The following is an account of how I came to hold to biblical equality and what that journey looked like from seminary to home life to pastoring. While my journey on this matter has been long and bumpy, my thinking (and rethinking) on this really began with the essay:
“I need to talk to you about one of your papers, Spencer,” my professor said one time after class. This was an essay-writing class that I, quite against my will, had to take. It was involuntary for a couple of reasons.
Reason, the first: the college I went to had an entrance exam that tested the aptitude of the entering students on both grammar and essay writing. The two were tested in a single exam. Now, here is the thing: I got 97% in the advanced English exam in high school. In Grade 12 English, I loved discussing novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (the fact that I was an end-times literalist was oddly beneficial), and I really did enjoy Shakespeare’s Hamlet. However, the nature of the curriculum then focused a lot more on things like that than, say, what a semi-colon did. Or when to use a comma exactly (which I only knew as a “breathing-mark” at the time). Or the difference between a hyphen and an M-dash (which Wix refuses to recognize as you will see). Or a sentence fragment, for that matter (see what I did there?).
So, while I wrote deep essays comparing John the Savage to Prince Hamlet, I usually wrote them with relatively simple grammar. To this day--I must confess in deep shame--while my profession is academic, where I write for much of my job, I really am a terrible editor. When I wrote my doctoral thesis, my supervisor very politely encouraged me that I should edit the chapters before sending them to him to review. When I admitted that I had edited them already, he gulped awkwardly and suggested that I hire an editor before I finally submit the thing. And I did. And it was expensive. It was worth every penny.
That is all to say that I did not pass my grammar and essay exam. The truth is, I bumbled through the grammar part so much that time ran out for the essay portion. I’d like to believe that I would have passed that part if I had completed it, but we will never know. Thus, I had to take two “check-up” courses: one for grammar and the other for essay writing.
Other than a great deal of bitterness about having to take these courses, my second objection, for our intents and purposes, was much more important: the professor was female. For some of you, you are probably scratching your heads; others are shaking them. The latter, you know darn well what that means. Adam was made first, and Eve was his helper. The Serpent usurped the “chain of command,” speaking to Eve and tricking her into eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, plunging humanity into sin (to which some clever preacher thinks he is super original and says, “thanks, ladies”). Women were cursed with being placed under the rule of men: “Your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). Therefore, the biblical position I was taught held that men lead and teach and, most importantly, pastor, while women submit, both in marriage and ministry. Their calling by the nature of their gender was to be mothers or, while the Bible does not say it explicitly, church secretaries.
If you have lived in these circles, you will know just how important these convictions are to the fabric of power and identity in these communities. These strict gender roles were seen as what kept society together. It was what kept marriages happy. It was what was best for children and church. It was the plain and simple truth that the Apostle taught. Paul says, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22) as well as “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12), end of story. If you are aware of this position, you know that these texts get a lot of airtime. These were a part of a divinely ordained order that went God-Christ-Husband-Wife-Children.
Conversely, those who questioned this position are regarded as questioning God. They were doubting the Bible; they were wrecking marriages; they were destroying churches. I believed this quite wholeheartedly at the time. This, as you can imagine, presented a bit of a dilemma for me as I took a course with a female professor. This, I conceded, was permissible because it was an essay writing course and not, say, a theology or Bible course. This position--called “complementarianism” because it argues that men and women have complementary roles--possesses a spectrum of interpretations. Most in this view are fine with women professors, politicians, business owners, etc., but when it comes to the pastorate, that is reserved for men alone. Most are quite tame regarding what this means for marriage as well. One lady from the very conservative church I attended growing up once joked: “We live our marriage by the Bible. Bob makes all the major decisions, and the rest he leaves to me. However, in 25 years of marriage, as we have realized, we have never had a major decision to make.” Other versions of this involve something like men being “the head of the household but women being the neck.” Most laypeople that hold this position, as I found, only do lip service to it in day-to-day life.
Well, that is the palatable version that is probably the most popular. It is nostalgic for the good old days when men worked, women stayed home, and America was a Christian nation, but it has made its peace with changing times and adapted. Of course, if you were a biblical literalist like me, while I made this allowance to having a female professor, I really felt it was, at the end of the day, a concession. If men lead by the nature of their gender and women submit, that ought to apply that way, essentially, in every relationship, not just marriage and the pastorate.
Nevertheless, that brings me to the moment my professor, Professor Onbelet, wanted to see me. See, while I had also made my peace with her being a professor, I did not with my college having another professor on faculty that supported women in ministry explicitly, an “egalitarian” (that is the official term). And since this was an essay writing class at a Bible College that was supposed to be raising up people who were passionate about the Bible’s truth, it only made sense that I should write an essay on why the college should fire this professor. So, I got called into the office to talk about this essay. I do not recall the specifics of this essay, but I remember her very graciously encouraging me to write an essay on something else. I reluctantly said, “fine.”
Now, dear reader, since you are reading this, I presume you are reading this for some advice. Be careful what positions you hold; you might find yourself rethinking them one day. Here is another: don’t write an essay on why a professor at your college should be fired. Perhaps this is common sense. It wasn’t to me at the time. While you may be zealous for the truth as I was, it just is not that prudent of a thing to do, and of all the reasons why this is not a good essay topic, one very good one is the simple fact that you may end up having to take a class with this professor in the near future. I should have seen it coming. I should have read the program sheet more closely…
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.