Women in Ministry

If you didn’t know, there is a debate in the church about women and their roles in the local church and in ministry. This debate has been going for some time. In my discussions with various church people and church leaders, it seems as though there are 4 views that are floating around. It’s important for you (and your daughters) to know what view your church holds. What follows is a quick (incomplete and cursory) summary of the four main views that are out there.

Imagine a continuum. On the right side of the continuum are the more conservative views and on the left side are the more progressive views. I will list the views as if we are moving from the far right to the far left.

Hard Complementarianism

This view holds that women should not be in the roles of deacons, elders or ordained pastors. It also holds that women should not ever preach/teach from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. This view comes from a universal application (meaning they apply to all churches for all time) of Paul’s words to the Corinthians that “Women should remain silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34) and Paul’s words to Timothy that he “does not permit a woman to teach a man/husband” (1 Timothy 2:12). Included in this interpretation is Paul’s words to Timothy about the qualifications for an elder and deacon (1 Timothy 3:1-13) which imply that all elders and deacons are men.

Not permitting women in these roles is seen as a way to protect them, not a way of oppressing them. It is an attempt to align the church with a God-ordained authority structure. Women do serve in various other ways throughout the church and are celebrated in those roles. Churches that tend to hold this view are: conservative Baptist churches, conservative Presbyterian churches, Reformed churches, and conservative Bible churches.

Soft Complementarianism

This view is similar to hard complementarianism but is less strict in its prohibitions. While women are not permitted to be elders or ordained pastors, they do sometimes serve in deacon roles and other leadership roles in the church (small group leader, missions team leader, etc.). The verses mentioned above are interpreted both universally (see above) and culturally (meaning part of the instruction of Paul was just mean for that specific church and cultural situation). Also noted is Priscilla’s role in teaching/discipling Apollo (Acts 18:24-26) and the fact that Phoebe was a deaconess in the Roman church (Romans 16:1). Because of this, you will see women speak from the pulpit from time to time (Mother’s Day, missions Sundays, Sanctity of Life Sunday, youth Sundays, etc). There is some disagreement as to whether this is “teaching” or simply “speaking.” Churches that tend to hold this view are: conservative Baptist churches, conservative Presbyterian churches, Reformed churches, conservative Bible churches and many nondenominational churches.

Egalitarian (based on gifting)

This view supports women in all roles in the church, including deacon, elder, and ordained pastor. Because of this, women teaching/preaching from the pulpit is welcomed. The passages of scripture above that record Paul prohibiting women from teaching and requiring them to be silent in the church are understood in their cultural context and are not applied universally (in the same way that braided hair and head coverings are interpreted culturally and not universally). It is noted that in the same letter to the Corinthians where Paul tells women to be silent (1 Cor 14), he also acknowledges that women pray and prophesy in the church (1 Cor 11:5). Prophesying in the early church was always done in a corporate church setting, and it seemed to be a common thing for women to do (Acts 21:9).

Likewise, Paul lists 10 different women who were co-ministers in the gospel with him in Romans 16. In this list, Phoebe was called a deacon, Junia was called “outstanding among the apostles,” and Priscilla was called a “co-worker in Christ Jesus”–the same word used to describe Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Luke and two other women, Euodia and Syntyche. Based on all of these roles that women served in the early church (apostle, prophetess, deacon, co-worker in the gospel with Paul) and in light of Jesus’s radically affirming actions toward women (they were the first to see and declare the resurrection of Jesus in a time when women weren’t allowed to be a witness in court), it appears that the passages that prohibit women should be interpreted as local, culturally informed prohibitions (likely because of the abuses of the cult of Artemis).

The emphasis of this view is that the Holy Spirit has distributed His gifts throughout His Church to men and women equally. So those who are gifted to lead and teach should do so. Those who are not gifted in that area should not. The determining factor is not based on sex but on Holy Spirit gifting. Churches that tend to hold this view are: Pentecostal and charismatic churches, Wesleyan holiness and moderate Brethren churches, moderate Baptist churches, moderate Presbyterian churches, and moderate nondenominational churches.

Egalitarian (based on justice)

This view is very similar to the Egalitarian view listed above. The views on how to interpret the various passages of scripture are very similar. The main difference is an emphasis on empowering women because they have been oppressed in the church throughout church history. Rather than the focus being on Holy Spirit gifting, the focus is on avoiding injustice toward women. The passage of emphasis is Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

This emphasis on justice also allows for a re-interpretation of various passages prohibiting homosexuality. So churches that tend to affirm women in ministry from a justice perspective also tend to affirm the LGBTQ community. Churches that tend to hold this view are: mainline protestant churches & theologically progressive churches, liberal Baptist churches, liberal Presbyterian churches, and progressive church plants.

I would label myself an “Egalitarian (based on gifting)” in line with the Wesleyan Holiness and Pentecostal traditions (though I come from a Southern Baptist background, went to an anabaptist college and a moderate Baptist seminary, and now pastor a nondenominational church). I have found that conversations between soft complementarians and egalitarians (based on gifting) are the most productive when discussing women in ministry. I have found that those with the extreme view on both the right and the left do a lot of yelling and not a lot of listening.

I would encourage you to do your own study and discover where you land on this issue. And then check with the leadership of your church and see what they say about this issue. Well-meaning Christians can humbly disagree with each other and still worship together. But it is important to know what your church is teaching about this issue.

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