“We need to talk to you about something,” a couple of church leaders said to me, as they walked into my office sporting their khaki jackets and concerned stares that spring afternoon a number of years ago. In recent years and prior to this conversation, I had been the recipient of these concerned stares many times. It was becoming clear that my current ministry context was no longer working.
My mission in life was to become a Youth Pastor and stay for as long as any church would have me. I cut my ministry teeth in leading and discipling teenagers and that was what I wanted to spend my life doing. I didn’t set out to preach, although I was happy to preach for my teens and parents and volunteers. I cherished the time I got to spend preparing for youth sermons at retreats, bible classes and camps in front of an audience of teenagers. I got my Masters in Divinity because I thought it would better equip me to lead teens and parents of teens.
Over the course of a decade I prepared and delivered thousands of messages. Call it preaching or teaching or speaking, I was translating and interpreting the bible to illuminate contemporary issues that my students and parents and volunteers were dealing with and pointing them to Jesus as their source. The problem came when I started calling what was I doing “preaching.”
The denomination of my up-bringing and where I served for many years, like many other churches, are “complementarian.” In summary, complementarians believe that men and women are equal in value but distinct in role in the church and in the family. Women are restricted from roles in the church that require them to hold “authority” over men (over 18), such as preaching. But men can serve in unrestricted roles. The interesting thing was that before I called what I was doing “preaching,” I was applauded for it. Those who came in with concern in their eyes ready to discipline me were the same ones who hired me because my “public skills” were so compelling. They called it “presenting” or ‘teaching” or “giving a talk.” They would even visit youth group to hear me give such “talks.” They encouraged me to hone my gift and told others how well I “taught” the scriptures.
On this particular spring day, they were concerned about what I said on social media when I invited my followers to come hear me “preach” at a local church on a Sunday morning. They explained that using the term “preaching” in my post could cause confusion for the overall congregation about our adherence to complementarianism. At the end of our conversation I summed up their direction to me this way: “So, I can preach. Just don’t call it preaching.” Got it.
It is precisely this sort of theological gymnastics that causes complementarianism to falter off the high bars and fall flat on its face. I don’t know any complementarians who would prohibit a woman from teaching a bible class to elementary students. I know very few who would prohibit her from teaching a high school class or a group of adults about her area of expertise. So what changes when you put her behind a pulpit? What is different about a Sunday morning at 10:00AM as opposed to 11:00AM? At what point is she prohibited? And at what point is it “preaching” and not “teaching?” Is she only prohibited if she opens the bible? Must she or shouldn’t she be seminary educated? And where, from the bible, do we derive these arbitrary answers to these arbitrary questions? We know that Paul instructed women to be silent. Silent period. Silent in the church indefinitely. How then can they allow for her speaking at all within the walls of the church?
My experience is not unique. Most women in ministry serving in complementarian congregations today are serving “under the radar.” They are not called “Ministers.” They are called “Associates” or “Women’s Ministers” or “Directors,” even though their primary roles are pastoral. And they do not “preach.” When they publicly present the word of God, they are “teaching.” If they open their bibles in front of the audience on a Sunday morning then they are likely being “interviewed” by a male pastor or giving a “testimony.” And now, during COVID-19, many women are uniquely permitted to preach so as long as it is on a screen and pre-recorded. A defender of complementarianism said recently that it is ok if a women preaches on a video because they don’t have authority over what she does in her own home. All of this is saying the same thing, “You can preach. Just don’t call it preaching. You can preach. Just don’t call yourself a preacher.”
It is past time to call this sort of theological gymnastics what it is. Ridiculous and embarrassing. Can she preach or can’t she?