Female Leadership in Church

I am in the midst of gathering my thoughts on a book I’m reading – Developing Female Leaders: Navigate The Minefields and Release the Potential of Women in Your Church (proper review to come). I will leave that for another post, but there’s something more pressing I would like to share.

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Since we are celebrating International Women’s Day today, I pondered on the campaign theme #BalanceforBetter and these things that naturally follow. How can we help to forge a more gender-balanced world? Do we celebrate women’s achievement? But more than that, should we raise awareness against bias, especially in church?

Many Christians, both women and men, believe very fervently that, while husbands should certainly love their wives as Christ loves the church and gave himself for it, God has divinely appointed the husband to be the one who makes the final decision in matters within the family. However, should the husband and wife disagree, he would make the decision and his wife should gratefully submit to his God-appointed decision-making authority. These men and women would, naturally, carry this paternal authority from the home into the church.

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Therefore most women, however gifted, are precluded from shouldering the ultimate responsibility for decision-making in the family or the church. Women would certainly be encouraged to teach both the female and male children both in home and in the church, but they would be restricted from teaching adult men in either venue. After all, these proponents will be quick to point out that Paul did not allow women to teach or have authority over men. Clearly they would acknowledge that men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God, but that God has appointed different roles for them within the family and church.

 

Teaching and Spiritual Leadership

In First Timothy 2:12, Paul writes that “I do not permit woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence”. The statement is actually in the present tense and could be translated “I do not presently permit ….” However, in I Corinthians 11, he assumes that women will both pray and prophesy (what today would be thought by many to mean preaching).

In one congregation, Paul says he does not permit women to speak and in another he affirms their speaking and preaching (see Acts 2:18 and Joel 2:28-29). Depending on the local situation with each congregation – Paul’s specific practices dramatically differ. We do not have any detailed explanation from him as to why he established these differences, but scripture is clear that Paul affirmed both. Patriarchal anarchy and sexism belong to the first century.

Nonetheless, Paul took steps to change the politically correct right of males control into a new era. The great new revolutionary principles of New Testament Christianity were not fully realised within first century culture, nor in our own time, but fortunately, change had begun.

Although we see no women specifically identified as pastors in the New Testament, neither do we see any men specifically identified as pastors. God can and does call some women to teach their male peers and even serve as their pastor. Women can be called to the ministry of deacon and elder within the church community. Principles and themes within the scripture as well as examples support these “non-orthodox” callings by God.

Women have been the backbone of virtually all churches, Christian communities and missionary work around the world. They pray, teach, call on the sick, share their faith, organize others in ministry, lead ministries of music, write Christian teaching literature and serve on the mission fields throughout the world. These ministries are widespread for both single and married women throughout Christendom in almost all denominations.

In spite of these, the roles which require ordination (priests, pastors, elders and deacons) have traditionally been denied to women in many churches. Also in some circles the teaching of men by women is not permitted, although ordination is not relevant here.

 

Ordination

Ordination in the New Testament times was a very nebulous thing. The word as a noun does not even appear in the New Testament text, and at least a dozen different words are translated in the infinative (“to ordain”). In its primitive expression, it seems to have been a way for the churches to bless and encourage persons with gifts for ministry. Nothing magical was involved with the ordination process. It is just a way of confirming a person’s call to specific ministry by persons other than themselves.

Clearly, in the New Testament period itself, ordination was not a very clear-cut practice. Today it does serve to some level of regulation of who can and cannot do certain types of ministry within specific churches as well as provide certain legal status and responsibilities to those who are ordained in certain countries. Neither of these two consequences of ordination appears to have any biblically-based authority.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I am happy to see that certain portions of the Christian Church are in transition on this important subject. Unfortunately, some of the transition appears to be rooted in traditions that oppose the ministry of women in the pulpit and opposed to encouraging them to operate out of their God-given leadership gifts within the nuclear family.

However, some of the trends are that throughout the world more and more women have been responding to God’s call to pastoral and leadership vocations. They are in congregations where the Holy Spirit has called forth their spiritual gifts for leadership and teaching ministry and these women have faithfully responded to God’s call. They are preparing for effective leadership in ministry.

An important thing to consider about the role of women in the more conservative Christian churches is that this issue about the role of Christian women is based on a difference in how to interpret scripture. There may well be other agendas such as traditional sexism and cultural chauvinism in some venues, but in conservative biblical circles, the issue is how one is to interpret the New Testament.

The challenge for us is to live out of our faith values discerned from God’s word NOT be held hostage to our cultural biases, no matter which side of this issue appeals to us personally. This divergence in theology and cultural preferences is not new and should call us to dialogue with one another, not to name-calling.

I believe that Jesus chose to start where people were. He was obviously calling into existence a faith-community in which traditional sexism – patriarchies as well as racism and slavery could be overcome. He called us to become one in our marriages. He called us to seek and develop unity in our churches and world.

Unity is not sameness, but being of one heart, cooperating together and unifying our diversities to serve God together. Such could not be accomplished by swift, simple, radical confrontation either in the church or the culture. I pray that you will seek the Word and Spirit of God as you examine this fundamental issue of our Christian practice.

 

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