Back in July I linked to this New York Times story about a movement within the Roman Catholic Church seeking to expand candidates for the priesthood to women and married individuals. A college friend asked me to write something on my views of women in church leadership. Before I begin, let me offer some disclaimers. With a topic as complex and controversial as this one, a single blog post is not going to cover all the angles and I’m not going to even try. A series of posts would be better, but even a series would barely scratch the surface. Whole books have been written and organizations have formed that explore the role of sex and gender in Christian theology. Those works go far deeper than I intend to go in this post. If my argument feels cursory, know that it is so by design. Also, I hold my convictions on this topic so strongly that I can be a bit of a jerk to brothers and sisters who disagree with me. To that end, this post might be a good exercise for me to grow in charity and civility. So, here we go.
Allow me to state my conclusions first. I believe that church leadership should be based exclusively on the gifts and calling of God as confirmed by the community. In my study of the Bible, theology, and Church history, and in my experience of being in communities of faith my entire life, I believe that God does not call people into ministry nor bestow gifts for service based on their sex and/or gender. This is all to say that I am convinced God calls women into church ministry and those who are so called and gifted should be able to serve in any church office. There should be no limit on ordination or types of ordination placed on them because they are women. There should be no limits placed on them regarding to whom they can preach and teach or what they can proclaim. I believe with respect to leadership roles in churches, be it lay or ordained, men and women are entirely equal.
Now I will briefly — and trust me, this is brief — detail what I have learned from studying the Bible, Christian theology, and Church history, as well as from my own experience.
In the Bible, we see numerous examples of women leading faith communities in various functions — e.g., Deborah leads the nation of Israel in Judges 4-5 and is one of the only judges to not have anything negative said about her; the first house church in Europe in Philippi gathered in Lydia’s home (and was therefore likely led by her) in Acts 16. We see that the first messengers of the gospel (i.e., Jesus is risen) were women and they proclaimed this message to men (e.g., Lk 24.1-12). Women play an important role in Jesus’ ministry (Lk 8.1-3), and his interactions with women elevate them from their status as second-class human beings in that time and place. Women are later called “apostles” (e.g., Rom 16.7). There are several examples of women leading in early congregations, especially in the churches Paul planted (e.g., 1 Cor 1.11, Col 4.15, etc.). Priscilla is an important leader of the Early Church, who, with her husband Aquilla teaches and mentors other prominent leaders such as Apollos (Acts 18.24-26). (Many biblical scholars argue that because Priscilla is most often named first, she likely held the more prominent role in the ministry.) While I did not include all the biblical sources I would use to formulate a thorough understanding of the issue, these passages offer a decent introduction to the several ways women exhibit calling and gifting for leadership in the Bible. It should also be noted that nearly all of these roles of women in the community of faith were extremely counter-cultural in the Middle East and in ancient Rome. I believe that if we were to follow the trajectory that the stories of the Bible begin, it is reasonable to believe that women can and should be included in all areas of church leadership.
The Bible’s witness does not provide either position — in favor of women in church leadership and against women in church leadership — with indisputable data. While I have not offered an in-depth survey of the biblical witness regarding women in ministry, it would be unfair for me to not acknowledge two key texts often cited as evidence for why women should not be leaders or preachers in Christian churches. These texts are 1 Corinthians 14.34-35 and 1 Timothy 2.8-15. For this post, I will not provide commentary on these passages — instead, I will briefly state how they fit into my overall view. Taken alone, or taken as the dominant teachings regarding women and church leadership, it would seem these important texts directly challenge my position. I choose, however, to read those texts in the larger narrative of the Bible I briefly laid out in the above paragraph rather than having those texts form the normative lens through which I interpret the biblical examples of women in leadership.
Given that the Church is to be a community in which the socio-economic divisions found in the world are destroyed because of Jesus, it seems reasonable to me that leadership in churches should not be based on those divisions either. Galatians 3.28 says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” While this verse speaks about membership in God’s people, I think it has something to say about ecclesial leadership. We would not demand that a person be a certain ethnicity or come from a certain economic class in order to be a leader in the Church. I think it is fair to apply the same thinking to women in congregational leadership. I previously said that leadership in congregations should be based on calling and giftedness. When we look at the biblical passages that deal with spiritual gifts (Rom 12.6-8; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4.11-13), we do not see any gifts given only to one sex.
One of the great resurgences in theology over the past several centuries — beginning with the Protestant Reformation and progressing through the Pietist and Pentecostal movements and even into Vatican II to an extent — has been the emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Priests in Christian theology act as mediators between God and other people. Priests proclaim good news, announce pardon for sins, and intercede to God on another’s behalf. Jesus’ unique life and act on the cross and in his resurrection are for us the ultimate priestly acts ever performed, forever opening access between humans and God. Because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christians are able to act as priests to one another. Like the matter of spiritual gifts, one will not find in the Bible regulations that these functions are only for men in the Church. Priests in Judaism were exclusively male, but if we take the idea that the priesthood of all believers really means all believers and that in Christ barriers of race, class, and sex are made moot, then women are also free now to act as priests to other members of God’s family. If my sister in Christ can hear my confession of sin and announce to me the good news of God’s grace, I see no reason why she could not proclaim the gospel to a larger gathering of God’s people as an ordained minister.
Church history also provides us with accounts of God using women leaders. Granted, for the majority of the Church’s history women have not been allowed to lead in formal settings — save for some notable exceptions, such as in convents — and the male-only leadership structure emerged quite early in the Church’s life. Looking at the years following the Protestant Reformation, we have seen female leaders contributing greatly to God’s mission in the world. Catherine Booth’s work with her husband, William, helped found The Salvation Army, one of the great Christian ministries in the world. Women played incredibly important roles in defeating slavery in Western nations, largely by reading the Bible carefully and developing powerfully faithful theology. (See this article by Mimi Haddad for other examples of women leaders throughout Church history.)
Finally, my experiences of being led by as well as receiving teaching and preaching from women shapes my view that women can and should be affirmed in all ministerial roles. Women have been some of the best preachers I have ever heard — their exegesis of the Scripture was brilliant and faithful, their theology creative and sound, and their delivery masterful. I have also had the honor of following or serving with wise women who led churches, camping ministries, or parachurches. Some of the most well-respected professors at my seminary (Fuller) happened to be females. I should also admit that I am not a convert to affirming women in congregational leadership as I grew up in a denomination (PCUSA) that has ordained women since before I was born. I was actually surprised when I learned of churches and denominations that did not affirm women in leadership roles.
Based on the biblical witness, the subsequent theology of the Church, and my own experience of being led by and working with female pastors, I am convinced that God calls and gifts women for leadership in Christian congregations. When I began searching for a new denomination after completing seminary, one of my non-negotiables was that any denomination I would join had to ordain women. Thankfully, I came to a denomination (ECC) that affirms and advocates for women in ministry. I am incredibly grateful for how the Holy Spirit has worked through females throughout history. I know that I as a member of Christ’s body and we as a Church would not be who we are or where we are today without the leadership, teaching, and service of ministers who are women.