I 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.