Women Leadership in the Church

As I write this, I am serving as a pastoral intern in a local church. If you told me I’d be in that role as a teenager, I would have been shocked and possibly horrified: there’s no such thing as women pastors, I would have said. I know many of my friends and family who grew up like I did might have similar responses to this idea. Some might dismiss me as having compromised the inerrancy of the Bible, some might look for a caveat that permits me to take this role, at least for a season, and some may believe I have left the faith. It is important for me to be able to articulate both my conviction in the Bible as inerrant, and that it is because I believe God has called me (as a woman) to such a ministry that I am stepping into it. 

First, some terms:

Complementarianism is the belief that God made men to be head over women, particularly in marriages and in church leadership. 

Egalitarianism is the belief that God made men and women to be brothers and sisters in Christ, doing away with hierarchies and instead insisting on mutuality in marriage and church leadership.

There is a spectrum of belief within these two camps, with the more conservative complementarians believing women should never be without a male head, work outside the home, or hold places of leadership even in the secular world, and the more liberal egalitarianism leaving the traditional heterosexual views of marriage behind and doing away with gender entirely as a social construct.

Personally, I see either extreme as problematic. I do believe God made male and female and called it good. I also believe that God relentlessly promoted equality throughout the Bible, and gender hierarchies do not reflect his redemptive plan.

But here’s the thing: there are faithful, Bible-believing, God-pursuing Christians on either side of the debate. You can make a case for either in the Bible, and people tend to hold to the one they were taught as a child. This is one area in the Bible that honestly is confusing. The Bible says women should be silent in the church, but then it gives instructions for when women speak in the church. The Bible says women should not teach men, but then it applauds Priscilla for teaching and correcting a man. The Bible says women should submit to their husbands, but then it rewards Abigail for disobeying her husband and going behind his back. It seems to say both/and. So what do we do with that?

Part of the problem is separating Biblical interpretation from Biblical inerrancy. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard the accusation “you don’t believe the Bible is inerrant” on multiple issues, from multiple sides of the debate – not because any one person is dismissing what they Bible says, just that they are disagreeing with someone’s interpretation of what the Bible means. (Read Michael F. Bird’s interesting take on how the North American church has gone wildly off course in terms of “inerrancy.”) How we understand the Bible matters, and isn’t always simple. We have a tendency to pick the parts of the Bible we like best and ignore the parts we don’t – both sides do this, and it’s important to be willing to wrestle with something that doesn’t make sense, and to commit to the whole of the Bible, not just select verses.

And sometimes there are two sides that don’t seem to go together, and we make the interpretation that one way is normative, and one is the exception, and you have to wrestle with the parts of the Bible that don’t make sense.

If the normative rule is for male hierarchy, and women to be silent in the church, we have to find reasons why Deborah, Miriam, Esther, Huldah, Phoebe, Priscilla, Abigail, Ruth, Mary, Junia and other Biblical women were allowedto lead, have authority over men and/or teach. And not only permitted, but called to and praised for such leadership.

If the normative rule is for egalitarianism, and women were called to lead and teach throughout the Biblical narrative, we have to figure out what have become known as the “problem” passages that tell women to be silent in the church, that do not permit women to teach or have authority over men, and that seem to teach a spiritual hierarchy of God – then men – then women in terms of leadership. 

Either way, there’s wrestling to be done.

I think too many people are unwilling to acknowledge this. If you are taught “the Bible is clear,” then the only reaction is to pretend the tension isn’t there, or – too often the case – dismiss anyone who disagrees your interpretation of the text as apostates. 

If we truly believe our theology is Biblical, then it should be no threat to go back to the Bible and look for explanations that would harmonize the whole story of the Bible, and not have to dismiss any parts of it as irrelevant or not pertinent. Never be afraid to ask hard questions of the Bible.  If it seems to contradict itself, wrestling with the text will usually help make some sense of it all.

So the next few blog posts will articulate where I came from and where I’ve landed on the issue of women in leadership in the church. 

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