Suffice to say I’m uneasy about large women’s gatherings generally, and there’s nothing to put such unease to the test like a 6 a.m. fire alarm in a 15-story hotel full of women attending a national women’s conference.
It was dawn of the final day of The Gospel Coalition’s National Women’s Conference, with over 4,000 women in attendance. With the siren blaring over instructions to evacuate the Orlando Hilton, what chaos and panic might ensue as we all headed to the nearest stairwells, most of us in pajamas and grabbing the barest essentials?
An hour or so later, the fire alarm turned out to be a false alarm, and I’m here to report that calm and kindness reigned. Mothers trooped down the stairwells with babies asleep on their shoulders, and strangers sidled to them, saying, “Here, let me take your diaper bag.” Others spoke kindly and waited on toddlers and older women who needed a hand down many flights of stairs. For me it was the cap to a weekend observing and marveling at a new generation of compassionate women who at all hours of the day are thinking more about the God they serve and the world they live in than themselves, so it’s really no shock they were doing that first thing in the morning.
Historically I’ve worked more closely with men. At a planning or management meeting I’m the only woman in the room. And with an older brother my only sibling, I grew up an unconflicted tomboy, spending Saturdays hunting or doing yard work with the men in the family more than baking with my mom in the kitchen (thankfully my mom was a ready and willing teacher when domesticity struck in my twenties). Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Defoe, and Ray Bradbury were favorite authors; with marriage and daughters came appreciation for Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. This might explain my unease to this day with women’s Bible studies, women’s retreats, and girls’ nights out, though over the years I’ve grown in appreciation of women’s ministries.
The Gospel Coalition women’s conference, where I’ve been privileged twice to speak, takes a nontraditional tack. As pastor (and Gospel Coalition co-founder) Tim Keller said at the beginning of this year’s event, “This is about getting women to look at God, not focusing on God’s view of women. The subject of women can get pretty claustrophobic.” The conference featured leading female and male speakers, like Keller, and the subject was the book of Nehemiah.
Keller’s right, but it seems to me one of the reasons women gather as women to talk about women’s issues is that’s what both men and women over time in conservative evangelical circles have come to expect. The clear teaching of Scripture that keeps (or helps) women from holding ordained offices in the church gets applied overbroadly—by men and women—leaving women out of other leadership positions, and from important and useful engagement on cultural and civic issues of the day. That’s not what we see in the New Testament encounters women have with Jesus (usually together with men). Or in the Old Testament, where daughters join to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah tells us.
In Orlando more than 50 percent of Gospel Coalition attendees were younger than 40. At early morning hours and late into the night I saw them poring over their Bibles in the lobby or rapt in conversations of two or 20. I got into earnest discussion about workplace issues, missions, and orphans. One young mother hunted me down in the underground parking garage to talk about how she could help the persecuted church.
There’s a loud “coalition” of evangelical women on the left, typified by Rachel Held Evans and others who expend a lot of snark on conservative Christians who question gay rights or climate change, and on anyone who takes the Bible literally. Among conservative evangelical women on the right some come across as disengaged when it comes to culture and society. But those who care about their families, homes, churches, and the world in which children will grow up are out there (see our interview with Jennifer Marshall in this issue). They just speak with quieter voices of compassion and concern. And they are busy.