October 27, 2009

Moral Reform & Ministry to Women: an excerpt

Also posted at First Things

With a sense of urgency, the body of Christ needs to be equipped to give an answer to obstacles and objections to faith as a matter of discipleship within the church as well as for the gospel ministry each member of the body has outside of the church. And how we live from the point of conversion onward will reflect to the world a certain degree of faithfulness to the truths we claim. Transgressions by well-known “family values” politicians who might otherwise be regarded as moral reformers in the years that follow their civil service are often regarded as a failure of the Christian worldview, leaving the church ashamed and silent. The old adage “talking the talk without walking the walk” is taking on a greater sense of relevance in this new century. And due to advancements in technology, sometimes the specific decisions that we face in life need a bit more ethical reflection than a congregation is generally equipped to face. The 21st century believer is confronted by a plethora of ideas and decisions, and the church must stand firm and prepare her people to think theologically in such a way to impact all areas of life. We must prepare a place for deliberate theology, apologetics, and ethics education in the church, especially in the sphere of women’s ministry. Why particularly women’s ministry?

The experience of womanhood provides opportunity to address certain issues women in particular can relate to, and to disciple in a way that addresses deeply engrained ideas rooted in false belief, replacing them with truth. The choices that many women make about how to live—choices made prior to conversion and perhaps even early in their Christian walk—have consequences that come with them to the pew—when they eventually find the pew. Some of these consequences can never be eliminated, preventing them from finding functional reconciliation with biblical womanhood and related teachings. For instance, a single mother who has no choice but to work in order to care for her family can never fulfill the vision of womanhood that has her at home supporting a husband as head. Of course, this may be taught as the biblical ideal, but never being able to achieve it may have a significant effect on her relationship with God and those in her church. This is not to recommend the abandonment of biblical teachings on the family, church leadership, or parenting because they might seem irrelevant to the particular circumstances of many women. The issue I am raising is much larger.

The manner in which the teachings of biblical womanhood are often communicated is a “circle the wagons” approach for which a real potential exists to further marginalize women already on the fringes. Extra caution needs to be taken when communicating a pattern for living, especially to those whose day to day lives will probably never reflect a the model for marriage and family taught in scripture. Discipleship methods need to take into account that women are in a variety of places on their spiritual journey. Women whose lives will likely never arrive at what they have been taught about what God has ordained for marriage and the family are often left floundering, in a never-ending battle to please God. This biblical ideal is so highly regarded that often, little emphasis is spent on equipping all women to glorify God within their current reality.

Indeed, the church must continue to defend a family structure that glorifies God as reflected in scripture so that families might not be influenced or tainted by the whims of culture. But the church must also be intentional about educating and equipping the individuals and broken families who, by the leading of the Spirit, have found their way to the community of believers, but whose day to day life more closely resembles the ways of the world. This is, I believe, more a matter of Christian education than of therapy, the direction women’s ministry often tends to lean.

Conversion changes our position before God, but it does not immediately change the way we think or how we live in our particular circumstances. Women from all backgrounds certainly do need to understand what scripture teaches about the family, because they are being called to effectively impart those teachings to their children, unbelieving husbands, and perhaps other members of their family. In this sense, we must continue to affirm and actively embrace what scripture teaches regarding biblical womanhhood. But these women also desperately need to develop a fuller, more complete theology so that they can make sense out of their circumstances and critically consider how to live to the glory of God in all areas of life for the rest of their life. Trying “to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” in various circumstances is one of the greatest challenges for women today. This is virtually impossible if we continue to circle the wagons and communicate a message that essentially excludes women on the fringes.


Tami Martin said...

Good post. Very thought-provoking.

But I wonder...has there ever been a time when this concern has been about men? I mean, has there ever been a time when a man might come to Christ and then drift away because he could never meet up with the standard held up as "what God has ordained for the Christian family?"

My initial thought is no. We'd likely never have that concern. We're not going to start men's ministries with the dual goal of affirming the "what God intended" ideal while meeting men where they are.

I think there must be something wrong with our "this is what God intended" ideas rather than where we find ourselves in life.

Sarah J. Flashing said...

This is actually just a snippet from the first chapter of my book that argues for a deeper theological commitment in our discipleship. I"m also arguing for not just theology, but apologetics and ethics to sit at the table of women's ministry as well. We can't encourage women to sanctification, we have to help them confront life in this century.