Feature

Making Room

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I was raised in a small town in Kansas by parents who each played traditional roles in the household. However, my mother was fairly vocal about her conviction that women should not be limited by their gender, and I never heard my father disagree with that sentiment. I was also raised in a denomination and local church where roles were not limited to particular genders, at least officially. Both men and women served in leadership and preached from the pulpit.

When my mother asked me during my high school years what career I wanted to pursue, I said, “Teaching or nursing.” She responded that either of those would be honorable professions, but she didn’t want me to believe that because I was female, those were the only options available to me.

While I had been raised in a family and church that made room for women to serve, my college years changed my perspective. It was a time of exponential spiritual growth for me. I went to a large state university and became very involved in a campus ministry and a local church of a different denomination than the one I grew up in. I knew that the people from the campus ministry and the church who were speaking into my life at that time were passionate about Jesus and sincerely cared about me.

However, I also quickly learned that they held to an interpretation of the Scriptures that yielded a significantly restricted view of women’s roles in the church and home. After only a few questions, and without honest examination of the different interpretations of Scripture, I accepted this view and attempted to live by it. With my degree in occupational therapy (OT) in hand, I moved to Pennsylvania and began practicing OT.

Challenged

That is when I first began attending a Christian and Missionary Alliance church and began serving as a volunteer in the youth ministry. My pastor stopped me at the door one day and said, “Jen, you already think like a church staff member. Have you ever considered vocational ministry?” The answer was yes. Soon I became accredited and provisionally licensed by the district and was working part time at the church in addition to my full-time job in health care.

Ministry was going well, but I was uncomfortable at times with what I was doing at the church, concerned that it violated the restrictions on women that I had been taught were biblical. As the leader of the youth ministry, I asked, “When does a boy become a man? Is it wrong for me to be leading the boys in this youth group? Is it wrong for me to be leading the co-ed team of adults who make up this youth ministry team?”

One particular crisis came when the lead pastor asked me to teach a Sunday school class with high school students and their parents. Periodically, we would combine the classes and co-teach. One Sunday, he was going to be unavailable, and he asked me to teach the combined class on the topic of “Sex and the Bible.” That was my first experience teaching co-ed adults on my own, and I was sweating bullets for multiple reasons. My pastor was making room for me in ministry before I even wanted it.

Meanwhile, in my health-care job, there was a part-time nurse on our staff who was also employed leading a co-ed ministry for people of all ages. Even though she was one of the kindest, gentlest, and most compassionate people I had ever met, I judged her because she was violating the restrictions on women that I thought were biblical.

One day I challenged her on this. She listened patiently and then she kindly explained what was happening in her ministry. People were placing their faith in Christ. Individuals were being freed from addictions. Spouses were being reconciled. There was no denying that the Holy Spirit by His presence and activity was endorsing what was happening in this community. And she looked at me and said, “What do we do with that?”

This prompted a crisis for me, because I didn’t have room in my theology or doctrine for God to use a woman in that way. I thought He didn’t approve. And yet He was blessing this woman’s ministry in ways I could not ignore. This encouraged me to start asking the questions that I should have asked back in college, examining the Scriptures and the different interpretations and applications more closely.

Becoming a Path-Maker

After several years of study, I returned to a view much more in line with the one I was raised with, except now I understand the biblical foundations of that view. (And many years after the fact, I wrote a letter of apology and appreciation to that nurse.) While I was still making room in my theology and doctrine for women, others were making room for me in ministry.

By that point I was employed full time at the church in Pennsylvania, and the elders encouraged me to take a preaching class offered by the Alliance Theological Seminary extension with Dr. David Rambo. In fact, they not only encouraged me, but they also gave me paid time off to take this one-week intensive and paid the tuition.

I was terrified. I contacted the assistant district superintendent, hoping that he would tell me that I did not meet the prerequisites for the class. It was an 800-level class called “Renewing Your Preaching for the 21st Century.” I had never taken any preaching class, and I had no preaching to renew! To my horror, the assistant district superintendent urged me to take the class. I showed up trembling in my boots: the only woman, the youngest student, and the person with the least amount of formal training or ministry experience. But Dr. Rambo made room for me in that class and affirmed me in ways that have affected the course of my life.

Eventually, I moved to Nyack, New York, to finish my graduate degree at Alliance Theological Seminary. Later, I moved to Maryland to join the staff of a C&MA church and completed the consecration process. Along the way, God positioned people at key points who were willing to make room for me: pastors and elders who empowered me to lead teams and initiatives; two successive lead pastors willing to share the pulpit with me; a district conference electing me to the District Executive Committee for successive terms. Like anyone in ministry, some days are about routine faithfulness, and other days the Holy Spirit’s presence and activity are undeniably advancing the Kingdom in our midst. Glory to God!

However, for every story of someone making room for me, or at least allowing me to make room for myself, I have a story of being denied or marginalized. I and some who have made room for me have paid a price. These days I am especially aware of the opportunities I have to make room for others in the conversation, in the church, and most importantly in the Kingdom.
I want to be a path-maker for others who may be denied or marginalized because of gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or age. The gospel of Jesus is for all, and we are more likely to accomplish the mission of Jesus when all of us are operating according to our God-given gifts and callings. Let us make room.

A Word From Terry Smith

What makes The Alliance wonderful sometimes makes us uncomfortable. Although we refer to ourselves as being a “big tent” movement, when it comes to foundational theological issues, there is absolutely no elbow room in The Alliance. We cling tightly to our belief in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the atoning death and bodily Resurrection of Jesus, Jesus as the only way to salvation, and the inerrancy and authority of Scripture. And we hold firmly to our deep biblical convictions regarding marriage and human sexuality.

Those who cannot subscribe to these foundational beliefs cannot be official workers in The Alliance. However, when it comes to doctrinal issues of lesser importance, we have always given plenty of elbow room for different interpretations of Scripture. Even on something as important as the nature of salvation, we have those who embrace a Calvinist view, others who take a Wesleyan-Arminian view, and still others who claim to be in neither camp. Hearing a debate over pre-, mid-, or post-tribulation rapture is not rare in a Licensing, Ordination, and Consecration Council meeting—and the disagreement is often among the Council members.

I think most of us appreciate this about The Alliance. In fact, I suppose it is part of the reasoning behind our name—The Alliance. We’re an alliance of Christ followers who join together in unity around the centrality of Jesus Christ as Savior, Sanctifier, Healer, and Coming King for the purpose of fulfilling His mission—even though we don’t dot every theological “i” and cross every doctrinal “t” the same way.

Yet when certain conversations surface in The Alliance because of our diverse makeup, we may start to squirm. We’ve always had a broad range of views on women in ministry. From the beginning, women have been allowed to preach in mixed-gender gatherings in The Alliance, but we’ve always been committed to male elder authority—not necessarily a common combination.

In The Alliance, our tent is big enough that we have people and workers from many backgrounds. It’s little wonder that we have folks among us who interpret key passages on this issue differently, who arrive at their own deep convictions that might disagree with some of their Alliance brothers and sisters. Similar observations could be made about those who may lean toward one millennial view or the other.

Amid divergent views on these subjects, it becomes easy for us to villainize those who don’t see things our way. We might conclude that their view of scriptural authority is eroding. That is where we should exercise what John Stumbo has referred to as “theological humility.” Just because someone doesn’t share my convictions or arrive at the same interpretation of a biblical text on these less-than-foundational issues doesn’t mean they don’t believe the Bible.

It’s become clear to me that Jesus-loving, Bible-believing people interpret things differently and arrive at different conclusions. That may make us uncomfortable, but it’s part and parcel of who we are as The Alliance. The danger is if we allow our discomfort to divide us when The Alliance has long been able to overcome our differences of conviction on less-than-foundational issues by keeping our focus on Jesus and His heart for reaching lost people.

We must continue to hold tightly to the foundational tenets of our faith while allowing divergent views on issues of lesser importance. It’s Jesus Christ who binds us together so we can continue partnering in the most important work of reaching those who still do not know Him. Let’s lock arms and keep advancing His work.

If you would like to hear more on this topic, please listen to the Church Ministries podcast.

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