On Women and Spiritual Leadership

There is a church of another denomination near where I live that has a man and woman co-pastoring. This is a relatively new development for that church, and there are a few individuals (possibly more) who are having difficulty accepting this situation.

A friend of mine approached me, and asked for some thoughts he could pass on to someone he knows within that church who is wrestling with the recent change in leadership.  Rather than submit to the “Outrage Culture” that grips even the Church when this subject is brought up, I decided to do some study and posit some thoughts rather than argue about this. The following is a rather lengthy letter I put together on the topic.

I decided to post this letter, as this topic has come up in multiple isolated conversations recently. Perhaps someone will find it interesting…

 

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My dear brother in Christ,

I was asked recently by a mutual friend to help clarify the Scripture’s teaching on whether or not women can serve as spiritual leaders within the home and within the Church. I was saddened by this question, though not because of your thoughts regarding this topic. I was saddened that this topic has been so neglected, yet simultaneously politicized, within the church that such a question would need to be asked at all. But, I am also grateful that you are wrestling with this subject. It is my hope that I can help bring some clarity, or – at best – supply a starting point for the direction of your searching.

Allow me to say that in my experience, beginning with the question, “What does the Bible say about…” is a precarious starting point. What is usually implied by this statement is that the Bible should be read without regard for careful study (such as neglecting historical context, translation challenges, what has been historically taught by the Church, and what speaks to human reason). Thus, the Scriptures are approached with the mindset of “whatever my translation of the Bible says, I will believe that.” In turn, this means that “whatever I think the Bible means, that is authoritative.”

It is true that the Holy Spirit illuminates our thinking and helps us to understand the truth communicated through God’s Word, but the Spirit does not act as a crutch for willful ignorance.

I am not suggesting that you have this mindset, but I say that only to preface that my response to the topic will include extra-Biblical insights. And, if we do disagree, it is not because one of us is reading the Bible and the other is not, but that our interpretations of the texts differ. The Holy Bible was not written with a study guide attached (alas!), so we are left to use our faculties to the best of our abilities to reach a conclusion.

John Wesley, the theological father of several groups of devout believers, taught that Scripture is best interpreted through the employment of Reason, Tradition, and Experience. I will follow his lead and employ those tools throughout our exploration of the Bible.

On the Role of Man and Woman as Spiritual Leaders

Genesis 1:27

I almost always draw attention to the semicolon in this verse. God created man (collective Ha-adam; mankind) in his image. Not just man (singular; a man), but mankind. The semicolon suggests that the division of clauses present communicate the same principle. In other words, it is men and women together who best reflect the image of God. It implies, then, that the best way to demonstrate and teach who God is (a sound working definition of a Christian Spiritual Leader, I feel), is not by one individual acting alone, but by multiple people – both men and women – working together.

Genesis 3:6

The woman eats the fruit first. This is clearly evident, and causes many to conclude that women are the spiritually weaker sex and thereby incapable of properly leading others (in most cases, specifically men) in the faith.  What is not often noted is that the man in this passage is with the woman the entire time – listening to the conversation between the woman and the serpent, watching the woman as she takes the fruit, and then subsequently eats it – all without saying a single word. He does not try to intervene in the least. In fact, he even receives the fruit from the woman and eats it himself. If the woman eating the fruit is demonstrative of her inability to lead well, then the man’s inaction demonstrates the same. They are equally at fault, and equally sinful.

Judges 4:1 – 5:13

To be sure, several women are spoken highly of in the Bible, but here we have an instance of one women – Deborah – who served as a judge of Israel. There is nothing in her story that implies she was a ‘lesser’ judge, nor that God was displeased with her serving as the leader of Israel (4:4). She leads the people and honors the Lord by doing so.

1 Samuel 1:21-23

This is the first of several passages I found fascinating in my study. Throughout the Bible, it was the women who seemed to be more attentive to their spiritual lives and the spiritual lives of their children within the home. Much like today, where we generally see more women in our churches than men (and women tend to be more active within the church). It serves to personal experience and even the writings of Scripture that it is generally women who are the spiritual leaders within the home, rather than men.*

*this is certainly not ideal, and I am not making that case. It is merely an observation made by both human reason and Biblical accounts.*

Here, it was Hannah who prayed, and God heard her and blessed her. There is no mention of her husband’s spiritual nature, but in verses 21-23, we see Hannah determining the spiritual direction of their child and Elkanah submits to her decision. There is no negative recourse nor scolding of Elkanah; Hannah’s spiritual leadership of her household is honored.

Conclusion:

I am not attempting to say that women are more sensitive to the Spirit, nor more capable of being spiritual leaders. Instead, it seems reasonable to conclude that the role of “spiritual leader,” whether within the household or within the community, is a position shared by both sexes.

The aforementioned stories, although few, are not treated as exceptions to some rule about only men being the spiritual leader. There are no asterisks or clauses to indicate that God would have preferred a man to lead Israel, or that Elkanah would have been a stronger spiritual head. Instead, these women are included in the story of the people of God as equally capable even in the presence of equally capable men.

The Story of Christ and the Role of Women in The Church

Luke 1:26-56

I will confess that I may be reading too much into this passage, but I find it intriguing that the presence of the Messiah is noticed by the unborn and women before anyone else. If spiritual leadership requires a certain sensitivity to the Spirit of God, then it appears that women are quite capable of having such sensitivity. Even Elizabeth, whose husband served as a priest (certainly a man of strong faith), recognized Jesus as the Christ before he did. More emphatically, when Zachariah was confronted face-to-face by the Archangel Gabriel, he did not even believe his words.

Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20 (esp. 10-18)

The Gospel (the Good News) is that Christ is risen!  Evangelism (from the Greek word meaning “Good News”), is the communication of the Truth that Jesus the Christ is alive! I can think of no higher role one has than to tell others about the risen savior.

We should note, then, that the first ones to carry the message of the risen savior were not men. Rather, the first evangelists were women. Admittedly, the gospel accounts do differ in who exactly was at the empty tomb, but they all clearly say that it was the women who told the disciples of the risen Lord.

I have heard the argument that the women were not actually being evangelists because the disciples already believed.  I find that unconvincing, personally, because it suggests that one can be a believer while simultaneously not believing in the resurrection of Christ (which the disciples rejected until the resurrected Christ revealed himself).

The New Testament and the Role of Women

At this point, it would be beneficial to admit that we should tread carefully when reading the New Testament. Even Paul makes references to his writing being from his own thoughts and not necessarily from the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:12 & 25). This makes it difficult sometimes to understand the meaning of certain passages because much of what is written is speaking out of a particular cultural context.

In my tradition, as well as most others, we distinguish between three types of text: Normative, Corrective, and Descriptive.

  • Normative texts are those whose message and meaning are universal: “I am the way, the Truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Luke 14:6). This is universally true, regardless of where we find ourselves in history or location.
  • Corrective texts are those that are only authoritative in certain instances. When Paul is discussing to the Corinthians that men should keep their heads shaved and women should wear head coverings, it should be evident that he is addressing a specific issue (in this case, the cultural understanding of human sexuality and reproduction. See Troy Martin’s article “A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering” for more on this).  Therefore, what Paul is teaching here should not be viewed as universally true.
  • Descriptive texts merely describe events, much like a narrator. They do not intent to communicate a lesson.

For many of the following passages, I imagine that some would disagree over what should be classified as “Normative” and “Corrective.” In fact, it is this reason that has led to such widespread disagreements regarding women in the Church and within the home.

Acts 2:17-18

Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit with power upon men and women. This passage is a quote from Joel, and it clearly mentions the Spirit of God being poured out on both men and women, sons and daughters.  Although it may be suggested that men and women are set up in a spiritual hierarchy, that view would need to assume that the Spirit is given unequally to men and women.  While it is true that the Holy Spirit gives us different gifts, the same Spirit lives and works within us all (1 Corinthians 12) and its power is not diminished nor inhibited based on sex.

1 Corinthians 7:1-16

Here, Paul makes a lengthy argument for an egalitarian view of marriage where each spouse submits to one another and neither one assumes a spiritually authoritarian role.

1 Corinthians 11:3

This passage is good practice for the mantra “understanding the particular in light of the whole.” The Bible is consistent in its teaching of the Faith. As such, when we come across discrepancies, we should exercise careful study.

Here, Paul is saying that the head of every woman is man just as the head of every man is Christ. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Paul is laying forth a spiritual hierarchy. However, that would flatly contradict what was stated earlier in chapter 7, as well as much of Paul’s other writings. I confess that this passage has me perplexed. I cannot confidently identify what Paul’s point is, here. Is he stating his observations – that men tend to be focused on Christ while women tend to be focused on their husbands? Or is he using this passage as a lead-in to what he is about to say about head coverings (referenced earlier)? I believe it is the latter, and I will refer to Martin’s article to gain some clarity on the subject.

1 Corinthians 14:34

Myself, and most all of my peers, recognize this as a “corrective” passage. Let’s be frank on this subject: women talk more than men do. It has been scientifically and anecdotally proven. I have been a part of many groups, and by and large it is women who tend to occupy the most time with talking.

We should not wrongfully assume that people throughout history were any different. Paul, in his other letters, sheds light on the fact that many women who attended church were not educated enough to teach, and many were prone to gossip and speaking ill of their husbands (it appears we haven’t changed much since Timothy and Titus).  Thus, Paul is most likely referring to issues he has heard of regarding women who would teach unintelligibly within the church or cause disorder via talking too much.

Fitting into the larger context of Paul’s message in this chapter, he seems more concerned with addressing an orderly style of worship (apparently the Corinthians had no solid worship structure), so this is probably an issue specific to their context.

Galatians 3:26-29

It would be difficult to suppose that Paul teaches a spiritual hierarchy within the Body of Christ when, here, he directly states that there is “neither male nor female” for “all are one in Christ Jesus.”

Ephesians 5:21-33

Commonly referred to as the passage that overtly teaches the man’s superiority over the woman, this section actually begins in verse 21 with Paul stating “submit to one another.” He then goes on to illustrate what an equal submission looks like within marriage.

He does begin with the wives, needing to submit to their husbands. But, he then goes on to tell husbands that they ought to love their wives as Christ loved the church and “gave himself up for her.” If men are to be the spiritual leaders of the home, it is of a type in which he gives up his own life for his wife.

If one is to interpret this passage as the male taking a higher position of spiritual leadership, then it would be difficult indeed to reconcile that position with verse 31, where the two become one flesh. This harkens back to Genesis 1:27; it is not the man nor the woman who reflects the image of God the best, but man and woman together.

1 Timothy 2:11

I recommend what I wrote on 1 Corinthians 14, though I would point out that Paul tells Timothy in 5:14 that it is the women who manage the homes (not the men).

2 Timothy 1:4-5

As to women being spiritual leaders within the home, I want to recall what I wrote about 1 Samuel. Here, Paul refers directly to Timothy’s upbringing, and commends his mother and grandmother for the faith they had and passed on to Timothy. There is no mention of Timothy’s father or other male role models, but it was the women in Timothy’s family who appeared to have been the spiritual heads. Similar to my note after 1 Samuel, this is not treated as extraordinary.

Titus 2:3-5

Once again, I am been convinced that this is a Correctional passage. Paul is writing a personal letter to Titus, and he appears to be addressing a specific problem within that church; the women were slandering and drinking too much, not respecting their husbands nor taking care of their homes.

1 Peter 3:1-7

Peter does refer to wives as “the weaker partner,” but he does not indicate this as a spiritual weakness. Earlier in chapter 3, he illustrates how wives can win their husbands to the Lord by how they live (an argument he makes earlier in his letter for the whole church).

Conclusion

I hope this brief study serves as a help as you continue your journey. Although I admit my bias on the topic, I will readily confess that not everything in Scripture is abundantly clear and it was not my purpose to argue against a particular stance, but to communicate my standing on this topic.

I was once in a heated discussion over prospective leaders in our denomination. Some were arguing that we needed to have more women and non-white leaders in high positions because we needed people who “represented the diversity of the church.” I was utterly perplexed by this, because it is not the role of a spiritual leader to represent the people to Christ; it is the role of a spiritual leader to represent Christ to the people.

From there, I would like to leave this question: Is Christ represented better through the lives of men than of women?

I feel this is a good place to start. And wherever you land on this subject, brother, I pray God’s wisdom.

 

If it is of interest, I’ve copied what is written in my denomination’s Manual on the subject:

Ҧ 501. Theology of Women in Ministry. The Church of the Nazarene supports the right of women to use their God-given spiritual gifts within the church and affirms the historic right of women to be elected and appointed to places of leadership within the Church of the Nazarene, including the offices of both elder and deacon.

The purpose of Christ’s redemptive work is to set God’s creation free from the curse of the Fall. Those who are “in Christ” are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). In this redemptive community, no human being is to be regarded as inferior on the basis of social status, race, or gender (Galatians 3:26–28). Acknowledging the apparent paradox created by Paul’s instruction to Timothy (1 Timothy 2:11–12) and to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:33–34), we believe interpreting these passages as limiting the role of women in ministry presents serious conflicts with specific passages of scripture that commend female participation in spiritual leadership roles (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2:17–18; 21:8–9; Romans 16:1, 3, 7; Philippians 4:2–3), and violates the spirit and practice of the Wesleyan-holiness tradition. Finally, it is incompatible with the character of God presented throughout Scripture, especially as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.”

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On Revelation and Assimilation

I remember the first interaction I had with my ex-fiance.  We didn’t really know each other personally, but we would engage in conversation and do some activities together. A few months and several interactions later, we began to date one another.  Still more months and interactions later we got engaged.

Woman Receiving Engagement RingThis is a fairly typical story.  Two people meet, get to know each other, and then after a time they continue making deeper and deeper levels of commitment to one another.  Engagement, as well as marriage, are two moments which solidify a certain depth of commitment between two people.   It is odd for us to think that two people would meet for the first time, chat for a few minutes, and then immediately commit the rest of their lives to one another.  Even in arranged marriages there are people who  understand the individuals well enough to know if that kind of relationship will work, and there is still a ‘leading up-to’ time where the two people are at least aware of what is going on.

Why is it, then, that we tend to see evangelism as a ‘blind marriage’ occasion?  We think it’s crazy for two people to get married if they have only know each other for a few hours (or even days), and yet we impose that kind of perspective on our un-saved neighbors.  I would like to propose that we rethink our understanding of evangelism.

To be perfectly honest, I never felt comfortable inviting my friends to church with me.  While I was in youth group, we would be asked several times to bring our friends to church for special occasions or for Wednesday night Bible study or whatever.  I would always feel awkward about this.  It’s not because I didn’t think God was important or that salvation didn’t matter, but it’s because whenever I did invite my friends I would hear the messages they were hearing and it would unsettle me.

“You’re an outsider.”
“You don’t know what’s going on here.”
“You don’t know who God is.”
“You need to dedicate your life to Jesus tonight!”

My friends were seen as outsiders, as strangers, and in order to feel truly welcomed they needed to get with the program and convert.  Then, and only then, could they be a part of the community.

Now, I know that this was not the intended message of the youth leaders or laypeople.  However, these were the messages that were communicated through what was said, how people acted, and what people said about our friends when they weren’t there.  And I am as guilty as everyone else for sending these messages.

Now I have another story to tell:

when I was about five, I remember coming home from church and climbing into the top of my bunk-bed and asking Jesus into my heart.  This is my conversion story, and it is entirely made up.

The truth is, I don’t know when I was saved.  I can’t point to a calendar and say, “here, on this day, I became a born again believer!”  I do know that at some point I did, but I don’t remember how.  I remember something about a Sunday school teacher talking with me about it, so maybe it happened then?  I don’t know.  I do know that I invented a story because people kept asking me about my conversion experience and when I came into a relationship with the Lord, so that’s where the bunk-bed conversion story came into play.

Honestly, I don’t know when Christ became my savior because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Jesus was.  I grew up hearing about him all the time.  I would pray to him before meals with my family, and I would hear about him at church.  I never had an opportunity as an infant to not know who he was.  And this is why I believe there is a big weakness in how we do evangelism.

One of the biggest assumptions we seem to build off of when talking about evangelism is that people who are not Christian do not have a relationship with Jesus.  I think this is one of the most harmful and, frankly, ignorant assumptions we have.  There is rarely anyone in the United States who does not know who Jesus is.  You can ask anyone, “Who is Jesus?” and I believe most people will give you an answer.  Everyone knows who Jesus is.  Everyone has feelings about who Jesus is.  Everyone has some sort of a relationship with Jesus, even if that relationship is simply an acquaintance.

So why do we approach evangelism as if they don’t?  Why do we talk to non-believers as if Jesus is some total stranger to them?  Why do we treat them as if they couldn’t tell the difference between Jesus and George Bush?  And why do we assume that he is not already working in their lives?

The problem with not recognizing a relationship that is already there is that we then set up all kinds of persuasive arguments aimed at getting people to like Jesus. We talk about his character, what he did, what he does, and what he is doing as if Jesus were on a blind date with this person.

But what if evangelism became more declarative than persuasive?  More acknowledging that coercing?  More about revealing a God who is already there than introducing a completely foreign concept?

If we are to take this perspective seriously, then evangelism isn’t about trying to get someone to marry a complete stranger they just met.  Instead, it is about helping someone develop a relationship that is already there.  I didn’t get engaged the first moment I met my ex-fiance’.  That didn’t happen until months into our relationship.  Similarly, expecting someone to surrender their entire lives to a being whom they hardly know is expecting too much (and I would contend is ultimately damaging in the long run).

What does this say about that moment of ‘conversion,’ then?  Maybe when someone becomes a born-again believer it is not a moment when they first enter into a relationship with Christ.  Instead, it is simply the moment when Christ went from being ‘some guy I know’ to ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior.’  I am not trying to say that the salvation experience is not important, but we ought to consider the implications of suggesting that Christ is completely unknown to people who aren’t saved.

I sense that our views of others, and creation as a whole, could benefit greatly is we seriously begin to open our eyes to the work that God is already doing in our world and in the lives of those around us.   Maybe we would begin shedding ourselves of an ‘us/them’ mentality and simply see ourselves as being on a different stage in this journey. No one is a stranger to God, and who are we to take people on blind dates with a ring in our pocket?

On Dating and Marriage

The atmosphere for the message was set.  I had been worshiping with the congregation for about 20 minutes, and even though there was some awkward reverb going on, my heart was ready.  The songs, the prayers, and the readings had allowed me to focus in and hear from the Lord.

A man in a suit walked up to the pulpit to introduce the revival speaker for tonight’s service, and after he had prayed over the service in preparation for what was to come he began to introduce the man who would bring the word of the Lord to us this evening.  But then it happened…

The audio feed for Olivet’s Live Streaming  website cut-out, and I couldn’t hear anything through my headphones anymore.  Since there wasn’t even a video feed to look at, I decided to go for a drive.

The morning message was good.  Very good, in fact.  I sat with my group of fellow Preaching Ambassadors and heard how our lives shouldn’t be lived through our efforts and actions, but that God should live in and through us in a way that our lives naturally produce good fruit. (the spirit of Christ in us – holiness).  It wasn’t until my drive tonight that something began to solidify in my heart and mind.

I enjoy driving.  Especially evening driving.  The day is winding down, not many people are on the road, and there is a general calm to the world.  Not to mention the low lighting gives a sense of privacy when driving a car with no tinted windows.  Evening/night driving has always been a time of quiet reflection and prayerful thinking for me; and a time to tune in to whatever God wants to talk about.

Apparently he wanted to talk to me about relationships.  I can’t say for sure if he had ever ‘said’ anything to me overtly about this topic ever before, either because I thought relationships are too ungodly to talk about, or because I have always been oblivious to what the word actually means when it is lived out.  But this time was different.  And in a world that has so many mixed and perverted messages about dating (or courting, or whatever you want to call this period of a relationship) and marriage, it was refreshing to hear what my Heavenly Father had to say about them as they pertain to my life.

As most of my conversations with God start out, I admitted my general stupidity about a lot of things.  I don’t claim to have a corner on relationships, and even though I worded my previous paragraph a little pointedly, I could very well be mistaken in my understanding and (God forbid!) I am putting words into God’s mouth.

What if our relationships didn’t exist for the sake of the relationship?  What if we dated someone for something more than just the dating experience?  What if marriage was not an end to a means, and dating a simple ‘phase’ to get through with no inherent significance outside of engagement, which has significance only in the fact that it precedes an ultimate goal: marriage.  What if our romantic relationships existed for a purpose greater than romantic and emotional fulfillment?

The Christian life is about living in a way that points directly to God.  Holiness is about being sourced by God; not leaning on our own strength, abilities, and understanding, but being entirely dependent upon the Spirit.  After all, the ultimate purpose of a Christian is to show God’s love to the world, correct?  Living selflessly, thinking of others before ourselves, showing grace and forgiveness – these are all ways that we demonstrate who God is and how much He loves us (and all people).  And what is important to know is that we cannot live in such a way on our own, which is why we need God to live it out through us by his power, by his mercy, by his love and grace.

What has been on my heart and mind recently is this:  What if my relationships did the same thing?  What if the purpose of my relationships was not to reach an ultimate goal, or fulfill some desire, but that the purpose was to show God to the world?

This morning before the service I jotted down something in my phone, and it says:

“What if the purpose of [a] relationship is to be a means by which the love of God is communicated to the world?  Wouldn’t that force us to focus beyond ourselves, to desire to build up and support each other?  To forgive mistakes and show grace [quicker]?  To love each other more?

“What would it look like if our relationship was not about us doing all things for the sake of the relationship and constantly trying to weave God into the mix, but that it was a vessel God uses to show the world who He is by the way we treat each other?”

If that were a reality, then everything changes.  Rather than constantly looking forward to the next anniversary, engagement, marriage, and whatever other major points in a relationship, every moment becomes significant.  Dating is no longer an awkward pre-engagement phase – it has a true purpose.  engagement becomes more than wedding-planning.  Yes, there are many nuances of relationships that are complicated, but what would it look like if communicating/displaying God’s love to the world was the primary purpose behind it?

Suddenly, marriage no longer becomes a goal.  Marriages becomes a part of the overall story of the relationship.  The two people get married because they can’t not get married.  They love each other so much that they can’t not commit their lives to each other.  They love each other so much that they can’t not forgive each other.  They love each other so much that they can’t not give up themselves for each other.  And all of this is not because they inherently have an ability to love each other in such a way, but because God has loved through them.  God is so alive within each of them, and is living through each of them, that they get wrapped up in this active and vibrant display of His love.  It is not merely a story of each person loving each other, but God loving each of them through each other.

Would that create a beautiful image of God’s love for the world?

“You see this couple and how they love each other?  That is how much I love you.”

What are your thoughts?