On women leading & teaching stuff in churches: a story

Women, and their role in shaping society’s power structures, are at the fore-front of our nation’s consciousness and cultural discussion right now–Evangelical and otherwise.

Socio-politically: Maureen Dowd wrote about it this past week. Hanna Rosin wrote a book about this happening. Sandra Fluke got Rush Limbaugh into a tizzy and then spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Republican leaders, for some reason, could simply not stop talking about rape. Mitt Romney bragged about his binders full of them. Last week, Americans elected the largest number of females to Congress than it ever has.

In Evangelicalism: Rachel Held Evans brought attention to misogyny and patriarchalism at one of the bastions of the Neo-Reformed. Her new book, which already carried some controversy, has been criticized and patronized by conservative evangelicals, including one of the top female thinkers of that flock (Evans’ response, a scholar’s rebuttal). Concerning said bastion, after a rough search and count for the phrase “Complementarianism”, it seems that over half of the results appeared this year alone. At the time of this writing, a different bastion of the Neo-Reformed, upon visit to their site has as the featured video: “Complementarianism: Essential or Expendable?”. The Church of England just announced their new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and one of the main issues being talked about is his views on women’s ordination.

And so, I’m starting a series of posts (as I usually do) to offer up some of my thoughts on the Christianity side of this discussion–thoughts which I hope are helpful to us all. But first, I find it only fair to tell you all my journey into this and where I stand. I’ve hinted at it before, but a fuller treatment might be in order.

first, a couple of notes

To all of you that did not grow up in church or haven’t paid attention to these discussions (and you’re probably better off for that): yes, there is honestly a discussion in Evangelical churches about what women can lead and/or teach. In most every church that considers itself traditionally “evangelical”, women are prohibited from holding places of leadership that would cause them to be teaching men or authoritatively leading significant vision-shaping parts of the church.

This is because of particular interpretations of a few texts in the Bible, and out of a strong desire to be faithful to Scripture as they see it. Most people that hold these views do not hate or–at least explicitly–think less of women. They believe that following the Bible accurately leads to flourishing of one’s life and soul, no matter how counter-intuitive or off-putting those words may seem, and so, the belief (of many men and women) is that to follow this interpretation is for the good of women and families, and not the detriment.

Also, two definitions for those not familiar with this: “Complementarianism” is, generally, what the more conservative view is called. They say that women are equal in value and worth, but have different, complementary roles and functions in the church and families. “Egalitarianism” (theologically speaking) is the belief that men and women are each equal, not only in worth and value, but also in their responsibility to use their gifts–even those having to do with leading, teaching, and preaching–in official capacities and offices in the church and family.

And lastly, my church is currently going through our own discussions on this. I am not an elder there, nor do I play any official part in their decision-making process. Please don’t confuse my words with official pronouncements from my local church family. But, I do consider it a privilege to be a member of a denomination that has (contrary to what others say is possible) been able to exist in peace and flourishing while leaving this issue up to the conscience of individual pastors–focusing instead on the primary issues if the Gospel.

my story

I was raised in the south, in conservative southern baptist churches where this was, expectedly, the only view to which I was ever exposed. The idea that there was an alternative was lost on me. In college, I became immersed in the culture and “theology” of Mark Driscoll (I’ve given my thoughts on him before) and his church planting network, Acts29.

I was finally made aware that the complementarian view was “under attack” by larger, liberal voices, and I became well-versed in the arguments against women’s ordination, teaching, and pastoring. I became very good at articulating the typical Evangelical and (as Driscoll calls it) “Reformissional” (a misnomer if I ever heard one) perspective that–oftentimes, in practice–tries to restrict and encourage women at the very same time.

Then I went to seminary. I’m sure Westminster would cringe to know that it was in their halls, in conversations with their students, that I realized I was wrong. I started reading more about it and only became more sure in these new convictions. We’ll go into those particular arguments in future posts, but it wasn’t a singular moment that led me to where I am, but rather a series of discussions that led me there (or, as my more conservatives friends would have forebodingly warned: I “drifted away”.)

I then became a full-blown Egalitarian. As I became more passionate about this, of course, I over-corrected in lots of ways, becoming deeply depressed and angry over the “plight of women” in the church, and becoming a little militant in my new views. God encouraged me and corrected me in a couple of ways.

First, as I started lamenting that obsessive nature of my church at the time to the gospel of “biblical womanhood” and “biblical manhood” (at the expense of, and distraction from, the Gospel of Christ, I believe), I started paying more attention to the women around me. Just as I have a conviction that, even in those churches that downplay Holy Spirit giftings, the Holy Spirit still moves in those ways regardless of how they describe it, I saw the same happening here.

There were women in worship and service that, even in spite of their own articulations otherwise, were still at least functioning as pastors and elders in the church. Both men and women followed them, sought their counsel and teaching, and were encouraged by their proclamations of wisdom and the Gospel. I was encouraged that the Holy Spirit will often times exalt women, even when the power structures try to fight against it.

Secondly, I became more and more frustrated and angry at organizations that claimed to united by the “Gospel” and yet would not allow people in their ranks that disagreed with them on this. But my anger betrayed to me that I was becoming just like them: I was equally making this “women’s place in the church” issue a new law by which I would judge these men in order to be in fellowship with them. I realized I was making this issue primary to the gospel. And this is wrong. This issue is of utmost importance, but at the end of the day, it is not the Gospel.

where I am now (it might surprise you)

To be sure, as I embark on these posts, know that I have so much gratitude for the complementarian men I have learned from over these years. Most of my primary theological foundations were laid by men who love their wives and churches, and yet would never ordain a woman to any official elder or pastoral role. They have thriving churches and healthy families, and model marriages.

And this is what ultimately made me neither an Egalitarian nor Complementarian. I’m still trying to figure out a name for where I stand. I’ve been going with “Soft Egalitarian”, but I don’t know if that’s right. Also, both sides so often try to re-define themselves to make themselves more appealing or palatable, that both sides, depending on how I articulate myself, may claim me (more so with Egalitarians, though, to be sure).

Just as I am with politics, I am a freedom person. I think there should be a few primary issues into which we pour ourselves wholly, and the rest should be up to the individual’s conscience. I think there should be absolute freedom and equality in official roles in the church, so women can exercise their gifts freely (ala Egalitarianism).

But, I also do not think that women are the same as men. They are indeed different, in complementary ways, but I feel they should exercise those same offices as men in those complementary ways. That’s the key. Female pastors will be fundamentally different than male pastors (in style, temperament, approach, etc.), and yet they should both be working together to round out one another’s ministries.

In the home, I think that all of those qualities that are usually offered to us as “characteristics of a godly man/leader” are not uniquely “male” qualities, but Christian virtues that all Christians should seek and cultivate. All Christians should seek the discipline, security, leadership, self-sacrificial love, strength, initiative, and self-motivated spirituality that are usually reserved as the “marks” of a “biblical” man.

And then, as the husband and wife mutually serve, submit to, and love one another, they try to outdo one another in that Christ-like, serving submission-leadership, whether or not the other person is doing the same. In short, they seek mature Christian spirituality and, practically, simply do what works. There are times and seasons where one or the other will be too weak to lead and initiate. This is human reality. The other spouse should feel free to step up, not fearful that they are “overstepping their God-ordained boundaries and roles”.

So there’s my story, and that’s where I stand. In the weeks ahead, we’ll explore some of the details of these issues, and, hopefully, in the ensuing discussions, some real progress can be made in done of our minds.

[image credit: Chris Gollon, “Stations of the Cross VIII: Jesus Speaks to the Women of Jerusalem”; series header: Anselm Kiefer, “Bohemia Lies by the Sea]


23 thoughts on “On women leading & teaching stuff in churches: a story

  1. “Most people that hold these views do not hate or–at least explicitly–think less of women. They believe that following the Bible accurately leads to flourishing of one’s life and soul, no matter how counter-intuitive or off-putting those words may seem, and so, the belief (of many men and women) is that to follow this interpretation is for the good of women and families, and not the detriment.”

    Thanks for at least being intellectually generous enough to state this…


  2. In terms of your point about the typical neo-Reformed articulations of the “marks of a Biblical man” and the like…What about when Paul says in Scripture that a man should love his wife and a wife should respect her husband? Does this mean that a man shouldn’t respect his wife and a wife shouldn’t love her husband? Of course not. The point Paul is making has to do with the ontological difference between men and women.

    Of course men should respect their wives and women love their husbands, but Paul still, when describing the way spouses should relate to each other says, “Men love your wives and women respect your husbands…”


    • I’ll be honest, I thought you were actually emphasizing my point, but then you took a turn I don’t understand. You said that these commands are not gender-specific, but then said they are statements of ontological difference in gender.

      I’ll be honest, I think that’s an incredible weight to place upon the text; a text that gives no hermeneutical reason that I can see that it is talking about some grand, big ontological difference. When I read your comment, I had an image of Paul pop in my head wherein he reads your comment and says, “Bro! Can’t a brother just write a letter?” In 1 Cor 14, Paul talks about women prophesying in the churches. Does this mean he’s saying that women are ontologically “prophesiers” by nature? Looking at the rest of Ephesians 5, is “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife” an ontological statement also? If a man never does that, is he not living in accordance to his ontology?

      Are you saying that women are “submitters” and “respecters” by nature, while men are “lovers” and “heads”? If so, why do they need to be commanded and discipled into it? If not, how is this an ontological statement then?

      Maybe this is an ontological statement, but why does it have to be PREscriptive rather than DEscriptive? Why can’t this simply be the wise words of a pastor that knows the pitfalls that men and women can respectively fall into? It’s not their “roles” as respecter and lover, but good pastoral wisdom for marriages to follow.


      • My comment was specifically targeted at what you said about men and women (and more generally at some other points I think may be coming – maybe I’m getting ahead of myself) in the home and roles there. Paul didn’t say, “Men love your wives and women respect your husbands, except in cases where…” He’s making a general exhortation that is indicative of an ontological difference between men and women. Not sure how we can read it any other way.


        • “Maybe this is an ontological statement, but why does it have to be PREscriptive rather than DEscriptive?”

          Why can’t it be both?

          You yourself admit it to be good advice. I think if we reversed it and said, “Men respect your wives and women love your husbands,” Paul would say, “Bro, you’re missing what I’m getting at here.”


        • I’m still not sure what you’re getting at. If I write a letter (or blog post, haha) and say “Hey guys, pay more attention to your kids–Dads nowadays aren’t very good at that. And ladies, don’t make your world revolve around your kids–it’ll make them super selfish.” I don’t know that I’m making grand philosophical statements of ontology. I’m justing exhorting my recipients to not follow the usual course that mena and women respectively fall into in this world. Maybe I’m misunderstanding how you’re using “ontology”. Are you really saying that in this statement, Paul is making some big, deep, philosophical statement as to the mysterious nature of men and women? You’re going to have to show me some hermeneutical principle that leads you to think that here, but not elsewhere in the chapter and the book’s other similar statements of relationships (does this same ontological principle apply to slave and masters? Parents and children? Why or why not?). Why cant this be random wise advice (in the Greek, the words for “love” and “husband” both start with “a”–maybe he was just thinking alliteratively?) And do you see this same principle–if it is such a grand statement of being as you’re proposing–reflected in any of Paul’s other letters? I can’t think of any. But even if there is, I still say that the “plainest” reading is that he is just speaking to tendencies, like if a pastor nowadays were to say “women–stop gossiping! men–show emotion!” That’s NOT an ontological statement. And I don’t see how you can claim otherwise until you show that you’re not reading that into the text.


          • Yes, I hear what you’re saying. Just because someone makes a certain exhortation in one context at one time does not mean it is necessarily some kind of timeless truth that applies to all contexts. That being said, why does this maxim of Paul’s still seem to ring true today, 2,000 years later? When men and women in the church today hear Paul’s statement there, they seem to say (most people at least), “Yeah, I know what he means there.” And I would argue that is the case because this is still true about men and women today and that there is some sort of ontological difference – which you agree with according to your post…right?

            Also, just for kicks and giggles, I think you could pretty easily argue that the statement, “Men – show emotion, women – stop gossiping” is ontological.

            All that being said, let me see if I understand your view here – You seem to be saying, “Yes, in general, men and women are different, but not every man and every woman fits their gender stereotype (for lack of a better word). And therefore, just because women generally want to be loved more than respected, men do that, and just because men want to be respected more than loved, women do that.”

            Does that sound like your view or am I still missing something?


        • My concern comes from your use of the word “ontological”. That’s a serious word to use for what I’d call a pretty casual statement. That fact that you’d say that if we encouraged wives/husbands to do the reverse, you’d think Paul would say we’re missing his point demonstrates this. I tend to think of “ontological” more as “Being” rather than “temperament” or “gifting” or even “stereotype”. Ontology, to me speaks to the very “stuff” that makes us human, and frankly, I think that our human “stuff” is a whole heck of a lot more similar between male and female than different. “In the image of God he made them, both male and female”–is there a distinction there? Yeah, but not in substance, not in role, not in function. Maybe “essence”? Okay, here’s a good way of putting it: within the Trinity there is no “ontological” difference, though there is complementary distinction in the Godhead. And so, similarly, I sort of think of gender as the two “persons” of the “human-head”–same in ontology, though different in “economic” distinction (as the systematicians would put it).

          And so, if you’re trying to say that men and women are different, then yeah, I’m with you. But I don’t think you need (or should use) one verse in Ephesians 5 (which a lot like other verse applied to other human relationships you still haven’t mentioned) as some sort of “prooftext” for that. And, my bigger fear, especially if you start talking about something so fundamental and big as “ontology”, is that one will take that idea and start building structure and “roles” around a perceived difference in human “substance” between male and female. And so are they different, yes, but not at any level that extends to roles, offices, and giftings. Rather, there are differences that ENHANCE and grow the diversity of how men and women fill those roles and offices, and exercise those giftings.


          • Weird, I’d use words like ontological and temperament and gifting interchangeably, but perhaps I’m using them incorrectly…So I think we’d agree that men and women have more differences than just plumbing….so what does that difference mean to you if it has nothing to do with gifting, function, roles, etc.? Perhaps you are already planning on putting this in your next post?


        • not the next one, necessarily. this will be a long, occasional series. i’m still organizing everything out, but there could easily be at least 6 or 7. but they probably won’t be all in a row. we’ve got to keep the variety up! even tomorrow’s post (err…i mean “this morning’s”) still won’t go into any real arguments, but really only focus on bigger, more foundational issues. but as long as i know i’ll have at least one commenter keeping me honest, i’ll try and cover all my bases a little more closely.

          also, regarding our previous comments, read this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subordinationism#Evangelicals

          i think that complementarianism is, in essence, an “anthropological heresy” of subordinationism (as opposed to a “theological heresy”), where one “person” of the same ontological substance is considered less than, or “subordinate to” another “person”. but that’s for another post. consider that a preview.


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  4. Interesting Paul. My wife and I had conversations about this before we were married because she was unsure what marriage with me would look like(I used a lot of egalitarian language). I think we are doing quite well 2.5 years in.

    On another note, I think Westminster would implode if the types of things actually learned there were made public 😉


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