Gender, church order and the lost art of disagreeing in style

Churches are full of people who disagree with us. And that’s definitely the way it should be. Come to think of it, it’s hard to imagine a way of making everyone agree with us that doesn’t involve an entrance exam and a pitchfork.

So how do we disagree in style?

For Sydney Anglicans, one of our greatest opportunities to practise disagreeing in style is also, coincidentally, one of our greatest opportunities to rush headlong into dumb tribalism. The relevance of gender to our church order is an important and controversial question, and at Barneys we’ve been forced to wrestle with it as we work our way systematically through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

  • We’ve had debates on our staff team about how to best explain the concept of “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3.
  • We’ve tried to hard to nail down exactly what prophecy is in 1 Corinthians 11:5, why Paul assumes both men and women will be doing it, and how it differs from “teaching” in passages like 1 Timothy 2:12.
  • And most recently, we’ve had long conversations about the circumstances Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 14:34 where he instructs women to hold their tongues.

These are some of the most interesting and genuinely puzzling questions in the book of 1 Corinthians. Even for those (like us) who are committed to a Biblical understanding of gender, there is ample room for differences of opinion. So unless we’re going to resort to entrance exams and pitchforks, then we’re probably going to find ourselves disagreeing with others in our church.

So here’s some tips we’ve picked up along the way for disagreeing well:

1. Until you understand both sides you don’t really understand any side

We’ve heard many arguments in favour and against women preaching to mixed congregations. To this day, the best articulation of the case for women preaching to mixed congregations was put to me (Andy) by my grandfather, Donald Robinson. And the best articulation of the case against was put to me by … also Donald Robinson.

I remember visiting him at his home in Pymble to speak to him about the issue of gender differences in church ministry, and I asked him what the right answer was. He looked at me like I’d just asked him to stick a nail under his big toenail and kick a wall. “I’m not going to tell you.” Instead, he presented two solid arguments, one for each side.

The reason he could do that is that he had listened and read carefully to the different sides. He is a conservative fellow, but he would never write off a different view without understanding it in its best form.

The ultimate test of whether you’ve succeeded is this: can you articulate another person’s view in your own words in such a way that they say “Yes! That’s exactly what I mean; I couldn’t have put it better myself”.

2. Nobody gets to be a jerk

Wherever you end up on this, please remember that Jesus probably doesn’t want you to be a jerk.

What do you do if, once you search the Scriptures, you come to a different conclusion to your church leadership on the role of gender differences in church?

When John Woodhouse was Principal of Moore College he was asked what he thought we should do if our senior ministers encouraged women to preach but we disagreed.

Should we:

  1. cover our ears, or
  2. walk out in protest, or
  3. sit down and take notes?

Without hesitation he said “oh, certainly the third option”.

Andy had lunch with a great Christian brother this afternoon. This man has been at Barneys for decades, and seen many different ways of expressing gender differences in our church order. He was quite open about disagreeing with some of our practices. And yet he explained that he would never dream of being divisive about it. We laughed about the irony of someone undermining church leadership over an issue of church order.

3. Remember it’s personal

This one is directed to young men like me (Andy).

The women in my life have graciously helped me see something important recently. It was probably obvious to all of you, but I’m slow.

Fellas, we’ve got it so much easier. We can take our sweet time to make up our minds without anyone coming to conclusions about us because they’ve seen our name on a preaching roster. As we read what different people say on this issue, we are never made to feel that it is directed at us personally, that we are somehow lesser – less useful, less trustworthy, less discerning. When we hear someone spouting sexist nonsense it’s annoying, but it’s not personal in the same way.

I’m trying to pause for a moment every time a conversation like this comes up just to remind myself of this. When I speak on anything to do with gender – regardless of what I say – I need to remember that I am a man, and think carefully about how it might feel to be a woman in that conversation.

4. It’s particularly personal

This is directed to young women like me (Steph).

I know what it feels like to have everyone talking about the very issue that – wherever you end up landing on it – will significantly affect your future ministry and relations in the church.

I know what if feels like to genuinely desire to understand what God’s Word has to say and to live in light of it, and feel the great frustration of not having all the clarity or understanding you would like, or having to change your practice in church every time you change your mind.

I know what it feels like to fear the judgment of others – to fear that whatever you decide about who you are, and how your relations and conduct in the church is supposed to go, someone will put you in a box.

So here’s my suggestion for you: be open about what you think, honest about those things that you don’t yet understand, and patient with your brothers and sisters in Christ as you help them realise that this question is indeed personal. Help them to love you as you seek to be the woman of God that you believe God’s Word invites you to be. And, because this issue is personal, really figure this issue out personally! Read the Bible, read books, talk to thoughtful (and relationally aware) Christians, and figure out what you believe and why you believe it.

Once you think you understand what God is saying – whatever that is – pray that he would help you to trust him and to trust that he is good. He made you, he knows you, his way is best, and, in the end, a life lived for him is what matters.

5. Read books not blogs

We’re constantly startled by the number of intelligent men and women who hold strong opinions on issues like these but have never picked up a commentary on a key passage.

If you’re serious about this issue, go ask your pastor to borrow a couple of good commentaries on the key passages. The thicker the better. While you’re at it, you might even pick up a couple of books written by two of our dear friends – Claire Smith and John Dickson. Stop downloading sermons from shouty American pastors, or relying on shared ignorance on Facebook. And yes, stop reading blogs.


1 thought on “Gender, church order and the lost art of disagreeing in style”

  1. I was very uninformed until I read your commentary on gender roles, thankyou for being patient with me and others who haven’t read the bible properly until more recent dates. I would like to borrow some commentaries from either of you if you have any to lend,..

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