Throughout Christian history there have been stories of great heroes of the faith. These heroes ranged from those who conquered social and systemic injustice and oppression, those who preached the Gospel courageously, those who taught children, and those who wrote theological tomes. But what truly made these individuals heroes? Aside from the fact that God greatly blessed these women and men and allowed them the opportunity to shine, the main reason these people changed the world, is because they lived into the calling and giftings that God assigned for them.
There are two main lists in the Bible looking at Spiritual gifts. These are Romans 12:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Although there may be many additional gifts that didn’t exist in Biblical times (such as an uncanny use of social media and promotions for church work), the basics have stayed the same millenia later. To give an idea of the various gifts which one can possess, there are gifts of EDIFICATION (including: prophesy, teaching, exhortation, and encouragement), COMPASSION AND SERVICE (practical service, generosity, hospitality, mercy), and LEADERSHIP (apostleship, teaching, preaching, and evangelism).
Now in the church, the majority of gifts are not debated. For example, both men and women can be able administrators, both can be encourage, and both can be generous with time, talents and treasures. Yet, the issue arises when it comes to matters of leadership. In some churches both men and women are able to accept roles such as deacon, elder, pastor or bishop, but in many others these roles belong solely to men. Does that mean then that women were somehow bypassed when it came to giving out the spiritual gifts or does it mean that women are somehow inferior and therefore not eligible for these roles?
This has been a question that has long since plagued me. Many churches which do not permit a women to enter into these various “male only” roles would still make the claim that women are equal and of the same standing as a man, but then suddenly their voices are silenced and their opinions not sought out. What kind of message does that send?
In my own research throughout the years on the topic, I have spent time on both sides of the fence. There have been times when I thought maybe women shouldn’t be leading a church, there have been many other times when I thought they should. I am trying to be careful here not too give too much of my own opinion in a way that detracts from the essence of this question. Yet, regardless of what one can say on the point, there are three things that I firmly believe:
1) Women have been used historically. In many churches where women are not permitted to lead, the argument is given that if God wanted women to be pastors, there would have been a female minister in the Bible. But as it stands, there was never once a female minister. To me, this depends on your understanding of the word “minister.” It is very true that women did not get the same opportunities as men in that time period and that when Jesus selected the 12 they were all men. The Bible consistently does use male language especially on matters of prominent leadership. However, that being said, there were many women whom God did use in various ways to get His message across (there were prophetesses like Miriam, Anna, and Philip’s 4 daughters – who by the way were also celibate!), there was church workers (like Priscilia, Junia, and Phoebe), and there were even women of political persuasion who changed the world in the male dominated sphere they found themselves in (such as Deborah and Esther). In fact, when reading Romans 16, nearly half of the names mentioned belong to women who aided Paul greatly in his missionary endeavours. Therefore, it is both impossible and irresponsible to eradicate or downplay the ways that God has consistently used women throughout Scripture and even throughout history. In fact, I have a devotional book I would highly recommend called “Her-Story” (Diana Lynn Severance) which speaks of one faith filled woman daily ranging from the 1st Century up until the 21st Century with such figures as Ruth Bell Graham, Corrie Ten Boom, Joni Erikson Tada and Fanny Crosby. These women all served God in the various places they found themselves in – sometimes even having a massive impact on our theology through the written and sung word!
2) The Spirit is Gender-Blind in the Distribution of Gifts
Regardless of which side of the fence you find yourself on, it is important to note that there are still women who have gifts of leadership, evangelism and pastoring and there are men who very clearly do not have these same gifts. The way and form that these shapes take may very well differ, but that doesn’t mean they are done away with altogether. Think, for example, of the many women who have made huge strides and contributions to missionary work – Lottie Moon, Helen Roseveare, Amy Carmichael, and Elizabeth Elliot to name just a few. These women taught and proclaimed the Gospel fearlessly, helping convert the masses to Christ. There are many other women who have made a great impact in women’s ministry through teaching and disciplining younger and newer Christians in the faith. There are those as well who have been amazing teachers of children and youth, who have helped lead effective small groups, and who have even been teachers on a one-to-one mentoring basis. Sometimes, in fact, it is the women who do their work quietly and without acclaim whom God will bless the most in heaven for their work and contributions within their own families as wives and mothers or as friendly neighbours. Never underestimate the ministry and impact one can have even within their own immediate family!
3) If God Calls You to Something, Well Then, You Better Go Do It
In our increasingly consumeristic, fast-paced and unjust world, there is a need for many to go out, proclaim and show an alternative lifestyle. There is a need for Godly men to step up, to be leaders, and to do their duty. There is also a need for Godly women to step up, be leaders, and to do their duty. If God calls a woman to pastoral ministry, it shouldn’t just be because there is no man interested or available. It shouldn’t be just a time-filler until a Godly man can be trained to lead. If God calls a woman to pastoral ministry it should be because she has a genuine burden on her heart, because she is being affirmed by community, and because she is a vessel God can use to reach out and touch the broken. Women have so many opportunities to minister and pierce the dark in ways that men typically cannot enter into in the same way – some of these include areas such as counselling other women who have been abused, gone through sexual assault or domestic violence, women who are fleeing from abusive marriages, women who have just given birth or are learning to be mothers for the first time, and women who are escaping the sex trade. Women pastors can give voice to young women who struggle with body image, sexual identity, and the career-marriage tension. Conversely, there are many opportunities for men to minister and pierce into the dark in ways that women typically may struggle with – such as reaching out to male perpetrators of violence, men who have been abused, men caught in sexual addiction and pornography, and men battling with the career-marriage tension. There are, of course, those rare few who have the gift which can bridge the gender divide, but there are, in my opinion, situations where it is generally more appropriate for women to talk to women and men to men.
One does not need to compromise or do away with any form of Scripture when discussing or debating the proper and correct use of men and women in the church, as long as they remember a few key points: 1) God calls both men and women to various tasks just as He has done throughout Scripture and church history, 2) The Spirit is not gender-blind in the giving and receiving of spiritual gifts and 3) When we are called to something (whether we are a man or woman) it is our duty to go and do so. As individuals, it can be so easy to get worked up and preoccupied with the differences between the genders, but God calls us to first and foremost follow Him. When we follow the leadership of Christ, our own leadership becomes clearer to us. Not all are called to be leaders, not all are called to be pastors and elders, not all are called to teach, but all are called to the best gifts, and love is the greatest of these.