15th in a multipart blog series.
How does one resolve the question of women serving in church leadership?
Well, surely, as discussed in the previous post, it is not a matter of churches inevitably following down some slippery slope, towards something like the adoption of same-sex marriage. To repeat again, just in case there is any confusion, a “slippery slope” is a logical fallacy. The adoption of female elders does not necessarily entail a betrayal of classic Christian sexual ethics or other fundamental truths. So, while such supposed slippery slopes do raise important questions, they do not fully help us to resolve the question at hand.
What then shall we do?
As we have surveyed, the Scriptural evidence examined thus far (and there is a lot more to consider), is complex, and in a number of cases, ambiguous. Complementarians have their prooftexts. Egalitarians have theirs. Plus, not all complementarians or egalitarians are exactly the same!
If there is no one, or two, “killer” Bible verses to settle the matter, what do you do? There are two things that I believe will help here, as least as starting points:
- It is best to narrow down the question to the very crux of the issue. There are so many nuances and various positions one could take, but it helps the most to identify the real sticking point, “the clearest area of disagreement,” as British Bible teacher Andrew Wilson put it. Should women serve as elders, assuming that the elders are those who take upon the function of pastoring in a local church? When it comes to things like the office of deacon, women teaching under the authority of elders in a mixed adult group, etc., complementarians are all over the map. But when it comes to elders, all breeds of complementarians will say NO, whereas egalitarians will undoubtedly say YES.
- Build a cumulative case, that takes into account all of the available evidence. In this blog post series, I have tried to lay out some of the crucial arguments used to interpret various texts. Yet what I have set out is by no means exhaustive.
That is all very important, but in this blog post, we will examine still another, very important part of the discussion: the role of tradition.
Throughout the breadth of church history, there is good evidence to show that having women deacons in the church was considered to be uncontroversial, particularly prior to the medieval period. For example, before robes became common for adult baptism, Christians would at times be baptized in the nude, in the early church. As a result, women deacons assisted with baptism. Furthermore, women at various times throughout church history, have used certain teaching gifts, church planting gifts, and other leadership gifts, to the great benefit of other believers.
Granted, some in our day say that having women serving as deacons is still wrong, despite what the story from early church history shows. However, those who would suggest that women should not exercise their full range of ministry gifts, from various forms of teaching to administration, whether being “deacons” or not, simply do not have the force of tradition on their side. Such tradition reaches all of the way back to the New Testament, where we have the record that four of Philip’s daughters prophesied (Acts 21:8-9 ESV).
Evidence from Church History: Women Deacons, Yes, But Women Elders?? Not So Much.
But when it comes to elders and/or pastors, over the past 2,000 years, the story tends to work more against the egalitarian cause. Until relatively recently, women have not generally served in those capacities, as these offices have been, in a certain sense, associated with the exercise of spiritual authority, however it may be defined. Historically, there has been hardly any dispute about this, despite some limited evidence to the contrary.1
Even today, the overwhelming majority of church congregations throughout the world practice some form of all-male eldership, in their churches. However, within the past couple of hundred years, and particularly within the past few decades, in certain Protestant circles, having women ordained to positions of leadership, where spiritual authority is being exercised, as with elders or pastors, has become acceptable. Some see this as a good thing, believing that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, to unleash more ministry for the Kingdom of God.
Others think that the church has been going down the wrong track, with this newer practice of having women as elders and pastors, and the church needs to turn around. Compare this modern, innovative practice, with the chronologically broader practice and unified consensus for 2,000 years, among Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, that for priests, who perform the sacraments of the church, they are to be male and male only.
In other words, when it comes to the sacraments, particularly with respect to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and taking the long view of history, gender matters, reflecting a long standing consensus of what the New Testament teaches. As a well-informed commenter noted, in response to a previous post in this blog series, to think that modern Christians know better what the original Greek means, than did the early Greek fathers of the church, would be the “height of arrogance.”
So, why have Protestants, in comparison, been so relatively open to challenging the tradition? Part of it is the commitment to sola scriptura. Scripture alone is the authority among evangelical Protestants, and this has led to a number of traditions and traditional interpretations of the Bible to be abandoned. As a result, certain texts, like Galatians 3:28, have been read in a particular way, that have led towards the acceptance of women as elders. But is the weight of the evidence sufficient enough to overturn the tradition?
A Word From C.S. Lewis
There is much to be thankful for, in our modern world today, ranging from advancements in medicine, to instant communication across the world, over the Internet. However, in our world today, where we glorify the “new,” with our infatuation with the latest iPhone and the other near-daily improvements in technology, and despise the “old,” as worn-out or old fashioned, we tend to ignore the voices of those who held the long view, and embraced the riches of history. One such is the Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, who was greatly concerned by innovations, that would toss out the baby with the bath water, all in the name of “progress.”
Does this situation fairly apply to the question of eldership for women? For example, Lewis, in his 1948 essay, Priestesses in the Church, had this to say about the possibility of women serving as priests in the Church of England in his day:
- To take such a revolutionary step at the present moment, to cut ourselves off from the Christian past and to widen the divisions between ourselves and other Churches by establishing an order of priestesses in our midst, would be an almost wanton degree of imprudence. And the Church of England herself would be torn in shreds by the operation. My concern with the proposal is of a more theoretical kind. The question involves something even deeper than a revolution in order.
Note that this was written in 1948. Women were finally ordained in 1994, in the Church of England, for the priesthood. Since then, despite some small gains, the Church of England has suffered an interesting type of decline. According to the Guardian, while the total number of parishioners who occasionally attend church has gone up, regular attendance at church continues to decline.
Is there a correlation? Was Lewis just a crusty old curmudgeon, an otherwise noble product of his own culture and his own time? Or is Lewis like a voice crying out in the wilderness?
But let us set such statistics off to the side: What concerns me about the more aggressive side of the egalitarian debate, is that by introducing women into such positions of spiritual authority, we do cut ourselves off of the Christian past, as Lewis contends. When we do something that furthers the divide that already separates Christians, this does not speak well of the unity of the church.
Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do differ from Protestants in many deep, deep respects. I am not suggesting that Protestants completely abandon the Reformation, though many of my Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends would be elated, if such steps were taken. Ah yes. I can hear them now, with their whispers of “Come Home! Come Home!,” as their voices cry out from across the Tiber and the Bosphorus, respectively.
Nevertheless, all three branches of Christendom share much in common as well, as an expression of the unity of Christ’s Body. To work towards further reconciliation, if possible, is a good thing, is it not?
Egalitarians who call for more opportunities for women to serve in leadership are right, and sadly, many complementarians are needlessly dragging their feet. But when egalitarians seek to push the point on church eldership, we enter dangerous ground. Are we not then driving the wedge in deeper, on issues that divides us, in the Body of Christ?
Christ has called us to be one body, and yet, much of the history of the Protestant movement has continued to pull us apart.
And that makes me sad.
A Deeper Mystery?
There is that last line I quoted from Lewis, that keeps bugging me: “The question involves something even deeper than a revolution in order.” What is that “something even deeper” that Lewis is warning about?
Lewis goes on in his seminal essay, in response to those who argue for women eldership (Lewis uses the Anglican terminology of “priest,” which is an important and neglected issue in the discussion):
- I have every respect for those who wish women to be priestesses. I think they are sincere and pious and sensible people. Indeed, in a way they are too sensible…. I am tempted to say that the proposed arrangement would make us much more rational “but not near so much like a Church”…..The Church claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests. If it is true, then we should expect to find in the Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and which believers will call supra-rational. There ought to be something in it opaque to our reason though not contrary to it – as the facts of sex and sense on the natural level are opaque. And that is the real issue. The Church of England can remain a church only if she retains this opaque element.
Is Lewis right? Is something important at stake near to being lost?
As someone drenched in the riches of church history, Lewis knew of things that few of us in the 21st century can fully appreciate, particularly among Protestants. We have become so enamored by the great principle of the “priesthood of all believers,” that we forget that Israel had an all-male priesthood, in the Old Testament. Was that simply a cultural artifact of the Bronze Age, an excuse for misogyny that we are better off without? Or could it be that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions are preserving something, that in that opaque sense, reveals the glory of God? Does an all male eldership speak to a profound mystery, that many Protestants have simply forgotten?
What about Jesus’ selection of twelve men, to be his original apostles? Does not the number twelve correspond somehow to the twelve tribes of Israel? Jesus broke all sorts of cultural customs, such as speaking directly to the woman at the well, and associating with female prostitutes. So, why did he start with these twelve men, when he could have mixed a few women into the bunch?
Was he simply holding back on his reforms, thinking that the Jewish community of his day, would not be able to handle having women as elders, yet? Or was this all-male pattern of spiritual leadership somehow mysteriously ingrained into the very revealed purposes of God?
The next blog post will explore this theme a little further, but let us for now consider the other side of the debate.
NEVERTHELESS!! TRUTH MATTERS!!
Still, I get the standard Protestant idea that we should not preserve the unity of the church, at the expense of truth. Truth is more important. C.S. Lewis could have been wrong.
A lot of egalitarian Christians believe this to be the case. Despite whatever good intentions C.S. Lewis might have had, there are a number of egalitarian Christians who already find the evidence from Scripture to be compelling for allowing women to be elders. To refuse women as elders threatens to be contrary to the impulse of the Gospel.
Some egalitarians even contend that there is a certain trajectory, inherent in Scripture, that make the full participation of women and men together, in all levels of ministry, an inevitable consequence of the following the Gospel!2
What then must be done, with respect to those who do not find the egalitarian case so compelling?
We should be open to go wherever the Holy Spirit takes us, and put our trust in God. Follow the evidence wherever it leads, but when the evidence is difficult to decipher, caution is in order. A few churches have done just that by not taking a position, one way or the other, regarding whether or not women may serve as elders. It can be a difficult position to take, but in my view, it would be a wise road to take, at the present time.
Who Then Must Bear the Burden of Proof?
What shall be done in the meantime, until further evidence comes in, to settle the matter? Here is my guideline: it is those who believe it best to overturn a traditional interpretation of the Bible, who bear the burden proof, not the other way around. To do otherwise threatens to be a recipe for chaos. Sadly, we live in an age when what is new is often assumed to be better. We reject the old…. well, because it is old, but not because we always have sufficient evidence to support the new, and reject the old.
Therefore, if we assume that the verdict is still out concerning having women as elders, the default position should be clear. Across the widest spectrum of Christian belief, a complementarian view has remained the standard. The presumption of complementarianism is the wisest path to take.
Nevertheless, this blog series has shown that there are at least some elements of the traditional view of women and church leadership that do need to be discarded. The biblical evidence marshaled to support the most extreme complementarian views has proven unpersuasive, and even contradicted by the Bible. For example, you would be hard pressed to find any Christian saying today that women are somehow inferior to men. Egalitarianism has surely helped all of us in the church with that.
Misogyny has no place within the mind and heart of the Christian, and to that extent, the egalitarian side of the debate has made their case, and met the burden of proof. Any perspective on this issue that denigrates women, in any way, shape, or form, does not pass the muster of the biblical standard. Hopefully, this much is clear.
Both sides of the debate deserve a full hearing, concerning the touchstone question of having women as elders (I am including pastors here, too). If the full force of the egalitarian argument meets the burden of proof, then we must be prepared to say that complementarianism should be rejected. If not, then it is best to let the complementarian view stand.
So, now is a good to time to ask the reader: With respect to having women serving in the office of elder and/or pastor, has the egalitarian side of the debate met the burden of proof, based on the evidence?
1. Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek’s Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History indicates that the practice of having women as deacons in the early church was known, though the practice was more common in the East than the West. Regarding women as elders, we have substantially less evidence for the practice, but ironically, for what evidence we do have, it is found more in the West than the East. Nevertheless, Madigan and Osiek tells us that, “As is so often the case in Church history, the sources do not tell us what we would most like to know” (p. 198). The terminology of female elder, or presbytera, could simply have referred to an elderly woman; that is, an older woman in the church, or it could have been to designate the wife of a male presbyter. It in no way implies that such women “elders” were in the position of necessarily presiding over the sacraments of the church. We simply lack the evidence to make a confident judgment as to what such female “presbyters” actually did. A 10th century witness in Italy suggests that women priests were known to operate with the blessings of their bishops, but that it is most likely do to the lack otherwise qualified male presbyters. So, while the existence of women deacons is clearly evident within the life of the early church, the existence of women presbyters, as understood within the context of how many evangelical churches today understand the role of elder, is difficult to establish. Either way, the practice of having women serve in various offices, such as “deacon”, began to steadily decline by the end of the sixth century. Granted, the existence of women priests/presbyters in the early church, beyond the first century, does not confirm that the practice was sanctioned by church leaderships, without caveat. But it does beg the question as to whether or not the burden of proof for having women serve as presbyters today has been met. ↩
2. Such is the basic argument found in William Webb’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Webb contends that just as slavery was eliminated, even though the New Testament allows for it, the same situation applies to women in ministry. The Gospel paved the way for the elimination of slavery. It also therefore paves the way for the elimination of gender discrimination in all levels of church office. ↩