Soldier On! W/ Leroy Garrett
Occasional Essay 290 (10-3-09)
A New Gender-Inclusive Church of Christ
A NEW GENDER-INCLUSIVE CHURCH OF CHRIST
It actually bills itself as a new church planting that is a “multi-racial, multi-cultural and gender-inclusive Church of Christ.” The new church is, surprisingly, in Abilene, Texas, which, as the home of Abilene Christian University and thirty-four Churches of Christ, along with numerous para-church organizations, could claim to be the epi-center for Churches of Christ, at least in Texas. One would think that a “new start” -- a chance to get it right -- would be in a less Churches of Christ-saturated location.
But maybe not. The new church could serve as avant garde for the other Churches of Christ in Abilene, some of which might have the heart to go the whole nine yards -- multi-racial, multi-cultural, and gender-inclusive. They might want to be shown how to pull off such a monumental change. As of now it is likely the case that on any given Sunday one would not find a woman in the pulpit of any of the thirty-four churches. Nor are they all that multi- racial or multi-cultural. It is just possible, therefore, that such a church, particularly a gender-inclusive one -- if this means women in the pulpit -- could receive a cool reception, even in Abilene, something like the proverbial skunk at a garden party.
But we extend a hearty welcome to the Mercy Street Church of Christ in Abilene. That’s what they call it, but that is misleading, for there is no Mercy Street in Abilene. It must be a “mission” name, pointing to the kind of church it intends to be -- “lot of love and vitality, depth and emotion, grace and humanity,” as they describe themselves, and that spells mercy.
The new church presently meets in the home of Stan and Lorrie Baldwin, who are its founders and leaders. Old enough to be grandparents, Stan and Lorrie have for decades soldiered on in being a blessing to the world and church alike. While Lorrie has been in medical ministry, Stan, who did his college work at Oklahoma University and holds graduate degrees from ACU and Yale, has been in the Air Force and has served several Churches of Christ as minister. Now apparently retired, they are starting a new kind of Church of Christ, one with a special passion -- “gender justice” they call it.
I am impressed. They are not mad at anyone. It is not a walk-out church, nor a schism or a faction from some other congregation, the way so many churches start. They are not out to proselyte but to be a witness for renewal. I like the way they describe their services: “men and women participate equally,” and the way they welcome speakers -- “preachers who happen to be women.” That must be a “first” in Churches of Christ history!
Bully for Mercy Street in Abilene! They are reformers, and reformation is the ongoing work of the church catholic -- Ecclesia Semper Reformanda, the church always reforming. And it is a founding principle of our own Stone-Campbell heritage. It is appropriate for any congregation or any part of the church at large to take as its mission a particular dimension of reformation. Some may work for greater evangelistic zeal, others for deeper spirituality, others for more concern for human suffering, and still others for Christian unity. There is a place for movements within the church, and a movement for equality of women is most appropriate.
Mercy Street in Abilene can lovingly and non-judgmentally bring home to us the profundity of our sin of male-domination in Churches of Christ. Yes, injustice to our sisters in Christ, denying them equality in exercising their God-given talents. It begins early on. Little boys can pass out cards in church but not little girls. A teenage boy can read Scripture or serve Communion but not teenage girls. Have you ever considered how that might affect our girls growing up among us?
While Mercy Street may be the “first” among us to start with the express purpose of welcoming preachers “who happen to be women,” it by no means stands alone in its concern for this problem. For some years now we have had numerous congregations to broaden their ministry for women. While they are not yet in the pulpit, they serve on the ministerial staff in various ways.
Occasionally some brave sister ventures into the pulpit at the invitation of some avant garde congregation, such as when the Bering Drive Church of Christ in Houston invited Charme Robarts, who is on the ministerial staff at Skillman Church of Christ in Dallas, to be guest preacher. In introducing Charme to the congregation on that occasion, Brent Isbell, minister at Bering Drive, said that she had not been invited to their pulpit to make some point, "but simply because we want to be the kind of community where all faithful voices are welcomed and honored." And he noted that it was biblically warranted in that Joel 3 had promised that one day “your daughters shall prophesy,” a promise fulfilled in Acts 2 on the birthday of the church.
One would think that this significant passage, cited in both Testaments, should, along with other passages that point to female ministry in the apostolic church, should receive as much attention as the passage that serves as the prooftext for those who oppose a public ministry for women, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for it is not permitted for them to speak” (1 Corinthians 14:34).
I have often pointed out that in the case of such conflicting passages, we have to distinguish between what is culturally circumstantial and temporal, and what is universally applicable and permanent. And what could be more abiding than the apostle’s insistence in Galatians 3:28 that “in Christ” there is to be no gender test just as there is to be no racial test -- “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female.”
While this was a “first” -- a woman preacher in the pulpit -- for both Charme and the Bering Drive congregation, we can believe that it will one day be common among us, accepted as right and proper. We are, after all, a people in transition, becoming more like Christ, more biblically responsible, more Spirit-filled and grace-oriented, less sectarian and less discriminatory. Our future as Churches of Christ is as bright as the promises of God.