The Storytellers’ Convention (A Critical Evaluation of the 1995 ICS Family Conference)

Storytelling is a fine art form, whether the storytelling consists of retelling the circumstances and actions of an actual event as in history or journalism, or whether the individual has created a plot, a set of characters and a series of events from within the recesses of his or her mind. When analyzing any story, either oral or written, two sets of questions always need to be asked. The first is this: is this story fact, fiction, or a blend of the two? And the second is like the first: is this presentation true, false, or a mixture of truth and falsehood?

Analysis grows more complicated, however, when the storyteller is relating the events his or her own life. The questions of truth and falsehood become infused with a third set: are the events and experiences of the storyteller right or wrong? This is an exceedingly touchy question, especially in days of multiculturalism and egalitarian forms of tolerance. For many, to invalidate any individual’s experience in any way is to invalidate the person. The person may tell his or own story very well, but the content of that story may be highly questionable from a moral standpoint.

But let’s add one more step of complexity. Imagine now that you are sitting in a room of storytellers, all of whom are relaying events and experiences of their own lives in turn. Some stories are diametrically opposed to others in issues of truth and falsehood. What now? The laws of logic (assuming that logic is a universal, created by God, that is a part of the orderliness of both creation and His own essence, and not something created by dead white males) say that something cannot be both entirely true and entirely false at the same time. But someone has to be right and someone either has to be wrong or, on a lesser level of confrontation, terribly deceived either by someone or by self. But who is right, and who decides? And what is used to make the decision? What is the measuring stick by which someone discerns whether something is right or wrong?

These were questions I contemplated seriously when I attended the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) family conference on August 4–7. The topic, given the recent events of Synod 1995 and its discussions of abuse and the ordination of women, was one that was sure to captivate interest. The conference’s working title, Vive la Difference! Gender Issues and Spirituality, gave a promise of thought-provoking content in lectures and seminars which included topics such as parenting techniques, the role of women in church history, dealing with abuse, gender communication skills and ministry to homosexuals.


And at two points, namely the addresses given by keynote speaker Elaine Storkey (the advisor on gender issues to the Archbishop of Canterbury of the Church of England) the conference lived up to the provocative expectations which the title implied. In a keynote series entitled “Power, Patriarchy and the Past,” which was a two-part apology for the necessity of opening all offices to women because of the redemptive work of Christ, she began by saying that the church needs to be salt and light to a secular society that is struggling with the current problems and confusions concerning gender. The church itself often helps to perpetuate the problems and injustices by keeping women out of office.

A community which fervently believes in the ontological equality of men and women before God, that is, that there is no difference in status, in the efficacy of Christ’s redemptive love for women and men together, in truth it is not marriage or motherhood which confers status on women, but being a child of God and living in the image of God… a church that believes all those things and yet only has men in leadership, marginalizes single women, or in any sense communicates that men are really the ones chosen by God, that church is not preaching what it believes, no matter what is said in the pulpit, no matter what is explained in Bible studies. Unless a church models what its vision is, people will actually pick up what is modeled and practiced, and not what is said.

New Testament liberation

Storkey then discussed the tension between creation and redemption. The Old Testament, which concentrates on creation, has been distorted to reinforce a static patriarchal system. As an example near to the Christian religion, Storkey described at great lengths the high level of gender discrimination she experienced in her explorations in Orthodox Judaism. She talked often about how women were forbidden to join in worship in synagogue or to learn Torah. By contrast, she presents Paul as a liberator because he does allow women to learn, thus turning on its ear the passage in I Timothy 2 oft-interpreted as Paul, the chauvinist.

But somewhere on the way to the present time, Christianity was warped by Hellenism and Roman culture to become a chauvinistic religion. The patristic and medieval churches, according to Storkey, misinterpreted the doctrines of both creation and redemption to reinforce patriarchy, and they suppressed the stories of women in the church. For example, she assumes that the debate is settled on whether the Junias mentioned in Romans 16:7 is male or female (she assumes Junias is female). Other narratives of women are often forgotten or overshadowed by the stories of men of the church.

True Christianity as Jesus taught it, unfettered by Greek thought, is at heart redemptive. Jesus makes no distinction between men and women in His healing ministry. Christ cuts through taboos and cultures to minister to women. These are redemptive acts. So, because creation must be seen through the eyes of redemption, the patriarchy of the Old Testament is dropped for the equality of all in Christ (Galatians 3:28). However, the implementation of the redemptive message in the 20th century is different than it was in the first century. Storkey was careful to say that Paul did not present a culturally conditioned message, but that the first.century implementation he presents is not necessarily appropriate for the 20th century. The evils that come from the history of the tradition (such as Greek thought) need to be expelled so that the true equality in Christ shines forth as a message to the world.



Gender relationships

In the second lecture, Storkey spoke about how the gospel affects gender relationships. The message of the gospel is our salvation from sin and tile means by which we come to know what it is to be truly human as God designed us to be, equal men and women before God. Two areas especially are prone to gender-oriented “sins”: the strong gendering of occupations, including the ministry, and societal attitudes about men and women. Gender roles, according to Storkey, are learned from society. Thus, if we change our society, we change the roles that men and women are allowed to fill In turn, this affects our interpersonal relationships. She is correct in saying that we Christians have definite problems in our relationships as men and women in the body of Christ. We as Christians are often guilty of a twisted and perverse reading of Ephesians 5 and we are often found guilty of the sin of reinforcing unbibIical stereotypes about women and men. But Storkey places the prohibition of women from ecclesiastical office in this camp. Is this legitimate? Is it a sin to withhold church offices from women? Again, we return to Paul. Within the same passage—in fact, in the same verse from 1 Timothy 2 Paul can be read both as a great liberator of women and as an incredible chauvinist for allowing women to learn, but not allowing them to teach. Is Paul speaking out of both sides of his mouth? Or, on a more theological level, can the Holy Spirit inspire Paul to write with a forked pen? However, with Storkey’s doctrine of Scripture mentioned earlier, Paul may very well be speaking the message of the gospel (allowing women to learn) while using a first-century implementation (not allowing them to teach), not applicable in the modern age.


However Significant this point may be (especially given the recent synodical decision concerning Scripture’s stand on women in office), I wish to concentrate more on two points: 1) the issue of being one in Christ as presented in Galatians 3:28, and 2) the concept of ontological equality.

Galatians 3:28 has often been interpreted so as to open the doors for complete functional equality between men and women. However, this interpretation does not do justice to the verse’s context. The issue of the passage (in fact, of the entire letter of Galatians) is about being set free from the state of being guilt before God. Galatians 3:28 has nothing to do with function. Rather, it concentrate solely on the fact that men and women slaves and free men, Jews and Greeks, are equally guilty before God and that the act of removing guilt through Christ’s death and resurrection is the same for all people.

Galatians 3:28 may not even mean to be speaking specifically to certain groups of people, but using polar opposites to express the whole of humanity (a rhetorical device called synecdoche). The life of Christ was consistent with this. He healed men and women indiscriminately, as well as slaves and free men, Jews and Gentiles. 50 also did Paul. This was a break with Old Testament Judaism, which had different purification rites for women and men. But neither one (with the exception of the questionable Junias) ever put a woman into a position of leadership. To argue a case of Christ as a culture disrupter in regards to women in office runs into the argument of silence; He simply did not do it.

Perhaps there is a specific reason for this, one that may be caught up in this concept of “ontological equality.” Men and women are equal before God—equally fallen, equally guilty of sin. Likewise, men and women are equally justified and given Christ’s righteousness in the acts of salvation. Men and women are equally chosen in the decree of election both are chosen solely by God’s grace regardless of gender. So to say that only men are chosen is fallacious. Here is the real question at hand: can men and women be ontologically equal in the eyes ofGod and have creationally ordained different functions? That answer is an obvious yes, purely from a biological standpoint. We cannot ignore or set aside the fact that women are the ones who bear children and, were it not for the invention of baby formula and the baby bottle, would also be biologically responsible for the child’s sustenance. These biological functions take on other responsibilities as well; being a mother is not simply a biological mandate, but also a psychosocial one.

But let’s forget motherhood for a moment. I’m not a mother, and probably won’t become one anytime soon. I know that I’m different from a man, and not just because society has taught me so. I feel things differently, experience things differently, draw different conclusions. And this is not a result of sin, or of the Fall. This is an issue of complementarity. If men and women are created differently solely for biological reasons, then this concept of “ontological equality” is even more marginalizing to single women. If I never get married and can never have children, I want a reason to be glad I am female, to have a purpose as a female and not simply to be relegated to a realm of potential femaleness. I want to know that being female is important in being an imagebearer of God apart from childbearing. But if onto logical equality means equal access, theoretically speaking, to every job and every role in society, then only biology makes women unique. And as a single woman, that marginalizes me. The very attempt to break women free from the distinctively female function of childbearing by means of ontological equality as Storkey defines it, is the very thing which makes being female even less than what God designed.1 And if God decided that women should not hold offices in the church for whatever reason He has decided, to put women in those offices is to take away from their womanhood. This is a hard saying. one that at times is difficult for me to swallow. But I must place my faith and trust in God that He knows what is better for me and for the rest of His creation than I do.


Despite the fact that I disagreed with parts of Ms. Starkey’s addresses, at least some content was present. This could not be said for the seminars which I attended. In fact, the seminars were very similar to the convention of storytellers which I set up at the very beginning of this article. Here, I wish to concentrate on two of the seminars in depth: “Responding to Homosexuality,” and “Re-imaging the History of the Institutional Church as ‘Good News’ for Women.”


The seminar on homosexuality was a reflection on the issue from personal experience. There was no prepared speech other than the seminar leader’s personal testimony, after which the floor was opened for personal reflection and questions. I found the way in which these reflections were handled disconcerting. After a few of the attenders present shared their experiences (some of which were in contradiction with both Scripture and the Synodical report of 1973), no critical evaluation of these experiences was done. No attempt to discern the truth or falsehood of these experiences in relationship to Scripture was made. Because the experiences happened, they were accepted. Beyond this, the implication was made that these experiences also should be tolerated. If we were not fallen creatures who struggle with sin, perhaps this could be accepted. But we are fallen creatures. That fallenness includes our minds and our ability to perceive correctly. Because of that fallenness, in order to evaluate correctly the world around us as well as our own personal what is of God and what is of sin. That measure is Scripture.

As John Calvin wrote in Book I of the Institutes,experiences, we need a measure by which we know if true religion is to beam upon us, our principle must be, that it is necessary to begin with heavenly teaching. and that it is impossible for any man to obtain even the minutest portion of right and sound doctrine without being a disciple of Scripture. Hence the first step in true knowledge is taken, when we reverently embrace the testimony which God has been pleased therein to give of himself. For not only does faith, full and perfect faith, but all correct knowledge of God, originate in obedience …. For if we reflect how prone the human mind is to lapse into forgetfulness of God, how readily inclined to every kind of error, how bent every nowa nd then on devising new and fictitious religions, it will be easy to understand how necessary it was to make such a depository of doctrine as would secure it from either perishing by the neglect, vanishing away amid the errors, or being corrupted by the presumptuous audacity of men.2

Experience, no matter how apparently positive, must be balanced against Scripture. If Scripture says that such an experience is not legitimate, whatever we experience is not the truth. We know that the devil sometimes masquerades as “an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). He also can masquerade as an experience of grace and thus deceive our means of perception. Because we are so easily deceived, we should be thankful to God that He has given us the Scriptures so that we may not be deceived! To diminish the authority of Scripture in any way leaves us lost and hopeless with only our flawed minds to guide us—a guidance that leads inevitably away from God and closer to ruin.

Church History

Not only was Scripture undermined during these seminars, but also the history of the Christian tradition was manipulated. The seminar on “re-imaging church history as good news for women” consisted, with the exception of the prison diaries of Perpetua as edited by Tertullian, of readings from biographies of obscure and even apocryphal women in the history of the Christian church. The most noted example of this was the life of Thecla, from the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. Supposedly Thecla was a woman who followed Paul while he was on his first missionary journey in South Galatia. Usually if the church fathers called a text apocryphal, it was because the text was either not in harmony with the teachings of the church as was then known, or the text was historically inaccurate. Either possibility here seriously undermines the technic of history used to complete this part of the project.

The rest of the women mentioned were names that I had never heard of in my study of church history. The common thread which they all held along with Thecla and Perpetua, however, were strange events that centered around the control of biological sexuality and the impotence of the institutional church. But why must the role of women be constantly centered around the use and control of sexuality? There are many women in church history who were great defenders of the faith for whom the issue of sexuality was not a primary focus: Blanclina (one of the martyrs of Lyon and Vienne from Eusebius’s church history), Claire of Assisi, Catharine of Siena, Idelette DeBure (the wife of John Calvin), and Elizabeth Rowe (an accomplished writer and the wife of a Puritan minister) are only a few. And, to be honest, I felt objectified by the discussion. I have been brought up to think that there is far more to being a woman than having a certain biological function. But suddenly I felt stripped of my mind and turned into something whose identity was based solely on function.

Some who attended the ICS conference may reject my assessment and say that I am way out of line, that I am being melodramatic and reactionary, and even perhaps that I am bigoted and intolerant. But to these same people I must ask the following question, using their own logic: “Are you trying to invalidate my experience?” We now have the situation fully at an impasse much in the same way as the scenario I painted at the beginning: my experience of the conference against theirs. I have told my story, which probably is diametrically opposed to the experiences of many who attended the ICS family conference. Who is right? What is the measuring stick? I have presented mine: first and of prime importance is Scripture as the divinely-inspired God-breathed testimony of God’s will to His people; second, and of secondary importance, the traditions of the history of the church and of the Protestant Reformation. Who is right and who is wrong? What is true and what is false? Or, who is being deceived?

Without a measuring stick, one will never know.


1. For a beautiful exposition on this very topic. see Rev. AdenHartog’s sermon written especially for young single women in the Sept. 1 and Sept. 15 issues of the Standard Bearer.

2. Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion tr. H. Beveridge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966. Sections

Claudette Grinnell is a graduate both of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and of Calvin Theological Seminary. She is currently a student in the Master of Theology (ThM) program at Calvin Seminary, where she is concentrating on the history of doctrine in the Dutch Calvinist tradition.