From her several decades of experience in women’s ministries and in seminary classrooms, Alice Mathews has gained an appreciation for the gifts godly women offer the church. In Gender Roles and the People of God: Rethinking What We Were Taught about Men and Women in the Church, the former professor and academic dean at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (and longtime cohost of the radio program Discover the Word) calls on church leaders to welcome women into leadership roles. Writer and frequent CT contributor Hannah Anderson spoke with Mathews about her vision of “egalitarian complementarity,” wherein men and women join hands as full partners in ministry.
At age 86, after having stepped away from the classroom, why do you feel compelled to continue being part of this conversation?
In many ways, this book is a continuation of work I’ve been involved in for much of my adult life. Back in 1985, I came to a very clear understanding of what I perceived as God’s call on my life. I had been involved with a number of female students on the campus of Denver Seminary, where I was teaching at that time. I saw gifted women who could not find opportunities to live out their callings within the structures that had sent them to seminary. Since that time, my mission in life has been to equip and encourage women trying to find out what they’re meant to do with the gifts that God has given them, particularly within churches that aren’t always quick to acknowledge those gifts.
Toward the end of the final chapter, I talk about a French woman, Madeleine Blocher-Saillens, who was a Protestant pastor. Back in 1970, when I read her interpretation of Genesis 3:15 [“I will put enmity between you and the woman”], it just knocked my pins loose. Her conclusion is that Satan is at war against women. Satan knows that if he can keep women out of service, in the church and in the world, he will have won an enormous victory.
And so this isn’t just a matter of letting women into the sandbox. It’s about half of God’s people being put on the sidelines and denied the use of their gifts. God desires that men and women join hands and work together in ministry, and that men acknowledge the essential role women play in defeating the work of the Enemy.
Often the debate about gender roles centers on offices and ordination. Do you think this debate needs to be reframed or clarified?
In the first century, the church was the family of faith, the household of God. It had a completely different texture, in that everyone was working together for the good of the whole. When Tertullian arrived in the third century, he began imposing more structure on the family of God, in a way that paralleled the Roman Empire. He was adamant about making a distinction between the clergy and the laity.
I believe this particular arrangement, and the idea of separate offices within the church, has been imposed and justified on an erroneous theological basis. The original structure of the people of God is not the structure we’ve inherited. And yet, this structure has been with us since the third century, so it’s not going away anytime soon. We have to work within it, even if I’d prefer to see it changed.