A WOMAN CALLED: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle. By Sara Gaston Barton. Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 2012. 220 pages.
It seems so simple. The New Testament states clearly that women are to be silent and that they should not have authority over men. It seems simple enough, except that there are other words from the New Testament that speak a different message, one that hints at, if not always explicitly states, that women were called to ministry and did teach and likely weren’t silent. But complicating the picture further is the reality of call. What happens if from your youngest years you have a yearning to preach the gospel and to teach the Bible, not just to women and children, but to every person? One could, as many have, simply throw away the text, but what if you feel drawn to the biblical message and you don’t want to let it go?
Sara Gaston Barton is a woman called to preach. We should celebrate this calling, but unfortunately she is a member of a faith community that not only takes the New Testament with great seriousness, but, with few exceptions, this communion believes that the New Testament excludes women’s voices from the broader life of the church. Because she has an inner burden to preach, and has had this burden since childhood, it has been impossible for Sara to cast it aside. It would be easier for her to ignore the calling or to move to another communion – like mine – so that she could be “at peace.” These two options have proven impossible for her to embrace, and so she has tried to find ways to use her gifts and calling in a way that honors her God and benefits her communion.
A Woman Called is a poignant and eloquent memoir/apology. It is a memoir because Sara tells her own story. It is an apology in the theological sense in that she demonstrates with great care why the Churches of Christ should honor the call of women like her, so that the churches might be blessed by these gifts. She writes with grace and care not only for herself, but for other women, especially younger women, who feel the same calling. Some of these women have decided that the calling requires that they leave the church of their birth and go to ones that, like my own, welcome these gifts. Others have decided, for now, to stay and pursue their calling within their own tradition. For those who remain there is need for a sign of hope, a light beacon that points the way to a new day. Sara’s book is just that beacon. One cannot read these words with an open heart and mind and not see and hear the message of God’s calling exude from these pages.
Sara is a friend and she often fills the pulpit of my congregation when I’m away. My congregation is blessed by her messages, and as she shares in the book, she has been blessed by the welcome given her by Central Woodward. She writes that when she stepped into the pulpit at Central Woodward there was no tension in the room.
I opened Scripture, and I preached. It wasn’t spectacular. It was just a regular sermon . . . It is a significant moment in my life when I used my gifts for the benefit of the church, and I felt joy in it. They encouraged me. No eye in this body was saying, “I don’t need you,” and no ear was saying, “I don’t want to hear you.” (p. 45)
As joyous as this moment was, it wasn’t without a twinge of sadness, because her opportunity to preach meant that she was absent from her own congregation. She could leave and take a Disciple pulpit – there are churches galore that would welcome her spirit, her energy, her ability to handle the biblical text, but she doesn’t want to leave, though she understands why others in her shoes have done so. Indeed, she admits that if she didn’t have the opportunity to teach at the college she and her husband serve, she might be looking at things differently.
A woman called is a deeply personal book. Because I know her story and have been part of it, perhaps I sense the dilemma facing her in a different way than another reviewer might. But whether one is personally acquainted with Sara or not, one will recognize a spirit of grace and determination in this book that expresses Sara’s deep and abiding faith and her sense of call that can’t be denied. It is also a book of biblical interpretation. Throughout the book Sara picks up the relevant texts, from Ephesians 5 to 1 Timothy 2, and she handles them with great care. She doesn’t ignore the text or deride them, but at the same time she doesn’t read these texts flatly as if there is no context to them. She brings out the contextual and cultural dynamics, so that others in her community might see the texts from a new vantage point.
Sara interprets the text not only as a biblical scholar, but as one who understands herself as being of the part of the story. She writes:
As I stepped into God’s story as a young girl and continue to abide there today, I find that it is my calling to teach and preach God’s Word in and outside the church. The compelling story of God will not let me go, and I don’t want to let go of it. I join my story to God’s story (p. 17).
With this sense of calling in mind, Sara wrestles with the texts that deal with the question of women in ministry. In fact, much of the book takes up the biblical text and she reads it in conversation with her own community of faith.
In the course of the book we encounter her as a child, picking up the text and feeling excluded at points, from the life of the church. She learned early on that there were certain responsibilities, like reading scripture, passing the communion trays, or even teaching boys past the age of twelve, that were reserved for men. She tried to understood why this was so, but she chaffed at the restrictions. After she went off to college, she took one of those career aptitude tests and discovered that she was best suited to be an expository preacher – that made her laugh and wonder at the irony of this. Though she desired to study scripture, she made English her major and Bible a minor. Career-wise she understood that she would have more opportunity to teach English than the Bible. During college she meets a young man from Philadelphia who is also called to ministry, and together then head to Uganda to serve as missionaries. Interestingly enough, this move offered her more opportunities to teach – not just women, but men. As time passed, she returned to the states with her husband and took up a position as chaplain at the college her husband was called to serve, and today she serves as an assistant professor of English and religious studies at that college. She looked for opportunities to do more than children’s ministry, but these were not forthcoming. Preaching opportunities at Church of Christ congregations required that she do so in tandem with a man (a person of authority), and so she preaches at CWCC when there’s opportunity.
There will be some who read this book and feel that Sara has mishandled the texts of scripture and will walk away with disgust that someone would cross divinely authorized boundaries. Others will wonder why bother with such a narrow community? Why attend to restrictive texts? Why not just move on? Many in my communion would offer her that kind of advice, but that’s not what Sara feels called to do. Near the end of the book, Sara states her vision of the future:
I want a community that makes a place for Amy, a community that makes a place for Maggie, who wants to pass the communion tray, and Abby, who is called to lead worship, and Poem, who wants to preach, for they are heirs in Christ, daughters with jobs to do in God’s new world, here and now (p. 206)
This is why she stays – God has given her a calling to blaze a trail for others, so that they might have a place to serve and use their gifts in all their fullness. Having heard Sara preach and knowing her abilities to teach and to preach, my sense is that with patience, Sara’s vision will bear fruit.
This is a beautifully written book. Anyone who wonders whether God can speak through a woman, needs to read this book. Anyone who wonders why a woman would stay put in a community that continues to resist her voice, also needs to read this book. It is a book that expresses the fullness of God’s calling to use one’s gifts to their fullest extent, and anyone reading it will be encouraged to discern and use their gifts for the glory of God. Therefore, it is a book that requires our full attention.