Why do we believe…women cannot lead in the Church (or at least not at senior leadership levels)?

Growing up I have seen and heard a wide variety of rules and beliefs concerning women in church leadership. Some of these rules are unspoken while others are very clearly defined and codified. One one extreme there are some Churches that affirm and ordain women for ministry at all levels of Church service, including senior pastor positions.  For simplicity’s sake I’ll refer to this stance as the Libertarian stance. On the other end of the extremes are churches that ban women from any kind of leadership in the Church. This I’ll refer to as teh Hierarchical position.  My focus in this post is on the position I have encountered the most and position I find the most inconsistent.  This position is the gray area between the two extremes where women are allowed to lead in a variety of roles with a few notaable exceptions, usually the most senior levels of leadership.  This complementarian position is articulated well in Mark Driscoll’s book Vintage Church (Discoll 63-80). Driscoll provides support for this position that I have found common to many who adhere to this view including this four fold assertion:

1. Men and women are created equal but different

2. That the OT priesthood was all male

3. That Jesus had twelve male disciples and excluded women from senior leadership positions

4. That Paul forbade women from having authority over a man in 1 Timothy 2 writing, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet…”

While nothing like this is on paper in our governing documents, this complementarian approach to leadership is the unspoken standard at Big Valley Grace Community Church.  We have no female pastors (come to think of it, all of our pastors are Caucasians except for our Spanish pastor, but that’s another post altogether…) and no female elders but we do have many female “Directors” that direct several of our ministries, including our Women’s ministry, our Counseling ministry, our Elementary program, our Food Services program, and our Early Childhood programs.

While I went along with this during my formative years to lack of education, lack of reflection, and a lack of experience, I now think this position is internally inconsistent and unbiblical.

To respond to Driscoll’s points I would suggest this.

1. To suggest men and women are created equal but different is shockingly similar to arguments used by segregationists.  Men and women are different but both represent the image of God.  There are clear biological differences between the two sexes.  There are also culturally defined gender stereotypes regarding what men and women “should” be like. However, I do not see how either these biological or even culturally defined differences between men and women would or should preclude women from leadership or more specific to the complementarian stance certain types of leadership.  To be completely crude, does we honestly believe that the gifts required to effectively lead a local congregation are somehow imparted in the male genitalia or some more abstract “maleness” as defined by our culture that women do not have access to because of their gender?  Does “what it takes” to lead the church reside in the amount of testosterone one has in their body?  Much more importantly when the gifts of the Spirit (including the gifts of teaching, administration, discernment and knowledge…gifts very useful for church leaders and teachers) are promised to Christians I do not find anything in the scriptures that suggests certain gifts are for certain genders.  The Bible does not promise certain gifts to men and certain gifts to women, it just promises gifts to Christians. This would imply that at some point and time the gifts especially suited for church leadership will be given, by God, to both men and women. Does it make sense that God gifts certain women for leadership but then bars them from leadership in the Body of Christ, or that God gifts certain women for leadership in the Church but does not gift them enough to be full qualified for senior leadership?

2. The Old Testament religious system involved many things including a variety of sacrifices, laws and practices that are no longer applicable because Christ fulfilled the Law on our behalf and our righteousness is in Him, not in our obedience to the Law.  This arguement is basically an appeal to go back and make parts of the Law applicable while still claiming freedom from the Law under the blood of Jesus Christ. I love the Old Testament and we can understand so much about God, humanity, and this world from the whole scriptures which include the Old Testament and the Law, but I am so glad that I no longer live under the Law, the sacrificial system or the culture of the Ancient Near East. To suggest that certain specific aspects of the Old Testament, its Laws or specific practices of that ancient culture, are applicable today after the person and work of Jesus Christ is ridiculous and heretical.

3. It is inescapable that Jesus was male and that all of Twelve disciples were male.  However, Jesus had a history of bucking the patriarchal systemof His day and throughout the New Testament one can see the elevated role of women, even through the patriarchal lens of the culture within which the Old and New Testament were written.  Jesus spoke to women he should not have, Jesus performed miracles for women, women were the first to visit the resurrected tomb of Jesus Christ, etc.  Furthermore, Jesus certainly trained Twelve male disciples he also taught large groups of people, such as say the Sermon on the Mount. It would be ridiculous to suggest and impossible to support from the scriptures a belief that Jesus either shooed away all the women before teaching or that only men heard and learned from his public teaching.  Jesus did not have women in his Twelve disciples but he certainly taught women.  Furthermore, Jesus did not institute the various levels of leadership within the Church.  While he did promise to build his church upon the rock of St. Peter, Jesus did not institutionalize or draw up a constitution for how to run the Church, and Jesus certainly did not draft these formal documents including the exclusion of women from “senior levels of leadership.”

4. Overall, the interpretation of these verses brings up one of my greatest complaints about how we interpret the Bible and I need to write a minute on hermeneutics to continue explaining my point.  Often people, on both sides of this issue, lose sight of the forest for the trees.  In fighting vehemently for one a position we spend lots of energy and time debating minute details of the Greek or Hebrew stretching the bounds of what we can really say about language, culture, and authorship.  Theologians from the compelmentarian, libertarian and hierarchical camps fall into this trap to varying degrees.  F0r example, a debate currently rages about what “kephale” (head) really meant in Paul’s day and the authorship of certain letters in Paul are disputed.

First of all, what can be said about what certain words mean several centuries ago in a dead language is incredibly difficult.  Languages change over time and using Hebrew as an example a given word might have had different connotations throughout the Bible because it changed over the several centuries the Old Testament was being written in. To bank far reaching doctrines on highly disputable meanings of words that are not that common in the New Testament is a dangerous exercise.  Second of all, the authorship of scriptures is ultimately, for me, unimportant.  God has seen fit to preserve certain scriptures in our canon and I trust that the books that survived the persecutions and later the councils are there for a reason.  They are authoritative and we should seek to understand how God would apply them and the truths contained therein today not try to weasel out of them by inventive acts of scholarship in an effort to discount them because what they say offends our modern sensibilities or our traditional values.

I feel here I should be explicit on one point.  In a class at Fuller a professor said something that struck a chord with me.  It was something I was working my way to as a scholar but I had previously failed to articulate.  They said, “The Bible is sexist, irredeemably so.”  One cannot escape that the culture that transmitted much of our scriptures many Modern Western readers would see as a sexist culture.  This comes through at many points.  For example, there are sexual laws regarding men and not for women in the Old Testament; homosexuality is forbidden but lesbianism is not directly addressed.  This should not be surprising.  The Gospel has, and always will, exist within a culture.  This should also be freeing because we can understand certain scriptures as descriptive of the culture, not the content of the Gospel.  Not everything in the Bible is to be flatly understood as a prescriptive commandment for today. On the flip side, however, we cannot escape the sexism inherent in certain parts the Bible completely.  I fear that some theologians, in an effort to make the Bible fit our modern understanding of gender equality, have had to practiced poor scholarship or dismissed parts of the Bible that are offensive to them outright.  This is not good, and this is ultimately not necessary.

As such, I love the interpretive approach taken by Ray Bakke in Theology as Big as the City,a book on urban ministry, and Scott McKnight in The Blue Parakeet, a book on how we interpret and apply the Bible for today.  In addressing this issue both take a much more broader and holistic view of the scriptures.

Both authors point to the simple fact that in the Bible we see women in leadership, even in Paul’s writings. Bakke points out that Paul’s letter to Philippians highlights how apparently at least three women were in leadership (Lydia, Eudoia, Syntche) and there was no call for males to replace them as leaders nor any mention of silence, submission or coverings. (Bakke 155) McKnight explores how the actions of many women were recorded in the Old Testament despite its patriarchal context before also highlighting the mention and role of several women in the New Testament. McKnight brings out the work of Mary who “influenced her messianic son, her New Testament writing son James, and provided information to Luke as seed for stories that got his gospel off to a great start,” Junia a female apostle that Paul credits with being outstanding, (Romans 16:7) Aquila (Acts 18:2-3 and Pheobe (Rom 16:1-2). (McKnight 176-185)

Women acted in leadership in the Bible.  This creates a tension for those that suggest Paul’s ban on women in leadership is as authoritative for all of Christians throughout time. If one believes this, one must wrestle with the fact that both Paul and God were apparently totally fine with women in leadership  at numerous times in the history of the people of God.

On the other side of the debate, one cannot simply dodge these scriptures.  Paul wrote these words for some reason and we should not say, “Well women had been in leadership so that ends the debate.”  For me there is only one solution that can harmonize my training with the languages, my hermeneutic for interpreting and applying scripture, my experience of women in ministry, the scriptures that speak of a radical unity at the foot of the cross (where there is no Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female), the scriptures that promise the gifts of the Holy Spirit and offer no suggestion that certain gifts are male or certain gifts are female, etc. This solution is the belief that Paul’s words banning women from having authority over a man are a very specifically directed towards the Church in Ephesus to address a situation that was specific to that church at that time.  As such, this ban on women in authority over men, was not meant to be prescriptive for all Christians across the world throughout time.

Once I began investigating this option, I found a lot of satisfactory information backing up this belief.  Like most of Paul’s letters, 1 Timothy was written to address issues that had arisen in the local church.  Here, Paul is confronting very specific issues that most likely stem from the huge influence the Cult of Artemis had in Ephesus.  Understanding that Cult and the likely confrontations it had with orthodox Christian practice and belief make sense of Paul’s ban on women in ministry and other things that seem to be internally inconsistent with Paul or confusing, such as his statement that women “led” in the Fall whereas in 1 Corinthians the fall comes through Adam and the cryptic statement that women will be saved through child-bearing.  If people are really interested I can write more about this in a separate post.

While other passages are brought to bear on this issues, such as Paul’s remarks regarding “headship” or submission in Ephesians 5, again I think we miss the point.  Getting caught up in what “headship” means, and its implications for gender roles in the family and in the  we forget that literally a few sentences before making such remarks Paul exhorts all Christians (presumably both male and female) to, “21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” While Ephesians  many of these passages are to be understood more as descriptive of the cultural context the Bible was written from and written to and not prescriptive for all Christian throughout time.  For example, in Ephesians 6 Paul also encourages slaves to submit to their masters.  Do we then honestly believe slavery is and should be part of all Christian families?

At the end of the day I have seen no convincing argument from scripture that suggests women should be barred from Church leadership or certain types of leadership.  I think any such rules banning women from leadership is more indicative of how we interpret and apply the Bible (which is often inconsistent even with itself) and continued gender stereotypes in our Church.  It has not escaped me that the places women are allowed to lead at BVG, with the exception of possibly the counseling ministry, are stereotypical roles for women in complementarian households. They can’t teach men, but we will let them cook, take care of other women, and take care of children.

That is really the end of my argument on this issue…but I did not arrive at these convictions over night.  And I should explain my own journey in a little more narrative format (for those of you who loves story) which I’ll do in my next post.

About Speakfaithfully

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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1 Response to Why do we believe…women cannot lead in the Church (or at least not at senior leadership levels)?

  1. Janelle says:

    This reminds me of the women’s suffrage debates that took place in Europe.

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