Tag Archives: women in ministry

The Church Needs Both Fathers and Mothers: A Plea for Unity and Truth

FINALLY, the last in a series on women in ministry in the church.

In the midst of this Holy Week, I want to close out this series with some personal reflections, as I “land the plane,” and propose a vision of how to move forward in the complementarian vs. egalitarian discussion, with respect to ministry to the world around us. At the outset, I will acknowledge that a lot of my Christian friends, to either side of me, will disagree with me. I will admit, right off, I might be quite wrong about a lot of this. Nevertheless, I am quite OK about going out on a limb here. So, let us see if I fall off or not.

All I ask is for you to hear me out, look back over the previous 19 or so blog posts, to see how I built my argument, and then engage me on that basis, and show me where I am falling off balance. Most of my critics have either not read the whole series, or have selectively read what I have written, which is a pattern I have come to expect. If I need correction, I encourage you to provide it. Just please engage the actual arguments I present. Thanks!

Christians today are divided by many issues. Whether it be the age of the earth, the nature of the millennium, the timing of the Rapture, infant vs. believer’s baptism, charismatic gifts, etc., the opportunities for division come up quite frequently. The problem is that the Evil One enjoys seeing believers in conflict with one another, as it is part of the demonic strategy to divide and conquer the church of God. When Christians are involved in pitched battles with one another, the witness of the church is compromised.

A word of wisdom I have gained over the years, as relayed by a pastor in my church:  Divisions in the church breeds atheism in the world.

The question of “should women serve as elders, deacons, or pastors” is a particularly sensitive topic in this category. Whereas topics like “science vs. the Bible” typically generate interest only among a few, the relationship between men and women in the church impacts everyone who calls themselves a Christian. Pile on top of this, the cultural pressures in recent times, that seek to redefine gender, in all sorts of areas, one could argue that gender-related issues might well become more overpowering than a “disputable matters” approach can bear. Time will tell.

Continue reading

An Interdenominational Church Asks: What Are the Core Doctrines of the Faith?

It is kind of hard to know what it means to celebrate our unity in the midst of our diversity, when we do not even know what that diversity is.”

— Troy Knapp, philosopher, poet, Michigan Tech fan, and fellow connoisseur of Mexican fajitas

The 19th post in a multipart series.

I am part of what might be called an evangelical interdenominational church. What I really appreciate about it is that there is a core set of fundamental beliefs (eight, to be exact), that guide the life and practice of the community. In a more denominational church setting, you will find certain doctrines or beliefs that are elevated in such a way, that it becomes difficult for other believers to fully subscribe to those beliefs, without going, “And, so, why is this such a big deal here? Can we not just focus on the essentials of the faith?”

The problem with being an evangelical interdenominational church is that it is not always that easy to figure out what a core doctrine is, versus a non-core doctrine. My Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends do not have this problem. It is all a “package deal,” my friends across the Tiber or across the Bosphorus might say.

In the meantime, we Protestants have to wrestle with how much our interpretation of the Bible bears on determining what an essential matter is, versus a “disputable matter.” I have been a Protestant evangelical long enough to realize that what might be an essential matter for one Christian, might not be an essential matter for another Christian. Some like and value confessional creeds, to help guide the faith of the church membership. Others believe creeds to be too divisive, and that all you need is the Bible. Therefore, you do not need a creed! Without a magisterium authority to settle matters, it is pretty difficult to know exactly where to draw the line. This is why there are so many thousands of Protestant denominations to begin with!

So, while I may cringe at some of the things that my Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends have to swallow somehow, they come back to me, looking around at all of the GAZILLION Protestant denominations we have, and they ask, “So, tell me, Clarke. How is that whole ‘sola scriptura’ thing working out for ya?

I just crawl back into my little hole and avoid giving an answer.

As a result, some think of an interdenominational church as simply a “pie-in-the-sky” wish dream. I do not think so, but I can see why there are those who disagree. It is just that such churches are really hard to find. But as my friend Troy says, a lot of times you may not even be aware of what the differences are that exist between believers.

In one of our foundational documents, in our church, we have the following statement: “Those other elements which have caused confusion and division in the past within the Church of Jesus Christ shall not be permitted to destroy the unity of this body. Accordingly, we urge that attitudes of Christian love and tolerance be expressed toward those within the Body of Christ holding different points of view.” But according to my friend Troy, many of us are simply not aware that there exists other believers in Jesus, who hold to “different points of view,” much less do we know how to love those people, despite those differences.

For three Sunday afternoons, my church held a series of teachings on the “Nature of the Chapel,” (the name of the church is the Williamsburg Community Chapel). The first week, led by our lead pastor, Travis Simone, and our Connect team leader, Hunter Rue, offers some teaching on the difference between biblical authority and biblical interpretation, a theme that shows up quite often here on the Veracity blog. The second week, led two other pastors, Rich Sylvester and Claude Marshall, focus on trying to figure out the difference between what is a core issue and what is a non-core issue in the church, using the issue of the charismatic gifts as a case study. The third week, led by Travis Simone again, looks at the issue of complementarianism versus egalitarianism, with respect to women in leadership in the local church.

It should be no mystery to realize that the question of having women as elders/pastor is the most contentious of these issues, particularly in view of the tremendous pressure being exerted on the church by the surrounding culture, regarding any and all matters pertaining to gender and sexuality, within the past few years. For an extended discussion, I would encourage the reader to go through the blog series I have been writing on the topic, that starts here.

The benefit of these sessions is that they demonstrate that there are some very real differences in biblical interpretation, held by members of our Christian community. Sadly, as with just about every evangelical church in America that I know, most people in our particular local church are unaware that such strongly held views even exist. Are the core values of this church core values for you? Or are there issues that are core values for you, that do not reflect the eight core values of this church? How do you live as a faithful follower of Christ, in your church, when everyone does not share the exact same core values as you do? How do you determine a core value, versus a “disputable matter” (Romans 14:1)?

After each presentation, a live Q&A session processes some of the content generated by the presentation, with another Q&A session recorded with just our pastors, the following week. I think all of our pastors did a fantastic job in their presentations. In the notes below, I offer some personal observations, that are mine and mine alone, that do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of our church leadership. Enjoy!

  • First Video (General Session: Week One) 1:12:00 mark:  Guess who asked this question, about the timing of the Rapture, and the nature of the millennium?  Yours truly!! Your ever curious Veracity blogger!!!!
  • Second Video (Q&A: Week One) 44:50 mark: A question was asked about how decisions get made at our church. The response given was that we have an elder board, plus a leadership team, made up of pastors, where the lead pastor serves on both the elder board and the pastoral leadership team. When asked about the job description of elders, it is partially described as setting the “long term strategic direction” of the church (46:00). I address this perspective in the Veracity blog post series on the topic related to gender and church office.
  • Third Video (General Session: Week Two) 1:06:25 mark: To follow up on the previous point, this discussion of how the church handles matters of church discipline and protecting the church against false teaching is related to the function of elders, including pastors. Yes, to a certain degree, all believers should be on guard against false teaching and unrepentant public sin, in the church. But ultimately those responsible for stepping up, to do the most difficult things, in my view, as expressed by Cliff Brigham, are the elders (1:08:46).
  • Third Video (General Session: Week Two) 51:40 mark: Backing up a bit, after Rich Sylvestor’s excellent talk on the “Postures of Polemics,” perhaps my favorite part of the sessions, only to be slightly rivaled by Hunter Rue’s presentation, the previous week, Claude Marshall speaks here about the cessationist vs. charismatic controversy. Claude is right that this issue was more divisive 30+ years ago, but the issue is still ever present, as the Charismatic Movement continues to grow across the global world, as the fastest growing segment of the church, at an ever expanding rate. But to be rather frank, most folks in our church are completely unfamiliar with the Charismatic Movement, as is the case with the majority of American evangelicals.
  • Fifth Video (General Session: Week Three) 6:45 mark: Pastor Travis goes into the most treacherous territory of explaining four views of women in ministry, based on a book, Women in Ministry: Four Views, that I wrote about in a previous blog post. He did a fantastic job, in my view.  At about 54:00 mark, Travis goes into the heart of the egalitarian view, to end up with exegesis of Galatians 3:28, which is often regarded as the egalitarian “manifesto” verse. I need to think about Galatians 3:28 a bit more, but as I see it now, there are problems with both the typical egalitarian and complementarian readings of Galatians 3:28. But to get a fuller grasp of the difficulty, I would suggest that the Veracity look back at my most recent blog post on Andy Stanley.
  • Sixth Video (Q&A Session: Week Three) 50:00 mark: Pastor Rich relates a story of someone in his small group from a Salvation Army background. I will save my response for the next and final blog post in this series.

Resources on the Complementarian vs. Egalitarian Discussion

18 in a multipart series.

Long before the current debates regarding sexual ethics and gender identity (think same-sex marriage, transgender, etc.) overwhelmed the cultural discussion, evangelical Christians have been embroiled in debates over “women in ministry” in the church.

Since as early as the English Quakers of the 17th century, and more recently, with groups like the Salvation Army, Free Methodists, and Nazarenes, starting around the late 19th century, some evangelical Christians have been ordaining women to the office of elder and/or pastor. However, this practice was largely outside of the evangelical mainstream, the peculiar quirks of particular groups. It has only been within the past 50 years, that the egalitarian vision of men and women, ministering in all levels of church leadership, went mainstream.

In the 1970s, Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty wrote their landmark book All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today. Scanzoni, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and Hardesty, a graduate of Wheaton College, both institutions of higher learning in the evangelical heartlands of the American Midwest, made their case that women should be accepted as pastors and elders in evangelical churches. Together, the two helped to found the Evangelical Women’s Caucus, a movement that attempted to spread the cause of women serving in all levels of leadership in evangelical churches (Here is an interview with Letha Scanzoni, reviewing her life’s work).

However, the comprehensive union supporting the Caucus eventually collapsed over disputes regarding the prospect of permitting same-sex marriages in evangelical churches, and the conflict over biblical inerrancy. The more conservative of the two sides, that rejected same-sex relations, in any form, became the leading intellectual wing that led to the formation of the Willow Creek Association. Willow Creek remains one of evangelicalism’s largest and most influential egalitarian churches. The heirs of this more conservative movement helped to form Christians for Biblical Equality, that remains the premier evangelical intellectual resource for supporting an egalitarian interpretation of Scripture, within a biblical inerrancy framework.

A united response to the growing egalitarian movement was met by Crossway’s publication of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, in 1991, edited by Wayne Grudem, then a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and John Piper, a Minneapolis pastor and founder of Desiring God ministries. Grudem and Piper had worked with a team a like-minded pastors and scholars that forged the Danvers Statement, that served as the backbone for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the premier evangelical resource for supporting a complementarian interpretation of Scripture, within a biblical inerrancy framework.

The timing of the founding of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood roughly coincided with the IVP publication of Women in Ministry: Four Views. This book entertained the writings of four evangelical scholars offering different perspectives on the topic at hand.

At the risk of oversimplifying their positions, Robert Culver wrote defending a traditional view, namely that women should not serve in positions of church leadership, basically assuming that women are more easily deceived than men. Susan T. Foh wrote defending a male-leadership view, a more nuanced re-evaluation of Culver’s view, that essentially summarizes the most common complementarian view promoted by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. For Foh, women are equal in intelligence, competence, and spiritual status as men, but they are not equal in terms of function, and women are not to serve as elders or pastors in a local church. Walter Liefield wrote about a plural-ministry view, that effectively eliminates the gap between clergy and laity, thus making any distinction between men and women in church leadership, largely irrelevant. For Liefield, church leadership has essentially a utilitarian or practical function. It is all about getting the job done. Alvera Mickelson defended what is known to be the contemporary egalitarian view, affirming the role of women as pastors and elders, empowered to extend spiritual authority over a local congregation.

The strength of Women in Ministry: Four Views matches with its weakness. The book manages to describe the complexity of the debate, as not simply being about the role of men and women in church leadership, but it also highlights the complex nature of how church leadership itself should be constructed at the local level, in the first place. Yet the book risks being overly complex, in the presentation of the arguments. However, the greatest deficiency of the book is that it is dated. More recent scholarship has largely found a few elements of the arguments, being advanced by each school of thought, represented in the book, to be problematic.

A more recent study, that is backed by more current scholarship, is the second edition of Two Views on Women in Ministry (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology), published in 2005, by Zondervan. Two Views is a more mature presentation of the arguments, in comparison to the more extreme viewpoints presented in Women in Ministry: Four Views. In Two Views, Linda Belleville and Craig Keener offer nuanced perspectives supporting an egalitarian view, balanced against the essays by Craig Blomberg and Tom Schreiner, who offer nuanced perspectives supporting a complementarian view.

Two Views offers comparatively little difference between Belleville and Keener, in their egalitarian views. With respect to the complementarian views of Blomberg and Schreiner, Schreiner is the more rigorous, objecting to the practice of having women teach from a Sunday morning pulpit, or even in adult Bible classes. Blomberg, on the other hand, would allow for women to deliver sermons on an occasional, irregular basis, and allow for women teaching in adult Bible classes, at times. However, the primary functions of elder and pastor, the “highest office” in the local church, is reserved to be done by men only. In my reading of Two Views, it would appear that both Blomberg and Schreiner might allow for women to serve in a pastoral role, on a temporary basis, assuming there were no qualified men present to lead. But this would be a rare case, not sufficient to establish as a norm.

One of the best recent directive studies of Scripture, from a complementarian perspective, is the third edition of Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-13, edited by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner. Women in the Church focuses on the most contentious passage of 1 Timothy 2:8-13, in the current debate, and it takes to task the claim made by egalitarian scholars that the Apostle Paul was trying to address a particular local, cultural situation in the church of Ephesus, in his letter to Timothy, when he forbids a woman from teaching and/or having authority over a man, in the corporate structure of church leadership. The contributors of this book make the case that Paul’s teaching about women and men in 1 Timothy in church office is timeless and transcends cultures. Egalitarian scholars who wish to make their alternate case must contend with the evidence presented in Women in the Church.

In contrast, one of best recent studies from an egalitarian perspective is Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ, by Cynthia Long Westfall. Westfall is a New Testament Greek scholar, who served on the editorial board for the Common English Bible. Westfall offers a fresh egalitarian reading of the relevant texts. In particular, Westfall makes the most helpful observation that the symbol of the veil, in 1 Corinthians 11, is much more profound than what most scholars and pastors realize.  In this passage, Paul insists that women should pray and prophecy, in worship services, with their heads covered. While this might be understand as a sign of submission of women to the authority of men, this interpretation does not fully grasp the larger radical force of what Paul was trying to convey.

Recent research indicates that married women in Ephesus, as elsewhere in the Roman Empire, were to wear veils, to signify that they were married. But this was meant to convey the idea that these particular women were not sexually available to other men. Contrast this with the status of female slaves in the Roman Empire. They were not allowed to wear veils, as they were subject to their masters. Without a head covering, it signaled to others that a female slave was sexually available to other men. Paul, on the other hand, in Westfall’s understanding, directs ALL women to wear the veil, as a sign that they were protected from exploitation. Paul was being counter-cultural in Corinth. In other words, Paul sees the wearing of the veil as an honor, for it demonstrated to vulnerable women, that through the Gospel, women are protected by Christ from exploitation. Complementarians would greatly benefit from this quality of egalitarian scholarship offered by Westfall.

A few “honorable mentions” include some books that I have not fully read, but that contain some really useful material. Catherine Clark Kroeger and Richard Clark Kroeger, who were instrumental in founding Christians for Biblical Equality, wrote the influential 1988 book, I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 In Light of Ancient Evidence. This is a very challenging book, but the Women in the Church volume by Köstenberger and Schreiner, mentioned above, serves as a useful rejoinder to the Kroegers, that critically examines the Kroegers’ claims.

Then there is Hannah Anderson’s Made for More, a recent book, accessible to the average Christian reader, that argues that before complementarians press their case for male and female “roles,” they need to consider what it means to be created in the image of God. I find this to be a bridge builder book between complementarians and egalitarians.

Much of the technical arguments advanced in the more academic books above assume at least some knowledge of New Testament Greek, which is unfortunate for someone like me who has had no formal training in the biblical languages. But the nature of the debate is technical, as it has a significant bearing on how Bible translation is done.

There are many dozens and dozens of books that address topics related to the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate. In the blog series that I developed, I looked to several of the above resources to develop the material in the blog, as I believe these are the cream of the crop. I recommend that interested readers consult these books and referenced websites for further information, useful for further biblical study.


A Modest Proposal to Make Peace Between Complementarians & Egalitarians

17th in a multipart series.

Here I want to sketch out in some basic detail, a proposal that seeks to make peace between complementarians and egalitarians in a church, that holds to an “agree to disagree” position on matters pertaining to women and men, participating together in ministry. I have outlined this proposal in brief before, but perhaps it needs a bit of fleshing out.

To get the sense of how this modest proposal is arrived at, I would urge the reader to review the previous 16 posts in this series, to get the full flow of the argument. I have anticipated each objection to the various points made in this proposal, and suggested answers to these objections, in those prior blog posts, as well as a future follow-up post.

Some will undoubtedly be skeptical, thinking that such an “agree to disagree” solution will not work. Perhaps the critics are correct, and I am wrong. But for the sake of the reputation of the church, I really hope I am not.

Some things are worth dividing a church. The question of “women as elders,” is not one of them (at least I hope it is not). Nevertheless, how we view the concept of “eldership” is consequential as to how the discussion proceeds.

Some on both sides will think I am simply “giving in” too much to the other side. I fully expect such criticism. If what I am suggesting feels like too much to bear, I simply ask that you think and pray about it. But I would hope that the vast majority of those who are either in the middle, or otherwise, undecided, might find this proposal acceptable, at least in principle.

My aim is to make a proposal that makes a demand upon a Christian’s charity, but not a demand upon a Christian’s conscience. It requires that a Christian, who disagrees with another Christian, to give as much forebearance as possible to another believer, in terms of giving that person the benefit of the doubt, as to what ultimately motivates that person, in hopes of seeking to gently persuade the other to at least consider seeing something from a new perspective.

I must confess that I am not so good at doing that myself. I would much rather rally around the task of reaching out to a lost and dying world, than spending countless resources debating over this particular issue. I know that this issue is important to a lot of Christians, but to me, it pales in comparison to knowing that people are perishing everyday, not knowing Jesus. So, if I have come across as snarky or otherwise impatient, in some elements of this whole blog series, I ask for your forgiveness.

This proposal aims at preserving the conscience of the believer, not to compromise on the most fundamental, theological principles that they hold dear. For as the bookish 16th century monk, Martin Luther, argued before the Diet of Worms, with the Holy Roman Emperor in full view, armed to the teeth with the power to destroy Luther’s life, “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

At its most fundamental, the complementarian holds dear the principle that men and women are different, and that this difference is best modeled within the life of the church by preserving the office of elder, those who exercise ultimate spiritual and pastoral authority within a local church, to be held by men and men-only. To submit to a woman as elder would go against a complementarian’s conscience.

In contrast, the egalitarian holds dear the principle that men and women are equal within the sight of God, and they should both flourish in the full exercise of their gifts and talents, to serve Christ and His Kingdom, for the building up of the body, and reaching a lost world. To fail to honor the giftings and calling of women, for ministry, or to put any artificial, arbitrary limits on women, as to how they can serve, would go against an egalitarian’s conscience.

In the spirit of Acts 15, here are the different points of this modest proposal:

  • Elders are pastors, and pastors are elders. Limit the responsibilities of the elders to function primarily in the role of pastoring, those areas that directly seek to protect the spiritual health of the community, as in the definition of church doctrine, implementing church discipline, and being willing to die first, for the sake of the larger body, when placed under the threat of persecution.
  • Encourage both men and women to serve as deacons.
  • Expand the office of deaconship, and other church staff and volunteer activities, to offload as many tasks as possible from the elders, that do not specifically pertain to the function of pastoring, identified above.
  • Allow for the possibility that women may serve as elders.
  • Yet in practice, restrict the actual selection of elders to be only men.
  • Encourage a congregation wide vision of men training men, and women training women, for the sake of Gospel-centered discipleship.

Here is why the above proposal might work, point-by-point:

  • The primary function of an elder is to pastor and shepherd the flock. To clutter up the task list of the elders with those activities that distract the elders from fulfilling their primary tasks is to be avoided as much as possible. Work towards divesting the elders of non-pastoral functions, and give them to non-elders. The primary task list of a shepherd can be reduced to the three “D’s”:
    • Doctrine: To define and preach the biblical theology of the church, such that the congregation is being protected from false teaching and heretical error, that might compromise the tender faith of the flock.
    • Discipline: To take the appropriate action, when serious sin is committed in the church, that could severely impair the spiritual health of the community, with the aim of encouraging repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, if possible.
    • Death: If persecution become inevitable for the local church community, the elders would be the first ones to “go to the stake,” and give their lives, on behalf of the church community.
  • The office of deacon should be open to men and women, recognizing that both have much to give to the service of the local church.
  • Encourage deacons, staff members, and other volunteers to assume those tasks that can be delegated away from the elders as much as possible, under the spiritual oversight of the elders. For this modest proposal to work, elders and non-elders must work together, making it clear that any exercise of ministry, conducted by non-elders, must have the full blessing of the elders, that non-elders would be in full submission to the elders, recognizing that these elders bear the spiritual responsibility and authority over all ministry efforts, of that local church body. This would include making it possible for all non-elders, men and women, to fully exercise their gifts and talents, to include the widest range of activities; such as (and this is an incomplete list):
    • administration
    • the ministry to children and youth,
    • church planting, outreach to the poor, sick and homeless, and other missionary work,
    • developing the long term strategic direction of the church,
    • the leading of corporate worship in prayer, music, etc.,
    • assist the elders/pastors as they lead, in the administration of the sacraments or ordinances of the church.
    • Bible study leading, adult Bible class leading, leading in parachurch-type ministries,
    • public exhortation, the appropriate exercise of prophecy, and perhaps even an occasional testimony or sermon (you can call it “exhortation,” if you do not like the word “sermon”)
    • broadly speaking, for the geeks out there, this would also include affirming women in evangelical academia in the exercise of scholarship, that would help the church to gain a better insight into Scripture.
  • For 2,000 years, most Christians have understood the exercise of pastoring, as defined by the the three “D’s” above, to be the proper domain of men. However, tradition is not above being reexamined, in light of what Scripture says, in each and every generation. It is therefore possible that this male-only eldership understanding of Scripture has been wrong. If sufficient evidence is demonstrated, then the church needs to be willing to allow for the possibility of thus permitting women to serve as elders. This demands charity on the part of complementarians, while preserving the conscience of egalitarians.
  • However, in deference to this 2,000 years worth of long-standing tradition, despite occasional exercises to the contrary within the history of the church, the local church should refrain from selecting women as elders, in practice, until it has been sufficiently demonstrated that this historic position has been wrong.  This demands charity on the part of egalitarians, while preserving the conscience of complementarians.
  • Having a congregational-wide vision of men training men, and women training women, is the last step to all of this. But not only does this impact discipleship; that is, how we can enable believers to grow in their relationship with Jesus. It also involves a strategy for how to reach a lost world for Jesus.

I have my own ideas as to how such a strategy to reach a lost world for Jesus might be accomplished. But I will wait until an upcoming blog post to spell it out. Aside from a few straggler blog posts, to come out here and there, that upcoming (and last in the series) also gives me the opportunity to finally “land the plane,” so that you can figure out where I ultimately stand on this issue, if you have not figured it out already. You can take what I say or leave it.

Onward as we near the end of this series!!

The Mystery That Church Eldership Reminds Us Of?

16th in a multipart series.

Please consider the following theological thought experiment. Let me know what you think.

The great North African bishop of the 5th century, Saint Augustine, described a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.”

We Protestant evangelicals, by and large, do not know how to handle the sacraments of the church all that well. For many Protestants, we even shun the language of “sacrament,” as it disturbingly sounds too “Catholic.”

Instead, many Protestants prefer the less liturgical sounding term of “ordinance.” Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, otherwise known as the Eucharist, are “ordinances.” That sounds reasonable, and keeps us safely far away from those robed clerical figures, who wear those odd-looking big hats, or wearing long beards.

But the language of “sacrament” is actually quite biblical, as it derives from the Latin sacramentum, which is the word that the great 4th-5th century contemporary of Augustine, Jerome, used to translate part of Ephesians 5:32 into Latin, that eventually makes it way into many of our English translations, as the word “mystery”:

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (ESV).

This wonderful verse from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, is near the end of a passage (Ephesians 5:21-33), that describes the relationship between husband and wife, in the bond of marriage, a favorite at weddings.  “Husbands are to love their wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v.35). Marriage then, somehow, mysteriously refers to Christ’s relationship with the church.

Many Christians “get” this notion of the mystery of marriage, as it relates to Christ’s love for the church, and how husbands and wives are to treat each other, and yet, they do not necessarily see a connection, in how the organic structure of the church, its ecclesiology, is also meant to reflect the character of God, in much the same way.

Not all Christians are married. But all Christians are part of Christ’s body, His church. Would it not make sense, for part of this mystery, that which is revealed in marriage, to also extend to the corporate life of the church?

As I think about it, I suggest that something in the life of the church, lived together corporately, must have a type of sacramental expression, that reminds us of what Genesis teaches:

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 ESV).

In her book Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God, author Hannah Anderson reminds us that humans are made in the image of God, male and female:

When Genesis teaches that we are made imago dei, it is doing more than simply explaining how we came into existence or offering an argument for why we should respect and care for one another. By revealing that we are made in God’s image, it is revealing how we are to exist, how we are made to live, and what it means to be human. Being human means sharing God’s nature in some way… living as he lives and doing what he does. (p.33).

Anderson’s thesis is that before we even begin to think about the proper “roles” for men and women, we need to think about what being made in the image of God is all about.

Put briefly, my extension of Anderson’s  thesis is that men and women are equal with one another, but we are not interchangeable with one another.

There is a “sameness” that men and women share together, but there is, at the same time, a quality of gender that we do not share. Any Christian theology of gender needs to grapple with that reality.


Hannah Anderson’s Made for More, though beneficial to men, is written primarily for women. She looks past the tired debates of women’s “roles” in the church toward what it means to be created in the image of God. Kathy Keller calls Anderson’s book “Refreshing.”

Complementarian and Egalitarian Distortions of Eldership

What would it look like, for the church as a community to reflect this sense of being in the image of God?

I must confess that I am not 100% sure about all of this, yet I would argue that the concept of eldership has something to do with it. But it might be best to start with describing what this sense of being in the image of God does not look like.

On the one hand, complementarians are often very concerned about authority in the church, in how the command of God is to be properly passed on from God, down to us humans. Namely, this means that God speaks to the man, who then passes the word onto the woman. To reverse the order is to invite discord and treachery into God’s good order, for we know that the serpent sought to disrupt paradise by deceiving the woman, as opposed to challenging the man directly.

I do not necessarily deny the truth of this, but it does not effectively get at the real depth of male and female, being made in the image of God, particularly when it comes to the question of church eldership. For the complementarian fault is falling back mainly on a rigid, top-down “chain of command,” that distorts the genuinely dynamic interplay between male and female in human relationships. Yes, order is important, and hierarchy is an inevitable necessity, but the mystery of the image of God often gets institutionalized and ritualized, where rigidity steps in, when complementarianism is driven to an extreme.

Here is an example of how this gets distorted in some complementarian practicing churches (though you can see this, oddly enough, in some egalitarian ones as well): Sometimes, when a church brings on a new elder/pastor, who is, in fact, married, you get to meet the man, but you are only casually introduced to his wife, if she is introduced at all. It is as though the man’s wife is like an accessory, an expendable part of that man, which has the tragic effect of devaluing that woman. But as every man knows, behind every great man is a great woman, who supports him, and makes him who he is. I really wish churches would stop treating the wives of elders/pastors as mere accessories, and instead, view them as indispensable partners in ministry together.

For the egalitarian, what matters the most seems to be a sense of equality, with respect to being in the image of God. As a result, the sacramental character of church eldership, as being constituted by men, tends to fall in the opposite direction, in contrast with the complementarian approach. It can become so lost and distorted, that the egalitarian thinks it best to largely get rid of the whole mysterious character of eldership altogether. So, the church life then no longer has a clear signpost, that points towards the reality of being in God’s family, whereby fathers and mothers together, train the younger men and women, to grow spiritually, in the image of God, as male and female.

Rather, the egalitarian model threatens to secularize the whole thing, whereby the church corporate structure resembles that of a secular business, just with a religious face to it. Some complementarian churches are guilty of this, too. The head pastor becomes the CEO, and other pastors become vice-presidents, the fellowship of elders becomes the board, and the rest of the congregational membership becomes stockholders. This is egalitarianism driven to the extreme.

Here is an example of where I see this tendency leading a church astray: When the elder board gets reduced to being like a corporate board, the fellowship of elders loses its mysterious, spiritual character. When the primary focus of what the elder board does is to set out something like the “long-term strategic vision of the church,” I am left wondering where the sense of spiritually shepherding the flock has disappeared to?

It might be better to task a separate planning committee with working out the “long-term strategic vision of the church” instead. Sure, the elders can get involved, but if such activities take the elders away from their primary task of acting as shepherds for the flock, protecting them from doctrinal error, and rooting out body-destroying sin, that can poison the flock, then something crucial is lost.

Some may protest that my critique of both sides are caricatures, or that I am not being fair. That might be true. Then, again, maybe not.

In examining these extremes of complementarianism and egalitarianism going awry, the mystical character of eldership gets distorted. This is all a far cry from the beauty that the apostle Paul envisions, as the local church, made up of brothers and sisters together, in Christ:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! (Philippians 4:1 NIV).


Is eldership of a church merely an unfortunately necessary cog in the bureaucracy machine, of running a church, or does it have a sacramental quality to it, as mysterious as the Lord’s Supper?


The Awkward Nature of Eldership: And the Quaker Innovation

Nevertheless, there is a weakness to my argument. Let me describe it for you:

Let us narrow the concept of eldership to be a male-only eldership. Some on the egalitarian side might protest that the notion of a male-only eldership is an ill-fitting manner of sacramentally pointing towards the familial relations of brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, growing together in the love of Christ. Christian love and fellowship, honoring men and women, can be done without the need for a male-only eldership.

Sure, from a human perspective, male-only eldership sounds quite awkward (… and even offensive to some!).

The Quakers of the 17th century came to such a conclusion. The Quakers were really among the first Protestants to advance the idea of “women preachers,” along with men preachers. The founders of the movement, George Fox and Margaret Fell, were able to push this idea forward because they completely rejected any mystical notion of “eldership” altogether. For these early Quakers, the concept of “eldership” should be discarded, a relic of Roman Catholic paternalism, a superstitious belief on par with a transubstantiation view of the Lord’s Supper.

Still today, in traditional Quaker services, there is no one, single pulpit, from which the Word of God is expounded by a member of a leadership group, to the other congregants. Instead, Quakers gather together in silence, typically in a circle, only to have the silence broken when any member can stand up, as they are guided by their Inner Light, to speak of the things of God.

No pastor.

No elder.

Each Christian is simply “led by the Spirit” to say and do what they think best.

Why depend on such an awkward and clunky thing as “eldership?” Good riddens with such superstition!!



Quaker-Like “Radical Reformation,” Gatekeeping, and the Sacramental Function of Elders?

Those early Quakers, and “traditional” Quakers today, and other such “Radical Reformation” proponents, have their critics. Those who believe that the Quakers have gone too far contend that the practical elimination of the office of elder and/or pastor has opened the door for theological chaos to enter the church. Such critics argue that elders/pastors act in the critical role of serving as gatekeepers. The gatekeepers are there to make sure that false teaching does not creep into the house of God.

There is precedence for this “gatekeeper” view of eldership in the early church. As the Christians of the first few centuries of the church had to face different heretical movements, from within their own ranks, such as the Gnostics, the Ebionites (Jews who insisted that Gentiles keep all of the Mosaic law), Marcionites (those who rejected the Old Testament), and several others, the elders of the early church would encourage the faithful to stick with the orthodox leaders of the church.

The early church martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, who died no more than 50 or so years after the close of the New Testament, was known for his defense of Gospel truth, against the false teachers. He urged that Christians should “stick with their bishop” (“bishop” is normally translated as “overseer” in Bibles today), as a means of affirming the universal, or “catholic” affirmation of genuine faith (this is “catholic” in the sense of what Christians universally believe in all places at all times, not in the modern sense of “Roman Catholic”). Ignatius assumed such “bishops” to be male:

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8).

However, what if those Quakers turn out to be right? What if there really is no sacramental, mysterious meaning associated with eldership? If that is indeed the case, then my suggested argument falls flat. If the Quaker argument holds, then there really is no point in making any gender distinction, with respect to church office, since church office has no spiritual significance. Church office is merely a necessity required “to get the job done,” of building Christ’s Kingdom.

However, think about baptism for a moment. Is not baptism just as awkward as eldership? For we think of baptism as a type of washing, whereby Christians have been washed and forgiven of their sin.

But as any Christian knows, just as soon as someone gets cleaned up, it does not take very long to become dirty again. As someone gets dirty again, you have to wash and clean up, yet again. But baptism is a one-time event in the life of a Christian. You do not get re-baptized every time you sin, as a Christian.

Why then bother with baptism? If we accept Jesus into our hearts, and renewed from within, and we can experience the forgiveness of our sins, as we daily walk with God, why do we even need to get baptized with water?

We might be tempted to say, “Let us get rid of water baptism, as it is only something external and physical. What really matters is the meaning that water baptism represents, and that is more internal and spiritual.

However, that baptism serves as a reminder that Christ died for us one-time only, so that we can come to Christ every time, and receive the forgiveness for our sin. Our baptism reminds us of the grace of God.

Likewise, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper can mean different things to different Christians. For some, the Lord’s Supper is merely a symbol, a memorial to something that Christ has done, for sure, but otherwise, this is only a bread mini-wafer and a sip of grape juice. But for others, the Lord’s Supper is a mysterious encounter with the divine. But we dare not get rid of the eucharist, for at the very least it serves as a physical reminder, pointing towards the spiritual reality of Christ’s sacrifice for us, on the Cross.

So, yes, from a human perspective, a sacrament like baptism, or even the Lord’s Supper, looks rather clunky. But from God’s perspective, these are symbols that God has given us, describing the great and deep mystery of our faith. They are fitting physical representations of spiritual reality because God has revealed them to us.


The Real Sticking Point: Gender With Respect to Eldership?

If I was only talking about eldership, without any gender qualifications, folks might be with me so far. But let me see if you will allow me to press the point.

Is it not then fitting that a male-only eldership might have a sacramental character, along the same lines as baptism, or even the Lord’s Supper? For a fellowship of male-only elders signifies that men and women, though all united together, as equal partners as brothers and sisters in Christ, are also non-interchangeable. Male is not female, female is not male. A male-only eldership visually and outwardly reminds us, at the level of the corporate life of the church, that men and women are equal, and yet different.

Is it awkward? Is it clunky? Yes. For it does not seem to automatically recognize the woman-only domain that women have, in the life of the church. But it may just be fitting according to what God has had in mind.

I am mindful of an idea that Hannah Anderson expresses, when she notes that when a mother at the hospital delivers a baby, no one bothers to ask, “Who is the mother?” It is quite easy to spot the mother. Rather, when the nurse comes out to announce the birth of the child, the question is asked, “Who is the father?” For identifying the father is not always so easy, when it comes to childbirth.

Likewise, it would be analogous to say that the spiritual mothers of a church should be relatively easy to pick out. If you hang out in a local church community long enough, you should be able to spot who the spiritual mothers are quite readily (Blogger Jennie Pollock has some excellent tips on “How to Spot a Spiritual Mother”  in the church, if you do not know how).

But when it comes to finding the fathers of the church, this is a lot more difficult. It might be fair to say that the office of male-led eldership could be God’s way of answering the question, “Who is the father?”

A Matter of Conscience

For many egalitarians, any discussion about a supposedly sacramental, or mystical view of eldership seems completely irrelevant, particularly if it is male-only. Not all egalitarians will draw such a conclusion, but such a conclusion is common: What is the point? A church leadership structure serves nothing but a practical function, namely, to get the job done! For such egalitarians, the main issue is equal opportunity for women to serve at all levels in church leadership. To qualify that, in any way, rubs against the egalitarian conscience.

Complementarians must come to grip with what binds the conscience of the egalitarian.

Yet if eldership has no mysterious quality to it, then the egalitarian could easily look down upon the complementarian, who sees this differently, as being hopelessly hung up on something trivial. “If you do not like the idea of having women as elders, then well, you will just have to bite the bullet, and get used to it!

For the complementarian, who accepts this mysterious quality of eldership as a given, submission to a woman elder, ANY woman elder, would be a violation of their conscience.

Egalitarians must come to grip with what binds the conscience of the complementarian.

An Invitation to Discuss “What is Eldership?”

This is only a very brief sketch, and I could be quite wrong about a lot of this. I could have this whole thing about male-only eldership completely sideways. There is a lot more work to be done to think through theologically as to what biblical eldership really looks like, assuming we even need it. Perhaps those 17th century Quakers were right all along!!

But we need to start talking about eldership. I just find it strange that the sacramental, mysterious character of eldership is rarely discussed when it comes to the complementarian versus egalitarian debate, concerning church governance. It often devolves into obtuse discussions about who is in charge, who gets the power in the church, and comparing the relative competence of women with that of men, thoughts that completely pollute the spiritual nature of the conversation that we should be having. When I hear Christians get locked into language such as, “Why do the men get to make the decisions in the church, and not the women?,” then I know that the discussion has completely fallen off track. Back up and start over again, folks.

At the end of the day, I am drawn back to this idea that male and female are created in the image of God, and that the life of the church, lived together corporately as brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, is to somehow express this mystery of male and female together, united in the love of Christ.

I have two more posts in this series, that I hope will tie everything together. The next one will be a modest proposal to move forward in this discussion, followed by some thoughts about the future.


Want to think more about being made in the image of God? The folks at the Bible Project have a perfect video for you:

%d bloggers like this: