Malcolm, tell us a bit about yourself
I am married to Debbie, who works at King’s College in London teaching nursing and we have four children – all teenagers! I come from Northern Ireland and was born and brought up in a non-Christian home. We lived on a council estate in North Belfast where I saw the impact of religious hatred and bigotry on neighbours and friends first hand.
I lead Gold Hill Baptist Church and a small charity called ‘Church and Community’ as well as doing some writing, broadcasting, lecturing and speaking. I work with government and other agencies around issues of faith in the public square.
I am passionate about the church engaging with the culture and about releasing people to fulfill their potential and their calling in God.
When you joined Gold Hill, you led the church through a process of reconsidering their position on women in ministry. Why was that a priority for you?
I am a committed egalitarian. Having not grown up in a Christian family, when I came to faith the church community I was part of was one where women were not seen as called into eldership or preaching. I adopted that view because it was what I was taught but around fifteen years ago I began to question its biblical and theological foundation. Having examined the scriptures and thought and prayed through the issue, my view changed from a complementarian position to the one I now hold.
It strikes me that to believe in something means that you must live out of that belief – so that is what I have done. I am deeply uncomfortable with the view that you hold a position, but do nothing about it because of fear of what others might say, think or do. So for me, being committed to the view that I hold meant that I could not secretly hold it, but must play my part in advocating it, teaching it, practicing it and living it out – albeit within the context of Christian community, sensitivity and seeking not to be an offence to others. I cannot control whether other people are offended by my view – but I will not pretend not to hold it.
On a personal level, I have four children – two boys and two girls. Having moved to the position I now hold before my daughters were born, I now also see in them, as a father, the potential for them to become whatever God wants them to be. That is huge motivator for me now, but is not the primary motivation (although I do think the view of God as a Father leads one to a similar position!) Driven by theological and biblical conviction, I now want my daughters and any other women I encounter to know that I stand with them, for them and believe that they can do whatever God calls them to.
Over the years as a pastor I have seen many, many women exercise powerful, anointed and challenging ministries as a result of being released into them. They are the evidence, if people need it, of what God does through people when we release them and see in them what he does. The inconsistency of views that send women to other parts of the world to do what we will not let them do here is a deep concern for me. That coupled with the belief that we must be consistent in our view of women within and without the Christian community and the belief that we are denuding the church of some of its strength when we exclude women is a huge encouragement.
Lastly, I believe, quite simply, that this is a Gospel issue and I am not willing to run away from it.
And how did you do it?
Did you encounter opposition? How did you handle that?
Yes, I did. On the whole people were very gracious and kind and considerate. Previous leaders did not share my view but we talked that through and one of the wonderful things is that we are as close now as we ever were. I actually think that the way we handled the situation was a terrific witness – not just that we handled it. The church was given plenty of time to discuss.
Those who found it more difficult or who themselves saw it as a central issue talked that through with me on a number of occasions. As a result some continued to hold their view, but understood that I did not share it. About six people resigned from the church over the issue – some citing it alongside other ‘liberal’ tendencies they see in me. I sought to be gracious and help them find another church, releasing them with my blessing and celebrating their contribution to the Kingdom of God through Gold Hill.
One or two made life quite difficult – but my response was to seek to understand why they felt so angry about the issue. Having tried to do that, I then continued to love them, but felt free to release them from the church’s membership and encourage them to find a community where they can flourish.
My overarching commitment has been to continually remind people that I was not forcing the issue, but was addressing it with integrity and biblical commitment. It has been a wonderful example of a church learning from one another and growing together.
And what encouraged you that you were doing the right thing?
The conviction it was biblical, seeing women released and grow and being reminded by some friends that this was an important aspect of my ministry.
I was also encouraged because a few hundred other churches were watching us and I know that many of them have sought to change their position in the light of how God guided and helped us – I am proud of that.
I also believe that women have been released as a result of our changes – and I think God smiles on that.
How has this change affected your church?
Women are continually growing and being released in their gifts. We regularly have women preaching and teaching and their ministry is becoming more and more celebrated. I think the atmosphere in the church has changed. I would say, though, that women were already celebrated in Gold Hill – but in different roles.
I think the change has breathed possibility and hope into the lives of many, and I see it every time I see a young woman catch the realization that nothing stands in their way for becoming all that God wants them to be. Our church is stronger our vision is clearer, our leadership is deeper and more balanced and our passion to release people into their callings is growing.
And has it had any wider impact?
Yes. A lot of other churches around the world were watching us. To be honest I felt the weight of this decision very deeply. I wanted to be faithful to what Christ was calling me to do but I did not want to fall into the trap of thinking I was changing others. That’s not my job. I am delighted that well over 200 churches have taken similar steps since we made our changes.
I have also had a lot of requests for help and support ‘unofficially’. I think the wider impact is still being worked out and I want to find ways of serving and supporting others through similar transitions.
We are not there yet! There is so much more to do and I look forward to the day when people are called according to their gifts and skills and what God is doing in their lives not according to their gender as the sole definition of their personhood.