I have said that I want to explain why I’ve changed my mind about how we’ve interpreted and understood the scriptures on mutuality. Well, hopefully, what I’m about to relate will shed some light about our shared history as a fellowship of churches and the progress we have made over the years. I believe strongly that we need to re-evaluate the scriptures and principles involving roles of men and women and make the necessary changes. I realize we each have a unique viewpoint, this is mine and includes some of the pivotal points in my personal trajectory.
In the very early Boston days of our fellowship, years before we were known as the ICOC, it was believed if you were a married woman, you could not be in the full time ministry or as it was called back then, a “women’s counselor.” You could only be a women’s counselor as a single woman—usually as a campus or teen leader—but if you married a preacher, you would then be a “preacher’s wife” and be “in the ministry” for free. You received no official title and no salary. Changing this thinking and practice had been hotly debated but it never changed.
Those were seeds, part of the history of the ICOC. And those were the times we were living in when Steve and I, with other young people—some of us lifers (meaning born and raised in the traditional churches of Christ) and others converts to the traditional church—were dreaming of sharing a simple yet true and radical Jesus with the entire world.
We wanted to get away from man-made traditions. We would ask ourselves about issues that came up, whether they were truth or tradition? We didn’t shy away from questioning anything with the scriptures as our guide. There were many lively and intense discussions about discipleship and what it was. Musical instruments in worship? Alcohol drinking for Christians? A sin to dance or be to be in theatre? And much more.
Then came the time when we decided to try and evangelize the world (plant churches) and we began making plans to choose a city. Chicago and London were to be planted first. Steve and I chose New York City and that would be the third church planting. It was after the second planting, which was James Lloyd and Doug Arthur going off to lead in London, that a new practice was established. For each planting there should be two male leaders acting as equal partners. But Steve saw things differently and as soon as it was mentioned for the New York planting he said, “No! Lisa is my partner. She has always been my partner and always will be my partner.” Well, there was real pushback, but he stood firm. So we went to New York as partners. And not long after we got there, Steve printed a Sunday church bulletin and surprised me by placing my name on the front beside his. And he added women’s counselor beside my name. The way I remember it, very soon thereafter, everything changed regarding married women being recognized as women’s counselors and women leaders being financially supported by the church, married or not.
After several years of God blessing the dreams of that group of young people wanting to plant churches around the world, there was a need we all felt to get organized and more unified. We created the term World Sectors and divided up the world! I know how naive and crazy that sounds now, but God was moving and we were excited and inspired! With the new plan, we were blessed to get Africa, Caribbean, the Empire State (New York) and the Southeast(US)—ACES—as a focus. What a challenge!
We were so thrilled to be able to plant churches throughout those regions, and we were the first world sector to need an administrator to help us keep all the finances and details organized. We hired Vivian Rivera Hanes. She was the only World Sector Administrator who was a woman, ever. After each group hired administrators, Steve fought many battles to keep her as our administrator and resisted much pressure to replace her with a man. Some people felt like it would be more comfortable if the group were all men. Steve said he never wanted the World Sector leadership to turn into an “old boys club,” and Vivian was extremely qualified, really over qualified for the position. The church was so fortunate to have her, so Steve never gave in.
During that time, there had never been women on stage leading singing, even just part singing among our churches. They performed solos, but no leading. Steve put women on stage for the song service and eventually other churches did.
From my perspective, each of these matters was received with skepticism, or even criticism, and we had to justify the choices we were making. Then came women performing baptisms. That was a huge one.
Women were not “allowed” to baptize. Now, even as I write this, I want to make it clear that we never were told, “No, you cannot baptize,” that I remember. But we never even had the thought to ask about. It had never really occurred to me. Well, women in New York began to perform baptisms. It started out of necessity. Many women were getting baptized, and a lot of those baptisms happened after we finished Bible studies and had access to water in bathtubs where women lived. As you can imagine, no men were around. It got more and more awkward to find a brother (someone often the woman getting baptized didn’t even know) to come baptize, many times late at night! So we prayed and thought through the problem. We sought advice from Steve’s dad, an older Church of Christ preacher, and saw no biblical reason not to have women perform baptisms. (Matthew 28:18-20)
The New York church was the first to have a woman perform a baptism during a Sunday church service. Word got out and it was chaos for a while. We had big meetings with various church leaders! (One evangelist said the two most important events in a persons life are baptism and marriage, so obviously, women can’t baptize!) But then other churches began having women baptize women. And today, of course, it’s just the way of doing things.
Each of these issues or practices pushed the norms of what the culture of our fellowship thought was acceptable. Each change made some people uncomfortable, even afraid. But now as we look back, we see those things have now become totally acceptable practices. People often don’t realize the history and the struggle to get to a place that seems absolutely normal and right. What I’ve learned is that we must be open to constantly reevaluating why we do what we do and be humble and brave.
From the beginning, Steve and I have always had an aversion to controversy, but we all know when you just really believe something, you have to pray and gently press on. As disciples of Jesus we end up pushing forward, facing the uncomfortable, knowing that we can’t get stuck. As disciples we often become quiet revolutionaries without even realizing it.
In trying to be like Jesus to the world, we all try to communicate his love without awkward hindrances, man-made barriers, traditions, interpretations based on church history or culture, or what makes people comfortable. Steve is an out-of-the-box thinker and always has been. But we didn’t ever do anything just to be different or to shake things up. We would never do that. We, like so many of you, did whatever we thought was right and what we thought was best to communicate the Jesus we know to people around us.
Mutuality brings back memories of us not letting fear hold us back from questioning and rethinking things from our very early days. I’m grateful things can change because of the goal that we all have to just try to seek God’s ways the best we can with open hearts and minds, knowing we never completely arrive but basking in his grace and the knowledge of our salvation as we search and grow. I marvel at how rapidly things can change that historically could have taken hundreds of years. But I know, change is scary.
These are not the early days of Boston and New York. But if I’ve learned anything it’s that God can work from anywhere to guide the minds and hearts of his people. Steve and I have seen it happen up close and at a distance all of our lives. Progress takes time, patience and humility. As followers of Jesus we all have try to be open and have courage to push forward even when it’s uncomfortable, unpopular and at the risk of being misunderstood or even criticized.
Maybe we should keep asking ourselves . . . Truth or Tradition?