the sandbox. It’s about half of God’s people being put on the sidelines and denied the use of their gifts. God desires that men and women join hands and work together in ministry, and that men acknowledge the essential role women play in defeating the work of the Enemy.

Article continues below

Often the debate about gender roles centers on offices and ordination. Do you think this debate needs to be reframed or clarified?

In the first century, the church was the family of faith, the household of God. It had a completely different texture, in that everyone was working together for the good of the whole. When Tertullian arrived in the third century, he began imposing more structure on the family of God, in a way that paralleled the Roman Empire. He was adamant about making a distinction between the clergy and the laity.

I believe this particular arrangement, and the idea of separate offices within the church, has been imposed and justified on an erroneous theological basis. The original structure of the people of God is not the structure we’ve inherited. And yet, this structure has been with us since the third century, so it’s not going away anytime soon. We have to work within it, even if I’d prefer to see it changed.

Do you see ways for Christians of goodwill who disagree on women’s ordination to work together and promote women’s gifts in the church?

One problem lies in the persistence of those who teach that women cannot be in leadership, to the degree that many church leaders are nervous about allowing women to have any role. People of goodwill naturally want to do what is right, and if they are told, “This is sin,” they are not going to work together or make any concessions.

So a great many pastors and church leaders are locked in a position that I feel does not stand on good biblical grounds. But there has to be flexibility on both sides. Church leaders shouldn’t insist on closing off all leadership roles to women. If we treat these questions as simple matters of obedience or disobedience to Scripture, we won’t have any flexibility. There are so many godly people leading churches who read these things and hear these things, and of course they have no interest in going against what they believe God has ordained.

Let’s say a complementarian leader or pastor reads your book but doesn’t accept your lexical and textual arguments. What perspective would you want this person to carry away?

In the second part of the book, I take up some of the basic complementarian arguments from 1 Timothy 2:12, 1 Corinthians 14, and 2 Corinthians 11 and try to look at them in light of solid exegesis and theology. A pastor opposed to women’s leadership roles in the church might not be persuaded by these arguments. But the example of a godly woman exercising her gifts in a humble, servant-hearted way can still make a difference. There have been times in the past when I’ve seen that kind of example make a strong impression on complementarian leaders.

Article continues below

Given all that you’ve seen over the years, what most encourages you about the state of women’s discipleship today? What most concerns you?

Apart from the debate about what women can and cannot do in the church, I am concerned to see that so many women have a shallow understanding of how they should use their lives. Part of my thrust has been helping women understand that God has blessed them with gifts that should take them far beyond small, superficial hobbies.

I know that in the last ten years, a huge number of women’s ministries have sprung up that make extensive use of the internet, which enables them to have conferences with thousands of women all over the country, all over the world, joining in from their home computers. Technology is creating new and effective ways to encourage women to think more seriously about who they are and what they should be doing with their gifts. This is certainly a happy development.

But important problems remain. Because women have often been devalued in the church, the tendency is for them to accept that devalued understanding and therefore to live in a shallow way. All of this, I think, is part of the Enemy’s assault. Women need to understand who they are in Christ. By no means am I arguing that every woman should be a leader in the church. I’m just concerned that women have a clearer understanding of God’s call on their lives, and how this should influence the way they use their time, their gifts, and their resources. On that level, I think we still have a long way to go.

I find myself returning constantly to Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” I mean, it may feel at times like the battle for a right understanding of women’s gifts is a battle against flesh and blood. But I’m not angry at men. We don’t wrestle against men; we wrestle against these powers of darkness bent on destroying the work of God. That’s the real enemy.

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