Cover Story

Femme fatale

"Femme fatale" Continued...

Issue: "Stealth Bible," March 29, 1997

Willow Creek has had women elders since its founding in 1978. But in the past year the church has made explicit among its leaders the reasons for its position--and demanded a level of agreement from staff and prospective church members. In January 1996, John Ortberg, one of Willow Creek's teaching elders, taught a two-hour class to church ministry leaders, in which he said that staff needed to share the convictions of the church, or study until they shared those convictions; and they had a year to do so.

Mr. Ortberg's teaching became the basis for a draft position paper dated January 1996, which WORLD has obtained. The paper, which was distributed only to Willow Creek's ministry leaders, says the church "has sought to insure an appropriate level of consensus on this issue with new staff members" to avoid an environment that "would be destructive to authentic community and effective ministry." The statement makes clear the church's belief that "when the Bible is interpreted comprehensively, it teaches the full equality of men and women in status, giftedness, and opportunity for ministry," despite "a few scriptural texts [that] appear to restrict the full ministry freedom of women."

What does Willow Creek mean by "appropriate level of consensus?" In practice, it means that complementarians are encouraged to look elsewhere for a church. As Dr. B--that is what Willow Creekers affectionately call Gilbert Bilezikian--explains, "Anyone who is a member adheres to the statement of beliefs and practices of the church."

Dick Carr had attended Willow Creek since 1992. "I came to Christ there, was baptized there, married there," he says fondly. That's why Mr. Carr's dissent over the women-in-leadership position is painful for him to talk about; he still loves the church. But last year, when Mr. Carr decided to join the church, he ran into difficulties. An appendix of the membership book "threw up red flags for me."

Mr. Carr asked his division leader, who told him to read Dr. B's Beyond Sex Roles. That raised even more questions. He read a complementarian book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, which made sense to him. But when Mr. Carr recommended the book be carried by the Willow Creek bookstore, he says the bookstore manager told him "it was deemed not appropriate."

Mr. Carr went back to his division leader, who referred him to a female elder who is the author of a paper called "Elders' Response to the Most Frequently Asked Questions About Membership at Willow Creek." In that document, volunteer membership coaches are told, "We ask that Participating Members of Willow Creek minimally be able to affirm with integrity the following: that they can joyfully sit under the teaching of women teachers ... that they can joyfully submit to the leadership of women in various leadership positions at Willow Creek."

A letter from Mr. Bilezikian to Mr. Carr confirmed the church's position: "I commend you for wanting to serve with integrity in a church that is compatible with your view. Obviously Willow Creek is not that place." At that point Mr. Carr gave up the idea of membership.

Willow Creek teacher Mr. Ortberg says the need for agreement is an "issue of integrity." But complementarian Wayne Grudem uses no euphemisms in his analysis of the Willow Creek position: "The way an egalitarian view triumphs is by a suppression of information and discussion."

Willow Creek makes explicit the connection between the egalitarian position on women's roles and Bible translations. The January 1996 statement on sex roles states that Willow Creek is committed to "encourage the use of translations of Scripture that accurately portray God's will that His church be an inclusive community."

Willow Creek has been spared great division over its egalitarian position because the church has always had female leadership, but the story is different in Boston where the nearly 200-year-old Park Street Church faces an uncertain future. After a year's study, a church committee failed to arrive at consensus on the issue. Although Park Street turned down one proposal that would have required a certain number of women elders, several weeks ago it elected its first woman to that position. The vote to elect the woman elder was 60 percent in favor, 40 percent opposed.

Park Street's dilemma is likely to be repeated in evangelical churches throughout the country. The pressure for change comes not from new discoveries about the Bible; it comes from social changes occurring in the culture. As women perform all kinds of tasks outside the church, it raises a question that wasn't there before: What outlets are women going to have in the church?


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