"So When Did the Demon of Feminism First Infect Your Mind?" (How I Became an Egalitarian, Part Four)
Things started getting tense. Dr. Webb and one other professor, a woman who had recently been ordained in another denomination, quite unexpectedly did not have their contracts renewed at the college. The next year, the college board put out an identity statement, one article in which was on women and ministry. Several professors were fired and several left. It was a real mess.
I was beginning a pastoral internship at Bradford Baptist Church, preparing to fundraise and eventually launch a church plant in the neighbouring town. This was a great community to be a part of. The pastor and the folks of the church were very encouraging. However, the wider association was not. Association meetings were awkward. The pastors that were on the board of the college openly bragged about how they had gotten rid of the “liberals.”
Naturally, I just kept to myself and kept my head down. Can you believe that I did that? Me neither. That is not true at all. I aimed to stir up holy mischief. Although in many cases, trouble found me. The association had several pastors that saw it as their duty to, shall we say, “vet” young pastors.
Now, I know many pastors who have very fundamentalist beliefs but are kind and gentle people. Pastoring has made them gracious. The person I am about to tell you about is not one of these people. In fact, even amongst people who agreed with him theologically, adjectives for this person usually invoked expletives of a less pastoral nature. I found that when I left these circles, the culture or ethos was noticeably different. Patriarchy creates cultures that praise power.
We all sat down for lunch at a pastors’ conference. As food was served, the guy started bragging about how the seminary he attended was going to make him take a class with a female professor, but he argued with them into working around the class. The other pastors congratulated his stance for the truth.
I cast out the line: “Funny thing, I was going to write an essay on this very thing.” No bites.
After a solid rant about liberalism at his seminary, he turned to me, “You’re working on a doctorate, Spencer. Are you encountering this problem?”
“Well, not exactly.”
“How is that possible in a liberal place like the University of Toronto?”
“Well, you see, I decided I wanted to study under people as different from me as possible. So, right now, I am taking a course on critical theory by a feminist scholar.” Awkward silence.
Some days I would have settled for awkward silence. Other association meetings ended up being an inquisition by fundamentalist pastors, grilling me with questions at lunchtime as I tried to sip my soup.
At the time, I would try to use a consolatory tone: “I don’t understand why we can’t grant liberty on this issue in our denomination. To me, it looks like there are certain passages that do suggest women leaders in the church, such as Junia a ‘prominent apostle’ listed at the end of Romans in 16:7.” (The Bible translation preferred by most conservative Baptists now is the ESV, that translates that Junia was, conveniently, “well known to the apostles” but this is grammatically unlikely as it lists Junia with Andronicus doing the same ministry as Paul in the passage, to the point that they both were in jail over it). The association leader looked at me, puzzled. He had never heard of this before. He also would boast that he did a DMin degree without ever bothering to fully read a book (how that is a brag was always a bit confusing to me). He angrily turned to me and asked me, “I see, Spencer. So, when did the demon of feminism first infect your mind?”
To accuse a person of having a demonic infection just because they read the Bible differently is bold. It is many other words also, which I will leave you to imagine, but this all speaks of the mental lengths some will go to explain away how some people think differently about their faith. Some have become so addicted to that affective sense of certainty and self-correctness that to lose it is so unthinkable (or deep down scary) that they have to literally demonize someone different. They have to quickly explain away every anomaly to their faith: like Junia.
There is nothing short of a conspiracy to suppress the figure of Junia using conservative Bible translations. Some translations have tried to render Junia as a famous “messenger” (which, granted, is what “apostle” meant in Greek). However, Paul seems to reserve the word for a person who has similar authority and role to himself. Junia is not the first-century version of a FedEx girl. For Paul, apostles are never messengers, as seen in the case of Epaphroditus in Phil. 2:25: “I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker, fellow soldier, your messenger/apostle and minister to my need.” Paul says Junia and Andronicus both endured prison with him, as I already mentioned. This means they¾both of them--were doing similar work to him. So, the more likely translation is that these two people--probably an apostolic couple were prominent among the other apostles, who were their colleagues. Junia, as far as we can infer then, was an apostle, having the authority to proclaim the Gospel, teach disciples, start churches, etc., all for which she was imprisoned, and so, apparently, she was outstanding at what she did.
And for that matter, I have already mentioned two Old Testament break-out examples (Deborah and Huldah), but then there are others in the New Testament. Can you indulge me for a moment? Take Priscilla, the wife of Aquila, who is mentioned in Acts 18:24-26. Aquila was a Jewish Christian and an exile from Italy (Acts 18:1-2). He and his wife are mentioned several times in the New Testament (Rom. 16:3-4; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). This indicates that this couple got around, and they did a lot of work for the Gospel. They were very likely travelling apostles. Here in Acts 18, together they instruct Apollos, who was teaching “the Way” but did not understand everything about the Way of Jesus since he was John the Baptist’s disciple. The text makes a point that both of them taught Apollos seemingly as equals. People who dismiss this by saying that she was teaching at the direction of her husband--which the text does not say--should then be open to having a woman at the very least be co-pastor and teacher with her husband.
Take Chloe at the beginning of First Corinthians: “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters” (1 Cor. 1:11). This is an implicit example but strongly suggestive nevertheless. Who is Chloe? Some want to write her off as just a concerned congregant, and she may be. However, Chloe has people under her. They report to her, and in turn, she has sent these people to report to Paul regarding the spiritual affairs of the church of Corinth. She is apparently well known to the church as she needs no introduction like “Chloe, the wife of [someone more important who you know].” So we know that she is well known to the church, has people under her, and reports to Paul regarding the religious matters of the church. This sounds like a pastor or even a bishop/overseer of sorts.
Take Nympha as another possible example. Colossians 4:15 reads: “Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.” The early church had no formal buildings to meet in. So, often people would meet in homes. It was the norm that the person that owned the house usually was the leader of that house church. This is similar to small groups and house churches today. Thus, Nympha very likely was a sort of house church pastor.
Take Phoebe as another example (a pretty solid one if you ask me). Paul says in Romans 16: 1, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” Some translations will say, “Phoebe, a servant of the church of…” in the sense of a beloved volunteer. This is possible but unlikely. The word “deacon” is male, and just as Huldah and Deborah were described as “prophets” not “prophetesses,” the use of the male word was done to imply title and authority. Also, Paul uses the word “deacon” to describe his own ministry (1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph 3:7; Col 1:23, 25), which may indicate the importance of Phoebe’s work. The fact that she is of another church coming here also speaks to her having representative authority. She has been called in as a specialist to help the church in Rome. Paul tells the church to “give her any help she may need from you,” which means he is giving her authority that the church needs to follow. Paul offers a reason why and it is because she has been the “benefactor of many.” Notice something that is often missed: “benefactor” is a bad translation. The Greek word is prostatis. The prostatis may have been a title used in the early church for those who led worship and communion in a church service or a general position of leadership in the church. In fact, the verb form of prostatis, which is proistēmi, is used to describe the act of church leadership (Rom 12:8; 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 5:17) and household management (1 Tim 3:4, 5, 12), most notably used to describe the gift of leadership just a few chapters before where Pheobe is mentioned. Romans. 12:8 says: “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader [proistēmi], in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” So, Paul states something like this, “Listen to Phoebe. She has led ministry for many, including me. She is good at what she does. Do what she tells you to do.”
What about Euodia and Syntyche? Philippians 4:2-3 reads, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the Gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” Euodia and Syntyche are apparently having an argument, and Paul wants them to resolve their differences for the sake of church ministry. They are described as Paul’s “co-workers,” at his “side” (connoting equality). Paul refers to Epaphroditus as a fellow “co-worker,” and he is also described as an “apostle” (Phil. 2:25). “Co-worker” is a description Paul uses to describe his fellow apostles often: Timothy (1 Thes. 3:2), Titus (2 Cor. 8:23), Justus (Col. 4:11), Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:3), Urbanus (Rom. 16:9), and in general (cf. 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 6:1). Euodia and Syntyche are listed here along with a man named Clement for the “cause of the Gospel.” We know that Clement may have been the same Clement that went on to become the overseer of the church in Rome, so these women are being described as being among an important group: the apostles. Okay, theology rant done here. I had to get that off my chest.
As I sat down with the leadership of the association, I was to discuss further funding for a church plant in the next town over, talk of ministry turned to talk of theology, and the leader wanted to know if I was in or was I out. I could have remained silent. Our first child, Rowan, had just been born. I was doing full-time doctoral studies, working ten hours a week as a TA, ten hours a week as a soup-kitchen co-ordinator, and twenty hours a week as a church planting intern. My wife, Meagan, had gone back to school on her maternity leave to upgrade her teaching degree along with lifeguarding in the evenings. We were barely scraping by.
I got together with that association leader for coffee. We ended up having coffee and then walking and talking around the neighbourhood in several loops in a conversation that really had no resolution. I pleaded with him: “Why can we not see our unity as a denomination in something central like the Gospel or the Trinity and leave it at that?”
“Because, Spencer,” he said, “For how we do the Gospel, gender roles is more important to the Gospel than something like the Trinity.” He was not wrong. That functionally is the case for many churches.
“I used to hold your views on the subject, but then a did a lot of studies. Don’t you think it is possible that if you looked at the subject the same way you mind might change?”
“No, Spencer,” he insisted, “I don’t need to read any other books. I know I have the Holy Spirit, and he guides my reading of the Bible.” He continued, “If you don’t recant or just stay silent about this, I will see to it that your funding as a church planter with us is cut.”
But I knew I couldn’t stay silent. That night I told Meagan I was going to have to fire up my resume and leave the denominational family in which my grandfather was a founding pastor. After dozens of resumes were sent out with no call-back, no church wanting to hire a doctoral student, First Baptist Church of Sudbury, Ontario, finally called, which was a part of the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec.
The First Baptist Church of Sudbury has a history of being progressive (or at least what some call "moderate," since it had a diverse of people that attended). It was one of the flagship Social Gospel churches back in the day, some of its members fought alongside Tommy Douglas and helped form the first unions for the mines that surrounded Sudbury. It had also very early on ended restrictions on its leadership positions based on gender. This caused a stir back in the day. Apparently, the independent fundamentalist church in town openly declared that First Baptist was under God’s judgment and would one day burn with hellfire. I heard that and concluded First Baptist sounds like my kind of people. And for five good years, I got to be the pastor of a church that cared deeply for the Bible, but cared deep enough to both to study it with the depth it deserved.
If you have been excluded in the same way I was, made to become as my one friend would call "a theological refugee," finding others to talk with and encourage you is essential. Perhaps, you are pastoring a church, and you are fearful about what people might say if you were vocal about your support for biblical equality. You may say to yourself, “But I have a family to feed.” Perhaps, you are a woman who feels a call by God to ministry; however, others tell you that you can’t because “you are a girl.” You feel confused deep down because you know this vocation is holy and good, but others are gaslighting you into thinking you are actually sinning against God’s order of things by longing for this. Whatever it is, let me encourage you: First, be honest. Don’t hide what you believe. It is not a good way to live. A community that claims to be biblical but restricts women and then quashes attempts to discern whether that is even in the Bible is a place that will slowly eat your soul. The second piece of advice is this: find your people. There are others. There is a whole lot more to “the church” out there than what you have seen. If ever I have contemplated what it would have been like if I had kept quiet and tried to work change very gently, which is not to say very often, those thoughts are taken away by the fulfillment of seeing churches where the Spirit moves and the whole body of Christ, men and women, are freed to proclaim Good News. The grass has surely been greener.
Find your people. I remember one time at a new pastor’s retreat for the denomination. The executive minister, Tim McCoy, made a point of getting to know all the new pastors. He sat down with me for lunch, and I told him my story. He got up, came over and gave me a hug, and simply said, “Welcome home, Spencer.” I hope you find yours.
 The next three paragraphs I have recounted before in “The Spirit without Prejudice.”
Spencer Boersma is the Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College. He lives in Kentville, Nova Scotia, with his wife and five boys, and he serves on the board of ASBE.