top of page

"Conversion Narratives" about Gender

Dr. Alan Johnson of Wheaton College has recently produced a new collection of essays on gender. This one is quite new: It offers the testimonies of a wide range of evangelical leaders and scholars—from church leaders Bill & Lynne Hybels to Bible scholar I. Howard Marshall to Coca-Cola executive Bonnie Wurzbacher—as to how each became persuaded of a Biblical feminism, a Christian egalitarianism.

And while you’re buying that book for every pastor, church leader, man, and woman you know, double their joy by buying them this one, too:

To whet your appetite (or to satisfy it, or perhaps to put you off the whole subject entirely), I’m going to include below my own contribution to the former book. But that’s only because it’s the only essay I’m entitled to put before you. Believe me, all the others are much, much better.

How to Produce an Egalitarian Man

by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Let’s get a couple of things straight right away.

First, I’m a man. I have a hairy chest. I used to play on the football team. I like Bruce Willis movies—at least, the ones in which something blows up, which is most of them. I drive too fast. And barbecue is among my favourite cuisines. (By the way, please don’t tell the guys on the football team that I used a word like “cuisines.”)

Second, I was not always an egalitarian. Oh, no. I was raised in an environment to produce quite the opposite. It was not only a Christian home, it was a Focus on the Family-type home. My dad was a surgeon and an athlete and an elder in our Christian (“Plymouth”) Brethren assembly. He was the breadwinner and our status in society and in church derived from him. My mom was a former schoolteacher and now a homemaker and a—well, we didn’t have titles for what women were in the church: she was just one of the “ladies,” as in “Ladies Coffee Hour” meetings, and “Ladies Missionary Society,” and the like, most of which my mother helped to run. So we’ll call her a “Mrs. Elder.” And I was raised in northern Ontario, Canada, in the 1960s and early 70s, a cultural backwater where the waves of feminism were reduced to tiny ripples if ever they lapped up there at all.

So how did I become an egalitarian? Indeed, how did I become an egalitarian who wrote a book (Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender) encouraging other people to become egalitarians?

This conversion experience, so to speak, was like all other important and benign conversion experiences: it was a work of God. We human beings do not have the ability to convert other people in such deep ways. We can’t even convert ourselves to the goodness we would like to attain. So let’s recognize immediately that any deep change in us, such as the change from patriarchalism to egalitarianism, results only from the transformative power of the Holy Spirit of God.

I make this point because sometimes we egalitarians act as if we think this way: “If we can just present the right evidence and the right arguments in the right way, then everyone will agree with us and all will be well.” Then when we try to do so, and our audiences don’t all immediately convert, we redouble our efforts. And when that doesn’t bring in the Kingdom of Peace, we incline to despair—or to bitter disparagement of the hold-outs as stubborn reprobates.

We need to remember that any lasting change of people’s values to those of the Kingdom of God—among which values I do number egalitarianism—is a part of authentic conversion, and conversion is the province of the Holy Spirit, not us. “How to produce an egalitarian man”? Main advice: pray that God will do it.

This isn’t all there is to be said, however. Indeed, let us invoke the monastic motto, ora et labora: “pray—and work.” God calls us to work with him in the spread of the Kingdom. So what work shall we do to cooperate with God in his great work of conversion?

In my case, five kinds of influences made the difference. Two of them had to do with men; three of them had to do with women.

First, I encountered good arguments written by male scholars, articles and books that showed me other ways of understanding the Bible’s teaching on gender. I remember particularly being helped by the writings of Robert Johnston, Ward Gasque, David Scholer, and Berkeley Mickelsen.

As good as these arguments were, however, they were not conclusive. I was still troubled, for example, by the apostle Paul’s reference to the order of creation in his argument in I Timothy 2. That passage, at least, seemed to root patriarchy in God’s original creation (Genesis 2), not in the Fall, in the next chapter of Genesis.

In the course of my theological studies, I came to see that no one could explain I Timothy 2 in a way that was lucid in every detail and consistent with all of the rest of Scripture. Lots of people have tried to explain this passage, and doubtless many think they have solved its several problems. But this important breakthrough for me in my thinking about gender resulted also as a general theological principle: our task as theologians—and, indeed, the task of any responsible Christian—is to do the best we can to understand the Word of God in its multifarious complexity, even as that will sometimes result in an interpretation that does not fit every piece of the puzzle together without strain, leaving no pieces on the table, and certainly not pocketing the inconvenient ones, hoping no one will notice! No, all we can do is what we can do, namely, to submit to the Word of God as we understand it while remaining open to improvement of our interpretation later on. Moreover, while we opt for this or that interpretation among the alternatives, we can recognize that our interpretation might not interpret every single verse and answer every single question better than every one of those alternatives do. Nonetheless, our responsibility is to select among the alternatives that interpretation that we believe does the best job of explaining all of scripture and answering all of the attendant questions. Yes, if we can afford to wait until every puzzle piece slides nicely into place, then we should wait. But in most cases, and the case of gender is one of them, life requires us to make some decisions now so we can act. And that means to choose the best of what interpretations we have available, while admitting that our view is not perfect in every way.

Thus I found the arguments of the egalitarians far more convincing than those of their counterparts. I found that this reading of Scripture makes more sense of more passages than the alternatives—along with the important fact that it also makes more sense of church history and of our contemporary experience in a culture that, for once, is actually trying to treat men and women equally.

Second, I was also helped by the fact that these men were both scholars and evangelicals. They provided, that is, not just arguments, but examples to follow. Their egalitarianism gave me a kind of permission to consider egalitarianism for myself. Indeed, while he wrote very little on the matter, when I found out (I think through a transcription of an interview) that eminent Brethren Bible scholar F. F. Bruce—than whom no intellectual star shone brighter in our little denominational firmament—supported women in public ministry, it deeply impressed me. “If F. F. Bruce thinks so, well, then: I’d better think about this some more.”

This second point, about male role models (for such they were), explains my silly introductory credentials on being a man. Men need other men to show them that it’s okay to be egalitarian. We need to know that we’re not giving up anything truly masculine in changing our attitudes toward women. When so much of our culture (as has every culture heretofore and elsewhere) intertwines genuine masculinity with patriarchy—indeed, with the domination of women, so that a “true man” condescends to women, mocks women, enjoys making use of women, and refuses to be importantly influenced by women—then we men can fear egalitarianism as, in fact, emasculation. This fear helps to explain why so many young North American pastors are recommending machismo as if it is identical with masculinity. (No, it isn’t, guys: Being an aggressive, sexist pig is not the same as being a strong, loving man.) So the example of a hairy-chested, football-playing, fast-driving, barbecue-chomping man can be important in the experience of conversion to egalitarianism. To be sure, I’m pretty confident that F. F. Bruce didn’t fit that particular description. But the general point here is that he was, for me, an admirable Christian man, and thus served powerfully as a role model as I stumbled my way toward Biblical feminism.

As I turn now to the several ways women have helped me, I note immediately that they also, of course, have been providing excellent arguments along the way. Patricia Gundry, Letha Scanzoni, Nancy Hardesty, Alvera Mickelsen, Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, Catherine Clark Kroeger, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Ruth Tucker, Janette Hassey, Elaine Storkey—the list goes on of capable women providing excellent arguments that have confirmed and improved my egalitarianism. Beyond these contributions, however, women have played two other important roles in my move from patriarchy to feminism.

In fact, this account is really out of order. Long before I sought out egalitarian arguments against patriarchy, I was being prompted to do so by extended experience that unsettled my reflexive patriarchy. Long before I needed male Christian role models, I was being prepared to entertain and even embrace a different view of gender as I encountered female Christians who were the spiritual equal of men. Indeed, they seemed the equal of men in every way pertinent to leadership in church and society, and also to partnership at home.

My mother was herself such a woman: articulate, ambitious, tireless, creative, assertive, self-possessed, inspiring, critical—easily a match for any man I knew on any scale of leadership qualities. As everyone in our family will attest, she was certainly a match for my high-performance dad! And I saw her lead competently outside the home: in our church, in summer camp programs, on university and civic boards, and more.

But on Sundays, things got strange. Typically, the Brethren celebrate communion at an early service on Sunday mornings, before the main preaching service. The service proceeds with virtually no fixed order except perhaps an introductory greeting from a presiding elder and a subsequent closing, and with the passing of the bread and the wine sometime in between. But aside from those particulars, anyone can rise in the silence and give out the number of a hymn, which the congregation then sings, or pray aloud, or even offer an exposition of Scripture. Some people prepare well in advance for their participation in the service; others jump up on the spur of an inspiration. The Brethren believe that the Holy Spirit guides the meeting quite directly, leading first one, then another, to participate—just as I Corinthians 14 indicates he will. This free-form openness to the Spirit’s leadership amounts to a kind of “charismatic” worship—yet without any tongues-speaking, prophecies, healings, or other spectacular manifestations of the Spirit that would have caused consternation, not celebration, among the Brethren, who were scrupulously opposed to anything “pentecostal.”

This kind of meeting—which I often found quite moving—raised the gender question in a particularly stark way. In most other churches, discussions of who can preach or lead are conducted on at least two axes: clergy/laity and male/female. But the Brethren are unusual in having no such thing as ordination and therefore no formal clergy. So gender came more clearly to the fore among the Brethen than elsewhere because anyone could lead in the communion service—even young people were allowed, even encouraged to participate—as long as that one was male.

Thus I sat in the family pew and observed various male Christians participating week after week. Some did so with evident skill and passion. But others seemed to be singularly unsuited to such public leadership and a few seemed to participate only by rote. As I experienced all this over my entire childhood and adolescence, I began to wonder why my mother, who was otherwise so esteemed as a leader in our church, remained demurely silent week after week and year after year while Mr. So-and-so rose to bore us once again with his meanderings through Scripture and Mr. Such-and-such followed with his interminable prayers. And when young Bill or even younger Bobby was encouraged to lead in the service while his mother and grandmothers silently looked on—well, it made me think.

My mother’s sisters and sister-in-law also provided me with examples of women who simply were not inferior to men, who seemed to me in their respective ways to possess all that was necessary for full partnership in every social sphere. They were certainly feminine in classic ways—warm, nurturing, encouraging, patient, and gentle—but also rational, discerning, insightful, and pragmatic. So why were they supposed to submit to men? And why couldn’t we benefit from their leadership?

I did benefit, furthermore, from the work and companionship of capable Christian women in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Female staff leaders impressed me as Bible teachers and spiritual directors. Even more impressive to me were my fellow students in high school and university Christian clubs who were at least as godly, intelligent, and capable as any of us young men. And dazzling among these impressive young women was one particular woman who became my wife, Kari—a petite, curly-haired cutie whom my family once feared would be dominated by her effusive and overbearing fiancé. (They don’t fear that anymore!) Life with Kari has been a daily reminder to me that egalitarianism makes sense and patriarchy doesn’t.

Women thus provided me with good reasons to become egalitarian in the two ways parallel to what I received from men: in literal evidence and argument that helped change my mind, yes, but also in personal examples that contradicted patriarchy.

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn is often cited to help us understand how people undergo significant changes in their thinking—what we call paradigm shifts. Kuhn suggests that we give up our ways of thinking, our paradigms, only under duress. Typically we do so only when we can no longer ignore or accommodate within our paradigms those evidences and arguments that don’t fit—what Kuhn called “anomalies.” Well, the arguments and examples provided by these men and women constituted a pretty big, and ever-growing, pile of anomalies. The collective force of these egalitarian evidences helped collapse my inherited patriarchy and put me in search of a new way of thinking (which I have set out in my little book).

So far, however, I have spoken about my change of mind as if it was just that: an alteration of intellection, a transfer of rational allegiance from one concept to another. It was that, but it was more than that. It was, as most important conversions are, also a change of heart.

Aristotle suggests that the speaker intent on persuasion must employ three modes of speech: logos (appeal to reason), ethos (appeal to a way of being), and pathos (appeal to the affections). From the male scholars I mentioned earlier, I received both logos (good arguments) and ethos (examples of how to be Christian, feminist, and male). From women, I received further logos (indeed, some of the best—both their verbal arguments and also the arguments from their impressive lives), but I also needed to receive, and did receive, the crucial gift of pathos. I needed to feel something of the pain of patriarchy: of being interrupted or ignored in conversation; of being passed over for recognition and promotion; of receiving condescension or suspicion instead of welcome partnership. And I needed to be confronted with their anger, with their refusal to be treated this way anymore.

Women have entrusted me with great gifts: their stories and their feelings about what they have been through and continue to encounter. My wife has told me of how people ignore her or interrupt her. Female friends, colleagues, and students have testified to the suffering they have endured—from conversational condescension to professional marginalization to marital oppression to actual sexual or physical abuse. We men will not change until we want to change, and one of the most powerful motives we will have for changing our minds is to alleviate the suffering of the women we admire and love—suffering that is obvious to women but often unseen by us men. I know it seems incredible to women that men can be so obtuse, but people of color will testify that we white North Americans are similarly obtuse about racism. Poor people will testify that we wealthy people are obtuse about financial differences. And tradespeople will testify that we professionals are obtuse about class distinctions.

We men usually don’t see how we dominate conversations, for instance. We figure that anyone who has something to say will just say it, so those silent women must not have anything to say—and, we sadly conclude, must not be all that bright or all that motivated. We don’t see how our feelings for women can take interactions that are supposed to be constructive and mutually beneficial, and divert them into erotic games that no one should have to play, and especially not in a work- or church-related context. We don’t see how we unconsciously disregard women’s abilities and interests, and because those decisions are unconscious, the women themselves will never know exactly what happened: They just somehow (again) won’t get the opportunity, or the honor, or the reward they actually deserve.

We men need to hear from women about what it’s like to be demeaned, disrespected, or dismissed. Yes, we can be told by other men to shape up, and that can help. Men certainly have responsibility here to speak up on behalf of their sisters, on behalf of justice, and on behalf of the greater good that accrues to everyone as women are treated properly. But we will respond more readily to exhortations from both sexes if we feel it, and feel how important it is. We need this powerful impetus to compel us to undergo the strain of actually changing our minds and hearts. Otherwise, we naturally will stay where we are, in the convenient and comfortable paradigms we have inherited.

Furthermore, I have needed these testimonies, not just when I was transiting from patriarchy to egalitarianism, but continually, to this very day. My wife has reminded me from time to time, “You’re not as feminist as you think you are.” I used to bristle when she would say that, for I had congratulated myself on having had my “conversion experience” to egalitarianism and I was now a fully enlightened man, totally emancipated from sexism, and (let’s be honest) a pretty admirable guy. But I have come to see, at least a little more clearly over the years, just how deeply entrenched are the “gender scripts” that I have tended to follow all along. I have not “arrived” at entire sanctification and I do not dwell in the New Jerusalem. I continue to mistreat women despite my sincere intention not to do so, and I have concluded that only women can help the situation by notifying me that, yes, John, you’re doing it again or, no, you failed this time to do what was appropriate. To recommend such action is not—horrors!—to blame women for my enduring sexism: “Since you aren’t complaining enough, it’s your fault I’m still mistreating you.” It is instead to say that if women want men to change in this way, then this is one crucial thing women can do to help us do so.

I recognize, of course, that not all men want to be so reminded. Many women do not have men in their lives who want to hear what they have to say. All sensible people, therefore, need to pick their battles and their moments. So women today will have to do what women have always done: press on, regardless, to make the best of their situation, to provide good examples to those women and men under their influence, to voice their concerns where and when they can, and to hope for something better, if only for their daughters.

Still, feminist psychologist Virginia Vanian urges women not just to wait for a brighter day, but to speak up now, and particularly about the small things that women tend just to swallow and endure. She points out that repeated small slights can constitute large-scale social patterns of repression—that mountains can, in fact, arise out of the accumulation of molehills. So women can and must do something to keep the pattern from being reinforced again and again in the “minor” interactions of each day. Add your anomalies to the paradigm to help collapse it, or it will remain your prison—and, indeed, the prison that disadvantages all of us.

Yes, we are to patiently endure each other’s shortcomings and not overreact to the social clumsiness of day-to-day life. And no one wants to be written off as a whiner, much less a shrew. But I, as a man, join with Dr. Vanian to plead with women to speak up more, to acquaint us men better with what’s going on and how it pains you. I know it’s discomfiting and I know it’s unfair (“Why, after all we’ve been through, do we have to keep teaching you men such elementary things?”), but here’s the sober and inescapable truth: If you keep letting patterns persist, then they will persist.

We men, of course, have our corresponding imperatives. We must help to create safe places and occasions in which we welcome women to say the hard things, the painful things, the confrontational things that tell the truth about how things really are. We need to brace ourselves for their words that will dislodge us from our comfortable seats of automatic privilege. And we must prepare ourselves to act on what we hear, not merely to let women vent, endure it with impassivity, and then congratulate ourselves on our magnanimity. For if we listen to women and then do not change, we victimize them twice. And we render ourselves doubly guilty.

All of us need both to see and to feel in order to change, and we men need the help of you women. Only then will we, in return, give you the help of our asymmetric social power that is so long overdue. Most of us men really do love you: We just don’t know how to love you as well as we can! We are responsible to sort ourselves out, of course. But may I ask you women to help us, please, become the egalitarian men we want to be.


 Mini Courses 


Understand key ideas in important Christian theology, ethics, and history in 30 minutes (or less!) in ThinkBetter Media's mini-courses, created by award-winning theologian and historian Dr. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. 

bottom of page