(Seventh in a series.)
Repenting of our egalitarian feminism early in marriage, then resisting the regular promotion of feminist ideology by seminary professors like Roger Nicole and Gordon Fee during seminary at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, nevertheless I chose to enter and serve within the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) which required its pastors and congregations to ordain women as pastors and elders. This is the account of that choice; both its reasons and it’s denouement.
As recorded earlier, when we entered ministry in the farmland of Wisconsin, the majority of our combined elders of the two churches in our yoked parish were women—one of them elected and ordained when she was a sixteen-year-old high school student. In this same town church, the session included the widow of one of my predecessors who, along with my clerk of session, were both in their eighties. In the country church, only one of four elders was a woman, and happily, she was similar to the woman elder Mary Lee and I had known and loved out in Boulder who served on the First Pres session I mentioned above. She was wise and godly. In fact, there were a number of similar women in the country church. Concerning the soul and true faith, the country church was living and active, giving its pastor joy.
Because we’re here concentrating on the denominational affiliation, we skip forward a year or so to the day when this woman invited us out to their farm for “dinner” later that week. (On the farm, dinner is lunch.)
Mary Lee and I drove out to the farm and were invited in. We sat down at a table with a full spread such as we were used to having as the third meal of our day: salad, meat, vegetables, potatoes, dessert. Cold and hot drinks. With the meal coming to an end, my woman elder currently serving on the country church session turned to her husband and said, “Dad, did you have something you wanted to ask the pastor?”
Her husband was respected in the community and one of their better farmers, but he was only sporadic in his attendance at worship. Shy and quiet, looking down and away as he cleared his throat, he slowly turned his head up and toward us and asked, “Yes, Pastor, I was wondering what you think of women elders?” He continued looking at me and the silence hung.
Understand that these churches had been ordaining women elders for decades, already. It was no new thing and I’d believed that, by now, it was a settled matter.
Yet here was the simple question put to me by the husband of our country church’s woman elder just at the conclusion of noon dinner with both his wife and mine waiting expectantly for my answer. I was floored. Thunderstruck. No place to run or hide. No escaping it. I had to answer, and do so immediately.
God’s kindness through Don and Evelyn Jerred led me to repentance, but the process was slow and began with a lie. I’m ashamed to admit it, but this is what I think you need to know about the temptations pastors face in pastoral ministry; and in my and many others’ case, the place feminism, denominations, and security have in our temptations.
After taking as long as I thought I could to collect my thoughts and prepare my words, I looked at Don and said, “Well, that’s the question I most didn’t want to be asked.”
“Why is that?” he responded.
Obliquely addressing his question “Why?”, I went into a disquisition on what, at the time, I spoke of as “sex roles” and feminism. I told how Mary Lee and I had been feminists when we got married, but then repented. I acknowledged I had not entered the PC(USA) with a clear conscience due to the whole-hog nature of the denomination’s promotion of feminism in its doctrine and polity.
Early in the discussion, I remember thinking that this farmer sitting there who bordered on taciturn might partly be asking his question from some insecurity in the face of his wife’s gifts and leadership, and maybe I should probe that issue to see if his weakness was involved?
My probing turned up nothing of the sort. Today as I’m writing, I laugh at the thought of Don Jerred being insecure in the face of Evelyn’s gifts and strength. Anyone who knows them would find it equally hilarious.
But Christian leaders, writers, and most recently my seminary profs, had taught me to suspect such insecurities, as well as possible patterns of emotional and physical abuse, behind the sort of guys questioning or opposing women holding office and exercising authority over men. So I did my due diligence, and came up with nothing. He wasn’t insecure. He wasn’t abusive. His wife loved him and wasn’t intimidated by him in any way. This was clear.
Despite my inability to recall all of the conversation, I remember how, arriving at the nub of the issue, I said to Don and Evelyn, “The Bible is clear that the husband is the head of the home, but it isn’t as clear about whether or not women can be pastors and elders. We need to be firm on husbands being the head of their wives and the head of their household, but there’s room for disagreement on the matter of women elders and pastors.”
There it is. The lie.
The first part of the sentence was how I quelled my conscience over the second half of the sentence. “At least I’m standing on male headship in the home,” I said to myself. “That’s something.”
I’m sure I need not describe to any reader living in this world of rabid sexual anarchy all the pressures I felt to lie. Not in this world of rabid sexual anarchy which has so thoroughly taken control of Christ’s Bride in which even the most conservative Christian churches are led by women, first as deacons and elders, and then as pastors. In which even the most conservative churches are forevermore denying the plain truth of God’s created order in the Garden of Eden when He made Adam first, then Eve. In which even the most conservative churches in Europe, America, and Asia are studiously avoiding the command of the Apostle Paul and his Scripture proof cited in barring women from taking authority over men in his first letter to his young pastor-son, Timothy:
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. -1Timothy 2:11-14
There were pressures on me that tempted me to lie—pressures to which I succumbed. It was no one’s fault but my own that I lied, though, and in the next couple of posts I will open up this lie more, as well as how God used it for good in my own life, as well as the life of the Jerred family and our Rosedale Presbyterian Church.
Back to the farmhouse across the driveway from the barn, bulk tank, and milking parlor. Our dinner conversation continued for a couple minutes. Don followed up my half-truth and half-lie by asking, “How can a man be the head of his home when his wife is his elder at church?”
“Well,” I explained, “back in the early church, there were slaves who were pastors and bishops whose owners were members of the church, and thus the master was under his slave’s authority.” Proud I was to have such a ready answer to help him onto the road of doubting himself, threby providing me breathing space. Don didn’t respond to that one. He just sort of grunted and remained quiet.
Looking back, I remember Evelyn being open to the discussion. She wasn’t nervous at all, but allowed her man to process his conscience, to do the talking while she listened politely to him and her pastor. Mary Lee was quiet, too.
After a couple more minutes of what became chit-chat, we left. Driving home, I said to Mary Lee something like, “Of all the questions they could have asked, that one!”
Of course, on a level shortly below the surface, I knew my answer had not satisfied Don. He didn’t argue or give any slightest evidence of dissatisfaction or continued disagreement, but it was in his eyes. He saw my inconsistency, and likely also smelled my lie.
Still, in some parts of America’s dairyland—and certainly among the Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed souls living near Friesland, Wisconsin—there is still a deep tradition of respect for their pastors so that I enjoyed that respect as the “dinner” came to a conclusion and we departed. In my early thirties, I was feeling my way forward while being scared stiff that I would blow it and fail and get booted from my churches.
Maybe that will elicit pity from a few readers concerning my straight-up denial of God’s truth that day when I lied to Don and Evelyn Jerred at their dinner table. As my own wife working hard to repent of her feminism listened and knew.
Wives always know.
(Seventh in a series.)
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