When Alan Johnson kindly asked me to contribute a
chapter to How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership, I had to tell
him that I had not changed my mind on this point, and thus could not contribute.
All through my young life—from Mrs. Roy Rowan, at the first Baptist Church of
Buffalo Missouri, to Mrs. Flood and others at Shilo Baptist Church at Rover
Missouri—those who had taught me most "at church" were women.
Actually, I knew that, in many cases, there would have been no church at all if
it hadn’t been for women; and, beyond church, life in my environment was
mainly anchored in strong and intelligent women who—often with little or
nothing in the way of "credentials"—simply stood for what was good
and right and directed others in the way of Christ.
Of course I knew that in my church the
"official" pastors were men, but the issue of women teaching men and
"preaching" had not hardened in that time and place, and, if need
required—as was frequently the case—certain women could do very well at
"bringing a message." Also, I was fortunate to be in significant
contact with Wesleyan and Holiness tendencies where women were in leadership
roles—quite "officially." As I grew older, and began seriously to
study the Bible and the Way of Christ, I of course became aware of the gender
issues and of the biblical passages which, in the minds of some, occasion
difficulties concerning "women preachers." But it seemed clear to me
that those passages were not principles themselves, but were expressions
of the principle that Christ-followers should be "all things to all
men," in Paul’s language. They were no more part of the righteousness and
power of Christ than not eating blood or being saved by bearing children.
The contributors to this volume have, taken together,
covered every point of theology, biblical interpretation, and spiritual life
that is of substantial relevance to the issue of women in Christian leadership.
They have done it with the best of scholarship, intelligence, sensitivity,
pathos, and humor. If you have decided to work the matter through, you cannot
find a better place to begin than by reading this book. It will bring light to
your mind and joy to your heart—though at some points you will be saddened at
how much hurt and harm can be imposed through warping the Gospel and its
ministry into cultural legalism in the name of God. At the risk of overdoing
what has already been done, I would like to emphasize three points.
First, those gifted by God for any ministry
should serve in the capacities enabled by their gift, and human arrangements
should facilitate their service and provide them the opportunities to serve.
There is no suggestion whatsoever in scripture or the history of Christ’s
people that the gifts of the Spirit are distributed along gender lines. It is
clearly something that does not even appear on the mental horizon of the
inspired writers. And, if it had done so, can one even imagine that they would
have failed to state it clearly? Especially if it is as important as those who
oppose female leadership make it out to be. You have to put the fact that, in
discussing the distribution and ministry of gifts by the Spirit, nothing is said
about gender, down along side that fact that many men are allowed to serve in
official roles that manifestly are not supernaturally gifted. Then you realize
that official leadership roles, as widely understood now, are as much human
artifacts as they are a divine arrangement.
Second, it is misguided and unhelpful to try to deal
with the issue of women in leadership in terms of rights and equality alone.
Rights and equality are not the main considerations involved, and we will make
little progress in understanding or practice so long as they are allowed to
define the terms of the discussion. Equality is an extremely crude instrument to
apply to human relations, even in a secular context, and much more so in the
context of spiritual life and ministry for Christ. People simply are not
equal when it comes to their talents, to their ministerial gifts, or to their
experiences with God. To try to work out arrangements in those terms is to
accept a secular modal as the basis of a divine order, and to reduce leadership
in the body of Christ to a level that omits the power of God.
It is not the rights of women to occupy
"official" ministerial roles, nor their equality to men in
those roles that set the terms of their service to God and their neighbors. It
is their obligations that do so: obligations which derive from their
human abilities empowered by divine gifting. It is the good they can do, and the
duty to serve that comes from that, which impels them to serve in all ways
possible. Women and men are indeed very different, and those differences are
essential to how God empowers each to induce the Kingdom of God into their
specific life setting and ministry. What we lose by excluding the distinctively
feminine from "official" ministries of teaching and preaching is of
incalculable value. That loss is one of a few fundamental factors which account
for the astonishing weakness of "the Church" in the contemporary
Third, the exclusion of women from
"official" ministry positions leaves women generally with the
impression that there is something wrong with them. Perhaps that is a
mistaken inference on their part, and some may manage to work around it without
being deeply affected. But if God indeed excludes women from leadership of the
Church, there must be some reason why he does. What could it be? And if
leadership, speaking, etc. is good work, and work manifestly in need of good
workers, what, exactly, is it about a woman that God sees and says: "That
won’t do." Or did he just flip a coin and men won? This line of
questioning of course affects all women, and not just those with
aspirations to official ministry positions. It is noteworthy what a hard time
those who oppose leadership by women have in saying exactly what it is
about women that excludes them from such positions, and how that puts an
unbearable weight upon what was already a very weak hermeneutic.
So the issue of women in leadership is not a minor or
marginal one. It profoundly affects the sense of identity and worth on both
sides of the gender line; and, if wrongly grasped, it restricts the resources for blessing, through the Church, upon an appallingly needy world. The
contributors to this volume have served well in allowing us to see the paths of
study and experience through which their minds were changed, and may the change