Leroy Garrett’s book, “What Must the Church of Christ Do to Be Saved?” suggests twenty changes that congregations in our faith heritage must make if we are to remain a viable voice for Christianity in the future. In our increasingly post-denominational, post-Christian world, we’ve got to change some things, Garrett says, or we’re going to fade quickly into complete irrelevancy. Hard numbers and statistics would back up that bold claim. So we’re considering his book, chapter by chapter, and reflecting together on our future as a faithful branch of the Kingdom of God.
In Chapter Nine, Garrett addresses the sensitive issue of the woman’s role in our congregations:
Cease being male-dominated.
If the Church of Christ is to have an effective witness going into the [future], it must make some changes in reference to the place of women in the church. These changes need not be what most of its members would consider radical changes, such as having women as elders or pulpit ministers, but they must be substantial enough to reflect a change in attitude and practice. If there is a concise way to say it, it would be the Church of Christ must cease being male-dominated. Corporate worship is male-dominated, teaching is male-dominated, decision-making is male-dominated. The overall attitude is male-dominated.
It is not evident that we really believe, “In Christ there is neither male nor female,” as Galatians 3:28 urges upon us. If that truth means anything, it means that in the Body of Christ gender is not to be an issue. The Church of Christ must take steps to demonstrate that it really believes that oneness in Christ transcends gender. It means that when a member functions as part of the Body, it will not matter what sex that member is, just as it will not matter what race the member is.
Garrett goes on to suggest several things he says can be done immediately — he calls these “small steps.” He also claims that all of us can do these things at once because they “do not violate any Scripture, and they call only for an end to some of our traditions that have no validity.”
That’s a huge oversimplification. Huge. However, in Garrett’s defense, he’s not interested in breaking down every single biblical passage on the matter. And, neither am I. Not today and not in this space. For the best exegesis and application of all those important passages, I’d suggest Jay Guin’s studies here.
To continue, Garrett calls for our congregations to equip and empower our women to make the announcements during our worship assemblies and to share in formally welcoming the visitors. Allow the ladies to participate in calling the church to worship. Allow the women to read the Scriptures and pray to our God out loud in our assemblies. Let our sisters serve the communion meal on Sunday mornings. Allow the younger girls to serve as greeters and pass out and collect attendance cards. Enable the women to teach. Allow them to share in the decision-making by serving and chairing church committees. And appoint women as deacons as is the example in Scripture.
Complicated. This is complicated. Not because the Bible is complicated or unclear on these matters, but because we have complicated it almost beyond hope.
Allow me to refer back to one of the things mentioned in yesterday’s post about instrumental music: This, too, is a “salvation issue” in that the ways we draw our lines and judge and accuse others reveal whether we are being Christ-like or not, whether we are acting in the spirit of the Law or the spirit of the Spirit, and whether we are considering the needs of others more important than our own.
As discussed yesterday, the ways we act and react to musical instruments and women’s roles has a lot to do with the issues themselves. But the music issue itself, the actual practice of a praise band versus a cappella, may or may not have as much to do with the truth of the Gospel as this women’s role issue might.
My understanding of the Gospel is that God came to earth as Jesus and suffered and died and was raised again to reverse the curse, to defeat sin and death and Satan and everything else that separates us from God. The barriers have all been obliterated. The things that divide are now gone. The things that separate man from God and the things that separate man from man are all destroyed forever in Christ Jesus. Reconciliation — peace, perfect peace — is the holy result: peace between man and God and peace among all mankind. No more distinctions, no more differences, no more barriers or walls. In Christ, all are one. In Christ, all are equal. That’s why the apostle Paul says what he says in Galatians 3: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
If this is a correct view of the Gospel, then our Church of Christ practices as they relate to the limitations placed on women communicates very clearly that while all are equal in Christ, some are more equal than others.
I’m not interested in pushing and arguing for women to be more visible in our worship assemblies for the sake of satisfying the people who may be complaining or leaving because the women are silenced. I would not push for Garrett’s suggestions in order to fall more in line with our prevailing culture or to simply shake things up just so we can shake things up. I am very interested, however, in practices that more faithfully proclaim the Gospel and in traditions that paint a more accurate picture of our salvation in Christ. Our current practices of restricting women from reading or praying in our public assemblies not only rob the entire Body of passionate, heart-felt, urgent prayers and dramatic, emotional, intentional readings of the Word that we’ll never get otherwise; these practices also present a distorted portrait of the Good News. The picture that Scripture paints, from Genesis to Revelation and the maps in the back, is of a table. Every culture, every tribe, every language, every tongue all at the same table. All nations, all peoples, communing together with one another and with Christ. No social distinctions, no economic barriers, no differences between the races, and no gender issues. It’s a beautiful picture. It’s the Gospel. But it’s not the picture we’re painting when our women are not allowed to participate at that table in the same ways as our men.
The other thing I would observe is that, for the most part, that list of Garrett’s straightforward suggestions above would be rejected by the majority of our Church of Christ congregations. In the Sunday morning corporate worship assembly, most of us cannot imagine women praying or reading Scripture, making announcements or teaching or interpreting a biblical passage or serving the communion meal. Never. Not in the worship center on a Sunday morning. At the same time though — and please check me on this — the vast majority of us would agree that most, if not all, of those things are permissable and even desired in other church settings. It’s OK for a woman to read out loud a verse or two in the classroom upstairs at 9:30 in the morning, but not in the auditorium downstairs at 10:15. It’s perfectly fine for a woman to pray in our living rooms and around our kitchen tables on Sunday night in our small groups, but never in the worship center. At the youth retreat, around the campfire, at our marriage retreats and family encampments, our ladies are encouraged to lead songs and to share their views of Scripture, to pray and to tell their faith stories. But to do so in our official corporate Sunday morning venues would result in emergency elders meetings and piles of new policies to make sure it never happened again.
Now, honestly, what kind of message is that communicating to everybody? We’ve done this for so long, we’ve distinguished between worship settings for so long, we’ve drawn arbitrary lines around and through this thing for so long that a disturbing thing has happened. Most people my age and older believe that the Sunday morning corporate assembly is the “real” worship time and those other times, when the rules are relaxed, are something else. Definitely not official. Most people my age and younger believe just the opposite. They feel like the “real” times of genuine worship are in our living rooms and around our campfires, on the retreats and mission trips. Sunday morning in the auditorium, when the “rules” go into effect, isn’t real. They see it as us just trying to protect a doctrine that doesn’t exist with rules that are not in the Bible to keep everybody happy. Or from getting mad and leaving.
Just like with the music issue, we have horribly distorted the very idea of Christian worship and fed it to our people for decades. We’ve communicated that some of our worship time is more important than other worship times, some of our assemblies are more pleasing to God than others. Yuk.
I believe that most of our folks are aware of the contradictions and the inconsistencies in our practices. But I honestly believe we’ve spent so much energy and spilled so much ink in our Church of Christ history accusing and withdrawing from those who are different, most of our people are afraid to talk about these things out loud for fear of being labeled. It’s going to take strong leadership. It’s going to take shepherds and ministers who are committed to a more faithful proclamation of the Gospel and a more accurate picture of our salvation in Christ. It’s going to take a trust in God’s Holy Spirit. It’s going to take a strong faith in one another. And it’s going to take a serious and discerning eye on the future of the Churches of Christ. It’ll take all those things in order to have the conversations. But I believe that if the conversations are focused on the Gospel aspect of the issue, by the grace of God we’ll come much closer to believing and teaching and practicing the right things.