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Telling Secrets

faith, fatherhood, and culture

THOUGHTS ON THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN CHURCH

Thursday, August 03, 2006

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(NOTE: this was an open letter I wrote to my friend. I covet the thoughts of anyone reading this. Please leave me some comments on how brilliant I am, or how completely whacked I am.)

This has been a very touchy issue for us for the past month or so, so I've also been thinking a lot about it and have started to study through the scriptural arguments on the complimentarian and egalitarian side, even turning to the Greek. I'm by no means an authority on either one of those now, but I think I have a fairly decent understanding of them both.

So after multiple conversations with Mike and Russ, a bunch with other friends, and through my own study and experience, here's where I am:

First let's clear the playing field of debris. Let's assume that the feminist movement didn't happen. We've both had our run ins with various forms of feminism, some good some bad. This topic is easily loaded from the start based on our experiences, so let's put all that to the side and get back to it later.

I think an appeal to the 1st century church as an ideal to return to is also fairly weak because their model of church and what was happening with women in that age was completely different than ours. 1 Corinthians 14 tells the tale of a church much like the one I grew up in, the Plymouth Brethren church, with a self-governing popcorn worship service type model. During that service people could sing, prophesy, etc. and Paul in all his letters dealing with church structure (I'm thinking specifically of Galatians, Corinthians, and Timothy at the moment) had 2 things in mind concerning the gathering of believers -- order/peace and no false teaching. There was a lot of disruption and a lot of neo-platonist/gnostic teaching happening and Paul was writing to set the record straight regarding both, especially laying out the gospel again to get the teaching back in line.

Our current western church structure looks a lot different and leans heavily on the enlightenment assumption of expertise and reasoning. I suppose you could argue biblically for a head pastor by looking to the apostles, but they were church planters and feeders--they didn't have one church to focus on. A true 1st century church would be more flat in structure with no head pastor, only elders and deacons and deaconesses and the service would look much like a Plymouth Brethren service.

Next let's recognize our current culture -- it is quickly shedding the worst parts of the enlightenment in many ways and adapting the good parts of it to, hopefully, the good parts of postmodernism. So, i'd like to try to look at this acknowledging our current place in history and look at the Bible less as a manual or document to be analyzed and more like a living breathing thing that tells of God's orchestrating history to reveal Jesus, his plan of reconciliation, and his final sweeping up of sin and throwing it in the dustbin. Analysis is required to identify and trace themes, to be sure, so we'll use the best of the past and hopefully the best of the present.

So now let's get into it. It truly is difficult to paint a broad picture of God's work since creation and not see themes of structure in the relationship between men and women and their roles. I think you're right on to go back to the creation story, as Paul does, to point to the fact that it pleased God to make man and woman equal before him but man first with the woman as a helpmeet. Why did he do it that way? I think number one it pleased him to, and number two, because we are made in his image. So we get to the Trinity which we're taught also has structure and roles with God the Father being not top dog, but final decision maker/planner. But He doesn't operate solo...He works perfectly in conjunction with the Son and the Spirit. Different roles, all equal. And men and women are made from that mold. Point of agreement for us numero uno.

The fall screwed everything up and women are cursed to want to usurp the man's role. Sex between the sexes is corrupted. At the same time, she still holds a crucial part in the plan. It's not hard to see the effects of the curse today and much, not all, of the feminist movement and it's aftershocks are clear testimony to that. One of the mantras of the moderate feminists that i really like is this: "power with rather than power to or power over." I think that actually sums up what the partnership between men and women should look like. Ironic, no? Ok, point of agreement for us numero dos.

So let's continue tracing this theme through the old testament. Did god use women to lead and teach his people? Yup, but admittedly not often. There were no levite women listed taking care of the tabernacle and there certainly were no women high priests (another point of support for a head pastor, perhaps?). Women did play crucial roles in God's story though, so he's allowed to bend the structure he created. I'm thinking most specifically, of course, of Deborah the prophetess and judge. I've heard arguments saying that Deborah was just being used by God to shame the men who weren't stepping up to the plate. That may be, but it doesn't really matter, because there she is and I suspect that she would still have been a prophetess if God hadn't called her to judge Israel and put the hurt on its enemies. There are other examples too, none quite as stark, but we'll stop there for now. Point made.

While we're here, lets talk about the times when God's structure of male headship doesn't apply in the family -- a comatose husband, a widow, a single woman. How does God operate in these circumstances? Who is the head of the family now? The woman. So there are exceptions to god's rule of male headship. Point of agreement for us numero tres? I suspect so.

Ok, God orchestrates Israel's historical events to point to Jesus, to his church, and the establishment of his kingdom...blah blah blah, absolutely stunning in its implications. Next let's move on to Jesus and his liberation of women. Women in that culture were not allowed to learn anything and they certainly were oppressed in all our current senses of that word. Jesus treated them the way they were created. He taught them himself, they followed him around and took care of the behind the scenes stuff, they taught others what they learned in order to spread Jesus message (I'm thinking of the samaritan woman at the well here). Jesus established a new law of grace and elevated women above their culturally mandated place and they were eager to learn and participate in his work. The levitical structure was moot and the liberation of women was established. Jesus did not include a woman in his 12, though, and you could argue several views on that one -- first that he was training the heads of his churches, keeping in line with his created order. Second, that it simply would have been culturally inappropriate and downright scandalous for a single man to have females included in his inner circle. Indeed with what pagan worship was like at the time, it would have caused people to dismiss Jesus as different on the spot. Maybe the true answer is a little of both? The latter seems clear, the former seems possible. Point of agreement for us numero quatro.

Moving on to the 1st century church, it's clear that women were eager to claim their newfound cultural freedom and wanted to continue to learn. And they had a steep learning curve. This is a problem in a preach or sing as the spirit leads kind of church. Lots of opportunity for false teaching, on purpose or not, and for disorder. Paul came around to put the cabosh on both. However, it is clear in 1 Corinthians 11:5 that women did pray and prophesy, prophesy being things said for the edification and building up of the body, which requires both scriptural understanding and the ability to communicate. 1 Corinthians 14 shows Paul's solution for the disorder: he tells people basically to take turns and make sure everyone who has a revelation gets to share it. Now these things aren't just taken at face value either, because Paul requires that 2 or three leaders evaluate all that is taught to make sure it's right.

Paul also acknowledges many female co-laborers without whom his ministry wouldn't have gotten off the ground. Did they teach or lead any of the churches? I don't honestly know. Priscilla did with Aquila, a husband/wife team and in my opinion an ideal example for how churches should be led. I read a word study analyzing the greek word describing what exacly Priscilla and Aquila did to apollos...was it simply laying out the gospel to correct him, or was it also teaching him? Apparently there's no agreement on the matter in the scholarly world, so it is left up to interpretation through whatever lens you want to bring.

Paul talks about not letting a woman teach or exercise authority over a man. Taken literally, this doesn't make much sense in the practical world. Women teach men all the time and are often more gifted in leadership and interpretation than men. Our wives and mothers teach us all the time and we are right to listen to them -- Angela has brought perspectives to scripture that are more accurate and helpful than my own. So it seems that the "teaching" part needs to be lumped in with the "exercising authority" part. And so paul goes on to lay out the qualifications of people exercising authority -- eldership and deaconship. Women seem to be banned from eldership though they are welcomed in deaconship. I say seem because it is not exclusively stated and could be interpreted as fidelity in a marriage over simply being a husband (so women in, divorced people out). Jury's still out for me on that one. Either way, women are allowed to be deaconesses, they pray in public so they don't actually have to be silent as Paul says elsewhere, and they prophesy in public which means that for all intents and purposes they taught in the 1st century congregation as i've described it, the members of which included men.

Translating that principle to today, where the service looks completely different, women can still pray and prophesy in church. They can teach the congregation if the leadership approves of what they teach, the same qualifier that men have. The jury's out on the eldership thing, so I'll assume for now that women shouldn't be elders. What does that really mean? Elders, according to Paul's agenda in his churches, are charged to maintain order and to prevent false teaching. I also think they are charged with care of the congregation, to "pastor" it in the pastoral/shepherding sense (another point of support for head pastors?). I don't know where that is in the Bible other than Jesus saying to do it, but I can't think of Paul ever saying so. They are, as Russ said, where the buck stops. My friend Carol, my coworker who's been coming to the church, says she reconciled this by acknowledging the need for there to be one person ultimately responsible in any unit of people, be it a family, a workforce, or a church...otherwise, what you get is chaos. Wise words from Carol and it also helps me see more clearly Russ' point that he hammers over and over that headship is not privilege or power, it is duty and responsibility and there's a tremendous difference. Did Carol teach me today?

Given that current lead pastors are part of and subject to the elders, and with my assumption, then women are barred from being a lead pastor. Can there be exceptions? I think it is important to leave room for them because as we've seen, god makes exceptions to the rule himself and we must not act in a way that trumps that. Are women barred from teaching? Not in my mind from what I've laid out. There's nothing inherently special about the pulpit, no matter what reformed theologians say with their special/general everything. There was no pulpit in the 1st century church...it is a modern, western invention and it must be treated as such. It is awfully powerful, though, so I believe extra caution should be used when handing it over to anyone besides an elder, which could, by my reasoning, include people like Nancy Pearcey and exclude people like Marilynn Hickey.

If you are going to talk about leading a church in a missional direction, the women are going to play a key role in that just as they did in Jesus' and Paul's ministries, either as helpmeets to their pastor husbands (e.g. bedroom leadership), or as deaconnesses or as teachers of men, women, and children. I reject the notion that "like-minded men in this organization" need to "lead them and train them in the central issues of doctrine and missionality for this is a 1st century Biblical model." I simply don't believe that is the 1st century model and it seems silly to suppose that women need men in particular to teach them doctrine or missionality. I think pastors and their elders can decide to take the church in that direction, but they had better check with their better halves, the women in the church, to get their wisdom and input before they make any kind of major decision like that. Decision making without input from the workers is such a hierarchal, western corporate model and it's foolishness. I told Russ if I had my way, the church would be a flat organization, and to his credit, I said, it seems he already runs it that way. I'd just like to see the leadership involve its women leaders in decision making, granted that the final decision rests with the elders.

Do you see a trend here? I think that the model of church structure mirrors the model of family structure. If we're basing roles of men and women on the creation order and ultimately the trinity, then that foundation should apply to both the church and family. They are types of each other, if you will. Thus, a good husband would never lead the family without discussing any matter first with his helpmeet and making sure that they are both on the same page, acknowledging that ultimately the husband is responsible for what happens and should get the last word; and in a good marriage, that should rarely happen, if ever. Same goes with the church.

So, I suspect we agree on just about everything and I'm willing to watchfully submit to a male-only elder board with the strong belief that women need to be more publically valued and that we don't worry so much about their "place." They need to be more publically valued in the sense that we need to watch our language that smacks of a good-ole-boys club, which is mostly done jokingly in my experience but, like any joke, it belies an actual belief or attitude toward women. And their place is beside us, leading with us in harmony, each gender using whatever gift God gave them, including leadership and teaching. Let's not use silly justifications of teaching or leading in ministry by saying, oh she can lead that ministry because it's a parachurch ministry. All ministries, including the actual church service, are part of the Body of Christ. I think Mark Driscoll (in his book Radical Reformission) makes a somewhat false generalization when he separates out parachurch from the church, because it is often in parachurch ministries that the actual work of the church gets done (witness Xylem Family, Solid Rock, and Reformed Life), the difference being that parachurch ministries don't fall under the leadership of the elders. But let's just call it like it is, women serving and leading alongside the men, doing God's work. Regarding feminism, it is an over-generalized, tired horse that gets kicked and blamed for everything. It was responsible for a lot of good in our society and, under his sovereignty, God worked through it to further freedom for women and their societal equality with men in the Western world. As with all movements, much of it goes too far (e.g. trying to erase all gender distinctions), but I say, let's move past that corpse. People have been rebelling "against their place" long before the first bra was burned.

  1. Blogger petra said:

    hmm. I'm going to put some thought into this one.

  1. Anonymous DJ said:

    I always think it interesting that the western church spends so much time thinking about and debating these things. I realize the apparent "necessity" of these discussions when you are in church-land -- especially having had worked in two different churches now. These discussions are unavoidable. But this topic, and many others like it, are among what I would consider the "non-essentials".

    Being a woman, I am all too familiar with the practical issues of this discussion. But unlike many of my female peers, I don't like to spend too much time thinking about it. For me, it all boils down to the fact that I, as a follower of Christ, need to be able to see the people around me as God does. While the Bible certainly makes distinctions between people and people groups, the simple truth is that "God loves each of us as though there were only one of us." [St. Augustine]. To many, this may seem an over-simplification of the issue, but that is precisely my point; it is highly possible that we have made this issue much more complicated than it should be.

    Galatians 3:28, in talking about our salvation and being heirs says that there is "neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." If we are all heirs together, and if we all belong to Christ (vs. 29), does our gender really matter?

    When Paul describes the Church as being a body, he says that each part plays it's role, but that each part receives its gifts from the same God. Having my gifts silenced because I am a woman is incredibly frustrating, but the point isn't that I am a woman who was not allowed to use her gifts to their full potential. The point is that those gifts come from God and He will use them when and where He sees fit. Responsible churches will see past gender (and race and age and all those other things that we believe to be important but actually aren't) to the person that God loves and has uniquely gifted for His purposes. Irresponsible churches will suffer because they decide to instead spend time arguing about matters that, well, don't matter. Women (and men) who feel held back should turn first and foremost to the One who gives them their gifts -- He can and will guide and encourage and rebuke and change in His time.

    The two most important commandments -- love the Lord and love your neighbor -- may not offer the level of practical application that we desire for this type of issue, but Jesus tells us that the entirety of the Law (and therefore the things that God desires and wants for us) can be summed up in those two things... Maybe that's all that really matters.

  1. Blogger caleb j seeling said:

    thanks dj for a thoughtful response! i too pretty much relegate this issue to the "non-essential" category - it has very little to do with the gospel itself. in fact, having been deemed an "honorary feminist," i'm a little surprised to have dived so deep into this topic!

    there are a number of reasons why i'm spending so much time here. the first is that, like it or not, i am in church-land as a key lay leader. so while it's not an essential issue pertainant to salvation, it is a key issue (these days) as to the how the actual church is run. i think you put your finger on it though when you say "Women (and men) who feel held back should turn first and foremost to the One who gives them their gifts -- He can and will guide and encourage and rebuke and change in His time." The Welsh pastor Geoff Thomas said that what we're really talking about here is how an hour and a half each week is structured and conducted - so let's not blow this thing too far out of proportion. on the other hand, this is such a hot button issue for so many people that, like it or not, it is going to come up and it needs to be addressed.

    the second reason comes out of my new passion for finding out what the bible really says about things, doing my best homework on it, and then submitting to what i find there. i think my previous tendancy to dismiss issues like this was more laziness and avoidance than anything else. it is easier to not deal with this stuff than to dive into it you see how often paul talks about it and refers to passages all over scripture to support his arguements. so what i'm after now is a more full understanding of scripture in general and also what it really means to be a man and a leader.

    so i guess, thirdly, that's why i beginning to think that gender does matter. if we each are image bearers and we are created male and female, what does that mean about who god is, how the trinity works, and consequently, how our relationships with each other work. what's the redemptive message here? that's what i'm interested in...you know i've always had an identity issue and that redemption stories are my favorite. i'm after both. that also means, i guess, that this is a part of the full gospel message after all. still hashing that one out!

    meanwhile, as a lay leader, i want to ensure that women are not forbidden from using what god has gifted them, for obvious reasons, and that if there is to be a male-only eldership, that that body of men maintains a proper relationship with the women in their midst - i.e. one of absolute respect and full integration of their opinions and leadership. i want to make sure respect and integration is actually practiced and not just nodded at and i have to have my own doctrine on this issue biblically solid to do that.

    indeed, love the lord your god (and all the gifts he gives) and love your neighbor as yourself (including the women in your congregation).

    thanks again for your ability to boil things down to their essentials, dj!

  1. Anonymous dj said:

    Don't get me wrong, I completely understand and can relate to most of what you say and why you have dived so far into this topic. I have done much research and thinking about the issue myself. For several months, I studied the curses in Genesis as a way to better understand men and women and how God made each of us. I definitely see value in the conversation, and I believe it is something that all thinking-type Christians have to wrestle with at some point. I also more than understand the need to understand God's desire on the issue in regard to church. Having been silenced for so long, I am glad when church leaders are at least willing to have these conversations and study what God's word really says about it.

    The thing that God has been showing me (and these are my personal conclusions -- they may or may not apply to your musings), is that my life as a female follower of Christ is not limited to my church. If the local church will not take advantage of the gifts that God has given me, there are a thousand other venues in the Church in which I might be able to use them. The local church is often the simplest venue for sharing gifts and participating in the Church, so these conversations are inevitable at that level. But I don't think that God distinguishes between local entities like we do. They are all His Church, His Body. So for now He has asked me to work at a local church, and at the same time, He is prompting me to serve His Body outside that church's walls. For now, I'm still trying to figure out what that looks like, spending a lot of time listening and being still.

    I love having these conversations with you... =)

  1. Blogger caleb j seeling said:

    wise words, dj! great stuff.

  1. Blogger petra said:

    Well, I have a comment. But you have to go to my site to read it b/c it turned out to be very long...I didn't think it proper blogger etiquette to leave a comment as long as the original blog post:) I do reference people to your site to read yours first if they want.(if for some reason you want me to, I can take that part out.) Let me know what you think!

  1. Anonymous Xenia said:

    So, I am reading along and when I read about where the women are in the history of the church, all I can think is, "At home, raising the men (and women) to the positions they will hold! Is there a better job than that?" It makes me think about how many people think it is silly for the mom to stay at home anymore, since it is not neccesary with the creation of convieniences like daycare and the 2-income family. My husband has co-workers who actually ask what it is I do at home, as if I eat bon-bon's and watch soap operas all day long. Why were we created differently if we should not have separate purposes? We have different purposes by nature, God's nature. It is not that a woman can't, but why on earth should she want to? Before my husband spent 8+ months in Iraq, the happiest I have ever been was trusting in God to provide and being an obedient wife. Now, obedience in itself is an issue with a lot of people so I will explain briefly; Having more comtrol over my silly, flighty emotions and having an indescribable trust in my husband to lead our family and more so, love and faith in God that we had each other. Simple, but it will have to do. It is harder now trying to find that place than before I was forced into a "Man's" role. I did not want it but I rose to the challenge. I would much prefer the definition of roles to be finite that we have something that fits well and serves a purpose without trying to dream up why it is or isn't different, it just is. Call me crazy, but I am a mom who likes to make bread, knit, read, talk, explore, create and learn. My purpose in the church is to play teacher to my bright and curious 3.5 y/o daughter. It is not mearly a comfort, but a peace I have knowing that where I am is where I should be, without question. It is my opinion that if a woman is not to be the mother of her own biological children (or they are gone), she is "freed up", so-to-speak, to be the mother of many who need her gentle guidance, if she so wishes. We are all a part of history just the same, just because our names aren't mentioned doesn't devalue the purpose and extent of contribution.
    Well, I think that is plenty for now. Maybe I make no sense and am just blbbering, but it is LATE and I am tired. Goodnight! -Xen Xen

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