There was a long and in depth discussion on Twitter this week concerning the role of women, and whether they should be teaching or leading in church. I did add my contribution to it, but seeing how some women – many of whom I know and are gifted leaders – being treated in a way which I found hurtful, and given the importance of the topic, I felt it important that I put something out there about where I’m coming from and my thoughts and reflections on this topic.
First, the elephant in the room. Yes, I’m a man talking about women. So, my view or experience may be limited in some ways, but I’m going to share what I know.
I am thankful to my pastor Jason who did a great talk on this which has helped me in my preparation, and want to acknowledge that here. But this is an issue which I care about deeply. The attitude of some male leaders out there and how they have talked about and treated women, and the mistreatment of women even in attitude and tone, has upset me I’ll be brutally honest.
One of my biggest passions is seeing all people, men and women, fulfill their divine calling in God, and be free to become the people they were created to be. When women are limited, criticised, put down or stopped from doing this because of what I consider to be bad theology, that upsets me.
So what I’m going to do is outline briefly the main perspectives on this issue, look at a couple of Bible passages relating to this and try to outline them and what their real meaning is, and then offer some thoughts and reflections on this.
I will say at the beginning, I don’t consider myself to have all the answers or always be right.
The purpose of this is to contribute to the ongoing to discussion, and stimulate more, and hopefully encourage and inspire us all – women especially – in their spiritual development and growth.
You are free to agree or disagree, that’s fine. The way of Jesus is to love all people, whether you agree with them or not, and to show grace towards all. None of us has it 100% correct all the time and I don’t claim to be perfect. I’m just offering my thoughts and reflections on the topic.
So, here goes. There are three main views on the role of women historically in the church:
1)Traditional: This is the oldest and most established. They have a very literal reading of scripture – men came first and then women. Men are heads in marriage, church and society. They have no women leaders whatsoever, anywhere. The Bible is literal, if the passage says it, it means it. There is no ‘cultural context’ when it comes to the Bible, it is 100% true for all time.
2) Complimentarian: This says that men and women are equal but there are restrictions when it comes to specific roles. In this view women can do anything in society, but when it comes to marriage and the church men and women have different roles. The men are in leadership, women are subordinate. Men are more equal, women are not inferior but have different roles. They have more culturally specific interpretation to some passages in scripture. Some passages or books were timeless truths, some for the cultural people at the time, like some in Leviticus. But complimentarians – of whom Mark Driscoll is one of the most prominent – think that even when you examine the context women should not be leading and men are head of home. This theology can be found today in Catholic and some Pentecostal churches, and in many evangelical churches too.
3) Egalitarian: This perspective says that men and women are equal in all areas of life. There are no restrictions in either marriage, church or society. Women should have access to all realms, according to their gifting and character. Women can teach, preach, lead etc if they are gifted and called to do so. This is similar to complimentarians only in that there are some parts of the Bible that are culturally relevant for those times, and others that are timeless truths. They disagree with complimentarians on role of women. The egalitarian view tends to say that there is plenty of evidence scripturally to suggest women should be in leadership in all areas if called and gifted. This theology can be found today in Anglican, Vineyard churches in the main in the UK – including my own church.
Let’s be clear. Well meaning, good people, believe all three of these ideas.
It’s also important here to say that just because we disagree on this issue with people, doesn’t mean we can’t engage with them and build relationship. I actually think it’s healthy for example to follow people you disagree with as well as those you agree with on Twitter, and Jesus calls us to love our neighbour – not agree with them all the time.
So what’s my perspective? Well most of you will probably have guessed this already, but I am of the egalitarian view. I believe that the question when it comes to leadership and teaching isn’t one of gender.
It’s one of gifting, calling and character.
Whether someone is a man or a woman isn’t the issue, it’s whether they can lead or teach and have the requisite gifts and required character and maturity to do so. That’s all.
One thing we must acknowledge though, is that men and women are different. (You’ve probably noticed this already).
In all seriousness though, there are things about men and women which are different, not just physically but in terms of qualities of masculinity and femininity, and we should celebrate that.
However, just because men and women were made different physically and in other ways too, does not mean they can’t do many of the same things – like leading and teaching, for example.
All through scripture there is a trend of seeing men and women as equals. In Genesis 3 men and women are equally fallen and equally created. In John 3, the invitation to be born again is available to everyone. In Galatians 3 it says it pretty clear – there is neither slave nor free, Greek nor Jew, male or female. Acts 2 says the Holy Spirit is to be poured out on all people.
If you look at scripture, women are intended to be equal in all areas of life and this theme is there, if only you look for it. To be honest, God is not so interested in highlighting and increasing the boundaries between men and women – He’s interested in bringing everyone together and us all being part of His kingdom.
But what about some of the more difficult passages on this topic, the ones that traditionalists and complimentarians use to justify their view of scripture?
Let’s take two of them and have a closer look, because when you look a bit closer, and examine the meaning of several of the words and the cultural context in which and to which they were written, you get an entirely different – and more correct – interpretation.
Here we go then, lets kick off.
1 Corin 14 v 33-35: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church”
Sounds pretty straightforward doesn’t it? Women shouldn’t speak in church and it’s a disgrace if they do.
Except it’s not that straightforward. Sorry about that, but it’s just not.
Many books in the New Testament were addressed to specific churches and addressing certain problems, and that’s clearly what’s happening here. Believe it or not, Paul didn’t know the Bible was going to be put together when he wrote the letter (shock, horror!) – he was writing to this church at this particular time, and we must bear that in mind when looking at this and any of his writings. So what is the passage about?
Well first, the whole passage is on the topic of appropriateness in worship, which should give us some context in terms of theme.
Now some historical context. At that time in that culture Paul was writing to, women only spoke in public at that time to men who were not their husbands if they were temple prostitutes.
Not only that, but at the time this was written the majority of women were uneducated. Questions were only expected to be asked by educated people culturally, and women weren’t educated in this culture.
So suddenly, it looks a bit different.
Paul was essentially saying that in this culture it was wise for women, or anyone uneducated, in all truth, to listen in church and not speak. But not because they were women. Oh no, but simply because they weren’t educated. It’s totally different to how the passage has been traditionally interpreted (usually by us men, let’s be honest.).
But there is something in this passage which is very counter-cultural for it’s time, and very empowering to women.
Arguably the most radical part of this passage, for me, is when Paul tells to wives to ask their husbands questions. Nothing unusual you might think.
But you see, women culturally weren’t even meant to ever ask their husbands questions – culturally men were in charge at home and women never questioned them. It just didn’t happen.
So Paul saying they now should was actually very radical and completely counter-cultural, empowering women, saying women should be learning. Teaching that husbands needed to start discussing theological issues with their wives, that wives should be asking questions and learning, merely in the right context.
So this is about appropriate behaviour in a worshipping environment – and is actually pro-women.
Okay, now the big one, the one all traditionalists and complimentarians will always trot out in defence of their theology.
1 Timothy 2 v v 11-12 – “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”
Again, it sounds pretty clear on first reading, pretty straightforward. But again, it’s not.
Firstly, let’s just look at the context. At the beginning of this chapter, Paul says ‘I urge you then’ – which is clearly setting the context for this teaching, and is referring to chapter 1, which relates to false teaching, and cultic worship.
After doing a bit of research, I’ve found that the word translated into our English word authority that is used in this particular passage is actually only used twice in the Bible – once in OT, once in NT.
The word that is used here, interpreted as ‘authority‘ actually means murderous. So when Paul says he does not permit a woman to have authority, he’s not saying what we think. So what is he saying? Well to help us understand this it’s important to know that in the particular culture Paul was writing to, at that time, women were teaching the cult of Artemis.
What was that?
Well the cult of Artemis actually taught that women were superior to men, and part of this cult was something called cultic fornication, which meant sex was a part of their worship (the mind boggles!) and part of the route to salvation.
Paul would have known about this when writing this letter, and it’s likely he would have had this in mind. He’s trying to give Timothy wise counsel as to how to deal with this situation. He reminds women who might think they are superior to men, better than men, above men, that they ate the apple first, so they are equally sinful as men. They aren’t better, they are equal.
Suddenly, again, the passage sounds very different doesn’t it?
The passage about childbirth is talking about childbirth as a gift from God. The implication is that Christ came into the world through childbirth, and that to experience childbirth is a blessing.
Now we know all this background, the beginning of this passage makes a lot more sense too.
When Paul talks about learning in quietness and submission there is a totally different context. We can see that he is talking about and to women who were mainly uneducated and/or who might have been following this cult of Artemis.
He’s telling them that before they teach or lead they need to be educated and stop following this cult saying women were better than men, and reminding them of the Genesis story to ram home this point. He’s saying women are equal – not less than – men. It’s totally upside down to how the passage is often interpreted.
I think if Paul was writing now he might write the following:
‘I permit no one who has not learned the story of God to murderously or falsely teach their followers in word or action, they should learn in full submission.’
You see what Paul is essentially saying in the passage is not that women should never teach or lead men, but that no one – male or female – who is uneducated in the story of God should be teaching or leading in church.
It is completely different to the literal reading we read – and again, is about empowering, helping women and about making them equal with men – it’s about a bigger issue than men or women leadership.
Nobody thinks uneducated people, or people who believe false teaching, should be teaching in church, do we?
Would we have someone who has no knowledge of scripture whatsoever and believes a totally different worldview teaching on the meaning of scripture in a church service? No, and that is what Paul is talking about.
The Bible I believe has a high view of women.
For example, the first evangelists were women, the people who Jesus appeared to first after resurrection were women. Those who say that Jesus picked all male disciples – well men were the educated ones at that time, it made total sense for Jesus to pick men to play those roles culturally. If He’d come now, would He have picked 12 men? Not so sure.
I believe passionately that God wants men and women to be equally free to decide their own destiny – and getting married and having a family and being at home is not a lesser calling than staying unmarried – or married – and working and not having kids. Not in any way. God gives women – and men – the freedom to choose.
God actually sets us free to make whatever choice He calls us to. There is no difference at all – men and women are equally made by God, equally called and gifted by God. We do have differences which we examined earlier, but as I said we should celebrate those, not denigrate them
Men and women bring different characteristics and perspectives to all areas of life – including teaching and leadership. There are some amazing female leaders out there who have influenced me. My life coach from October 2010 to March/April 2011 was a woman who is in prominent Christian leadership full time.
I won’t name them but they are to me – and many others – a great example of a woman in Christian leadership, and it had a profound impact on my life and my work. There are also some amazing women in the Bible, many of whom were leaders.
Which brings me to an obvious but important point. God created us all, every single human being. When He created us, He gave us gifts, talents, callings, passions. Now why would He give gifts of leadership and teaching to women – which the evidence suggests He clearly has – if He didn’t intend for them to be used?
It’s simple common sense to me. God wouldn’t give those gifts to women if He didn’t want women to have them and use them.
God wouldn’t waste His time giving the gifts if He didn’t plan for them to be used, would He?
How do you explain away all the gifted leaders both in and outside the church who are women, who were all made by God, and who all were quite clearly given gifts of leadership by Him, if you believe God didn’t want women to lead?
You can’t, is the simple answer.
I have to say, the thing that upsets me the most about complimentarian and traditional views is that to me they limit what women can be.
They have helped create prejudices in culture and the church that even with the liberal culture we now live in, culture and church is still trying to shake off.
The truth is there are probably some gifted women leaders out there who aren’t leading because either their church doesn’t let them, or because they have at some point been made to feel that because they are a woman, they simply can’t do particular things, like lead or teach. It is tremendously damaging to these individuals and to women.
Although I know there are good people who believe each view, people God is using, the truth is there is a lot of ugliness out there too, on all sides.
I have seen Christian women I know and I consider friends be tremendously hurt by complimentarian churches and men who seem to assume that women just can’t lead or teach. It’s assumed that any who do are in sin, and when they champion their cause they get accused of being contentious or ranting. It upsets me to be honest, and I find it hard to love Christian brothers who treat women this way. I know I should. I know that ultimately I am a sinner too, equally in need of God, and that God may be using them.
But in my heart, it just hurts.
In my view their perspective is simply not God’s view of women at all and it’s not Biblical. It’s just incorrect theology.
Frankly – and I realise I’m going out on a limb here – I personally think it makes God angry. I am of the opinion that when we deny women with the gifts, character and calling to lead that opportunity we are actually denying them their divine destiny. We are standing in the way of God Himself.
Do we really want to be doing that? I know I don’t.
Women have so much to offer in leadership and teaching, and we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of change. We need more gifted & called women taking up leadership. If you’re a woman out there who feels that call and has the requisite gifts, but the only thing stopping you is fear – I want to encourage you to step out.
God loves women, God wants women to be serving and leading in His church.
Ghandi said, ‘Be the change you want to be in the world’. I would say let that message go out to all – both women who aspire and are called to lead, and to those who would have the chance to open those doors. I would encourage you to step out, and help advance this cause, and above all, fulfill your divine destiny, the one God always planned for you.
That’s the most important thing any of us, male or female, can ever do.
There are plenty of egalitarian men who like me want to see gifted and called women out there leading and fulfilling their divine destiny.
Go for it. Don’t be afraid. Those old Bible passages don’t mean quite what you think they do – God is pro women, He has great things for you to do, including leading and teaching, if that’s your calling, and you should have no fear of stepping out and doing so.
Recommended reading: ‘Why not women?’ – Loren Cunningham
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