I once heard the story of a professional woman who came to Christ later in life. Elated about her newfound faith, she started going to church. The first Sunday, it struck her how many men were playing instruments and leading worship while one woman harmonized in the background. A man announced the week’s schedule and prayed. Another man stepped up to the podium and preached. The church bulletin described a large number of small group Bible studies, all led by men. One woman coordinated a handful of women’s Bible studies and volunteer opportunities involving children’s ministry and hospitality. The pastor reminded the “guys” not to forget the mid-week prayer breakfast. Having spent most of her adult life in a medical practice with male partners, the woman wondered, Why aren’t more women in church leadership?
According to a Barna study, the majority of Christian women believe they are making the most of their gifts and potential at church. However, not
all women are thriving. Many are “frustrated by their lack of opportunities at church and feel misunderstood and undervalued by their church leaders.” One in five feel under-utilized. Thirty-seven percent of women believe their church would have more effective ministry if women were given more opportunities to lead. And 41% of women say they have more opportunities to lead outside of their church. The numbers point at important realities and questions—Is Christ’s body missing out on a treasure trove of gifts? Why don’t more churches ask women to lead? What can we do to cultivate the leadership gifts of women?
Women Leaders of the Bible
Stories of strong women leaders reel across the pages of the Bible. Miriam led the Israelites in powerful worship of their Creator, protector and provider. Rahab put her neck on the line to rescue the spies, knowing it would benefit God’s people and save her family. Barak recognized God speaking to Deborah of the Israelite’s victory in battle—and they won. Abigail, Ruth, Esther, Huldah, Naomi, the Proverbs 31 woman—all made judgment calls and acted to benefit God’s purposes. New Testament passages endorse the ministry, teaching and leadership of Lydia, Dorcas, Priscilla, Tryphena, Euodia, Syntyche, Junia (among others). God endowed biblical women with unique gifts for handling what came their way as they built God’s Realm. Biblical womanhood reveals a broader spectrum than we often see in churches.
Has God Barred Women From Leadership In Churches?
The most common objection to women taking up leadership in churches stems from a plain reading of 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” At face value, it seems an open and shut case. Actually, a lot more was going on when Paul wrote the instructions.
In her book I Suffer Not A Woman, Catherine Clark Kroeger explains the culture context and historical context of verses. Paul was addressing cultic practices creeping into the newly birthed church from the nearby Temple of Artemis. Evidently, some arguments among men and women over false doctrine were disturbing worship services. In that situation, Paul felt the best course of action was to silence women whose behavior resembled the cultic temple practices.
What most of us don’t know is that Paul actually instructs women to learn; he uses a Greek imperative form that doesn’t come across in written English. References to silence and full submission match words used to describe foundational religious learning of the day, similar to confirmation or catechism.
What’s also interesting is that the Greek word for authority (exousia) does not appear in this passage. Instead Paul uses an obscure word (authentein) that scholars have struggled to translate because it only appears once in the New Testament. In that time, the word was associated with cultic practices of women priestesses using their sexuality to dominate men for selfish gain, which applied to specifically this church, in this location at this time. Some well-respected evangelical scholars think this means Paul did not permit a woman of that particular community to teach and dominate a man for selfish gain resulting in licentiousness (see recommended reading).
It’s important to recognize that Paul does not say “to every one of you” or “to all persons,” his usual phrases when speaking to the universal church. Philip Payne fleshes out other important nuances of this passage in his book Man And Woman: One In Christ.
Why Some Women Pull Back From Using Their Gifts
Is it any wonder that there is confusion about women and church leadership? Many who value scripture, and want to practice it, struggle to reconcile women leaders of the Bible with passages such as 1 Timothy 2:11-15. The good news is that truth never conflicts with truth. God does not dangle images of strong women leaders across the pages of the Bible before telling them to cork their bottles.
I’ve seen more than a few women wrestle and pull back from development of their gifts because they didn’t want to step into territory supposedly set apart for men. It seems to happen a lot among women with ministry, teaching and leadership gifts. And I can’t help but wonder if they are “frustrated by their lack of opportunities at church and feel misunderstood and undervalued by their church leaders.” Are they the one in five who feel under-utilized? Are they the 37% who believe their church would have more effective ministry if women were given more opportunities to lead? Are they the 41 percent of Christian women finding more opportunities to use their gifts outside churches?
What We Can Do to Cultivate Leadership of Women
Numerous Christian leaders have studied this issue and changed their minds. Prominent biblical scholar Dallas Willard describes his journey in the foreword of How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership:
There is no suggestion whatsoever in Scripture or the history of Christ’s people that the gifts of the Spirit are distributed along gender lines. It is clearly something that does not even appear on the mental horizon of the inspired writers. … The exclusion of women from official ministry positions leaves women generally under the impression that there is something wrong with them.
It is no small thing to take a 180 degree turn on this issue. Those who have changed their minds have gone through a process of soul-searching and prayerful study. Seeing the fruits of women’s leadership gifts often spurs the process. Those who are compelled to cultivate the leadership of women do so in a variety of ways:
· Conducting a community study followed by an official church statement on women in leadership
· Training pastoral staff to recognize, encourage and mobilize women’s leadership gifts in layperson and professional ministries
· Educating congregants to recognize, encourage and utilize women’s leadership potential (through small groups, conferences, etc.)
We do not know when Jesus will return for his Bride. But God has said, “In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on my servants—men and women alike—and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:18). God wants us to be ready. May we as men and women step into the fullness of all that’s written in the Book of Life.
How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals by Alan F. Johnson(Editor) and Dallas Willard (Foreword).
The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight
Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy by Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis
I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking I Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence by Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger
Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters by Philip Barton Payne
The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate by Kevin Giles