Why I am for women in leadership

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Patrick Mitchel, lecturer at the Irish Bible Institute, takes an in-depth look at the issue of Women in Leadership and gives his personal opinion about the issue.  Add your comments at the end of the article and take the VOX reader poll here to give your views. Follow further debate on this issue on Patrick's blog here.

The debate about ‘women in leadership’ revolves around interpretation of texts like1Timothy 2:12-13; 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, 14:33-35; Ephesians 5:22-23 and some others. A key question is whether the Bible contains fixed hierarchical gender roles based on a ‘creation-order’ blueprint. With limited space I can’t begin to discuss the details and so I’ve included a list of representative resources on both sides at the end of this article if you’d like to read around it yourself.

‘Egalitarians’ and ‘complementarians’ (more on those words in a moment) can agree on quite a bit: men and women are different(!); they are equal, both created in the image of God; both sexes are gifted by the Spirit for ministry; and no-one, whether male or female, has any ‘right’ to leadership. Leadership is a gift and calling of God to a life of loving and serving others under the shadow of the cross.

So while I’m disagreeing strongly with ‘complementarian’ views here, I do want first to emphasise that we are brothers and sisters in the Lord who are sincerely wanting to submit to and obey the teaching of Scripture. I also hope we can have an ongoing and civil discussion.

Clarity over words

Words are important in this debate. I prefer the word ‘mutualist’ to ‘egalitarian’, the latter being a word that implies competing rights being bargained over. ‘Complementarian’ is both a mouthful and misleading in the sense that it is a one-sided view where particular leadership roles are only open to men. There are no corresponding complementary ‘roles’ that are only open to women. So it is more historically and theologically accurate to call ‘complementarianism’ what it is; a recent word for a hierarchical view of men and women in leadership and in marriage.

‘The Spirit gives gifts to each one, just as he determines’

Egalitarians argue that hierarchy is part of the curse of Genesis 3, not a normative good pattern to follow. The overall thrust of Scripture is towards transcending patriarchy and effecting a restoration of unity and equality within the body of Christ; from creation and Fall to New Creation. Rather than perpetuate this fallen condition, the church should be reflecting the future hope of the New Creation in how men and women relate in the here and now.

You see this happening in the radically counter-cultural way that Jesus not only related to women but included them within the kingdom of God and called them to be his travelling disciples during his ministry (Luke 8:1-3). This was unprecedented.

You see it in Luke-Acts and the remarkable outpouring of the long-awaited Spirit (Acts 2:16-21). No-where is there a hint that gifts are given according to gender, either in Luke or in Paul or Peter. The language is overwhelmingly inclusive to all the church, male and female. Peter mentions the gift of ‘speaking the oracles of God’ (1 Peter 4:11).

In Paul, the gifts in Ephesians 4:11 of apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers and in Romans 12:3-8 which includes prophecy, teaching, exhortation and ruling are for everyone. Similarly in 1 Corinthians 12:28-30 the gifts include apostles, prophecy and teaching. This fits with the fact that Romans 16:7 says (despite extraordinary attempts to deny this) that Paul had at least one female apostle (Junia) who is outstanding as an apostle, not as a woman.

Priscilla is a Bible teacher to a man; she is called Paul’s co-worker – a term used for those partnering with him in the ministry of the gospel which included proclamation and teaching (and included other women as well).Phoebe is a diakonos (probably ‘minister’) and prostatis (‘leader’ is more accurate than ‘helper’) in the church (Rom. 16:1-2).

Paul is a liberationist in the Spirit, but he is also a wise missionary. The texts in 1 Corinthians and in 1 Timothy are best understood as correcting local problems in worship and church order where women’s inappropriate behaviour had the potential to discredit the gospel. In other words, Paul adapts his instructions to the patriarchal culture of the Graeco-Roman world; he does not enforce permanent hierarchical male-female relationships within the new community of the Spirit, the body of Christ.

Problems with Complementarian practice

Just as Paul engaged with this question in cultural and missiological terms, so must Christians today. To enforce patriarchal hierarchy within the church in our Western culture is unnecessary and damaging.

For example, I was talking with a woman recently who told me of her coming to faith as an adult. She’d had significant experience in business and held responsible leadership positions. She began attending a local evangelical church, full of enthusiasm to serve and thirsty to learn more of God and his Word. But after some time she found herself increasingly bewildered and surprised to be told she would never be able to do certain things since they were only open to men. Her confusion arose from a profound mismatch between her experience of the inclusive gospel followed by marginalisation and restrictions simply because of her gender.

Outside the church she had freedom to use her abilities and gifts as a person regardless of gender. Inside the church, her gender became a barrier and obstacle to using her gifts and being herself.

Complementarian thinking also leads to all sorts of inconsistencies as a supposed biblical ‘blueprint’ is applied in practice within church life (and marriage). Some say we can’t really understand why God wants it this way but that’s just the way it is. Others, like John Piper and Wayne Grudem, try to root women’s limited roles in the very nature of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. Men (as a sex) are made by God to be more predisposed to lead. Women (as a sex) are made by God to be followers and submissive to men. It is in this sense that John Piper talked recently and controversially of Christianity having a “masculine feel”.

Yet the Bible never talks in these terms. Other inconsistencies of application are numerous. Some complementarians end up with detailed lists of what women can and cannot do. Professor Howard Marshall describes the complex dos and don’ts at the end of Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth as resembling Rabbinic Judaism.

Some churches silence women altogether. Some have women who can preach occasionally (to do so regularly would confer too much ‘authority’ on her). Some women can teach and preach and plant churches – but as long as she is a missionary in a far-away place. Other churches insist on head-coverings for women. Some allow women elders as long as the ‘head pastor’ is male.

Others have women on a leadership team but only male elders. Most allow women to teach impressionable boys (and girls) but draw the line at men. Anglicans have ordained women priests but many seem to have all sorts of problems with women bishops. Some don’t allow women to teach at mixed-gender theological colleges, others do. Some encourage women to write books full of teaching that are read by men, others prohibit all teaching by women to groups of men in various contexts. Complementarian practice is a mess.

Why I’m for women in leadership

Egalitarianism can be summed up as being ‘for whatever God’s Spirit grants women gifts to do.’ There are a number of reasons I’m on the egalitarian side of this issue. The first is that I’m far more convinced by the biblical arguments around the relevant texts. The second is the large numbers of serious evangelical Bible scholars and thinkers who are making good arguments for egalitarianism. The third is that I believe the church and its mission is desperately impoverished without both male and female leadership. The fourth comes from experience. It is incontestable that many Christian women are just as intelligent, gifted, godly, and mature as many Christian male leaders.

I’ve lost count of the number of women students who have had all the necessary qualities for leadership and yet have had no encouragement or opportunity to express those gifts. There is something badly wrong with this situation.

It’s appropriate to give the last word to a woman, Cherith Fee Nordling, “Our human dignity, value, and status are no longer based on these distinctions and their privileged status in the old order … because in Christ these distinctions do not define human personhood or position. Privilege is given and exercised for the building up of the whole community, whether by men or by women. This does not entitle women to roles any more than it takes them away from men. All service is cruciform, all service is a gift to be given.” 

Lis Goddard & Clare Hendry, The Gender Agenda: discovering God’s plan for church leadership. IVP, 2010. This takes the form of an exchange of emails between two women debating either side of the argument. A readable ‘way in’ to the issues.

Sarah Sumner, Men and Women in the Church. IVP USA, 2003. A very well written and researched book: an egalitarian who agrees that the husband is head of his wife and searching analysis of Piper and Grudem.

Alan F Johnson (ed.), How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership: compelling stories by prominent evangelicals. Zondervan, 2010. Personal stories of ‘conversion’ to an egalitarian perspective by people like John Stackhouse, Howard Marshall and many others.

Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen (eds), Women, Ministry and the Gospel: exploring new paradigms. IVP Academic, 2007. Academic. Mixed views on a range of topics including a detailed egalitarian interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 by Howard Marshall and an interesting chapter by Henri Blocher on a way forward.

Claire Smith, God’s God Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women, Matthias Media, 2012. A series of Bible study chapters on key texts from a complementarian perspective.

Wayne Grudem, Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, Crossway, 2002. An exhaustive summary of strongly held complementarian arguments updating his and John Piper’s earlier book.

James Beck and Craig Blomberg, Two Views of Women in Ministry. Zondervan, 2001. Answer and response format between 4 contributors. Quite technical.

Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, Zondervan, 2010. A popular retelling of how to read the Bible through an egalitarian lens.

R T France, Women in the Church’s Ministry: a test-case for biblical hermeneutics. Paternoster, 1995. A thoughtful and wise exegetical study by an outstanding NT scholar and gracious Christian, recently gone to be with the Lord (and a former teacher of mine).

Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: an exegetical and theological study of Paul’s letters. Zondervan, 2009. The fruit of a lifetime’s work. An indispensable textbook. Egalitarian.

Craig Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: marriage and Women’s ministry in the letters of Paul. Hendrikson, 1992. Lively, readable and egalitarian from a well-known NT evangelical scholar.

Online Resources:

Christians for Biblical Equality http://www.cbeinternational.org

Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood http://www.cbmw.org

For a nice example of civil debate see these two self-critical pieces by Sarah Sumner and John Koessler criticising the weaknesses in their own side.

And if all this reading is too much like hard work, have a look at these short videos on women and the family and then women and the church by NT scholar Ben Witherington who has written and spoken extensively on this topic from an egalitarian perspective.