I read this book with fear and trembling.
Sarah Sumner is the chair of the department of ministry and associate professor of ministry and theology in the Haggard School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, Calif.
She was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She was teaching assistant to Carl F. H. Henry. She served on staff at Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago. She describes herself at various points in the book as “a woman,” “a woman theologian,” “a typical evangelical,” “a conservative Christian” and “not a feminist.”
Given that background, I expected Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership to be just another proof-texting of the argument that women must be submissive to men and serve as second-class citizens in the kingdom of God.
I was pleasantly surprised. This is an honest attempt to unravel what has become a most divisive subject. “The debate on women in ministry has been improperly reduced to a debate about roles,” Sumner observes. “The church has not yet learned how to relate to Christian women who, in light of their ministry calling, have chosen to walk an unconventional path.”
Sumner outlines 12 major assertions on how to build consensus on Christian leadership, regardless of gender. They are built on a foundation of scriptural references and sound biblical scholarship. Her bottom line, however, is a call to repentance (for arrogance and prejudice) and mutual trust.
While church tradition has sometimes sent the message that women are inferior to men, Sumner says, Christianity and the Bible do not. One can affirm women as leaders in the church without becoming a radical feminist. She contrasts sexism, which is about the power people project upon the genders and roles, with Christianity, which she heavily emphasizes is about the power of Christ.
Sumner identifies two schools of thought among conservative evangelicals in the debate over gender. “Complimentarian” thought, a mixture of biblical inerrancy and traditionalism, teaches that most leadership roles in the church should be filled only by males. “Egalitarian” thought, based on a more lax view of Scripture, holds that ministry roles are interchangeable for men and women who are suitably gifted.
Sumner enters the fray with a warning: “Traditional Christian thinking is not the same thing as biblical thinking about women,” she says. “It is critical for Christians to embrace church tradition, but not when it is unbiblical.”
Sumner takes pretty much everyone to task. She argues with both the liberal feminists and the fundamentalist chauvinists. She decries a 1988 Southern Baptist Convention resolution on the family as less than biblical and having several major omissions. Ultimately, she chastises both sides for trying to demystify God’s creative ability for both men and women.
Sumner gives an honest appraisal of the issues. She leaves no part of this issue unexamined. Part one of the book examines the myriad issues of men and women in the church and as Christians. She devotes entire chapters to Matthew 18 and 1 Timothy 2 and three chapters to the creation stories. The book’s second part proposes ways to build consensus on Christian leadership.
Ultimately, she suggests, the issue has far more to do with the church’s view of women than with the church’s view of ordination. Most women in the church aren’t asking to be ordained but are simply asking for respect. Sumner calls on everyone, regardless of theological orientation, to repent, to love one another, and to build relationships that elevate concern for one another above themselves.
Bo Prosser is coordinator for congregational life for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Atlanta.
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