I love to teach. I love to teach the Bible. When I teach the Bible, I love to drop anchors and dive down deep. I also love philosophy, theology, history, literature, and every book ever written about these topics no matter how thick or dry. I never feel more alive than I do when I walk out of teaching a 3 hour class on Dante’s Inferno or Nietzsche’s The Antichrist. My favorite thing in the world is seeing people engaged, intrigued, and inspired by the riches of the word and how it relates to all of life, even to the texts of pagan philosophers.
But I am a woman.
Aren’t women supposed to only have gifts like hospitality, or encouragement, or prayer, or music, or administrative assisting? Why did the Lord give me a strength that seems to be unfortunate rather than a unique way I can serve the body? Why does mine feel more like a sinful desire to kill than a gift to cultivate? For many years I was deeply afraid my gifting would violate boundaries, be a discouragement to my brothers, and ultimately harm the Church. For that reason, I had to keep that part of me malnourished and on a very tight leash.
It was not until I came to my current local body and academic context that both brothers and sisters not only readily affirmed my giftings, but also insisted that they could be uniquely used by the Spirit to build up the Church. They created space for me to practice and grow them within that context as a woman.
What made the difference? For most of my life I have been in evangelical environments where gifting is gender-based. This means that in order to properly affirm the gifting in an individual, we consider gender before his or her possible gifts . This model looks like this:
GENDER > GIFTING > APPLICATION
Women who are gifted in music, prayer, or hospitality are encouraged as they should be. Yet, God gifts some women in ways that are less identified and celebrated by the Church, especially in areas like teaching and leadership. There is systemic fear that women exercising certain gifts could undermine complementarianism and start us on a slippery slope to outright denial of gender roles. These gifts also seem threatening to many evangelical polity structures, specifically the office of pastor or elder. There is also a fear that married women with certain giftings will have more difficulty submitting to the spiritual leadership of her husband in their home. Somewhere along the way, we have made certain gifting unfeminine and out of bounds for women. We have allowed both fear and extra-biblical norms to hinder the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry and the building up of the body of Christ (Eph 4:12).
These fears and extra-biblical norms extend to many Evangelical academies as well. If we believe gifting is essentially gendered, those categories must remain true both inside and outside the Church. If gifts such as teaching and leadership are considered categorically unfeminine, that claim must extend to all arenas, including the academy. One of the key reasons why the voice of evangelical women is sparse in the academy is because it is not first affirmed inside the Church.
An Alternative Model
To solve the problem of gendered gifting, we don’t want to remove gender from the equation and become “gender-blind.” To do so would neutralize a type of diversity God intentionally established in His creation. The answer is not to reject the foundational principles of complementarianism, but to identify and dissolve naturalized norms and categories that are more (sub)culturally driven than biblical. One way to do this is to rethink the way we affirm gifting. Instead of beginning with the gender of the person and then identifying the giftings he or she could have, we should reverse the order, identifying the giftings first and then seeing how those giftings could be applied within their context as a man or a woman. This model looks like this:
GIFTING > GENDER > APPLICATION
First, let’s begin with the clear strengths and passions the Lord has given each individual image bearer and then see how those can be best applied as a man or a woman in a particular context. To do this, we must consider both the biblical limits and the freedoms for each situation.
Within the Church, there is one limit for women: the office of the pastor/elder. Aside from this limit, there is a host of possibilities for women to exercise their giftings in a variety of contexts. The world is their oyster. In fact, even the specific giftings an elder must have to qualify for that office are not off-limits for women. For example, we would obviously affirm that the office of elder requires the gift of leadership, but we would never say an ordinary congregant could not have the gift of leadership because they are not fulfilling the office of elder. Thus, certain offices may be biblically limited according to gender, but gifting is not. Rather than being fixated on the one limit for women in the Church, we should turn our efforts to exploring all the possibilities for women in the Church. The affirmation of giftings is the first step.
Evangelical academies that affirm complementarianism should provide yet another playing field for women to cultivate and practice their giftings. Women are free to study and contribute to the body of scholarship in anything from missions to theology to dead languages if they are so inclined. As they pursue these endeavors, they bring their unique experience, perspective, and voice as women to the table, greatly enriching the dialogue and body of scholarship as a whole. Their presence and voice can and should serve as an encouragement to their brothers, not a discouragement to them. Theologically robust women with well-cultivated giftings can only be a benefit and not a harm to the Church. Women may push the boundaries of the (sub)culture without transgressing the terrain Scripture lays out for them.
Reversing the order of how we affirm giftings in the Church and, consequently, the academy, safeguards us from affirming certain giftings over others and allowing unbiblical norms to go undetected in the life of the Church and its scholarship. This practice creates space for all giftings granted by the Spirit to be properly nourished and unleashed for the edification of the body and the advancement of the Kingdom. In both the Church and the Academy, switching models means evangelical women no longer have to check either their gifts or their gender at the door.