Can She or Can't She?
by Stuart Briscoe
I was recently invited by a well-known Bible college to participate in a panel discussion on the role of women in the church. A list of suggested questions was included in the invitation. One of them particularly caught my attention. It asked if I had an opinion as to why some couples apparently hold a complimentarian view of the women’s role when they are in the church, but it changes to an egalitarian view once they get home! Now, I have no way of knowing what goes on behind closed doors, nor do I wish to know. But I can tell you that in my parents’ case this was certainly how it worked.
Stanley and Mary Briscoe were wonderfully devoted believers – devoted to the Lord, to each other, to their kids, and tirelessly to ministry. They had been mercifully spared from debates on “complimentarianism” and “egalitarianism” and worked very simply on the basis of “let the women keep silence.” So, in the church, that is precisely what my mother did. She was allowed to sing along with the others, but apart from that she was mute. A lid was placed as firmly on her involvement as the obligatory hat was placed squarely on her head.
Once she got home, however, it was clear that she had great spiritual insights, that she was very bright, that she was full of good ideas and that she could, and did, articulate her opinions very well. Moreover, when the Second World War broke out and my father was drafted, she managed the family business in his absence and took it to a new level with good administrative gifts, clear vision, and the ability to make things happen despite all the limitations of wartime rationing and regulations. Unfortunately, none of these gifts were utilized – or could be – in a struggling little church that desperately needed the sort of wisdom, energy, and vitality with which she was greatly endowed.
I doubt if my mother had ever read about, or even heard of, Susannah Wesley, the mother of John and Charles, and the wife of the hapless Samuel, who seemed to spend a substantial amount of time in the debtors’ prison. If she had heard of Susannah, I think she would have been horrified to hear that the lady in question took over her husband’s spiritual ministry during his enforced absence – in prison! – and that under her leadership the work flourished. When Samuel heard about this turn of events, he wrote to his wife and told her to desist. She replied that she would if he absolutely insisted. Apparently, the Reverend Samuel had second thoughts. He did not write back on the subject, so Susannah continued her ministry. I suppose you could say that if the labels had been available in 18th-century England, Samuel was a “complimentarian at church and an egalitarian at home.”
Back to the question: Do I have an opinion as to why this state of affairs apparently exists? I do, as a matter of fact! One possible answer is that some people think that there is one standard of behavior for church and one for everyday behavior. And the two, like east and west, shall never meet. Another possible explanation is that we all have our areas of inconsistency and this is one of them. The most likely explanation is that, for a variety of reasons, churches have failed to take seriously the fact that believing women are redeemed creatures, indwelt by the Spirit, and endowed with gifts which are to be exercised for the glory of God and the well-being of mankind.
When the subject arises in church circles it usually centers around “what women can’t do.” I am convinced that whatever label we wear in the debate, we can all agree that there are some things that women can, should, and must do for the glory of God and the well being of mankind. Before we get into a debate about what they can’t do, we should be identifying the areas in which we believe they can and should legitimately be actively involved. Having identified these areas, we should then be carefully crafting ways in which the women can be trained, mobilized, supported, and encouraged in their ministries.
Why do I write about this in a column for men? Because the men are in charge in most of our churches, and if there is to be a movement to develop women to be as effective in the church as many of them are outside the church, it is the men who will have to make it happen.
I am not advocating that anyone should encourage women to do what deep down they believe they have no business doing. On the contrary, I believe the male leadership of our churches should put this at the top of their agenda, ensuring that women are as fully occupied in the church as God intended them to be.
General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, used to say, “Some of my best men are women.” Just look at what they have accomplished!