Signs of the Kingdom: Changing Hearts

Each year, on the second day of class, I give a little speech to my Intro Preaching 101 students. I tell them that I know some of them do not believe that the Holy Spirit has gifted women to preach. In their reading of scripture, women are not authorized to proclaim the Word of God. But, I continue, I am persuaded — and this class will be guided — by the conviction that they’re wrong about this. Not obtuse or ill-intentioned — just wrong. I offer to have coffee with any of them, at any time, on my dime, to explore this further, and to try to explain from scripture why this is so.

But I know that anything that might happen at that coffee is merely brush-clearing. What will really matter is experience. I tell my students that at some point in their seminary careers they will, with clarity and power, hear the Word of the Lord spoken by a woman — perhaps one of the women sitting here in this room. And then the Holy Spirit, working through their cognitive dissonance, might change their minds and hearts.

I give this speech every year. And every year a few students take me up on my offer to have coffee. But my abstract conviction about the possibility of changed hearts was realized in a particularly powerful way this past spring. Here is what happened.

Late in the semester there was an incident in a New Testament class (not mine). Having read a textbook about the complementarian/egalitarian divide, a discussion turned sour when some women articulated their positions, and a few male students pushed back in ways that were dismissive and hostile. The professor did not manage the ensuing discussion well, and a number of women walked out in hurt and frustration.

Among the participants in this 'incident' were four students in my Intro Preaching class — one female student and three male students.

Then, in the last week of April, with these wounds and tensions still fresh, that same female student preached her final sermon in my class. She preached it to a small group that included two of those same male students whose attitudes and behaviors toward women had been so disdainful.

And her sermon was more than good; it was extraordinary. She knocked it out of the park. Not just a solid base-hit, but a screaming, towering, parking-lot-pickup-windshield-shattering homer. Her text was Philippians 4:4-7, and she unpacked beautifully what it might mean for the "peace" of God, surpassing understanding, to "guard" our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. It was exegetically rich and full of real-life wisdom. The best part was her conclusion, which was pastorally courageous given the context. She looked each student in the eye, and offered pointed, specific benedictions: "Jim, as you wrestle with discovering what is most important to you, and inviting others into that discovery, may the peace of God, surpassing understanding, guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Jenna, as you return to a home filled with anxiety, may the peace of God, surpassing understanding. . . ." She offered a similarly specialized blessing for everyone, including those who had belittled her and her colleagues, other women students, on account of their gender. It was stunning. Alive with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Afterward, when the class offered her feedback, the first comments came from the two students who had, days before, diminished and dismissed the experiences and insights of the women in their NT class. They said that they would be thrilled to have their female colleague as the regular preaching pastor at their church. And they meant it.

We wrestle with lots of conflict in the church. In our disputations, we seldom come up with exactly the right words to persuade people to see things differently.  It may seem that we seldom see hearts and minds changed. But at worship — much more so than in a seminary classroom — we try to make space for the Holy Spirit to work in surprising ways. It’s good to be reminded that we have reason to believe that it’s possible. God is good.


Ron Rienstra is associate professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary and co-author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).