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?
(PARENTHETICAL NOTE: The issues here 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?
As 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.
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.