Housewives of God,” a recent article by Molly Worthen in The New York Times Magazine, is about a whole lot more than the person it purports to profile. As was the case in another recent exposé (of Al Mohler in Christianity Today), Worthen’s portrait of Priscilla Shirer is as much about Worthen’s attempts to process her subject as it is about that subject’s actual identity and ministry. Anyone who has read G. K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis of Assisi will recognize this tendency of the one telling the story to shape it largely around himself and his own perspectives. In that case, we gain access into a mind full of faith and wit, as Chesterton personally invites us to delight with him in the mysteries of St. Francis’s life. In Worthen’s case, we receive an overlay of revealing questions, as in this article she openly searches for ways to put the pieces of the Shirer puzzle together.

Worthen’s basic question is this: How can a woman both embrace a complementarian view and conduct a public ministry? The assumptions behind Worthen’s question are instructive to consider, especially for those with complementarian views who aim to nurture and affirm the teaching and ministry gifts of women. First, Worthen assumes that a complementarian view involves the oppression of women as beings of lesser value, so that a strong and evidently not oppressed woman involved in a successful teaching ministry must signify some kind of compromise. It certainly might look to critics like “an empowering veneer on the reality of oppression,” Worthen says. But, no, she postulates; these conservative Christians are just trying to:

interpret their holy book in order to make sense of their lived experience. “Biblical womanhood” is a tightrope walk between the fiats of old-time religion and the facts of modern culture, and evangelicals themselves do not know where it might lead.

This first assumption, then, involves a further judgment: not only are the fiats of old-time religion oppressive, but, thankfully, those who affirm them are adjusting them in order to benefit from an enlightened modern world. Worthen turns to a committed egalitarian, Alan Johnson, for explanation, and he gives her just what she needs to make some sense of this “soft patriarchalism,” as he calls it: “They still believe in male rule, but they have softened, compromised with contemporary culture by putting women on par with men.” The judgment? Complementarians must be hypocrites of sorts, in order to allow women “empowerment without upsetting what they see as the biblical order.” They cannot defeat secular feminism, Worthen says, so instead they assimilate it.

The Necessary Foundation for Christians

I will not take time to dispute this assumption and this judgment; many others have done it well. The point here is to recognize how commonly held are the assumption and the judgment, and to note that both ignore the teachings of Scripture as the necessary foundation for Christians’ handling of the issue. Biblically minded believers do not in fact interpret the Bible in order to make sense of their lived experience; rather, they read the Bible in order to learn how to live. They shape their experience according to Scripture, not the other way around. The biblical concepts of women’s and men’s equal value before God and differing roles in marriage and the church indeed hold mystery and tension, as we try to live them out in ever-changing contexts. These truths, however, must shape our lives, if we believe that the Bible is God’s authoritative Word. The Word is at the heart of what puzzles Worthen, who wonders over this “endless effort to divine from first-century documents a clear map for modern life.” Without comment, she quotes Sue Edwards, a complementarian from Dallas Theological Seminary: “I don’t see myself over the Scriptures. I see the Scriptures over me.”

The point must be also to affirm that a strong woman teaching the Bible to other women or managing a large ministry is not necessarily “putting herself on a par with men” as far as her role is concerned. She may be exercising well her God-given gifts in utter submission to her church leaders and, if she is married, to her husband. Strong gifts and the exercising of those gifts can co-exist, actually most fruitfully, with submission. Who understands the complexities of the way submission and strength intermingle in a woman’s life? Indeed, the biblical call to submission is a call to great strength and discipline of soul, by the grace of God in Christ our Lord. The Bible affirms many such paradoxical couplings—of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, for example. The wonder is that we can read the Bible, follow its teachings, and live out mysteries greater than we can as yet grasp.

Caricature of Women’s Ministry

But there’s a second and related assumption that asks to be addressed. Worthen constructs a caricature of women’s ministry and then assumes it to be true. Now, there is some truth to it. The caricature is that the ministry of complementarian women is shallow and emotionally based . . . fluffy, you might say. Worthen points, for example, to “literature ranging from Christian fitness books to Christian romance novels, all produced by and for evangelical women.” On the complementarian front, she quotes many women who talk about enjoying conferences where they can have a good cry, experience outpourings of emotion, and reflect “a feminine heart.” Then she quotes the president of Christians for Biblical Equality, who critiques complementarians for finding their identity in their gender as opposed to their full humanity and their life in Christ. The effect of this carefully sequenced reporting is devastating, in that complementarian women appear concerned only with their womanhood—and concerned in a quite one-dimensional (emotional) way.

I do not aim here to decide if women are more emotional than men! I do know, however, from much experience in women’s ministry, that the caricature of fluffy, purely emotional beings is an unfair and unfitting one for complementarian women in general. There always has been and remains today a strong contingent of serious-minded women who study Scripture deeply, believe its teachings on male pastoral leadership and the headship of a husband within a marriage, and even write books that are more profound than fitness manuals or romance novels. I imagine that Worthen could have selected other quotations as well from among complementarian women—quotations that celebrate not only the joy of being with other women but also the challenge of robust biblical teaching and theological study. And I have some good egalitarian friends who actually do love the fun and even the emotional release of female fellowship! Assumptions based on caricatures do not helpfully advance the conversation.

Perhaps the conversation is most helpfully advanced when both complementarian and egalitarian women focus more and mainly on the counsel of the whole Scriptures and not exclusively on issues relating to women. This is happening, as more and more women are attending seminaries and graduate schools, becoming involved in serious biblical study, and taking advantage of modern technology’s methods of communication via blogs, online courses, and so on. This is happening as women more effectively develop the gift of expounding Scripture to other women—communicating God’s Word so clearly and well that it penetrates the mind and the heart, as it is meant to do, by the power of the Spirit who inspired it.

It’s an important conversation, this one about the place of women and their ministry in the church. It’s one to which many bring huge assumptions; Worthen offers musings and questions that will connect with her readers. It’s one that among believers must be relentlessly shaped by biblical study and thinking. It’s one I’m glad The Gospel Coalition cares to advance, through its 2011 conference and a 2012 women’s conference currently being planned. It’s one that will, by God’s grace, affect not only women but the well-being of the whole church.