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  • Gary T. Burke

Soft Is Hard

Through many years of helping organizations implement major changes, I had to remind myself constantly of the maxim that “hard is easy; soft is hard.” We could produce a detailed implementation timeline, plan for all the contingencies, and line up all the resources. That was the easy stuff. But if we didn’t manage the people aspects of the change, the “soft stuff,” we would most likely fail.

What was true in the business setting is no less true when congregations undergo significant change. This is doubly the case with a subject that has become as controversial and potentially divisive as has women’s roles in the church. We cannot expect people to change their beliefs overnight or even that they will see the need to reconsider them. For many, just opening up a discussion or study of the topic may seem threatening and the first step down a slippery slope.

Let’s consider some of the reasons why such strong feelings on this subject exist.

· We are so accustomed to proof texting. I remember one of our great meeting preachers in the 1950s and 1960s who used to punctuate his sermons with scores of one or two-verse biblical citations. As a young man I used to love to count how many of these he could pack into one of his sermons. It gave the impression that his conclusions had impeccable scriptural support. He was a very popular and in-demand speaker. Of course, such use of individual verses as “proof” of a point without consideration of the context did not, in fact, produce impeccable scriptural support for the points he was making. So many church members have heard this kind of approach to the Bible so long that when they hear a quotation of even a part of a verse like, “let the women keep silent in the churches,” that’s enough for them. What more do you need? Why complicate this simple command from Paul? I even had a brother say to me the other day, “I don’t know anything about what the Greek means, but I do understand what “let the women keep silent in the churches” means.

· We’ve always heard it taught this way. If all we have ever heard is that women should not pray in the presence of men or only men should be in positions of leadership in the church or women should be in subjection to the men of the church, then it will be very difficult to question those teachings. In many cases we have heard them from childhood and have seen them constantly reinforced in the life of our congregations. It is not easy to reconsider what we have always believed.

· Questioning the integrity of our teachers. To question what we have been taught by respected and loved preachers and teachers may seem to be disloyal to them. We have trusted them to be careful Bible students and our spiritual guides. How can they have missed the point so badly? It is just hard to believe they could be so wrong and only now we are figuring that out.

· We tend to put certain brothers on a pedestal. Closely related to our reluctance to question our trusted mentors is the tendency by some to elevate the importance of certain preachers or presumed biblical scholars. We know that Jesus insists that he alone be our teacher (Mat. 23:8), but we still have our favorites to whom we listen more than anyone else. If they say a passage means a certain thing, we accept it, because we consider them to be “safe” teachers and can’t imagine that they have not done their homework.

· Concern that we are giving in to the world. This is a very real and understandable concern. If we change our practice on something, it should be because we have done the disciplined Bible study to support it, not because our culture is changing and insisting that we change along with it. Also, we should do this hard work because if we don’t, those who claim that we are more influenced by our culture than the Bible just may be right.

Let me quote a brief passage from the Introduction of God’s Woman Revisited.

"Change is difficult. Most of us are conservative at heart in the sense that our natural reaction to change is to resist. We need to be convinced that the need for change is compelling enough to get us out of our comfort zone. This is doubly the case when it comes to matters of our religious faith. We require reassurance that any change does not go against God’s will, since we measure our beliefs and practices against our understanding of that will as revealed in the Bible. This is particularly the case when we feel the pressure of the world around us urging us in a direction that is new to us. We rightly feel compelled to stand our ground on what we believe the Bible teaches."

As congregations begin to change their practice relating to women in the church, perhaps more important than anything other than the Bible study that produced it is attention to the people issues. Everyone needs to be heard, and the issues he/she is having with the change need to be respected and gently worked through. This is the soft stuff, and “soft is hard.”

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