Can women and men both lead - or are they designed for different roles? This is the question that Katia Adams, co-director of mentoring ministry Frequentsee, attempts to answer in her new book, Equal, published by David C Cook.
By her own admission, it's not the easiest of topics to take on. But it's one she's passionate about because of how important it is for the Church.
She speaks to Christian Today about what she believes God's design is for gender roles and why this is so crucial not only for the Church, but its impact on the world.
CT: You write very honestly in the book that you didn't actually want to write it and that those who enter into a dialogue on gender roles may get their fingers burnt. How challenging have you found it to dig into this issue?
Katia: This is a mission that has required courage, not only in terms of writing this book but also in my preaching on this subject. I've had a little bit of negative response, which is to be expected, and to some extent, yes, I have had my fingers burnt, which is honestly a bit sad because I am open to dialogue. I think that's what we need; dialogue around this issue.
It must sadden the heart of God when as Christians we bulldoze one another or pick at one another in a dishonouring way, because I think His mandate over us is to love one another more than it is to prove our theological positions. I know I've not always got this right in the journey - but am trusting Him as I keep engaging on this subject to help me reflect His love even in the midst of challenging debate.
CT: The debate about gender roles has been with us for some time. What motivated you to write the book? What was it you felt you wanted to speak into this debate?
Katia: I read a book called Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, about how women are the most oppressed people on the planet today. That really mobilised me into action because for a long while I think I had been fighting God's prompting to write my book because I was comfortable in my egalitarian circles. My world was very safe in this regard.
When I read Half the Sky, it woke me up to the reality of what is going on all over the world and gave me the sense of God saying, 'What are you going to do about it? In your generation, this is happening.'
It was really a sense of God inviting me into the privilege of lending my voice to a crucial conversation, recognising that the world is incredibly broken and until Christian men and women stand up and address this issue, both within and outside of the Church, there's not going to be a resolution of the repression of women all over the world.
The second thing that motivated me to write this book was that I had read lots and lots of books from incredible theologians on the subject of gender roles but had never come across one that gave a complete picture that didn't feel like a reference work.
I wanted to write the book that I wish I had been able to read on this subject, a one stop shop covering every aspect of the debate and all of the important themes, but with enough heart to be interesting, readable and not leave the reader feeling like they were wading through academic research.
It was important to me that the book could balance having enough research to make it trustworthy, whilst being something that the average Christian could enjoy reading and not feel like they needed to read another 10 books on the subject to reach a conclusion.
CT: You talk in your book about how Jesus broke glass ceilings. Having been in Christian ministry in one form or another for 20 years, have you ever personally felt a glass ceiling in church?
Katia: Yes definitely - I think that would be true for most women who feel a call to church leadership. Often there has been this understanding that there is a limit to how far I could take things or how far I could lead; an agreement of sorts that I could only lead until something became really fruitful and then I would have to hand over to a male elder simply because of my gender. That was by far the most common glass ceiling I encountered.
Having said that, I've been so blessed by having godly and kind leaders in every church I've been in. I love to honour these leaders - even those from more complementarian schools of thought - as they gave me as much freedom as their consciences would allow - and it was a lot of freedom in most of the contexts I was in.
It is because of these leaders, and the grace of God, that I've been mentored and trained up and invested in to do what I'm doing today. I am grateful for everyone of them.
CT: You write in your book that it's not only crucial for women to understand their roles but for men to understand the role of women too. Why is that?
Katia: When you look at the book of Genesis you see Adam and Eve given a mandate to lead together. As the Church, we are the redeemed version of Adam and Eve following in their footsteps. The mandate given to them to be fruitful, multiply, rule over the earth and subdue it so that His glory will cover everything is now upon us.
I have a deep conviction that conversations around gender roles are not simply for the women amongst us or limited to women's ministry issues. But it's crucial for both men and women to engage with because for men, the mandate that is on their lives is impossible for them to fulfil without their equal counterparts in women.
Men have a vested interest in women standing up and understanding who they're made to be and see those glass ceilings broken so that women can come into the realisation of the authority that God has given them.
For women, it's essential that men understand the destiny and authority God has given them so that men and women being the perfect counterpart to each other will together come and fulfil what has always been a man-woman mandate to rule over and subdue the earth.
That's why I have such a passion to see this subject engaged with not only by women who are a bit dissatisfied with their current circumstances, but rather the whole body. The whole body needs to recognise that this is an issue for both men and women because if women don't know who they are, they won't step into their full destiny and that will mean that men can't step into their full destiny either.
That's one of the reasons I think the Devil has a vested interest in this conversation. It's his plan to consistently incapacitate the body of Christ and this is the clever way to do it. Tell women they have no authority so that they won't fulfil their destiny. Rob women of their destiny and at the same time, the men of theirs also. That's why this is such an important topic for us to get right.
CT: You delve into a lot of Scripture and Paul is of course a big part of this debate. How do you think the Church can engage with these difficult passages in a way that can move the conversation forward and perhaps bring the two sides closer together?
Katia: I would urge us to apply two very important lenses as we look into Scriptures.
The first is the lens of context. For a long time, people have championed a plain reading of Scripture, which basically means that we take the English words at face value in an effort not to twist the meaning. The problem is if you take the words too much at face value and don't apply the key contexts that give those words meaning, then you are actually just as susceptible to twisting the meaning!
It's really important that we look through the lens of context because Paul's words need that in order for us to understand what he's talking about and what his intention was.
The second thing is to understand that Bible scholars recommend that we allow the uncomplicated passages to decipher the complicated passages and not the other way around.
We do that for most theological concepts in the Bible across a range of topics and that's how we come to understand what these complicated passages mean. Unfortunately, with the passages on women that's not what's been done.
There's been a lot of focus on passages like 1 Corinthians chapters 11 and 14, and they are some of the most debated passages not only because they talk about women but because of the confusing theological concepts and phraseology that Paul uses in both of them. It's for this reason that neither of these chapters is good to apply as a lens to look at any other Scripture on gender roles.
Then there's the focus on 1 Timothy 2, which is debated not only because it talks about women but because Paul says things like women will be saved through childbirth. Statements like this should make us very careful in approaching the whole passage and act as a kind of 'health warning' to the rest of what it has to say. It's an indicator that it's a difficult passage to decipher and there are things that Paul says that if we only take at face value will actually lead us into considerable heresy.
I would encourage the Church to recognise what scholars have known for many many years, which is that if we use complex passages as our foundation to see uncomplex passages we'll get ourselves in trouble. But if we do it the other way round, this will help us decipher a few of the complicated passages a bit better.
CT: You argue that we're a little bit guilty of reading some of the Gospels through 21st century lenses. Do you feel like sometimes we read things into Scripture that just weren't there at the time?
Katia: All the time! There's no one exempt from this and no one who reads the Bible absolutely perfectly. But I think when we read Jesus' interactions with women in the Gospels and we say, 'well, he was kind but he wasn't necessarily radical or giving them position,' that just shows that we haven't understood Jewish culture at the time of Jesus.
It was deeply misogynistic; women were nobody and nothing, and it was really a deeply broken society for women. Some rabbis at this time even believed it was shameful to teach daughters theology because women were not to be trusted. In court, the word of a woman could not be used.
When you look through the lens of the culture at the time and then see Jesus in John 4 speaking to the Samaritan woman and teaching her theology, it blew through the social norms of the day. He was not patronising her, He was not just being kind to her; He was treating her as an equal in debating theology with her. That's quite something.
Similarly, when we read about Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus and look at that through 21st century eyes, we think that it's Mary's proximity to Jesus that is being spoken of, but when we understand it through the lens of ancient culture, we recognise that someone sitting at the feet of a teacher was about taking the posture of a disciple, which makes it all the more radical that Jesus would allow her to do it.
We all have these 21st century lenses but it's important for us to be aware of them and to work as hard as we can to understand ancient culture so that we can put ourselves in the culture of the time that the Scripture was written in.
CT: It's interesting that this debate in the Church runs parallel to those happening in wider society around things like #MeToo and gender pay gaps, and in your book, you actually frame the Church debate around gender roles with a sense of urgency by arguing that the longer it takes to settle this dispute, the longer that women in the wider world must continue to suffer. Are you hopeful we might find some resolution on this matter in our lifetimes?
Katia: Yes, I'm definitely hopeful. As audacious as this sounds, I really do believe that this will be resolved in this generation because I believe that this is the heart of God for this generation and that God is stirring this conversation up both within the Church and within the secular world for a reason. I think that this is all being brought to the surface because He is calling time on it.
There's a tragedy at play when the world leads conversations about freedom louder than the Church does and when the world starts leading conversations about breaking oppression louder than the Church is doing. At that point I feel the Church has lost its privilege to lead conversations that will bring life to the world.
And so I do believe that this is an invitation moment from God to the Church where he is reminding us of our mandate to rule, influence, shape and transform everything around us both within and outside of the Church.
I also believe that He's calling us as the Church to clarify what we think so that we can use our voices clearly and powerfully to start dealing with the issue of oppression of women and to start speaking biblical equality across the board.
I think part of the reason there is such oppression of women in the world is because the Church hasn't done this well; it hasn't used its voice adequately to speak freedom, to speak hope, to speak value and to speak authority over women.
There are more conservative schools of thought that talk about how women have equal value but in the same breath say that women have less authority and fewer opportunities. All the world hears from that message - and many Christians - is that women are somehow less than men. And so I think that at this point, at this juncture, God is inviting us as His body to rethink this whole conversation so that we can bring a sense of freedom and hope, and ultimately break the back of oppression over women.