When I was a 23 year old theology student, I nominated the first woman to be elder in the life of our conservative church. The response: “We don’t feel called to challenge the church constitution at this time.”
This was a good church. I enjoyed the people and the leaders. But I also knew that there was an unspoken prohibition on women’s leadership. So I was careful. I chose a woman that had more theological training than anyone in our church. She lived close to church, so often volunteered and even taught elementary Hebrew to interested persons. I handed the carefully written letter to the elder that I knew would be most open to the prospect. I included the text of our denomination’s position paper on “Women In Ministry” with highlights on specific passages. This paper has since been revised to be less contentious, but at that time the last paragraph read like this: “The existence in the secular world of bigotry against women cannot be denied. But there is no place for such an attitude in the Body of Christ.” I explained to him that this could be controversial and I would like to be included in the conversation (I was a paid church intern that was pursuing ministerial credentials at the time…not official leadership of the church but well-respected as a leader). I got a letter back a few weeks later: “We don’t feel called to challenge the church constitution at this time.”
At the time I thought: “OK. This is a matter which we can agree to disagree. Some churches are simply going to see this differently. It’s OK that some accept and some don’t.” In short, I thought including women at the highest levels of leadership was optional.
I no longer think this is a matter on which we can just disagree. I’m now convinced that churches that deny women a place at all levels of leadership are outside of the will of God. Here are the 4 reasons why:
1. First and foremost, I believe that good biblical theology and hermeneutics (a fancy word for principles of interpretation) demand it. I’m not going to recreate the theological arguments here. I think the best job on this has already been done by N. T. Wright. But let me give you a few clues as to how we’ve often gotten this so wrong.
The New Testament is one of the most progressive documents in the ancient world on women’s issues. The authors never challenged the patriarchal system of headship because this was the legal designation of their day and there was nothing that they could do to change that (few [none?] of the early Christians had the necessary political standing). So they elevated women within the legal system that they had to the highest levels of legal leadership. We don’t have legal (or even cultural!) prohibitions to women’s leadership so we have the opportunity to carry out the biblical vision of equality of all people within the Kingdom of God. We have a biblical mandate to do that.
Update: Some have said that my article made no biblical argument even though I linked to one. So I decided to do a short series that explains the biblical argument for women at all levels of leadership. Please read The Bible Says Women Should Lead – Part 1 for all the Scriptures that show women in ministry, read Part 2 for a reading of the relevant passages in 1 Corinthians, or read Part 3 for relevant passages from 1 Timothy.
2. Secondly, the culture has shifted so far on this issue that we have exchanged our place as the socially progressive institution that we were for generations for the place of a culturally backward one. Now the church may have to be “culturally backward” on some issues because culture sometimes simply goes in a wrong, immoral, and untruthful direction. On this issue it seems clear that culture has gone in the right direction and the church’s insistence otherwise is a great discredit to her (the church is historically spoken of in the feminine) ministry. We are increasingly pushing ourselves to the margins of culture.
3. This is a justice issue and much of the church has gotten it wrong. What is actually happening in most churches? Women are in leadership. They are leading classes, organizing service and outreach, organizing fellowship events, and managing the day to day operations. But when the real decisions are made- the ones that people with influence want to be the ones making- women are excluded from the conversation. It is unjust to use women’s ministry gifts but to then exclude them from leadership decision-making. Some churches have an explicit practice of doing this. Others do so in practice as the real decision-making gets moved to the meeting after the meeting that takes place in the parking lot.
This is worse in churches that have women as “ministry directors” but will not give them titles of “elder” and “pastor.” Then we are blatantly using their leadership gifts until it’s time for a decision in which they would prefer to not include their voice…then we call for an elders’ meeting. Not only is this unjust, but it stifles the valuable and different concerns of our women leaders that we NEED at the table when making decisions. (Note: I would be one that would suggest that women and men are biologically different in ways that empower them with different leadership gifts. I’m not arguing that men and women are the same. I am arguing that women’s different leadership gifts are just as valuable as men’s leadership gifts. In fact, I would suggest that the stereo-typical “nurturing” disposition ascribed to women is absolutely essential in pastoral leadership: a matter that my male pastoral colleagues would do well to listen to my female pastoral colleagues.)
If you are from a denomination that ordains women and otherwise affirms their leadership, it is still time to ask whether they are genuinely been given all of the leadership opportunities of men. In the United Methodist Church, one of the places most welcome to women’s leadership, men are 6 times more likely to be appointed to a church of 1,000 plus members. Women are 10% more likely to leave ordained ministry than their male colleagues. And 1/3 of women clergy serve somewhere other than a local church (GBHEM, Clergywoman Profile). This is a justice issue.
4. It is time to raise up a generation of women to share in equal leadership of the church. I serve as the Director of the Lantz Center for Christian Vocation at the University of Indianapolis. The two main functions of our work are to help young people discern God’s call to ministry in all kinds of career fields (health care, social work, science, accounting, etc.) and to train those that are called to church ministry (pastors, youth ministers, missionaries, etc.). It is a regular occurrence for me to meet really gifted young women that I’m convinced God has called to pastoral ministry.
Increasingly, the young people that I meet that are the most gifted for church ministry are women. The women simply are (generally speaking) better formed for spiritual leadership than the men are. I’m sure that I will provoke some gender stereo-types here, which is why I gave my parenthetical remarks above, but the current church in America is weak on theology and weak on adventurous mission. Many of the men that I know that have sensed a call for pastoral ministry is because of a passion for theology or radical mission (culturally conditioned or biologically conditioned, this is the motivation that I’ve often noticed). The church in America has been much better at forming communities that are healing, redemptive, and oriented toward spiritual growth. Many women that sense a call to ministry sense that call because of a passion for this kind of community. That is my analysis. It is anecdotal. But I can simply say that my observation as a professional that works in this critical area everyday is that the young women that I teach and pastor are (generally speaking) more ready and gifted than the men to accept a call to ministry.
I’m very concerned that many of the women that are most gifted and prepared to enter church ministry are unwilling to accept that call. Some of them will say that they don’t believe women should pastor. Some of them think it but don’t say it. Others subconsciously “know” it but would not be able to articulate it. They “know” it because their church implicitly or explicitly taught them this. Their churches never allowed a woman to speak unless it was on “women’s” issues. The youth rallies that they attended were the same. That just isn’t what women do where they come from. (I wonder if implicitly some of them wonder if no good Christian man would marry them if they were a pastor…because they would be too “powerful” to be able to be “led” by him.) If the church is going to go forward into life and health in an age when the church’s ministry is at a critical place culturally, then we need these powerful young women to be inspired by other women pastors to be the pastors that God has called them to be. If you think this is a fabrication, two of three women in the picture above only entered ministry as a second career and only then with significant hesitation. That had to be convinced by others that they could in fact be pastors because they had been excluded from leadership at an earlier stage.
I no longer believe that women’s inclusion in all levels of leadership is an option- it is a must. It is biblical. It is culturally necessary. It is just. It is needed for the church’s future.
What can you do to affect change? If you have the power to influence policy, change the structures that prevent women from leading. If you have a voice (teaching, preaching, mentoring, blogging, etc), then use it to inspire young women to leadership and to advocate for change. If you are planning worship, a conference, or other event, invite a woman to preach (and not just about women’s issues). In fact, invite equal numbers of men and women to speak. Do what you can to empower and encourage young women that are considering ministry with prayer, finances, etc. Women clergy are prone to much higher drop out rates than men clergy too, so encourage the female pastors in your life.
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