Women’s roles: a divisive issue but not a new one
When high-profile congregations among Churches of Christ announce a transition…
LOS ANGELES — In the early 1960s, Abilene Christian University — a Texas higher education institution associated with Churches of Christ — had different rules for male and female dorm residents.
Sheila Bost, now a grandmother of 12, remembers that she couldn’t study at the library certain nights because the women had an early-evening curfew.
The same policy didn’t apply to men.
“It just didn’t make sense,” Bost said, recalling her feelings at the time.
Full coverage: Women in the church
That experience came to mind as the longtime Christian reflected on her spiritual journey, notably her 2018 appointment as one of two female elders of the Culver Palms Church of Christ.
For decades, the west Los Angeles congregation — which draws about 150 English and Chinese speakers to its Sunday assemblies — has wrestled with the roles of men and women in church leadership.
As far back as the 1970s, late minister Frank Pack, then the chairman of the Bible department at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., suggested that “women could do anything men could do,” Bost said.
Not until years later did Bost’s own Bible study lead her to the same conclusion, she said, but “Frank planted the seed in my heart.”
Tom and Sheila Bost placed membership with the Culver Palms church 51 years ago.
While raising two sons and two daughters, Sheila Bost said she watched as her girls were prevented from saying a prayer in Bible class or taking a leadership role at church camp.
“I thought, ‘This is not of God,’” she said.
At last year’s Pepperdine Bible Lectures, Bost and her daughter Amy Bost Henegar led a three-session workshop on “Women in Roles of Congregational Leadership.” Henegar serves as associate minister of family life for the Manhattan Church of Christ in New York, where she occasionally preaches.
At the Culver Palms church, changes came incrementally, noted Dayna Nicholson, whose husband, Jeff, is one of Culver Palms’ four male elders.
“We maintained unity the best we could,” Dayna Nicholson said at the workshop. “We lost people both directions.”
Some who left opposed changes.
Others wanted bigger changes more quickly.
“But in the end, I think we’ve come out stronger,” Nicholson said. “I think we’re in a good place now.”
In 1998, the congregation added an “inclusive” service that allowed women to serve communion, lead singing, pray, read Scripture and baptize people. A “traditional” service remained for those uncomfortable with the more progressive approach.
“We had two services for a long time,” said Ron Halbert, another elder. “I used to joke about it — that it was the inclusive service and the exclusive service.”
After senior minister Mark Manassee arrived 15 years ago, the two English-speaking services were combined into one.
“We soon went to one service so we could be a more unified congregation,” Manassee said, “and it was getting difficult scheduling people for two services which were not always reflective of each other.”
But even when women gave testimonials, the church did not call it “preaching” until 2013.
“We’ve taken one verse — ‘Women, be silent in the church’ — and we elevate it because it reinforces our cultural bias.”
In July of that year, the leadership issued a statement that said, “As a result of our ongoing study of Scripture, we discern God’s call on the Culver Palms church to fully use the gifts of men and women to share God’s word through preaching in order to build up the body of Christ here and for the good of God’s kingdom.”
Halbert said hermeneutics — particularly the question of whether the Bible is a law book or “a different kind of book” — played a significant role in the church’s transformation.
In Culver Palms leaders’ view, traditional biblical interpretation ignores women praying and prophesying in the New Testament.
“We’ve taken one verse — ‘Women, be silent in the church’ — and we elevate it because it reinforces our cultural bias,” Halbert said, referring to the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:34.
For years, the Culver Palms church dropped the term “deacon” and instead had “ministry leaders” — men and women — who oversaw various aspects of church life.
About five years ago, though, the congregation appointed deacons and allowed women to be nominated.
Vicenta Jacobs, who later would join Sheila Bost as one of the two female elders, agreed to serve along with another female member.
But for Jacobs, accepting the deacon role did not come easily.
“I was really nervous,” she said. “I was not entirely sure that I was doing what God would have me to do.”
Then, a few years later, came the elder selection process.
Both Sheila Bost and Jacobs had taught children’s classes at every level. They had organized baby and wedding showers. They had led women’s retreats.
As Halbert saw it, both women were already “shepherding” the congregation.
Still, Jacobs struggled with accepting the elder title.
“This time, it took more praying and more study and more outside counsel,” the mother of three said. “But one morning — really after a sleepless night — the Holy Spirit made it clear that in spite of my doubts and fears, I was to say yes.”
Sheila Bost finds it ironic that she was appointed as an elder just months after her husband stepped down after about 40 years.
But she’s confident that the time had come for women to serve in that role at the Culver Palms church.
“It was a journey for me, so I’m not going to negate other people’s journeys.”
“Women are gifted to be ministers, pastors, elders, shepherds — whatever name you want to give it,” said Bost, a licensed marriage and family therapist who studied at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
“We are a priesthood of believers, and we all can serve in these different ways. The Gospel is too great to just give to a handful of men. It needs to be the whole body.”
However, Bost understands that many of her fellow Christians disagree with her interpretation.
“It was a journey for me, so I’m not going to negate other people’s journeys,” she said. “I just don’t want us to demonize each other. That’s just not helpful. I don’t think Christ wants us to do that.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
To read more about the gender-inclusive position, Culver Palms senior minister Mark Manassee recommends these books: Tom Robinson’s “A Community Without Barriers,” Craig Keener’s “Paul, Women & Wives” and Robert Banks’ “Paul’s Idea of Community.”
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