A Vision of Persistence

Sally Ride was a physicist who overcame prejudice to become the first American female astronaut in 1983. Ride later co-founded a non-profit to encourage young people to study science, highlighting the importance of providing role models for girls. Ride asserted “Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.”[1]

The truth of that statement resounds for me, though I never wanted to be an astronaut. Instead, I grew up loving the church and wanting to serve God. I reveled in Bible study, attended youth group functions, and helped with children’s classes and church potlucks. I traveled with college singing groups to church camps and youth rallies.

And then I majored in early childhood studies and became a wife, mom, and preschool teacher.

It wasn’t that God hadn’t yet “called” me to ministry – I was serving God in several ways. But all the women I knew were wives, moms, teachers, and (a few) nurses. Until I was 35 years old, I had never seen a woman lead a worship song or prayer. Until I was nearly 50, I had never seen or heard (in person) a woman preach a sermon.

            You can’t be what you can’t see.

My call to ministry followed “a long and winding road.” In addition to mothering, and working for a preschool, I spent several years in sales and recruiting. I was mentored by businesswomen who affirmed my leadership and teaching gifts. People invested in my potential by inviting me to train others and inspired my success in business. But those gifts didn’t seem valuable or needed in my church. It never occurred to me that I might use leadership and teaching gifts to build God’s kingdom – until I’d seen other women using those gifts in a church.

I’d like to think that none of my experience was wasted; each of them served to make me the person I am today. But I’m still a little sad that my calling was delayed – by circumstance, by an attitude, by a lack of vision of what could be. At the time, I didn’t think of myself as being silenced or marginalized. The priority of men in church leadership was simply ingrained in my DNA. It was all I’d ever known or seen. But it limited me, just the same.

Maybe that’s why the story of Elizabeth Warren being silenced on the Senate floor in February 2017 struck me so deeply. As I re-read reports of that week’s political news and remembered again my own sense of injustice at that event, I realized that the words used to explain her censure described decades of my own experience as well. [2]

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned

When I told others about my call to full-time ministry, some warned that I was just being influenced by feminism. Even though women now serve as CEOs and Senate leaders, the church is different. Women have limited roles, you need to stay in your place. I was happy as a wife and mom and I also enjoyed using my gifts of leadership and teaching in my sales business. But I grew incredulous that God would only want those gifts used to improve my family’s finances. Was my only purpose in life selling people “stuff”?

Others warned that I was influenced by a desire for power. Oh, you want to be a pastor so you can be in charge. You just want to take over the church with your own agenda.  Patriarchal bias and a misunderstanding of church leadership are so evident in these statements. When boys grow up serving the church it’s often assumed they will want to be ministers. So why is a woman’s motive questioned? Biblical ministry is not about personal power, “being in charge,” or organizational control.[3] Instead, it’s about using one’s God-given gifts to benefit the “common good.”[4]

She was given an explanation.

Others, rather than provide warnings about my motives, have instead given an explanation of why I cannot lead in ministry. Most explanations focus on two select texts colored by centuries of traditional bias.[5] Many quote the texts in question without providing any historical context or theological commitments behind the phrases. But both these texts are from letters – one to a church and one to a younger minister, dealing with specific problems. Both texts presume on the letter’s recipient having far more “background information” than any modern reader can. Both passages have significant textual variations which at the very least point out the need for humility rather than confidence regarding “what the text says.”[6]

While we sometimes downplay its impact, our worldview always influences how we read scripture. Many explanations of why women should not lead and teach are given with black and white assumptions instead of acknowledging the grayscale reality of how God works in different places and times, through diverse men and women. Some have even limited their explanations to Twitter’s 140 characters![7] But these explanations have not satisfied my curiosity or swayed me from my calling.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Interestingly, scripture itself convinced me of the importance of Biblical equality for women and men in ministry.  My theology about women was well-formed before I read any feminist theory. My commitment to the Biblical text led me to several realities that push back against those two limiting passages. One is the many examples of women who have served God’s purposes throughout history.[8] Another is the importance of all Christ-followers serving as priests.

For example, God prepares “works in advance for each of us” to do, “so that the body of Christ is built up” (Eph 2:10, 4:12). The Spirit distributes gifts to each one of us “for the common good” (1 Cor 12). God is the one who gives “different gifts,” but makes us “one body” (Rom 12). All of us are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood” who should “use [our] gifts to serve others” (1 Pet 2:9. 4:10). In these texts alone, more than 50 verses that remind us God is the one who gives these gifts for the good of the kingdom. Yet in none of these texts does God limit who might receive or use a gift based on gender. God doesn’t make mistakes when distributing these gifts. If the Holy Spirit has gifted someone to lead or teach or preach – God intends for those gifts to be used for God’s glory, and for the expansion of God’s kingdom.

Since this is true, I am empowered to persist because I want others to know Jesus. The Biblical story from beginning to end shows movement away from the fall’s curse – new life in Christ, freedom from sin, flourishing in relationships. God’s priority throughout scripture is that the life-giving gospel is proclaimed so that people might be saved.[9] We are called to participate in God’s kingdom work and live as people free from oppression who care for others and seek their well-being above our own.

I also persist because young girls – and other women – need to see “someone who looks like them” serving as a minister. They need to physically, visually see other women “doing whatever careers they might like to do someday.” They need to see it in their minds, as mentors speak value and vision into their lives. They need to see it in their future and recognize their own potential as they move toward that future. They need to believe it before they can achieve it.

            Because you can’t be what you can’t see.


[1] Quoted by Chelsea Clinton in She Persisted: 13 American Women who Changed the World (New York: Philomel Books, 2017). 22.

[2] One take on those proceedings is here: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/02/nevertheless-she-persisted-and-the-age-of-the-weaponized-meme/516012/

[3] For example, see Matt 9:35-38, Mark 10:35-45, Luke 4:16-21, Acts 3:6-10, Rom 16, 1 Cor 9:18-20, Phil 2:1-4, 1 Timothy 3, Heb 11:36-40.

[4] 1 Cor 12:7.

[5] 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:11-12

[6] Both Philip B. Payne, Men and Women in Christ (2009) and Cynthia L Westfall, Paul and Gender (2017) provide excellent bibliographies for further reading on the variety of textual and translation issues with these texts.

[7] One such thread: https://www.cbeinternational.org/blogs/practice-discomfort-centering-womens-pain-church?platform=hootsuite

[8] Deborah, Huldah, Esther, Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman at the well, Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla, and Lydia all come to mind, to name just a few.

[9] Note Jesus’ priorities in Matt 9:12-13, Luke 4:42-43, Luke 19:10, Luke 22:42, John 4:34, Paul’s priorities in Rom 15:15-16 and 1 Cor 9:19-23, and God’s priorities in 1 Tim 2:3-4 and 4:15-16.

Published by

Dawn Gentry

College Prof, Ministry Equipper, Conference Speaker, Mom and Nana

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