A Conservative Christian Battle Over Gender

For much of her adult Christian life, Christina Edmondson has felt like “a unicorn”: At any given time, she told me, she might be the only black woman present at a professional meeting or worship session. She and her husband live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works as a dean at Calvin College, a small Christian liberal-arts school, and he pastors an Orthodox Presbyterian church plant. This spring, Edmondson and two friends, Ekemini Uwan and Michelle Higgins, started a podcast called Truth’s Table for other “unicorns” like them: Black women who often feel lonely navigating predominantly white Christian spaces, or who are generally looking for “a seat at the table,” as the women put it.

Half a dozen episodes in, the women decided to take up the topic of gender—specifically, the “gender apartheid” they see in Christianity. According to Uwan, there is “this wall, a very visible wall, erected in the church between men and women.” Many Christian conferences address “race, racism, [and] racial reconciliation, trying to do justice in those spheres,” she said, “but yet completely ignore the toxic patriarchy that is so embedded within the church.” Joined by Tyler Burns and Jemar Tisby, two black Christian men who host another podcast called Pass the Mic, the group discussed churches where women aren’t allowed to greet at the door; pastors who minimize emotional language in worship; and men who avoid friendship with women for fear of violating biblical standards of purity.

When they got to the topic of ordination, things grew heated. “What does the word ‘ordain-able’ mean? It literally means, ‘possesses a penis,’” Higgins said. “It does not mean, ‘is currently in seminary, has graduated with an M.Div,” or master’s in divinity, “‘and has gone before a licensure committee.’” The focus on male ordination often blocks women out of other leadership roles, she argued. “No one will hear me unless maybe I design and develop a penis-shaped microphone. … Maybe we should have a line of penis microphones, because it is all that you need to have to pass out communion, to take up the offering.”

Edmondson, Higgins, and Uwan are not alone in their complaints. Within the bounds of conservative Christianity, some women feel increasingly frustrated by what they perceive as artificial limits on their leadership—“the churches where the culture … is what women may not do … rather than what women are gifted to do,” as Kathy Keller, the wife of the prominent pastor Tim Keller, recently put it during her denomination’s annual meeting. That’s created tension in communities where most men—and women—oppose women’s ordination and embrace the idea that men should be the spiritual heads of households.

The result has challenged not only the traditional limits on women’s roles, but also traditional structures of authority. Independent women’s ministries, study curricula, and podcasts have proliferated, and those who lead them are often accused by their detractors of poor teaching or lacking accountability. Even the form of conversation has changed: The most heated debates often happen on social media rather than in denominational meeting halls, where legalistic rules of order can stifle full-throated exchanges.

Truth’s Table situates itself within one corner of a particular neighborhood of Christianity, whose followers would identify as Reformed—loosely meaning they embrace the Calvinist tradition of Protestantism, which teaches in part that salvation is dependent on God’s grace alone. The controversy their podcast ignited is evidence that even theologically settled communities have to contend with the provocations of modern life, including secular culture, changing technology, and especially the racial divisions that have long haunted evangelicalism. And the on-going fall-out from the clash reveals just how fractured even tight denominational communities can become.

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Higgins is a staffer at South City Church in St. Louis, where her dad is the pastor. The congregation is part of the Presbyterian Church in America, or PCA, which firmly opposes women’s ordination. “I believe that it’s important for my church and my denomination to refuse to demonize people who interpret ordination differently than they do,” Higgins told me, but she and the other Truth’s Table hosts weren’t pushing for women to become pastors. “I don’t see in the Bible women in that authoritative role as a pastor,” Uwan said.

And yet, that’s apparently what many people heard. “[The podcast contained] typical boilerplate liberation theology which is fundamentally unbiblical and incompatible with the gospel and the church’s mission,” wrote Todd Pruitt, a pastor in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on his blog, The Mortification of Spin. “Sadly, this has been allowed a foothold in the PCA. Some of us have been warning about it, apparently to no avail.” (Pruitt did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.) In the post and a newsletter email that went out to his large body of subscribers, he encouraged his readers to report the women to their presbyterys—the regional oversight bodies that help govern conduct in Presbyterian churches. “When someone says, ‘Call the elders,’ they’re basically saying, ‘Something’s wrong with the teaching here, and the people in charge at the church need to get on it,’” said Tisby, a doctoral student at the University of Mississippi who earned his M.Div. from the Reformed Theological Seminary. “To me, it’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of putting on riot gear for a peaceful protest.”

The controversy spread across the conservative segment of the Presbyterian blogosphere, finding its way onto long Facebook threads and spin-off conversations. On the fringes, a blogger for a site called Faith and Heritage—run by “[Christians] who refuse to apologize for our European heritage and commit collective cultural and ethnic suicide to appease the never-ending covetous demands of the West’s enemies and our corrupt treasonous leaders”—transcribed the full episode to demonstrate the women’s “outrageously heretical statements.” Most of the dissent, though, came from regular pastors.

One objection was about language. Several people echoed Pruitt’s concern that the episode ported in the “sociological” terms of “liberation theology.” A white pastor from Charleston, South Carolina, Jon Payne, spoke about the vocabulary issue on his church’s podcast with one of his black parishioners, Gabriel Williams. “If you listen to the podcast, there are certain terms that are repeatedly used, such as marginalization, oppressed, toxic patriarchy, majority culture, toxic masculinity, ‘in my context,’ oppression, etc.,” Williams said in the conversation. “Those are not words that are common to traditional Christian usage today.” In a follow-up email, Payne also called out the “coarse language” the Truth’s Table hosts used. “The conversation was filled with more heat than light,” he added.

Others objected to the tone of the episode. Williams’s wife, Alicia, who is also black, wrote her own blog post, titled “Please Excuse My Indifference.” “I really struggle to not roll my eyes when I hear you speak and read your blogs,” she wrote. “Who wants to hold serious conversations with someone that they have to treat with ‘kid gloves’”? In a follow-up interview, she said she has long read posts from the Reformed African American Network, the organization co-founded by Tisby which puts out Pass the Mic. “Over the last year or so, it just became more and more bent along these lines of ‘we’re oppressed, racial oppression in the church,’” she said. “In the Presbyterian world, when it comes to topics of race, there’s almost like a hypersensitivity.”

Still others took issue with what they perceived as an egalitarian theological orientation. “We’re a conservative, Bible-believing denomination. Therefore, we embrace biblical gender norms,” said Rick Phillips in an interview. The Greenville, South Carolina, pastor also blogged about the episode. “Things that were said in the podcast certainly created the impression … that ideas and positions that are really coming out of a secularized culture are now being given credence in the church.” Even the episode’s title, “Gender Apartheid,” was too strong, he said. “It implies that there is a maliciousness and an abusiveness to what I believe is a well-meant desire to positively live out in the church the teaching of the Bible on gender and relationships.”

The Truth’s Table hosts disagreed with this characterization. Uwan pointed out that she and Higgins “both pack M.Divs., just like these men who are pastors.” (Uwan got her degree from Westminster Theological Seminary, while Higgins got hers from Covenant Theological Seminary, the PCA’s denominational seminary.) All three work in Christian or religious contexts and are committed to what Uwan describes as “biblical orthodoxy.” She thinks the blowback was just as much about who was speaking as what was said. “You don’t often hear from black Reformed women,” she told me. “We are acutely aware that when black women speak openly about their experiences in white evangelical spaces, it’s a rare thing. So maybe it’s jarring.” The podcast isn’t primarily intended for white audiences, she added: “We don’t code switch. This is literally just us sitting at a table, talking. We’re opening up our group chat.”

Edmondson, Higgins, and Uwan trawled Facebook for conversations that were happening without them, popping into comments threads to ask for private dialogue with those who had theological concerns; nothing constructive seemed to come back, they said. Other people stepped in to defend them, too. Tim LeCroy, a Presbyterian pastor in Columbia, Missouri, put up a post on his blog calling on Pruitt to apologize—and to his surprise, people messaged him asking if they could sign it, almost as if it were a petition. “My sense is that this became a proxy for a lot of other stuff going on, even in the broader culture,” LeCroy told me.

Eventually, the whole controversy largely died away. Pruitt took his post down after someone called him a racist, he explained. “When you see such a filthy charge in print it is stunning and sickening,” he wrote in a subsequent entry. “I understand why it is such an effective tool to silence dissent.”

Perhaps, to use Payne’s phrase, the little controversy over the Truth’s Table episode shed more heat than light. But it wasn’t random. It happened in the context of on-going, contentious, formal and informal fights over women’s roles in evangelical churches—fights that are often painful and racially inflected. The way it unfolded—online, across multiple platforms and cities, with pastors unafraid to unleash their harshest words from behind glowing screens—wasn’t random, either. For many religious communities, this is what theological debate looks like these days.

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The PCA met in Greensboro, North Carolina, in June for its annual general assembly. The main item on the docket was a 63-page report about “women serving in the ministry of the church,” which the denomination had requested by a vote during the previous year’s meeting. A mixed committee was convened, made up of black, white, Asian, and Hispanic pastors and a few laywomen, roughly representing the spectrum of theological leanings in the denomination. As several members of the denomination pointed out to me, though, no women of color were included on the committee. (A woman of color was invited to serve on the committee but was unable to do so because of a family matter, said Ince.)*

Even in a conservative denomination like the PCA, people hold a range of views on the appropriate roles for women. Leaders generally don’t approve of women’s ordination to the role of teaching elder, the Presbyterian term for “pastor.” But some believe that less authoritative ordained positions, like that of deacon, should be open to women. (Currently, deacons in the PCA must be men. These leaders are often given duties like caring for the poor and the elderly or overseeing church funds.) Others say a distinct, ordained role for women—called a deaconess—should be created, while still others disagree that women should be ordained in any capacity. Current practices also vary across the denomination.

The study committee was asked to put together a scriptural analysis of the question of women in the church and compile a list of recommendations. While the assignment was formal and technical, it was aimed at a deep cultural issue, said Irwyn Ince, the pastor from Columbia, Maryland, who chaired the committee. “Women—not always, but often—feel in certain Christian circles that they don’t have a voice,” he told me. “One of the key points that came out of the Protestant Reformation is ‘Reformed and always reforming.’ What that means is God is always calling us back to his word on every issue, to see where it is we need to grow in health and grow in faithfulness, and that includes the issue of gender.”

While the report didn’t propose any formal revisions to PCA doctrine, it did lay out nine recommendations for how local church bodies should empower women. Two were particularly controversial, albeit subtle: Unordained women should be able to assist church leaders, the committee said, noting that women “have often historically been referred to as deaconesses.” It also asked the denomination to consider a formal proposal creating the role of “commissioned church worker” for unordained men and women.

Concerned pastors gathered to question the committee. People wondered whether this was a “slippery slope” toward women’s ordination, for example. Keller, one of the committee members, was skeptical. “It’s not like you get on train with unordained female deaconesses, and then the next stop is ordained female deacons, and then the next stop is women as ordained elders, and the next stop is female pastors, and you can’t get off the train,” she said. “The train stops, because nobody wants to see women in authoritative roles. Nobody believes that. If you believe that, you don’t belong here in the PCA.”

Others questioned whether the committee’s recommendations were just “baptizing the status quo,” since they weren’t binding, anyways. “A little while ago, I was speaking in a church that said, ‘We don’t let women read the Bible in worship services,’” replied Dan Doriani, a professor at Covenant Theological Seminary who also served on the committee. “That statement was made to me about 20 minutes after a service ended, in which a woman read 20 verses of scripture. … They actually didn’t hear it happen.” What the committee was trying to do, he said, was “label the best practices that we weren’t even aware of.”

Aside from a few frank exchanges on the substance of the report, though, a good portion of the body’s time was spent on procedural back-and-forth: whether the committee was within its authority, what amendments should be made to each recommendation, how many minutes should be allotted to discussion. At times, pastors approached the mic just to ask what was going on, or to point out that a motion had been forgotten in the sea of procedural points that followed. The denomination, which strictly follows Robert’s Rules of Order, seems to work out huge questions of culture and theology this way: through legalism.

After many hours of debate, the body approved all nine of the committee’s recommendations. Leaders will now take these suggestions home and figure out what to do with them—“for many churches, this is going to be a fairly radical report,” Keller said during the meeting. For many, that will also mean hitting the internet for more blog posts, Facebook debates, and tweet storms. The report may be a formal reprieve for one small denomination, but the deeper cultural fractures are still there, and they’re getting worked out in much bigger and more public forums.

It’s reflected in debates over women’s ministries and blogging. In April, Christianity Today published an essay criticizing the “crisis of authority” in the “Christian blog-o-sphere,” especially for women. The essay bemoaned the lack of accountability for independent women’s ministries and authors, warning against the “lay people [who] suddenly become household names” from “the comfort of their living rooms.” Like the Truth’s Table podcast, the article led to an evangelical eruption.

Or it will show up in the way churches structure conversations by and for women. “You’ll get your token woman to talk about motherhood, or feminism, or parenting—being a good wife and all that stuff, or biblical womanhood,” said Aimee Byrd, a white woman who blogs at The Mortification of Spin. She wants to be able to “talk about all theology, and not just the pink,” she said.

Or it will play out in battles over the word feminism. “It’s almost like a conversation closer if someone can just call you a feminist in the conservative church,” Byrd said. She wouldn’t identify herself as a feminist, she said, “because there’s so many definitions of that word, and I wouldn’t want to attach myself to the pro-choice movement, or the sexual revolution, which I’m very much not [a part of].”

And race will always be a factor. Edmondson argued that white Christian women are given better platforms and more respect when they talk about issues like gender, in part because their writing is aimed toward a white audience. They “have also been raising similar issues, but in a very different voice,” she said. “It’s clear from our podcast that we’re not speaking to white, conservative men. That’s not our strategy.’”

Conservative churches are living through a dual revolution right now: Just as their beliefs and practices are challenged by the secular culture around them, their ways of talking about those challenges are being reinvented. This new form of theological discourse brings some blessings: The women of Truth’s Table can talk to one another across three states and hundreds of miles, for example, building a community of women who share their needs and interests. But “the internet can be an unforgiving place,” said Burns. “I think churches must take seriously the ways in which the internet has given people the excuse to say things that are harmful to character—generalizations and stereotypes. The church must also be active in pushing back against an internet culture that would attack the people of God.”

The challenge isn’t exactly new. Like the rest of the internet, the Reformed blogging world has gone through cycles, LeCroy told me: “Ten years ago, it was a lot hotter.” But as broader American culture clashes more and more intensely with conservative Christian beliefs, the challenge of talking about the tough stuff among themselves may be getting harder. “I believe, as a Christian, that the church must be the primary example of watching people disagree without despising each other,” Higgins said. It may seem like a simple goal, but it’s not so easy to achieve in a time of Facebook theology and Twitter judgment.