Deborah’s Dance: Women in Church Leadership?

Radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944). A modern day Deborah? Or a sensational character leading evangelicalism into the tragic morass of contemporary feminism? (Photo credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944). A modern day Deborah used by God to help restore the church to its proper ministry? Or a sensational character whose example, if followed too rigidly, will lead the church into the tragic morass of contemporary feminism?
(Photo credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

My wife loves to dance. I am not the best dancer in the world, but I must admit that I enjoy it, too. However, there is a certain mystery to dancing. There is just something about dancing the defies rational description…

Our church is doing a summer Bible study on the Book of Judges, and this past week the sermon was on the story of Deborah. Deborah brings one of the brighter moments in Judges. Deborah is celebrated as one of the great leaders in Old Testament Israel amid an ever spiraling downward movement of God’s chosen people. Her contemporary Barak lacked the confidence by himself to take on Sisera, the enemy of Israel, desiring Deborah’s presence as God’s anointed judge to assist him.

Deborah has always posed the question regarding whether or not women should be permitted to serve in certain positions of leadership in churches that hold to the authority of the Bible as God’s Word. The issue came up in our small group a few nights ago: How does one reconcile the positive example of Deborah’s leadership with the writings of Paul in the New Testament where the Apostle urges churches not to permit women to teach or have authority over men (I Timothy 2:11-15 and I Corinthians 14:33-40? Is the example of Deborah a partial fulfillment of God’s intended purposes that celebrate the leadership roles of both men and women equally in the church? Or is Deborah an exception to the rule, which specifically urges churches governed by the New Testament to only have men as elders and/or pastors, and thus honoring the complementarity between the sexes?

The issues are indeed complex. If you have not done so already, I would suggest that you stop where you are and go back and read my earlier post on Rachel Held Evans that addresses the sensitive question of “Biblical Womanhood.” There I have listed a set of the best resources available to do an in-depth study of what the Bible says on that topic in general, giving a fair hearing to both sides of the debate.

What I will say here about the specific issue of women in church leadership is that I have had to learn how to deal with this issue the hard way. Not only is it important that we understand what the Bible says, it is also important as to how we approach this issue in our discussions with other Christians.

It has something do with dancing.

The Importance of the Question of Women In Church Leadership

Here is a little bit of my story. When I was in college some years ago, I helped to lead worship in a small community of faith belonging to the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.  Foursquare had its beginnings in the 1920s of Southern California through the dynamic ministry of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.  Sister Aimee was an extraordinary and gifted speaker. She was far from perfect, but as I saw it God used “Sister Aimee” to bring the Christian faith to thousands of people. McPherson was one of the first evangelical preachers to have mastered the then new medium of radio for the purpose of spreading the Gospel message. After her death in 1944, the movement continued to spread across the country and even more so across the whole planet.

Aimee Semple McPherson was like a modern-day “Deborah” to me. She was clearly gifted as a evangelist. I found it unthinkable as to why a number of  Christians would oppose someone like Sister Aimee in the exercise of her gifts. Why would God give Sister Aimee these extraordinary gifts if He never really desired for her to use them? In many ways, I had come to think that this was a “gospel issue”.  By this, I meant that in order to be faithful to the Gospel, a church needed to take the “right” side on this debate.

The question is: which side is the “right” side?

This was the Achilles Heel in many ways in my approach to this issue.  You see, I had never taken the time to seriously study what the other side of the issue was all about.  I had pretty much developed a caricature of chauvinistic men ordering women around, and I wanted to avoid that. I had pretty much concluded that those who did not share my view were pretty much all patriarchal thugs and wusses: the men being the bullies and the women being docile and overly passive, unable to  think a thought for themselves unless spoonfed to them by the overeager and insecure men in their lives.

Wow. Was I wrong.

I had to take the time to sit down with those who shared a different perspective and try to learn how they read and interpreted Scripture. I must confess that a lot of those first discussions were rather heated, but I persevered and started to intentionally listen more. I had to spend time reading my Bible. I read some good books on the subject. I had to learn that a vision of complementarity between male and female did not necessarily imply an oppressive patriarchialism. In other words, I had to make an effort to try to understand why other Christians who did not think exactly like me approached this issue the way they did.

The sad truth is that sometimes we are not very good at trying to listen and learn from each other.  I myself had to repent of my stubbornness and be willing to change my mind. I had to also repent of the idea that this issue is something that Christians should be divided over. Instead, we all need one another in the Body of Christ to help work through these issues, coming humbly before the Lord and His Word.  I am still working through some of the particulars of this issue, but I have in recent years come to learn that there are some very good reasons not only for affirming women in leadership roles in the church broadly speaking but that there are good reasons on the other side for restricting those roles, primarily in terms of restricting the office of elder to be held by only men, while nevertheless still fully affirming the gifts of women for ministry in other areas.

But what I did not realize before is that there are serious theological issues at stake in how we approach this issue. The question of “women in ministry” may not be a “gospel issue” in and of itself. But there are other issues below the surface that we should consider when trying to examine this issue.

Dancing in the Church

At one level, it seems perfectly rational to argue for full inclusion of women in church leadership. But I have been struck by an observation made by C. S. Lewis in an essay he wrote concerning “Priestesses in the Church.” While his essay was specifically addressing the question of women priests in the Church of England, I find it applicable to contemporary debates in evangelical churches. Borrowing from Jane Austen’s ideas in Pride and Prejudice, the church is very much like a dance ball, as opposed to being merely an arena for conversation. Conversation is thought to be more extremely rational than dancing, but the act of dancing addresses something about the human experience that mere conversation can never fully articulate.

Lewis concludes by saying that in the Body of Christ “we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge. Or rather, we are not dealing with them but (as we shall soon learn if we meddle) they are dealing with us.

Is it possible that requiring only men to serve as elders preserves this metaphor of the dance within the church, thus giving us greater insight into reality?

tangoAs they say, it “takes two to tango.”   When my wife and I dance together, there is a certain interplay as we often bungle along that requires both parties to work together. There is a certain mutual exchange of energy, but the reciprocity of exchange is not interchangeable. One party steps forward and the other party steps back. But both parties work together to create a common bond. Could it be that God designed this type of dynamic to be expressed within the structure of church leadership?

Here is another resource that might give you an idea as to what I am getting at. The Gospel Coalition is a network of churches and ministries with a shared evangelical vision. Some critics have suggested that the complementation perspective articulated by the Gospel Coalition, which favors a male-only approach to church eldership, is making the issue into a “gospel issue.”  I was very intrigued by how pastors and teachers Tim Keller, John Piper, and Donald Carson responded to this challenge at a pastor’s conference several years ago.

The bottom line here is that we as Christians should strive to find ways to remain in fellowship with one another, even when we disagree on issues like these. This will create some tension in our fellowship, but sometimes this kind of tension can actually be a really good thing, as it helps us to see things about God and ourselves that we never saw before…. kind of like a dance.

Additional Resources:

No matter how a Christian is to approach the issue of women in ministry, we must ground our perspective on the teaching of the Bible.  What does the example of Deborah in the Book of Judges have to tell us? For a commentary by a woman from a complementation perspective (women are NOT to serve as leadership elders in a church), here is a view from the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.  From an egalitarian perspective (women can serve as elders), here is a view from the Christians for Biblical Equality.

For a detailed look at the issues regarding women serving in church leadership, here are several points of view representing three different perspectives. First, Matt Slick of CARM presents the view that women are not to serve as elders or pastors in a local church. Anglican scholar N. T. Wright presents the alternate position that supports the full inclusion of women into positions of leadership in a local church, from a talk he gave at a Christians for Biblical Equality Conference. For a third, middle-way approach, Michael Patton from Credo House presents a view (#1 and #2) that restricts women from serving as pastors or senior teaching elder positions but allows for women to teach under the authority of male leadership in other ways.

And finally, this will take some time, about an hour and a half, but the following is a debate held by a charismatic television channel in the United Kingdom on the issue of “Should Women be in Church leadership positions?”  The debate participants are pastors from fairly small churches in the UK, but I found the debaters are well prepared to present the major points of the complementarian/egalitarian debate within the context of church ministry, and a lot of interesting perspectives were shared by the studio audience. What is oddly curious is that the side defending women as church leaders was represented by a married couple working together.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

8 responses to “Deborah’s Dance: Women in Church Leadership?

  • walter bright

    good discussion here…
    my denomination is making some really great progress when it comes to having women in leadership… I think more should be done to finally open the doors but I applaud the effort so far. I thing a proper reading of scripture settles the issue for me. From Genesis through Revelation, we see women assuming leadership roles over and over. Instead of looking at isolated passages, we ought to look at the thread of evidence throughout scripture of women in leadership roles to inform our decisions about their role today in the church.
    good to see you again!

    Like

  • Clarke Morledge

    Walter,

    Thanks for stopping by again!

    I follow what you are saying, but I am dragging my feet a bit. Though for years I was pretty sanguine about full inclusion of women as church elders, I have come to rethink the issue for several reasons:

    (1) The exegetical issues in the text are extremely difficult, and even for top notch scholars who affirm a very conservative view of biblical inerrancy, there does not seem to be a clear scholarly consensus on how to handle some of the relevant texts. This creates a huge difficulty for the lay person who has little to no understanding of the original languages or textual criticism. Because of the confusion, it seems that caution is in order, no matter what path is pursued by churches/denominations.

    (2) The concerns raised by C.S. Lewis and John Piper (in the video) deserve more attention. I would particularly agree with Piper that egalitarians are not able to answer this question (at about the 7:40 mark in the video): what do you say to an 8-year old boy or girl as to what it means to be a man or woman? If all distinctions regarding roles in church leadership between male and female are eliminated, do we risk further confusing young people regarding gender identity? The surrounding culture is already sinking on this very point. If our young people do not clearly see gender identity being modeled within our church communities, where are they are going to see it?

    (3) Once a church goes down the egalitarian road on women eldership, it seems extremely difficult to reverse course, if it turns out that the wrong decision has been made.

    (4) Perhaps I am naïve, but I would think there should be a way to fully affirm the gifting patterns of women, even in the form of teaching in mixed-gender gatherings; e.g. Sunday school, bible study, etc. without having to compromise the biblical principle of headship in terms of male-only church eldership. At least I would hope so.

    Some might argue that drawing the line at eldership, as many conservative churches appear to be doing these days, is rather arbitrary. But I am not sure how else the above issues can be addressed in any other way. I do not fault churches that move in a more egalitarian direction, but I am convinced that the church in general has not fully thought through the implications of such a move.

    One other point: I am really sympathetic to the rallying points raised by younger evangelicals like Rachel Held Evans. But I find that a lot of the vitriol and invective delivered her way, particularly by other women, only makes her case all the more inevitable. If my concerns promise to hold any validity, it will take carefully articulated wisdom from complementarian women to alter the course.

    Clarke

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  • jriddett

    Thank you Clarke for so much information. I learned a lot. The issues are very complex as you stated. I believe I have met a few who have definite lines to the roles of women. They believe those roles are directly stated in scripture. One pastor that I most respect has these definite roles. One thing that I think can be remembered In the scheme of making all of these claims is to be first led by the Spirit. God orchestrated Debra to lead and we may just not know and probably won’t know In out earthly forms why women are sometimes leaders ( and maybe it looks like authority) but is it really authority? Or a joint effort in the Spirit. Yes she definitely lead , but is that Gods thinking or ours ? His ways are not our ways …. His thoughts are not our thoughts .. Does he want us to get boggled down in the clear cut leadership “roles” of the church ? Could our ” roles” be fAulted at times. Are we able to admit that and change things up , with of course the only guidance needed , His guidance , His Spirit with us.

    Like

    • jriddett

      Another question :
      I’m not sure why Rachael is referred to as evangelical ?

      Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      Great feedback, Janet.

      Okay. You caught me on the Rachel Held Evans as an “evangelical” reference 🙂

      Busted!! 🙂

      A couple of things here:

      (1) She does self-identify herself as being an “evangelical”…. well, at least she did, until recently.

      http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/needing-time-evangelical

      (2) She was raised in a very conservative Christian home and went to a Christian college. While that in and of itself is not necessarily indicative of where someone is at now spiritually/theologically, which is most probably your point, her background shows that evangelical faith is in her “mother’s milk,” so to speak. She is just EXTREMELY conflicted about it at this juncture, to say the least. Let’s just put it this way: I did not grow up in a very conservative evangelical environment like she did (I was more of a mainline Episcopalian), but if I were to try to share the “Four Spiritual Laws” with her, the chances are that she would know them better than I would! Maybe, just maybe, she would fit under the label of progressive evangelical, but some might balk at that, and this is understandable. It does raise the question of what is an “evangelical,” but that is another huge topic in an of itself:

      http://www.dennyburk.com/what-is-an-evangelical/

      (3) Though I emphathize to some degree, her story does trouble me greatly, as I tried to show in the previous postings about her, as her journey demonstrates the tendency to become so self-absorbed in introspective doubt that it distracts one from the primary calling of the believer to be a simple worshipper of God and come to Him humbly in a childlike faith. For example, it is very difficult to “share your faith” with your neighbor when you are constantly questioning your own faith. This is not a healthy treadmill to be on.

      I know that there are many folks who are egalitarian in their leanings regarding women as elders for whom this does not apply, but I think that the points raised by Carson, Keller and Piper MUST be considered. Once a church opens the door to church eldership for women, there is a tendency, at least among some (not all), to see this as providing the momentum to keep going in other directions that more clearly takes us away from being under the authority of Scripture.

      As you asked regarding the example of Deborah’s leadership in the Bible, is this “Gods thinking or ours? His ways are not our ways …. His thoughts are not our thoughts ..

      All I can add is, Amen to that!!

      Your input on the topic is well appreciated. Thanks.

      Clarke

      Like

  • Wray

    The reason that Paul said what he did in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 was not because women cannot be more capable than men, or because men and women do not have an equal chance at salvation (Galatians 3:28) or because God is a respecter of persons (1 Peter 1:17). In fact we know that Deborah, Anna, and others were used as prophetesses and just as women will be in the future (Joel 2:28). Also women have other leadership roles (“ministries” if you will) to fulfill (Titus 2:3-5; 2 Timothy 1:5; etc).

    BUT, when it comes to the priesthood of the OT and the NT priesthood (church ministry) God had/has specific requirements because of it’s symbolism and the fact that He uses the physical to show the spiritual (Romans 1:20). Man has been set up as head of the woman to show that Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:22-23). This is the reason that there were no women priests in the OT or NT. Christ is the male in the relationship that He has to the church who is the female (the bride).

    The role of the priest is to expedite access to God the Father and this ONLY can happen through the Son (who is the Bridegroom). The church (men as well) as the bride is to always be in submission to Christ, now and in the future.

    BUT in the future, when we are with HIM in a glorified state (Romans 8:17), those who were male and female will act in a role of Priest (Revelation 5:10 etc). This shows that it only about showing the Plan of God.

    PS Being a part of the priesthood or ministry is also highly exclusionary when it comes to men as well.

    Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      Wray,

      Thank you for your comments here on the Veracity blog.

      So, are you saying that those who argue for full inclusion of women in church leadership today, at the level of elder and/or teaching pastor, are trying to rush God’s timetable too quickly?

      Clarke

      Like

    • Wray

      Clarke, that would definitely be one way to look at it. It is in a sense putting the cart before the horse. Of course I would think that most people would agree that even in the future that once both men and women have assumed their priestly roles, that we will be submissive to the High Priest — the eternal application of the lesson that had been learned through obedience to His word.

      Like

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