Co-Laborers, Co-Heirs

Article by   June 2019

Review of Co-Laborers, Co-Heirs
A Family Conversation
Edited by Brittany Smith and Doug Serven
White Blackbird Books, 2019
301 pp.

Occasionally, a family calls a council at which members express critiques of family interactions, rules and priorities. In my family, the meeting often revolves around the same few contentious topics. Our family rules are set, but we also desire for each member to know that their insights can make a real difference. In the end, the rules don't usually change, but we adjust certain applications based on their input. Co-Laborers, Co-Heirs  is such a family meeting. 

Alexander Jun, Moderator of the 45th  General Assembly for the PCA prefaces the book: 

"My sisters in Christ have called for a denominational family meeting to discuss some critical questions in our churches (...)" Brittany Smith, one of the editors and contributors, introduces the book with the need for a strong apologetic: "And if we want to have a strong apologetic for why we consider it biblical to continue to have male-only eldership, we need not only the willingness to attempt to thoughtfully articulate our beliefs (...), but also a willingness to root out latent misogyny in the church." (p.XIV)

The family meeting starts with the stories of sisters in PCA churches, learning from their perspectives, and wrapping it up with statements from our fathers and brothers. A variety of female voices of different racial backgrounds contribute: married and single, professionals and homemakers. They are well-spoken, theologically astute sisters, who, for the most part (a little snark included!) write in a gracious tone, despite reporting hurtful experiences. Pastors who have wrestled through the issues add their stories, coming to their own conclusions and applications. If there is anything afoul in our churches we should not be afraid to assess it, address it and redress it.

Sisters tell sad stories of observing very poor counseling or protection from abuse. Some women feel judged for their career choices or marital status. Women with teaching gifts struggle to fit in, while others feel their role in worship is limited. Some feel their gifts are ignored, their questions are threatening, their interest in theology is suspect. These reports are disheartening! The book also contains a few encouraging stories of women who feel respected, cared for and very much at home in the PCA.

Co-Laborers, Co-Heirs is a clarion call to pastors to examine whether they deliberately see, love, serve, encourage, and train the women in their congregations, as well as think creatively about utilizing their gifts for the edification of the body. One of the negative examples given reveals a restrictive approach to women in the church that borders on spiritual abuse: "'Are you really saying that women may not teach the Bible, even to other women?' (...) 'Yes. All teaching must be done by the pastors. The women should restrict their teaching to the application of the doctrines.' "(238) If this is true, this brother is prohibiting women from doing something the Scriptures expressly commands in Titus 2.

I find the family model a helpful theological framework onto which to hang gender relations in the church. "If we are the family of God (...), then surely how we treat women in our family is just as important as making sure that our church order is proper and that we ensure that only men are teaching and ruling elders. In fact, if we love to call each other "fathers and brothers," then we should also delight to call the women in our churches "mothers and sisters." (254) The testimonies by men expressing humility and willing to recognize their own blind spots are moving as well. "Most of the difficulties I have had (...) have not been resolved by clarifying roles. They have been resolved by my repenting of my male hubris and disrespect for women." (283) There is also the recognition that "Not all complementarians are out to grab or preserve male authority and patriarchy. In fact, most are not. Most (...) see themselves as men and women who are under authority." (290-291) There is no shame in recognizing that we, as a denominational family, can continue to grow in love toward one another.

From an editorial standpoint, it is always difficult for a multi-authored work not to feel too choppy. Some contributions, though interesting, don't seem to quite fit the topic at hand and some were adapted for this book. Understandably, multiple authors discuss the meaning of ezer/helper, for example, leading to some repetition for the reader.

The lack of clear definitions can be frustrating. What is meant by "leadership", "ministry", "feminism", "pastor", "patriarchy", "privilege", etc.? The struggle over language is not just the reader's. One pastor who has hired a woman admits: "Another ongoing tension has to do with language: What do we call her? Debbie is a pastor; she pastors people. In many ways she is a better pastor than I am (...) there are real distinctions between what she does and what I do. But still, there is something of an awkward tension in my own heart about titles." (195) A family needs to share common language. Most of us in the PCA would probably be shocked to hear of a sister church hiring a woman pastor. Words are important because they communicate implied realities. The fact that there is a lot of one-anothering across gender lines in churches does not mean that every person who ministers to another is a "pastor". The Apostle Paul nowhere forbids women from caring for others, including men in the church, but he does forbid them having an authoritative overseer function. If we said Debbie is "pastoral" with a lower-case p, we understand, but if Debbie is functioning as an elder, this would be problematic in our PCA context. Our language needs to match our realities more closely.

The term "sexual minorities," (182) for example, is also confusing. SSA Christians may well be in the minority, but this does not give them special status based on sinful tendencies. Whether intentional or not, the book provides no correctives to terminology. In fact, it seems to be leaning in the direction of defining women's experiences in terms of intersectionality, meaning the more strikes there are against someone, the more likely that person is to be oppressed in the PCA. Naturally, we should deal with injustice or gracelessness in our hearts and in our churches, but what paucity is ours if we cling to our hurt or even our sinful tendencies as germane to our identity instead of who we are in Christ!

Some troubling points are the less than gracious accusations made against specific PCA brothers who feel strongly about guarding our doctrine. It is said that they don't want to revisit the issue because they fear a slippery slope into liberalism. These men may have a valid point when one considers the direction of other denominations that have abandoned the biblical teaching on gender altogether. Said elders would probably explain in their own defense that the family rules have already been established in our creeds and confessions and hence do not need constant revisiting. Are our elders not called to guard the precious apostolic deposit of the church? Do we not need them to bring correctives to our young women growing up with worldviews radically opposed to the Bible, some of which are evident in this book? They are constantly hearing that there is nothing they cannot do, that personal choice and autonomy, sexual preference, career and equal rights are the highest values to pursue. We need our elders to help us recalibrate our hearts and minds to the Word of God!

Even the topic of inerrancy seems to be framed negatively, as part of the historical analysis for why the PCA disallows women's ordination: "This link between disallowing the ordination of women and belief in Scripture's inerrancy is highly significant. It excludes the possibility of variation in interpretation of Scripture, at least in relation to passages on the role of women in the Church. (...) to prevent women from being ordained is to respect biblical principles, thereby maintaining the centrality of Scripture's inerrancy. (161) This is a true statement, but unfortunately, it could be perceived to mean: "If we could only toss inerrancy, we could finally reinterpret the Bible to allow women's ordination." (Forgive me, sister, if I'm completely misunderstanding your intent). Why not formulate what we believe positively?

What is positively formulated throughout the book, is a compelling apologetic for working together and respecting one another as brothers and sisters in the family of God. What is missing for me as a complementarian female reader, however, is a clear, no-nonsense, exposition of why God's creational authority structures in marriage and in the church are very good, and how they are a testimony to the Gospel itself. This is what the younger generation of women will need to make sense of and integrate their femaleness into God's grand story of redemption. There is a repetitive, positive focus on being an ezer, Eve's task at Adam's side, but hardly even a mention of the obvious main way the woman is called to help, namely by being chavvah, a life-giver, which is essential to Eve's unique creational identity. I experienced a great deal of sadness of a different sort when I read statements such as "We are smart. We're scholars. We're teachers (...) But don't relegate us to the nursery and the Women's Committee" (301). Relegate? Does teaching only qualify as good when men are in the room? Let's be careful not to become "sexist" and "ageist" and throw our own babies out with the bathwater of our past frustrations with the church! This aspect of woman's Imago Spiritus (her being made in the image of the Lord and Giver of life), though not strictly confined to biology, remains central to God's creational intent. What a missed opportunity!

Regardless of the critique I have raised about certain aspects of this book, I recommend it to you. Listen to your sisters in the PCA, mourn the sins committed against them. Interact critically with the ideas being discussed in the denomination, even if you fall on the other side of the family discussion. I believe that we will remain a complementarian family. Some will want to preserve doctrine carefully, others might want to push Christian freedom. At the end of the day, even our most progressive churches will not go far enough for those who cannot agree to the limitations placed on women drawn from the Scriptures, however positively the message is packaged.

Eowyn Jones Stoddard lives in Berlin, Germany. She studied biblical studies at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA and studied at Westminster Seminary in California.


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