How I Became an Advocate for Women in Ministry

IMG_2636.JPGI didn’t grow up in a church community. So when I became a Christian at 18 years old, I had no idea that some people thought women shouldn’t be in church leadership. It wasn’t that I hadn’t noticed that men held an overwhelming number of pastoral positions. I just assumed it was a leftover from a previous generation’s culture.

Our congregation had a daughter church not far away and we would go lead music there from time to time. This small country church was pastored by a woman. Our denomination, the Assemblies of God, has long ordained women and there should have been no concerns with her leadership. I never heard anyone question her publicly, but on those long drives home from their church I often heard someone mumble about how it wasn’t biblical.

As a young minister-in-training, I diligently searched the Bible and became convinced that there were only two Scriptures that questioned women’s leadership authority and that both could be explained (as I did in my articles on 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy), while overwhelming biblical evidence showed that women should lead at all levels. It only took a little research to come to this conclusion and it was confirmed by my denomination’s position paper.

I suppose in those early years I did not grasp the full weight of the prejudice against women leaders. The women in my congregation were generally happy with how women were regarded. They never voiced any dissatisfaction that I could hear. And we never heard outright opposition to women’s leadership…besides we had a woman preach on Mother’s Day every year. So when people began to mutter about the woman pastor on the long drives home from our daughter church, I would argue that Paul affirmed women’s prayer and prophecy. Paul named women as deacons and apostles, I said. But at that time, for me these arguments were just about getting the Bible right. None of the women in church seemed to need an advocate.

I was unnerved enough about our lack of women on pastoral staff or on the governing board, that I was hopeful that we could bring our church practice back in line with what we said we believed as an Assembly of God: that women were equal to men in leadership. So when a spot opened on our board of Elders, I carefully and thoughtfully nominated the most qualified woman in our congregation that was not already married to one of our board members. I printed off our denominational statement with the letter and highlighted those parts where it said: “The existence of bigotry against women in our world, and all too often in the church, cannot be denied. But there is no place for such an attitude in the body of Christ.” When I handed the nomination letter to the elder that I most trusted in the congregation, he assured me “This is not going to be a problem in our church.”

About a week later I received a letter: “We do not feel called to challenge the church constitution at this time.”

The church had a constitution that used masculine language throughout, even if the authors had no intentions of limiting leadership to only men. It was written in a time when they likely weren’t thinking much about gendered-language. Whether our leaders answer was due to a studied conviction that women should not lead or an unwillingness to challenge the larger body, I will never know. Either way, an appeal to the church constitution in this case just felt like a cop-out. And the worst part for me was that I was on my way to graduate school and everyone knew I wouldn’t be there much longer. I had no ground to argue with the board about it. I was a lame duck.

It made me mad. Here was a woman that had more theological education that most of our staff, two years of an incomplete seminary degree. She taught Hebrew to high school students on Tuesday nights and participated in women’s groups on Saturday. She was mature and discerning. But she was cast aside with a poorly written constitution as an excuse. That was the day that I became an advocate for women’s leadership in the church. It was the day that I realized that the prejudice against women’s leadership wasn’t an accident of culture. It was systemic. And progress would not be made despite doctrinal statements or even elders that had no conviction against it.

Women were going to be exempt from leadership in this large and otherwise healthy church because no one was willing and able to make a stand.

When I began teaching at the University of Indianapolis, I encountered another phenomenon that rocked me to my core. No matter how much I’ve made the case that women should be in leadership at all levels, I still have an overwhelming number of female students that do not consider pastoral ministry as a possibility. Some don’t believe that they can be called to pastor because their church said so. Others have just never seen it done. I talk with young women every day that exhibit all the gifts of pastoral ministry, but are convinced that God can’t possibly be calling them. Of course, not every one of them is called to pastor. But some of them are.

I learned a great deal from my church not considering a female elder and from the unwillingness of so many gifted women to consider the call to pastoral leadership. I learned that there is a significant amount of inertia holding the church back from realizing her full potential. I also learned that there are plenty of men unwilling to step forward as advocates for women’s leadership. If we believe this 2012 Pew Research survey, 75% of evangelical pastors now believe that women should be pastors. If so many pastors agree that it should happen, why are so few speaking up? My guess is that there is a very vocal minority that convinces others that the cost is just too high. I simply will not allow a vocal minority to rule this conversation.

I have also learned from my experience as teacher that this issue is affecting young women very deeply. This is one of the primary reasons that I am now convinced that we can no longer agree to disagree about these bible verses. The time is now for a revolution in the life of the church. And all Christian leaders, male and female, need to speak for the full inclusion of women’s leadership. Women will rightfully speak for themselves. But of course, when women speak it is easy for the opposition to write them off as power hungry and motivated by selfish ambition. We need Christian male leaders to stand with our sisters in this call.

Carolyn Custis James’s book, Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, explains why this is so vital. The church is failing to do ministry rightly so long as women’s voices are not guiding the mission of the church. Women have unique perspective that cannot be excluded from our vision of the Kingdom of God. Until their voice is loud enough that it drowns out mine, I can no longer be silent. I hope that other men will stand with me.

I shared this story at a recent speaking event and realized that I should include the story here. My story is not a dramatic one. But the encouragement that How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals has been for many egalitarian advocates made me think the story was worth telling anyway.

Click here for more that I’ve written on Women in Ministry.

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Comments

  1. raswhiting says

    The article is great! I shared this on Facebook.
    The photo illustration was confusing – I had thought this was a guest post by a woman!

  2. Fred says

    It is wonderful that you use some Scripture and, at least, do not try to skirt around it. But, it is very obvious to those of us who know Greek and the Scriptures well that you are determined to see what you want in the Scripture instead of what it clearly says. The Greek word you reference simply means “servant”. Therefore, ANYONE who serves another or labors through a church fellowship is a “servant”. However, it is very clear in Scripture that there is a formal office for “Servants”. These are to be the “husbands of one wife”. There are far more than two passages that affect this subject, but you seem to ignore those.

    You point out prophetesses as if they were leaders and had authority over men, but you ignore the fact that, even if God did give them that type of authority, he specified that women were not to enter into the “men’s section of the temple” (which was closer to the Holy of Holies) on pain of death. Theological education and degrees have nothing to do with biblical qualifications for leadership. They should never ever come into this discussion. God wisdom and not human wisdom should set the qualification.

    This article is a good example of what’s wrong with American and European churches. Why does everybody have to be an “advocate” for this or that post-modern cause?! Why must we pattern our ambitions after the world and not after Christ and his Apostles? Why can’t you and others advocate Jesus Christ and Him crucified? Why can’t you advocate that women be servants of Christ and labor in the gospel and in their homes as the Scripture commands? Women are not denied the greatest gift of all — to tell others about the wonderful Savior who saved them. The world wastes away in lostness and this is what you choose to write about?

    What we need in the Church are people who are more concerned about planting the gospel and growing it in others. We do not need activists and advocates for our corrupt society.

    • says

      Thanks for your comment Fred, but I cannot go without reply.

      Because I’m quite competent at Greek, I know that what you have suggested is so clearly dissembling that my not addressing it in my articles cites above is intentional.

      First of all, it is not clear that there is an office of elder and deacon in Timothy and Titus (and certainly no where else). I happen to agree that this is the first emergence of the office, but that is not obvious. But it is obvious that your distinction between Phoebe as a deacon and Timothy speaking of an office is purely arbitrary. Paul uses the word both ways but there is no consistency in how he does so. It’s convenient that your distinction fits your preconceived notion.

      Second, IF Paul is giving qualifications for an office in 1 Timothy, he most certainly is not specifying that elders must be men by the phrase “husband of one wife.” Very few serious complementarian scholars even make this argument. The same hermeneutic would require that Elders also be married and fathers (children is mentioned later). This would disqualify nearly all pastors in the history of the church as they were celebrate until 500 years ago. It would also disqualify Jesus and (likely) Paul, so there is that. Paul also have instructions for the most committed to remain celibate. This “husband” phrase is clearly about divorce and/or polygamy and not being male or married.

      I have no idea why you mention education, but I do happen to think that persons qualified and called to minister should get an education…it might prevent some of these bad interpretations.

      And finally, why be an advocate? Because Jesus was (Luke 4) and said that was the role of the Spirit. It’s part of the Good News. We can’t preach Good News as long as our conceptions of women, race, class, etc. bad news and bad theology.

      • Fred says

        You’re right, Jeremiah. Thousands of year of church history must be wrong. All the Church mothers support what you are saying and the Bible has a huge amount of clear evidence from which to draw.

        Have you ever been to the Middle East? Do you understand the Semitic culture? I’ve lived here for over a decade and speak fluent Arabic. I can tell you that there has never been, in the mind of a Semitic man or woman (Jesus included) that a woman is to be the head over men. Do you not realize that you are putting a magnanimous western and post modern spin on this enter subject? Do you want to know why neither Jesus nor his disciples were inclined to speak so much about women being the head over men in the church? The reason is the same reason they did not speak about drug addiction — it did not even exist in the mind of the Semite or the Greek to think that way!!

        Many “qualified” people like yourself claim that the Scripture does not condemn homosexuality as a lifestyle. They use the same twisted arguments and reasoning. They say that there are only a few direct passages that speak to it and we should take them seriously. Well, guess what? No one needed to inform the Jews about homosexuality! They knew it was a grave sin.

        We can wrangle about semantics all day, but in the end, it is the full counsel of God in Scripture that speaks the clearest. God does call women to be full workers in the ministry. He does not call them to have authority over men in the church or to teach men as Paul, himself says.

        Why would the Scripture say that the man is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church? How can one possibly twist that? It cannot be done by honest people. Any thinking and honest person cannot possibly believe that the Scripture is calling for women to be submissive and chaste in the home — to be workers in the home — and then be completely the opposite in the house of God!

        You know as well as I do, that the world is now full of all kinds of “scholars”. You can find scholars to support you in every theologically flawed idea you wish — including sexual relations with children. For those of you that fear God and want to do right in his sight. please listen to what I am going to say here.

        Which do you think is wiser… To believe a teaching that is solely the product of modern liberal Christian “scholars” who must commit theological gymnastics to achieve their goal of making it palatable for your consumption OR to just follow and believe the Word of God as it is written clearly and simply?

        They will have you believe that you are being oppressed and that your “rights” (as if the Kingdom of God is about such things) are being denied you. Do not believe what they say. God calls all of us to the ministry of reconciliation in Christ. There is no higher calling than that. If God created you as a woman, then obey him as a woman. Let your chasteness and holiness be seen by all. The Lord is near and is standing at the door. Judge for yourselves what is right to do.

        • says

          Fred, YOU are what is wrong with the church. You sound almost afraid of a woman being your equal. If either of you fellas want to look into it a bit more, the phrase, “husband of one wife” is a greek idiom that was used in popular greek culture about both women and men. It was speaking to being a “one-person” kind of mate. It was like saying, “a one-woman man” or a “one-man woman.” It was CLEARLY and simply referring to not being a polygamist or poly-amorous. And Fred, darling, if you have a wife, I hope she smacks you in the head with your bible one of these days. 🙂 Lovingly, of course. 🙂

        • says

          I forgot to mention… “head” in Greek doesn’t mean boss or in authority over, Fred. It means “source” or actual round thing on your shoulders. 🙂 Just because a word has a secondary english definition doesn’t mean all the same are carried over into another language.

  3. Jill says

    Thank you Jeremiah! What a really WONDERFUL post. So encouraging and so powerful! As a 20-something woman, I grew up in a church where women lead regularly. I honestly didn’t even know that there were people against women in leadership, as you yourself mentioned. These last two years as I’ve been face to face with this issue more, it breaks my heart. I don’t want to only labor in my home for the Gospel. I want to be a world changer. I want to partner with my brothers and sisters to fight for the Kingdom. Not because I want power, but because it would be wrong to place all this responsibility on men alone. There is too much Kingdom work to be done for only half the Church to be doing it. We women are often “denied the greatest gift of all — to tell others about the wonderful Savior who saved [us]” because our voices are silenced in many places. If we are not included in the conversation in the first place, then we’re silenced. Thanks again Jeremiah! Truly wonderful!

    • Fred says

      Jill,
      Please understand almost all of the very conservative and biblically-based Evangelical churches do not hinder women from doing the ministry that God has called them to do in the Scriptures, both in the home and outside the home.

      Women were involved in all types of ministry in Acts, the Early Church, and throughout the ages. WHAT HAS CHANGED is that post-modern liberal Christians, like Jeremiah, have created a whole new theology (it never existed before the modern era) that claims that women should lead and have spiritual authority of men in the church. This is not only NOT supported in Scripture, but it is against the whole counsel of God’s word.

      Is a woman or a man, for that matter, denied the ability to be an ambassador for Christ and share the good news just because they do not speak from the pulpit or lead the church? Can you not see how utterly ridiculous this idea is?!

      Is the head more important than the feet and can the arm say to the legs, “I have no need of you?”. This is the same idea in the Scripture with regard to men and women. Men and women have equal importance before God and before each other, HOWEVER, God has designated certain roles for each of them. If God had wanted, he could have created us all one gender with the ability to procreate through and by ourselves — he did not do this.

      God created us different and gave women the role of mother and gave her the body parts to nurse babies. He gave her the emotional make-up to devote herself to her children and be connected to them more than the man. This is of God’s design and it is beautiful in his eyes.

      We are to follow God’s design and not give in to a corrupt and dark society that tries to convince us that God’s design is oppressive and harmful to women. Men are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. The wife is to respect and obey her husband just as the Church is to obey Christ. That is the will of God. You will be judged by how you respond to it.

      It does not matter to me what you do or how you think. We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ alone. But if I love you, I will share the unadulterated Word of God with you so that you may learn how to be pleasing to God. Jeremiah and others are adding to and taking away from the Word of God. They will be judged for this. Do not follow them in their folly.

  4. Marianne says

    Thank you for having the courage to speak up on behalf of women. It seems to me that there are many today who call themselves “Christian” that would reject Jesus if he came to earth today. Jesus, who dined with sinner and sent women to spread the good news. No doubt, He even showed love and compassion for homosexuals.

    Galations 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

    • Fred says

      Marianne, If you will look deeper into Galatians 3, you will see that Paul is clearly speaking with regard to salvation in Christ. He is not talking about the biblical roles of men and women nor is he speaking to the qualifications for elders (pastors) and deacons.

      We must be true and faithful to look at the Scripture in its context and allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. The New Testament writers show us how to do that throughout their writing in the New Testament as they quote and work through Old Testament passages, even through they were writing by revelation from Christ,

  5. says

    Dr. Gibbs, I have just discovered your blog through this post, and want to say how deeply thankful I am for your words and perspective. It is incredibly comforting to know that there are ministry leaders out there who understand exactly how young women are being shaped when they sit in churches and see only men preaching, leading, serving communion, and praying and reading the Bible during worship services (not to mention read a Bible with only masculine pronouns!). I was in college when I finally began to question a lifetime of those male-dominated spiritual experiences.

    In the mainstream evangelical world, believing that men and women are equally gifted for ministry is a hard and often lonely road to walk. I am grateful for scholars, thinkers, and teachers like yourself who have stood up as advocates to light the way.

    • Fred says

      A pastor is not the one who does the “work of the ministry”. He is charged in the Scripture with “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry”. Men and women, therefore, are totally free to do all ministry together. The pastor is the one who “watches over our souls” by praying for us, encouraging us, feeding us the Word of God, leading us, and equipping us to do the all-important ministry of reconciliation.

      There is an unhealthy and anti-biblical position held by everyone on this thread, that somehow, we must gain the position of pastor so that we can serve God. This is not of God and contrary to the counsel of God.

    • says

      hls, I think we have entered a very different world…even if it doesn’t feel like it from any one person’s position. I think the future of the church in America is going to be one with a prominent place for your ministry and other women’s. Stay faithful as things are changing in our own lifetime.

  6. Fred says

    LA, Your insults and demeaning speech will not deter me from encouraging people to be faithful to Christ and his Word. You are simply wring on your understanding of the Greek. Of course, there may be more than one meaning to any word in any language, but for people to try explain away the scores of passages that speak to so many issues that are not jiving with our fallen societies is dishonest and deceptive.

    I serve God and I do that with a clean conscious. My wife and I love one another. I serve her faithfully and love her as I should. She is not afraid to submit to my leadership because she knows that I love her and our family. We do not and have never spoke in terms of “her rights” and “my rights”. That kind of talk is reserved for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and post-modern atheists and “christians”. It is not for the follower of Christ to talk in terms of rights in a marriage — there is no need.

  7. Morris Taber says

    Neither Apostolic Succession nor male genitalia are necessary to being successful Christians and leaders of such. Fortunately, the advocacy that Dr. Gibbs speaks of is not necessary in our United Methodist Michigan Area where women have enriched our State again and again at ALL levels of Church leadership.

    • Fred says

      “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law… let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, “THAT YOU MAY BE JUSTIFIED IN YOUR WORDS, AND PREVAIL WHEN YOU ARE JUDGED.”” Romans 3

      Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Matthew 4

      • Cynthia says

        Fred,

        I do agree that with you that we must hold up the Word of God, and yes there is much twisting and proof-texting of scripture these days to hold up a lifestyle or conviction. We have to be vigilant holding fast to the Word of Truth. But I say the following with great sadness, your posts stir up more pain and hurt for women rather than bring loving correction. They come across with an undercurrent of anger towards women. I only want to really make a few points, not all women are called to be mothers and to nurse their babies. And what do you do with the single women, where do they fit into your definition of the roles you have stated? I have sat with countless women who don’t fall into the categories you suggest. Who don’t know where they fit into the narrow box you have prescribed as biblical. They desire to live lives of meaning and purpose even though they find themselves unable to conceive a child or find a husband. It’s not as simple as you suggest.

        Secondly, I voluntarily submit to my husband out of love for God, because that is what he asks of me. My understanding of scripture taken in it’s whole context from cover to cover, is that I am to obey God first and foremost. Studying all the texts, together as a whole, I am not called to obey my husband as you say, but rather with respect and love, submit to Him because I have surrendered to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, He is my example (Philippians 2).

        I don’t know if you realize, but you have posted more than any other person on this thread. Your tone lacks loving correction (even if what everyone is saying is off) but rather that you are out to prove your point at any cost and this might sound harsh, but the tone of your words sounds extremely self-righteous. Even capitalizing the scripture in your last comment, gives the emphasis that you are actually yelling at us to drive home your message.

        I have godly male leaders in my world who hold an opposite view than I do, but we hold mutual respect for each other and don’t try to convince the other about our convictions on this subject. We leave room for disagreement and give each other grace, because we are on the same mission. To bring glory to God and to further His kingdom.

        The question I would leave you with is this, what woman in your past has hurt you so deeply that you feel the need to rant against those who just want to use their gifts to honor God?

        I bless Dr. Jeremiah Gibbs for making room at the table and for holding up women as God intended. We are created equal in His image and the Holy Spirit distributes gifts without gender differentiation.

  8. says

    You’ll be delighted to know that I am also an advocate for women in ministry as well! I am an advocate for lay ministry! If a women is evangelizing to others, regardless of whether she’s a priest or not, she is effectively in ordained ministry! If a woman is going forth bringing Jesus into people’s lives, regardless of whether she’s a deacon, priest, or bishop, she is in active ministry! Same goes for this lay male commenting here.

  9. says

    Jeremiah, the reason churches do not allow women pastors is male headship. The Assemblies of God were at one time leading in women ministers, but most today are part of a pastoring team of husband and wife. The reason is that on the websites that I have visited, male headship is promoted in marriages and leadership. Their marriage seminars promote male headship. If a woman cannot be equal in her marriage, she cannot be equal in church. Simple as that. Methodists also have many who believe in male headship, and this will be a factor they face before long unless we speak out. This prevailing teaching is what pastors must speak up again. Modern day male headship teaching began with the Danvers Statement in 1987 as a gut reaction against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in which women were getting rights (after court battles). Churches clamped down, particularly Big Daddy the Southern Baptist Convention. Then in 2000 they came out with their own document the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 which was birthed by the same people who wrote the Danvers Statement. The Seventh Day Adventists in July 2015 turned down women’s ordination due to male headship teaching. That is the giant we are all facing. I myself have demanded an apology from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood which wrote the Danvers Statement. Please don’t discount the influence of the Southern Baptist Convention on all denominations. Their 55 seminaries (including satellites) teach young pastors male headship. They may be shrinking, but they have 49,000 churches and the vast majority are male headship. Thank you for your work and for your voice.

  10. says

    Reblogged this on The Power of a Confident Woman and commented:
    I am re-blogging this because I advocate women in ministry. I am a woman in ministry. More than that I truly believe more women are called to Pastoral ministry but the opposition has been too hard on them. I feel there has now come a time in the church where the spiritual gifts of all women are needed,especially in church leadership.

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