Review: Sara Gaston Barton’s “A Woman Called”

A-Woman-Called_mediumWhen I stepped on to the campus of Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas in 1989 as a reserved and very foreign freshman everyone knew senior John Barton and his girlfriend Sara Gaston.  They were a power couple in the best sense of that phrase.  They had impassioned faith evident from their desire to become missionaries in Africa in the years to follow.  Though we have had no acquaintance at all, I have enjoyed Sara Barton’s consistent presence at the Pepperdine Lectures (the lectures are a little slice of heaven alongside the Pacific Ocean in beautiful Malibu, CA).  It was only a matter of time until Sara wrote a book, and now she has written a wonderful one.  Part emotion-driven memoir and part logical, biblically grounded argument, A Woman Called calls the Churches of Christ (and any other denominations like it that practice male-only leadership) to re-examine their stance on the role of women in ministry.

What the “worship wars” so often miss is how ideas affect humans.  It is far easier to exegete passages and roll out tightly reasoned arguments.  Throw in some barbed characterizations and ridiculous fears about what will come next and you can gain an audience.  But far too often the conversation does little more than talk to our head while our hearts are missed entirely.  Barton has done a superb job of bringing the heart back into the picture.  With candid humility but also a disarming show of emotion, Barton reveals what the silencing of women in the Churches of Christ has done to girls and women like her.  She forces us (especially us men privileged to hold positions of leadership) to remember what should be obvious but is too often forgotten: our views on gender impact people.

Barton teaches both religion and composition courses at Rochester College in Rochester, MI.  Her ability to craft beautiful prose and moving stories with plentiful symbolism made A Woman Called a joy to read.  What struck me most is that Sara’s experience as a missionary is precisely what makes this book on women in ministry stand out from others like it.  The immediacy of witness in post-Christian America is tied into this topic like I have never seen before, and who better to discuss contextualizing the Bible than a missionary.  Anyone who understands that issues of gender are of utmost importance in the American church will appreciate this book, regardless of position or background.  For those of us in the unique little tribe called Churches of Christ this book is especially appealing.  Thank you Sara Barton for a thoughtful, provocative read!

As is obvious from the title of the book, Barton argues for the full inclusion of women in all aspects of ministry and leadership in American churches today.  What causes her to think so?  What follows is a summary of her main points as I discovered them.  But please remember that the power of A Woman Called is Sara’s story not her argument.

  • There is within some women a strong sense of calling that is irrepressible and undeniable.  This is the same passion for ministry men have felt for years.  Maybe this is confirmation that the same Spirit is at work in both genders.
  • The body metaphor of 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 says all parts are valuable and irreplaceable.  These passages talk about gifting and ministry not just one’s worth before God.  Thus all people have a role to play and we do damage to say some are unnecessary or less valuable or even barred from the roles to which they are called by God.
  • At least part of what Philippians 2:3 means when it calls us to look to other’s interests is that we have to consider what women called to ministry need, not just our own thoughts and desires.
  • Jesus was asked what really matters in how to live life and relate to each other.  His response was that love is the greatest commandment.  So why have we made gender roles in ministry such a central topic?
  • Women born in the 1960s or later have grown up their entire life with gender equality.  To argue against it creates much dissonance it hinders our ability to reach out to modern women in America.  Yet evangelism is our most important job.
  • There is too much inconsistency with the way the “silencing” passages are handled by those who favor male-only leadership.  They write one verse off as cultural then the very next verse is universal and timeless (i.e., 1 Timothy 2:9-10 compared to 1 Timothy 2:11-12 or 1 Corinthians 14:34 compared to 1 Corinthians 11:5).
  • Men and women were originally created with equality and unity (Genesis 1:27).  Division was a result of the fall, not God’s original intention.  The tearing in two of the veil in the Temple at Christ’s death was God’s symbol that division and inequality (of gender and so many other things) had ended (c.f., Ephesians 2:14 and Galatians 3:26-29).
  • Marriage is supposed to a relationship of mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21) not female-only submission (5:22 taken in isolation).
  • Paul’s instructions to men and women were shaped by the culture in which they were living.  He could not dismantle all of the male dominance of his time as that would make the movement ridiculous and completely undesirable.  Still, Paul did push men to give women (and children and slaves) more respect than was the case in Roman culture.  So using the same principles, we need instructions that consider our equalized culture and shouldn’t have guidelines that make us look ridiculous and completely undesirable.
  • If we look at Jesus’ genealogy (or so many other passages), God has always used unexpected, undesirable, weak people.  God picks those we would not.  The implication is that if we are not expecting God to use women, that is likely exactly who he will use.
  • Turning the Bible into a blueprint or a rule book that is flat, timeless, and decontextualized goes against everything the Bible is.  It is a varied story with many genres that demand many ways of understanding.  Those who silence women because a few proof texts have been interpreted as universal laws transgresses the very nature of Scripture.  God’s ideas must always be recontextualized to our present time and place.
  • 1 Corinthians 14 needs to be understood in context.  The Corinthian church was very disunified and contentious.  Women were not the only people told to be quiet (c.f., 14:26-33).  Women in Corinth were rarely educated,and when they were it was in an informal home based setting.  The Greco-Roman culture, however, expected men to learn in quietness and submission to the speaker.  Questions were asked at home.  Now in the new Christian community as gender differences were being torn down women in the church were likely adding to the chaos by learning in indecorous ways.  All of this was making the Christian community look bad.
  • An important aspect in all of this is love.  If we are right and we pursue and are able to give freedom to women but we do it without love it matters not.  If we oppose something we think is wrong (like gender equality in the church) but do it without love, we are guilty of a worse sin.
  • The woman at the well episode in John 4 shows that worship is about a true open spirit, not social relationships or places or the typical stuff we argue about in churches.
  • We hang on to our traditions because of fear and comfort, not as much because they have been reasoned out or because we passionately believe they are right and something else is wrong.
  • The real “salvation issue” is not gender roles but whether we are standing in the way of other people’s salvation because of our views on gender roles.
  • Our greatest accomplishment in life is to be faithful and obedient to the directions and calling God gives us.  Yet in some churches we keep women from being able to fulfill this.
  • Limiting the service of women simply because they are female — a condition of biology — is just another form of objectification of women because of their bodies.

Lots to think about in this very good book.