Disclaimer: Recently, I have come to dislike the terms “liberal” and “conservative” because of the vast connotations associated with them, however, for ease of clarity I will use these two phrases.
This is the current story of my life:
Person: “I’m conservative and you aren’t.”
Me: “Why would you say that?”
Person: “I don’t believe that women should be pastors. You studied theology, therefore you must believe that. Therefore you are a liberal.”
I have a confession to make: I have never fit in and for the most part I have liked it that way. However, sometimes it does get a bit stressful because people have all these preconceived ideas of what makes someone Biblical. Unfortunately in many evangelical circles you only have two options: you can either be a Bible-believing Christian or else you can be a liberal heretic. People who advocate for female pastors are lumped together with those who are rioting for LGBTQ rights and who are super interfaith. While there are many female pastors who do advocate for these types of things (and that is a matter of personal choice), it is largely unfair to label a female pastor as entirely liberal because there are so many different perspectives one can take on any number of topics. Throughout my life, I have been asked repeatedly about my views on female pastorship. People asked me what I thought before I went to Bible College, while I was studying, and after I graduated. Since moving to Edinburgh I have been asked this question on at least 10 different occasions by at least 10 different people, so I thought that once and for all I would let you know where I actually stand.
First Things First – Setting the Stage
Before I begin my discussion, I’d like to start out by saying we are all entitled to our own opinions on this topic. I recognize that female leadership is still a hot-button topic in the church and it probably always will remain that way. I’d also like to say that for me when someone disagrees with my thoughts on female leadership it doesn’t mean that I like them any less as a person. In fact, I would say that at least 90% of the best friends I have in my life disagree with a woman being a pastor. This has been challenging at times because it is not always easy to pursue a vocational path that your family and friends will not support you in, however, in the end of the day we remain friends because we realize that while we disagree on this one particular theological viewpoint, there are many other areas (of greater importance) on which we do agree. In fact, having friends with various theological viewpoints is what shapes both of us and makes our time interesting! I always try to respect my friends who disagree with female leadership because I know them personally and I know that at the heart of their thoughts is an intense desire and longing to serve Christ. In a world that prides itself on feminism, it can actually be quite refreshing to see someone who has done careful investigative research and theological analysis and has arrived at a conclusion which is… well… somewhat controversial and counter-cultural. I am even more impressed when these friends continue to cling to these beliefs because it shows a certain strength of character and willingness to remain firmly planted in Scriptures despite cultural pressures which occasionally even creep into the church. I know that my friends do not disagree with me for the sake of argument, but because they want each theological choice in their life to reflect a more Biblical worldview. In which case, I believe I have a lot to learn from them.
On the other hand, I reject the label of being a “liberal” (by which most mean “heretic”) simply on the basis of believing in female authority. The reason is because I also have done careful analysis and poured a lot of thought into this particular issue. I have done massive amounts of research and have struggled through the Biblical injunctions for a woman to remain silent in church. Even today, I still cannot say that I am 100% convinced one way or the other. I strongly lean towards the need for female representation within our churches, but I also want to stay as true to the text as possible. [As an aside, I am not at all saying that my friends label me a heretic. I think most of them know that I am a solid Bible-believing Christian. However, I also think we are too quick to throw around the labels of “conservative” and “liberal” as an either/or category, rather than a both/and possibility].
Types of Female Leadership
Generally speaking, there are three types of beliefs surrounding female leadership:
- Male Headship: This is the idea that only men get to be in charge. Therefore, men are the pastors and the heads of the household. Many people who hold this view take it directly from Scriptures which tell us that the man is the head of the wife and Christ is the head of the church (1 Cor. 11:3 – https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+11%3A3&version=ESV). This is where a lot of “liberal” and feminist Christians needlessly get their backs up. They start thinking people in the male headship camp hate women and are not with the times. Actually, I think that’s a pretty unfair assumption to make. In reality, the majority of people in this camp would value men and women as both equal in the eyes of Christ. Equal but with different gifts and different roles. Being a female does not invalidate your personhood or make you less important than your husband, but rather the reason for submission is because there is a certain order to things. Perhaps we do not always know why God made this order, but He did and if we are obedient to Him we should follow it. By the way, I will add an aside here to say that although I believe in female pastors, I actually do hold some headship views (which my “liberal” friends dislike me for). I have blogged about these views here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/a-former-feminist-looks-at-the-concept-of-biblical-submission-part-1-of-a-2-part-series/)
- Shared Leadership (Also Called: Complementarian): This viewpoint is held by those who like to find compromises and middle ground. People in this circle typically validate both men and women in all positions of leadership (including as pastors). However, many would say that there are limits to a woman’s role. This is where you meet people who believe a woman can be a children’s or youth pastor, but not a preacher or where you meet someone who believes a woman can be a visitation pastor (administering pastoral care and counselling) but not a senior pastor. This view is widely accepted because it does acknowledge that God can and does call women to ministry and that women are capable of having spiritual gifts (perhaps in different ways than men). It is also a great way to “keep everyone happy” except when that doesn’t work. Which in my case is quite often because I have no interest in being a children/youth pastor and since I am a woman those are pretty much the only positions I am able to get! Another difficulty with this approach is that it suggests that somehow kids and youth are less important than adults, when this is not the case at all! In fact, one of my pastors back home (who happened to be a woman!) told me, “you see, I don’t get this idea of a woman only teaching kids. You tell a kid there’s a monster under their bed and they lack the ability to reason with you. They just believe it. You tell an adult there’s a monster under your bed and they think you’re crazy!” In other words – kids are way more impressionable than adults, so why task a woman with that role, but not allow her to speak publicly from a pulpit? Doesn’t make much sense…
- Egalitarian: This is the viewpoint that men and women are able to accomplish the same roles within the church. Women can hold any office including public ones such as preaching or even being the bishop (or whatever equivalent your church might have). The good thing about this view is that it affirms women for the amazing potential we have and doesn’t limit the way God can choose to use us (providing we have a calling). The bad thing about this view is that many would argue it is unscriptural and that it forgets that men and women are the same (but different!). Actually, one of the most formative pieces of literature I ever read when I was trying to decide where I fit on the issue was by a man I no longer remember. He said, “churches which ordain only men fail to see the unique contributions a woman can bring. However, churches which ordain both men and women as equals fail to realize that men and women have different gifts.” For the most part, I couldn’t agree more with this man. The truth is that typically speaking, men are wired one way and women quite another. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but typically men are more logical and women are able to be more emotionally connected. There are two ways to approach this apparent problem: 1) You can decide that based on this there is enough ground to say a woman should not be a pastor (or only in certain roles within the church). 2) You could say that a woman should become a pastor exactly because she can bring something new to the church that a man couldn’t. I really think it boils down to personal opinion.
A Confession: When I first started researching the topic of female leadership I was really super egalitarian. Today, I almost hold a shared leadership position. I believe it is important for both men and women to be represented in the church and I’m about to share why. I realize that there are many churches today which are quite small and only have the resources to employ one pastor in which case the church must decide whether to hire a male or female. However, even then, a person of the opposite gender should be in a recognizable role such as being an elder or a deacon or even the Sunday school superintendent! Whereas, churches which are big enough to hire multiple staff members should, in my opinion, have at least one man and one woman on staff. Ideally, in the traditional sense, the pastor could be a man and his wife could fill this role, however, this is no longer that easy because today most women work outside of the home. And even if the woman is a homemaker it doesn’t necessarily mean she has the personality, aptitude, or spiritual gifts to provide this type of pastoral role (nor should it be expected of her!). Now is not the time to go into a rant about whether or not women should work outside of the home (again, another matter of personal opinion). Rather I am just sharing why “conservative” churches may not find the solution so easily in having a pastor’s wife as the leading woman of the congregation. Additionally, I do recognize that many churches in Edinburgh do have a woman on staff. She is usually called a “woman’s worker” and plays a vital role usually providing care and activities to the women and families in the church. In this case, I would say that such a person is filling in a “pastoral” role. In Canada, I have not experienced this as much. It seems like most people who work in a church are pastors… that’s what makes this a little more complicated for me (because I’m trying to write from the perspective of two very different cultures).
The Benefits of Female Leadership:
There are several good reasons for having a female pastor. Please let me share a few of them with you:
- Like I mentioned before, women can provide a whole new perspective of any number of spiritual and pastoral issues. When I studied preaching at Tyndale we talked about the types of sermon illustrations most commonly used. The truth is, pastors preach from their own experience. So if the pastor is married s/he will likely talk about married life and about intimacy with Christ in married terms. If the pastor was a missionary s/he will likely tell stories about the mission field. You get the picture. Actually, personal experience is absolutely fantastic – it’s what makes your sermon come alive. I am pretty sure 99% of people in the church would rather hear about your personal journey than hear you dishing out the Greek and Hebrew. However, there is a danger here because men think differently than women. For the most part, our interests are vastly different. So what happens when we are in the preaching lab with 20 guys and 2 girls? The guys talk about football, the latest sports game, and their obsession with sports cars while the girls just sit there day dreaming. What happens when the 2 girls go up to talk? Well, we start talking about our emotions or something like that. The guys think “okay, just get on with it. I don’t need to hear you unleash your emotions. I want to hear some actual Biblically solid stuff!” Of course, this is an overgeneralization, but the point I am trying to make is that men and women need each other because we bring different thoughts to the table.
- Women can connect in ways that men can’t. From a practical viewpoint, I see a huge need for females to be in leadership, if for no other reason, than that they can provide pastoral care in ways men can’t. I have seen this first hand in my own life working alongside female pastors. For example, if a 17 year old comes to you pregnant outside of marriage, a woman can usually talk with her and find her necessary community support in a way that may be inappropriate for a man. A woman can go visit mother who just gave birth in the maternity ward and hold her hand whereas many men would probably find that to be slightly awkward. There are also lots of things a woman would simply not feel comfortable discussing with a man. Let’s say the woman has a history of sexual abuse done to her at the hands of numerous men throughout her life. Let’s even say one of those men was a church leader or a pastor. That woman is most definitely not going to trust any man (even a pastor) enough to open up to him. But if there was a key woman she could go to for support and to ask questions – that has the ability to be incredibly transformative for her.
- Women can provide that extra touch of mothering. Being a father is important and so necessary in our day and age, but being a mother also has its merits. I have been given the incredible opportunity of preaching on a few occasions, and although I am not a mother, I always feel encouraged when people approach me after to say how being vulnerable and sharing my life has impacted them in some way. In my own life, I have had at least two experiences where a female preacher was vulnerable enough to share a piece of her life publicly and this resulted in a deep friendship and mentorship between us. Often after the sermon, I would email her asking her to chat with me about the topic and from there I would later come to regard her as a spiritual mother. Now, of course, men are also capable of doing this, but the truth is that men and women write and preach differently because we are wired differently. Which is absolutely incredible. Amazing!
The Two Most Common Objections:
- But there were no female pastors in the Bible. My Response: This is most definitely true, however, we have ample enough evidence to suggest that women did play a very vital role in the early church (including in some very prominent positions!). In the Old Testament we read of Miriam and Huldah who were both prophetesses. We also read of Deborah who was the only female judge in Israel. Deborah’s advice was well sought out including by leading army men. To be fair, Deborah lived a rather quiet life – minding her own business, waiting for people to come visit her at the Palm Trees; however, she also had a huge impact: she was known as the “Mother of Israel” (a pretty lofty title if ever there was one) and she even persuaded the stubborn Barak to gain courage in a situation he felt mostly unprepared for. We know little about Deborah’s personal life. Scholars debate whether or not she was married (some translations read “the wife of Lapidoth” and others “a woman of Lapidoth”), however, even if she was married, we do not have any hint of her husband being in leadership with her. She held her own.
In the New Testament, we also have many brilliant examples of women in key positions of leadership. For example, we read of Junia (who is outstanding among the apostles). We read of Priscilla and Aquila (a ministering couple who ran a house church; in fact, some scholars believe Priscilla was mentioned first because she had a greater impact in the church than her husband). There was also Phoebe (a deaconess). In fact, what I find so shocking is that 7 out of the 25 names mentioned in Romans 16 (nearly 30%) were women – this is incredible given the widespread patriarchy at the time the Scriptures were written. So you see, Paul valued women. They had a tremendous impact in the life of the church.
- But Paul said women should be silent in the church. My Response: Once again, this is true. But you have to remember the context of the time these verses were written in. Back then, women and men used to be separate during worship services. Men were allowed closer in on the action whereas women had to be kept at a distance because of purity laws. So women relied on their husbands to know what had taken place at the Synagogue that day. Eventually, women were allowed in to worship with their husbands, but because it was a brand-new experience, they had many questions. They started whispering to their husbands, “what does that mean? What’s this? What’s that?” And Paul didn’t want that to disrupt his message, so he suggested an alternative: hold your questions. Ask them to your husband at home.
One could make all kinds of inferences about Paul’s words including that he mentioned that a woman about to prophesy or pray in public should cover her head (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+11%3A5&version=ESV) which implies that women were publicly proclaiming the Gospel. But that is outside of the point. The point is that the Bible was written at a different time period than today and we would do well to understand the cultural norms and settings of that day. This does not at all negate the fact that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. It is not to say that simply because of the time period we should ignore what it teaches us. Rather, if anything, it increases its credibility for this very reason. Scriptures continue to inspire and transform us today, but theology is constantly in a state of flux. Theology is constantly being shaped by our world-views and others around us, while still maintaining its divine authorship and message.
Conclusion: I hope that this background provides you with a bit more understanding of why I believe so strongly in female leadership. I recognize that not everyone will agree with these thoughts, but I post them here as the basis of an on-going discussion. More than anything else, we seek to please God and to live our lives for Him. Whether or not you agree with female leadership, it is important to know all sides of the debate and to ask yourself which theological viewpoint will enable you to serve Christ the best in your own unique circumstance.