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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

Genesis 1: Male and Female He Created Them

The first two chapters of the Bible are perhaps as important as any others when we talk about men and women in the church.

Not only do these chapters tell us how the biblical story begins but it’s the only picture we have of what life was like before sin entered the world. These chapters will give us clues to what God’s ideal was (and is) for men and women.

Many complementarians make the case that the major clue for gender roles comes from the “created order.” The argument goes like this: “Because God created men first, they are called to be the leaders, and women are to called follow.”

But Genesis 1-2 gives absolutely no support for that conclusion.

Here’s what we’ll see: Genesis shows us that God created man and woman with equal status, function, and authority to carry out his mandate. In other words, there was no hierarchy or patriarchy before the Fall in Genesis 3.

I will cover Genesis 1 in this post and Genesis 2 in the next.

Humanity: Man and Woman, Together

There’s no shortage of opinion about what is going on in Genesis 1 and how it all happens. Of course, our focus is the creation of humanity and what that means for us as we work through the issue of gender roles today.

In verse 26, God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.”[1] The word translated “humankind” here is the generic Hebrew word adam. Eventually, it becomes the man’s proper name.[2]

Adam is singular, and that’s why a translation like “humankind” (which is singular) makes the most sense. It’s obvious that adam represents more than one person, however. After all, the very next phrase is “so they [plural] may rule” over every other living thing that is not human.

If that wasn’t clear enough, verse 27 is:

“God created humankind [adam, singular] in his own image,
in the image of God he created humanity (or the human) [ha’adam, singular], male and female he created them [plural].”

God’s image and likeness is incomplete with only one gender.

Yahweh did not make humanity just male or androgynous or asexual. “Male and female he created them.” They stand together, with equal status before Yahweh as his image-bearers. No hierarchy, no dominion one over the other.

We’ll come back to what “image and likeness” means in a moment. For now, I want to affirm that each, individual person in the world is made in the image of God (imago dei)–whether a person is single, married, divorced, living in community, or standing alone at the top of Mt. Everest.

Genesis compels me, however, to see something more expansive and beautiful than our individual theology of imago dei. Namely, God’s image and likeness is incomplete with only one gender. To fully reflect his nature, character, and activity, God in his wisdom created two genders.

This means that if I am in a room with only men (like so many church elder teams), then the full expression of imago dei is lacking.

Humanity means male and female, together.

But that’s not all.

A Job Fit for Kings and Priests

The purpose of God creating humanity in his image and likeness, according to verses 26 and 28, is that they may rule over the animals, fill the earth with offspring, and subdue the earth. God created humans to fulfill a particular role and function in creation.

God does not tell the male to rule over the female. Again, they are both commanded to rule over everything else that is not human.

“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over…” (v. 28). Two significant things stand out.

First, God blessed and spoke to both of the humans, the male and the female. Both of them, not just the male, received the mandate to populate the earth and bring it under their control. There is humanity–in all its glorious maleness and femaleness–and then there is everything else.

Second, God does not tell the male to rule over the female. Ever. Again, they are both commanded to rule over everything that is not human.

So, we have God giving humans the right and ability to rule over creation.

Just at face value, this is pretty exciting, isn’t it? If we take into consideration the cultural context of the primeval world, however, it’s gets even better.

In ancient times, temples were essential and powerful places. They were the place on earth where the gods lived and met with humans. Temples were sacred spaces where the heavens and the earth kissed.

Genesis 1 (as well as chapter 2) paints the picture of Yahweh creating his own sacred space, the first temple, the place where he would dwell with his people.[3]

How can we know this?

There is an important connection here between “image and likeness” (vv 26-27) and ruling/subduing/receiving (vv 26, 28-30) that was common in the Ancient Near East (ANE).

To ANE peoples, an “image” was believed to contain the essence of whatever deity it represented, and the image was equipped by the deity/essence to carry out its function.[4] To be an image didn’t mean that you physically looked like the essence. Instead, it meant that you represented the essence in your activity.

In ancient Mesopotamia, as well as in Egypt, an image was almost always a king (never an entire people) who represented a deity. The king, then, would carry out the deity’s work in the world, typically on behalf of all the people in his kingdom. As the divine image bearer, the king was the source of the deity’s power and privilege on earth. He was the physical manifestation of the deity, given the capacity and authority to act on the deity’s behalf.[5]

This helps us see what’s going on in Genesis 1 and reveals how the original audience would have understood it.

Our modern debates concerning leading and following wouldn’t have ever entered their minds. Instead, they would have heard, “Man and woman represent King Yahweh on earth as his kings and priests!”

Both man and woman were created to act on behalf of God in the royal and priestly functions he created them to perform.

As Yahweh’s image-bearers, placed in his sacred space, the man and woman represent him in their activity–their role and function. This is what having God’s “image and likeness” means in Genesis 1!

They are his vice-regents, endowed with worth, value, dignity, honor, authority, and power to carry out his commands in the world.[6] Not only were they in charge of all creation. As images, man and woman mediated Yahweh’s presence wherever they went. They are doing the work of kings and priests in the ANE world.[7] Except they represent the one true God, not a false one.

I can’t say this clearly enough. Genesis 1 gives us no hint of a “male” function of leading or a “female” function of submitting or following.

It’s just not there.[8]

What is there, however, is more astounding and beautiful. Both man and woman were created to act on behalf of God in the royal and priestly functions he gave them to perform. Both man and woman were blessed by God and given the same capacity and authority to rule on his behalf. Equal status. Equal authority. Real mutuality and partnership.

Let’s Recap

God’s creation of humanity in his image and likeness as male and female shows that both genders were created equal in every respect–in their status, function, and authority–since they both served as God’s representatives on earth. The language used in Genesis 1 and its ANE context helps us see that the man and woman functioned as kings and priests in Yahweh’s sacred space.

Consequently, Genesis 1 provides absolutely no foundation to argue for gender hierarchy based on “created order.”

There are many more passages to cover. But if this is true, it has profound implications.


Notes

[1] “Image and likeness” doesn’t mean two different things. It’s a poetic way (think, “pray” and “cry” in the Psalms) to refer to the fact humans will, in some way, “look like” God in how they live and function in the world God created for them.

[2] While its footnotes make this clear, the ESV unhelpfully translates the beginning of verse 26 as, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image’. Later this summer, I’ll write a post about the gender-bias of the ESV, and other translations, and how this has caused many of us to tend toward patriarchy.

[3] See Lifta Schachter, “The Garden of Eden as God’s First Sanctuary,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 41/2 (2013), 73-77, for a very short introduction to this idea from a Jewish perspective.

[4] “Image and Likeness,” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, on BibleGateway.com

[5] Ibid.; See also John Walton, “Image of God,” Genesis, NIV Application Commentary, on BibleGateway.com.

[6] “Vice-Regent” in old phrase that means someone appointed to rule because the king is absent, too young, incapacitated, etc. I should add that having God’s “image and likeness” likely means even more than being God’s representatives (aka regents) on earth. Others have made the case it means that we are capable of loving, thinking, deciding, feeling, creating, etc. (all things animals can’t do). That’s probably true. It’s just not what this text says.

[7] Walton, “Day 6 (1:24-31): The Blessing,” in Genesis, points out the word “rule” in Genesis 1:26, 28 can be used of priests or kings, as well as administrators or even shepherds.

[8] This doesn’t mean there aren’t differences between genders! William Webb, in his excellent book that I’ll refer to often, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, writes, “Even from an egalitarian perspective, mutuality and equality do not have to obliterate complementary roles.” He goes on to say that he’ll propose a “type of egalitarianism [that] functions on the basis of equality but continues to celebrate gender distinctiveness and the complementary interdependence that gender differences bring.” See Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 115-116.

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Commentary Let Her Lead Life Theology

Finally Seeing the Blind Spots

Anyone who has had conversation with me on a biblical text or a theological topic knows that I hate the answer, “Well, the Bible says so.” I want to get to the why behind the what. Sometimes it’s impossible to know, of course. But often, “The Bible say so,” is a lazy answer.

When it came to the debate on women’s roles in gender, I often answered genuine questions with, “Well, the Bible says so.”

Far too often I resorted to that rigid, biblical literalism I mentioned in a previous post. And it kept me from seeing an obvious blind spot which produced all kinds of inconsistent–if not awkward–applications.

The glaring blind spot of complementarianism that I missed for so long is fairly easy to explain. Here it is:

Complementarianism holds that women are equal to men, but separate from–namely, underneath–them

Proponents say they value women because women are “created equal with men.” Functionally, however, complementarians devalue women because, in any family or ministry setting, women are separated from men since they are “called” to place themselves under the authority of men–even if the men are not as mature, wise, gifted, or experienced.

We’ve heard “separate but equal” before, haven’t we?

How did that work out for us?

Equal But Separate No Longer

The Civil Rights movement in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States fought against the idea and practice of “separate but equal.” We all know how this produced all kinds of evils against black people.

Women in the church have been fighting against this same kind of thing for a very long time. It’s just harder to notice.

I’m not just trying to shock you by making the link between the struggle of women in the church and racism. Preachers and theologians in the United States used Scripture to argue that slavery and racism was God’s design for black people. They also argued that patriarchy was God’s design.

Complementarianism is simply patriarchy in our modern world.[1]

At some point a shift happened. Any respectable preacher or theologian in America today would say the slavery texts are reflective of a sinful system within a particular culture and should not be repeated today.

Yet the same preachers and theologians will defend the subjugation of women.

Historian Beth Allison Barr makes this exact case in her wonderful new book The Making of Biblical Womanhood.

Barr’s point is clear:

When we rightly understand that biblical passages discussing slavery must be framed within their historical context and that, through the lens of this historical context, we can better understand slavery as an ungodly system that stands contrary to the gospel of Christ, how can we not then apply the same standards to biblical texts about women?[2]

Patriarchy is designed to keep one half of humanity in power and the other half in submission.

Now, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. I’ll have an entire post soon on how we can know whether a Bible passage is culture-bound or not. So, we’ll discuss the connection between slaves and women.

For now, the point I’m making is that slavery and segregation were designed to keep an entire group of people in submission. In the same way, patriarchy (aka complementarianism) is designed to keep one half of humanity in power and the other half in submission.

This does not reflect the spirit of Christ’s humility, love, and freedom.

We cannot keep saying women are “equal to men” and they must be “separate” from “a man’s work” in ministry. As someone has rightly said, “Separate but equal is not equal.”[3]

Now, please don’t hear something I’m definitely not saying. I am not saying that women and men are the same. Women and men are obviously different. 

And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s exactly why men need women at the leadership table. If women were the same, we men wouldn’t need them, and vice versa.

But complementarians believe the difference between men and women goes beyond their biological and anatomical differences.

They argue that because of their gender, our roles and functions are different. Men lead and direct. Women follow and submit in the home and the church. In every culture. For all time.[4]

You already know this. That’s why you’re reading.

The reason I’ve gone to such great lengths to talk about my experiences in and observations of complementarianism is to show how these provided the right conditions for me to see how dangerous complementarianism really is.

A woman’s voice is essential for a ministry to function faithfully and fruitfully. Not a token voice, but one that holds the same weight as a man’s. It reminds me of Mary Magdalene, the first person to give voice to the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

A woman’s testimony had no weight in a Jewish trial. Yet here is the risen Jesus sending a woman to be the first witness to his male friends about the greatest news in history. 

Here is the risen Jesus sending a woman to be the first witness to his male friends about the greatest news in history.

How’s that for weighty? A woman. Authorized by Jesus. Teaching men about the One who is Truth.

But women today aren’t permitted to lead and shepherd and teach people–men–who want to follow Jesus?

There it is. The blind spot, finally, exposed.

Equal but separate no longer.

Inconsistent (and Awkward) Application

Seeing this canyon-sized blind spot opened up the door for my wife and me to ask more pointed questions about the way complementarianism is broadly applied in churches.

Here are many inconsistencies both of us wrestled with. We either noticed these in our own ministry contexts or others:

Can a mother teach the Bible to her 18-year old son at home on Saturday night, but not the next morning in church? 

  • Can a woman lead or co-lead a mixed gender small group that meets in a home? Can a woman teach other men anything about God, the Bible, doctrine, etc. in a small group setting?[5]
  • Assuming our worship songs teach theology and Scripture (and they do), can a woman sing and lead musically in a church?
  • Assuming our prayers teach theology and Scripture (and they do), can a woman pray in a church?
  • Does leadership really just boil down to being the one who initiates and makes the final decision? What is uniquely “male” about that?
  • What do women do with their gifts of teaching, prophecy, exhortation, wisdom, knowledge, and discernment–gifts that are traditionally valued in (male) pastors/elders, leaders, and men in general?
  • What are women who are mature, humble, strong leaders actually allowed to do in a church if they aren’t allowed lead?
  • If a woman can give a short reflection on Scripture at a Good Friday service, why can’t she do the same for a bit longer–say “sermon length” longer–on Easter Sunday?
  • If women can’t teach men publicly because it is “having authority” over them and if “teaching” is a function of the elders, then should a non-elder man ever teach publicly? Wouldn’t he be assuming an authority over the elders that is not rightfully his?
  • Are men allowed to read a doctrinal book written by a woman?
  • Why can a woman teach a man in private conversation (see Acts 18:26), but not many men in a public church gathering? Is the difference that there is a formal service, in a building, with a pulpit?
  • If a woman shares her story in a church gathering and happens to explain a Bible verse or expounds a point of Christian doctrine, is she in violation of 1 Timothy 2:12?
  • Can a mother teach the Bible to her 18-year old son at home on Saturday night, but not the next morning in front of him and the whole congregation?
  • At what age does a boy become a man and is exempt from being taught by a woman? At 13? 16? 18? 21? 30?
  • Why can a woman teach a mixed group of college students in a parachurch setting on a weeknight but not on a Sunday morning in a local church setting? Or are women in parachurch settings not allowed to teach college-aged men?
  • Why can a woman preach, teach, evangelize, disciple, and even start churches overseas but not at home?
  • Why would a group of male-only elders ignore, at best, or reject, at worst, female input on major decisions when, as statistics show, more than half of Christian congregations are female?
  • Does a single female have to submit to any male? Or every male? Or just her pastor? Or just her father? Or her father and her pastor? What if she is 37 years old…or 65 years old?
  • Why would God tell women they can’t lead men simply because he made them female? 

These were inconsistencies I had shrugged off before because I was convinced there was no other way to interpret the most controversial passages on women in ministry. 

I didn’t want to just shrug these off anymore.

But What Does the Bible Say?

The past several posts, including this one, have been about my experiences and observations living within complementarianism. This is my reality.

But I’ll be the first to say that experience is not a valid reason to change your mind on a biblical teaching.

We need to let God’s word have the final say. 

Perhaps what I started to feel as a complementarian pastor was hogwash. Perhaps my inclination that we need women’s voices at the leadership table is just caving to modern culture. Perhaps my desire to honor and champion my wife and daughters–not to mention the many other many women I’ve worked alongside in ministry–is misguided. 

Perhaps I’m full of it.

Only a deep-dive into the entire story of Scripture–and the ancient world in which it was written–can help me find out.


Notes

[1] I’m not trying to be harsh by calling complementarianism “patriarchy.” I’m simply repeating what some of the most well-known complementarians have said. Owen Strachan, former president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, wrote, “For millennia, followers of God have practiced what used to be called patriarchy and is now called complementarianism” (my emphasis). See “Of ‘Dad Moms’ and ‘Dad Fails’: An Essay on Men and Awesomeness,” The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 17/1 (2012), 23-26.

Similarly, Russell Moore, former president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote, “If complementarians are to reclaim the debate, we must not fear making a claim that is disturbingly counter-cultural and yet strikingly biblical, a claim that the less-than-evangelical feminists understand increasingly: Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy” (my emphasis). Generally, I’m a fan of what Moore says and writes, but not here. See “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Willing the Gender Debate,” Journal of the Evangelical Society 49/3 (September 2006), 569–76. This article was written back in 2006. I agree with Barr when she says that she hopes Moore has changed his stance. I’m not aware that he has, however.

[2] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 34. See 32-35 for her entire discussion on the connection between the struggle of women in the church and racism. You really should just buy this book and read it. It’s truly spectacular.

[3] As far as I can tell, this quote is attributed to Paul Martin, the 21st Prime Minister of Canada.

[4] Even John Piper and Wayne Grudem, fathers of biblical manhood and womanhood movement, teach that women are not designed by God to lead in secular vocations.

[5] Since churches in the first century met in homes, this question is very relevant! As we’ll see in our exploration of 1 Corinthians 11, we absolutely know that there were women who “prayed and prophesied” in house church gatherings in Corinth. The concept of a sermon given by one person in a pulpit or behind a lectern is foreign to the biblical writers. Multiple communicators of biblical truth, not just one, was more typical of worship gatherings in the first century.

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Commentary Let Her Lead Life Theology

How Being a Complementarian Pastor Changed Everything

Our experiences powerfully shape our understanding of the Scriptures. As I said in my first post, the truth of the Bible does not change, but our understanding and applications of it do depending on our culture, community, and circumstances.

How can we be sure this is true? Here are several obvious examples.

If you have never spent much time with the poor, much of Jesus’ ministry and teaching may not impact you all that much (it also may make little sense). But if you take a month, a week, or even a day to live among the poor, your eyes will probably be enlightened to what was already there, but you had missed. Jesus’ words will likely land on you with the force he originally intended.

Or say you have a strong conviction about what a worship service should look and sound like. But then you visit a worship gathering in another culture where people obviously love Jesus and want to honor the Scriptures. Hopefully, going forward, you will read those passages about corporate worship with a little more flexibility and less conviction about your own culture’s way of doing things.

Many of us (myself included), last summer, began to see the call for justice throughout the Scriptures quite differently in light of George Floyd’s death and the conversations on race and injustice that followed.[1]

If you see the Bible in accord with a particular denomination, chances are you grew up in that denomination or the people welcomed you and were nice to you at a critical juncture in your life. If not, you wouldn’t be a part of that church![2]

If nothing else, we can understand this simply because we mature both chronologically and spiritually. Parts of the Bible hit us differently at various stages of life. We hear it all the time: I’ve never noticed this before but since becoming a parent…a widow…a foreigner…etc.

The Scriptures never change. But we do.

The Scriptures never change. But we do. And that’s the point I’m making. Can we agree on that?

Not having certain experiences and therefore not seeing all Scripture “evenly” doesn’t make us rotten people who are actively rebelling against God. It’s just part of being human.

I believe that God is compassionate and the he accommodates us. We’ll talk about “accommodation” in a future post, but in a nutshell, it means God meets us where we’re at. Isn’t that the whole point of him becoming human? And he’s bringing us along on a journey. Isn’t that the whole point of spiritual growth?[3]

Our experiences in the world are the “lenses” we look through to interpret the Bible. Right or wrong. But that’s not the only lens we wear. Our experience and familiarity with the world of the biblical authors (or lack thereof) also helps (or hinders) us in understanding and applying the Bible.

Our experiences in the world are the “lenses” we look through to interpret the Bible.

In this post and the next one (or two), I want to share how God graciously provided me with experiences and observations to help me see the passages about women’s roles in a fresh way. My experiences weren’t the conclusive evidence. They just opened the door to a new possibility.

After these posts on my story, and before getting into specific Bible passages, I’ll talk about how knowing the world of the biblical authors can help us, particularly as it relates to women’s roles.

Forgive me in advance for the length. I want to share as much as possible as quickly as possible so we can get on to considering what the Bible has to say.


Complementarianism: Case Closed?

As a white, middle-class, Midwestern kid who grew up in North American megachurch culture, I didn’t give much thought to gender roles in ministry.

There was never a debate to be had.

The church I grew up in was a part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) denomination. Our church only had male leaders (pastors/elders).[4]

Every Sunday, a male pastor preached from the Bible. Our church also only had male music leaders/directors.[5] Women did serve in a number other capacities, most notably women’s and children’s ministries. I assume this is similar, if not identical, to the experience of most people reading.[6]

Growing up, I simply assumed that men did the “big church leading” and that women taught other women and kids.

I lived in a male-dominated church world.

It didn’t feel wrong. It just was.

I assumed this was the correct stance not only because of our church’s practice, but also because of how I was taught to read the Bible: it is literal in what it says. I don’t mean that the Bible is literally true. That’s a different thing–which I believe. What I mean is that from home to church to private school, I was taught that we believe the words as they exist on the page.

Case closed.

I was in this church–and don’t get me wrong, it was a good church–until I went to college.

One memory from this church stands out that, perhaps, planted a seed of doubt that the issue was actually closed. It certainly added a level of complexity, if not inconsistency, to the male-only paradigm. Every year, our church had a missions conference. Missionaries came back home to share what God had been doing in the mission field. Every year an older, single woman came back to share about God’s work in the small West African country where she ministered. Her name was Mary.

I’m not sure what her ministry specifically involved, and I didn’t give it much thought then. But recently, I’ve wondered, as I’m sure some of you are wondering right now: Was Mary able to preach the gospel to a mixed group? Did she ever share Jesus with men? Did she ever teach new Christian men how to study the Bible and pray?

These women were likely doing the exact kind of ministry overseas they were not permitted to do at home.

I have to believe she did. At least once, right?

There are countless stories of faithful women who served as missionaries throughout church history, just like Mary. They were likely doing the exact kind of ministry overseas they were not permitted to do at home.

Mary wasn’t called “pastor” or “elder.” But she was (probably) doing the job of one.

The One Passage I Couldn’t Avoid

My first eighteen years of life in this church weren’t very formative theologically speaking. (I got bored with Jesus in middle school, but that’s another story entirely.) Instead, it was during college, then serving with a parachurch ministry in Nebraska and South Africa after graduation, and finally during seminary that I really started to establish myself theologically.

To make a long story short, I listened to and read just about every Reformed, complementarian pastor, author, and blogger there was. You name him, and I knew everything about him. Like so many other millennial Christian men, I wanted to be a strong, godly leader. So complementarianism was the obvious place to pitch my tent.

My position was simple. And it all hinged on one, precious verse. I once heard a well-known complementarian pastor and theologian quip: “If you can get the Bible to say, ‘I do permit’ when it says, ‘I do not permit,’ then you can get it to say whatever you want.”

He was talking about 1 Timothy 2:12, of course: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (NIV).[8]

I identified with what he said, but not mainly because of the gender issue, as important as that was for me. I wanted to be a “strong, godly leader.” But even more, I wanted to take the Bible seriously. What I found in Reformed complementarianism was a group of (male) teachers who did that. So I grasped on to everything they taught–lock, stock, and barrel.

I had been converted to Jesus. Now, I was being converted to biblical literalism.[7] I became convinced that if someone doubted the straightforward, literal reading of 1 Timothy 2:12, they were on a slippery slope toward rejecting the authority of the Bible and, eventually, Jesus himself.

Granted, I didn’t personally know anyone who believed in female church leadership. But if I ever meet someone who does, how can I be sure they won’t twist other Scriptures if they can’t see what Paul is OBVIOUSLY saying in 1 Timothy 2:12?!

I knew there were other passages in the New Testament that seemed to suggest that local church leaders should be men. But, for me, everything hung on 1 Timothy 2:12.

To me, it seemed like a watertight argument.

Pastoring Among Female Spiritual Giants

Ironically, it was my experience as a pastor in a non-denominational, evangelical, complementarian church in Upstate New York, that paved the way for me to consider the egalitarian / co-laborer position.

Early in the interview process for the role of associate pastor, I was asked to articulate my position on women in ministry. I explained that I believed the office of elder/pastor was reserved for men, only men could preach during a formal worship gathering of the whole church, but that women could exercise their gifts in any other capacity.

Check. Passed with flying colors.

The church did not have an official position on women’s roles in ministry that I knew of. In tradition and practice, however, the church subscribed to complementarianism.

Here’s how it played out for this church:

  • Only men were permitted to serve as elders.
  • Only men were allowed to give the sermon on a Sunday morning.
  • Only men could formally teach the Bible/theology in an adult education class (i.e. Sunday school).
  • Women could lead worship, read Scripture, pray, give the call to worship, and even give biblical reflections during special services.

In terms of ministry activities, this looks a lot like “soft complementarianism.” The other side of the coin is the leadership’s attitude toward women. That is so much harder to quantify than what ministry activities women can do/lead! I’ll discuss the general dynamics of that in the next post.

Once I was immersed in the life of this church, I started to realize how fuzzy things really got when it came to gender roles.

When you minister to a church you’ve never been a part of before, it doesn’t take long to find out who the spiritual giants are–those people everyone else looks up to and wants to be like.

This church had a lot of these people.

And many, many, many of them were women.

These women had an insatiable hunger to know Jesus and his word. They explained Bible passages and Christian theology with passion and ease. They shared the gospel with non-Christians. They served the poor. They welcomed foreigners into their homes. They prayed–oh, did they pray! They were honest, gracious, compassionate, and patient.

So patient.

They were (and still are) women of whom the world was not worthy.

And there I was, 30-something, first-time, male pastor, leading among these female spiritual giants. I went in thinking I needed to teach them. I left realizing how much they had taught me.

I went in thinking I needed to teach them. I left realizing how much they had taught me.

The women in our church never demanded a female elder. They never demanded that a woman preach a sermon. Their vision was simpler–and grander–than that. They wanted their voice, their gifts, their passions, their person, their womanhood to matter. They didn’t want to be ignored, silenced, or marginalized.

An older, retired pastor befriended and mentored me while we lived in New York. We spent Wednesday mornings at IHOP talking ministry and drinking bad coffee. He constantly nudged me toward including and empowering our women without ever trying to convince me of one theological position or the other.

His counsel, time after time, was to recognize and celebrate the spiritual gifts of women by actually letting them use their gifts, and, most importantly, ask for and listen to their insights, opinions, and preferences on church matters.

“If you want to see ‘church’ become a movement,” he’d always say, “you need women.”

Even as a complementarian, I recognized this and wanted it. I knew women were not second-class kingdom citizens and they had amazing things to offer.

The bigger question was, How does this fit in my theological framework?

That Time A Woman Preached

Over several months, I worked with many of these women on various things. Women even helped lead teams, and our elders had started a women’s advisory group that met with some of our elders to share their thoughts and concerns about the church.

We were making progress. But the progress was primarily behind the scenes. Women still did not have much of a voice when it came to big picture leadership or discipleship issues, including, of course, proclaiming God’s word to the whole congregation.

But I sensed a change on Good Friday 2015, during a Tenebrae service. In this type of worship gathering, various people prepare brief reflections on the sayings of Jesus from the cross. In a “hard complementarian” church, this would be reserved for men only. But we had a mixture of men and women give what truly was a “sermonette.”

One woman spoke on “I thirst” from John 19:28-29.

Angst shot out from her face while she whispered as if her lips were dry, cracked, and bleeding, “I’m thirsty!” Reciting the psalmist’s searching cry in Psalm 63, she showed that Jesus fulfilled that ancient song in his statement from the cross. Jesus didn’t simply need physical water, she pointed out. He wanted–needed–his Father. That’s who he was thirsty for. Jesus died of (spiritual) thirst.

It was the one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.

Everyone in the room knew she was preaching. And she was preaching like she was born to do it.

And I knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was preaching. Everyone in the room knew she was preaching.

And she was preaching like she was born to do it.

I can’t remember if I felt conflicted in the moment. (I hope I wasn’t debating the legitimacy of it–it was Good Friday!) Besides, everyone seemed edified because of what she said.

Whatever I thought about the role of women that night didn’t matter at all.

What mattered is that I wanted to know Jesus, love Jesus, and be like Jesus more because of what she said during that beautiful, dark, haunting Tenebrae service.

“What About Sunday School?”

Months later in late 2015, I had transitioned to interim pastor after our senior pastor had resigned. Discussions on the precise roles of women continued to increase. By spring 2016, our elder team had to deal with the most significant theological and practical question during my years as a pastor: can a woman teach and lead a Sunday school adult education class?

Prior to this, the church had an unwritten rule that only men could teach the Bible or theology proper.[9] But we had capable, knowledgeable, and willing women who wanted to teach on various topics, particularly books of the Bible, theology, or spiritual formation. They wanted to know if that was an acceptable way to use their gifts.

We (the elder team) had to answer in a way that 1) honored these women, and 2) upheld our complementarian framework. Our position was not up for debate–we weren’t all of a sudden going to have women elders or a woman preach to the whole church on a Sunday morning. But the application of our position wasn’t set in stone.

I spent weeks studying and praying about this issue. I read and re-read the Scriptures and consumed just about every article and opinion you could find online. I agonized over it.

I came to the conclusion that there was nothing in the Scripture that prevented a woman from teaching mixed groups in a “Sunday School-like” setting. I believed, as some complementarian churches do, if the person teaching and what is being taught are under elder oversight, it would be acceptable. I shared my view with the other elders and after many conversations, we agreed to start allowing women to teach adults the Bible and theology.[10]

Feeling the Foundation Crumble

What I’ve shared in this post is a tiny glimpse into the people and events God used opened my eyes to the value of women in the church, which then allowed me to see Scripture in a different light. Obviously, I don’t have the space to share every experience that deeply influenced me–private conversations, email exchanges, prayer times, planning sessions. I wish I did.

Ironically, while I was a complementarian pastor, my complementarian foundation began to crumble. By the time I stepped down as a pastor of the church my heart had ripened enough to at least be open to other options. After all, my wife and I were both transitioning to work with Cru as campus ministers together.

Carly, my wife, is tremendously gifted and, while I was a pastor, desired to use her gifts for the good of the church, too. But how could she use her gifts of teaching, wisdom, and discernment as the wife of a complementarian pastor in a complementarian church? How could we co-labor to serve both genders together? It seemed impossible.

In the next post, I’ll share more of our story, focusing on my wife’s influence on my journey and our experience together in the church as we started to notice the major blind spots of complementarianism.


Notes

[1] I’m not talking about the politics of race. I’m talking about Christian empathy, compassion, justice, and God’s heart for all people groups, especially marginalized ones, which, as we’ll see, relates to the issue of women in the church.

[2] I recognize that some people join a church or denomination based on doctrine or the “statement of faith” alone. But I’d be willing to bet my retirement account those people are by far the exception.

[3] In Christian theology, the term for this is “sanctification.” Sanctification comes from the Latin word sanctus which means “to make holy, to set apart.”

[4] The CMA has a long history of empowering women in ministry. However, their current position is still that only men can serve as local church elders. Their website states: “Women may fulfill any function in the local church which the senior pastor and elders may choose to delegate to them…and may properly engage in any kind of ministry except that which involves elder authority.” However, just two weeks ago Christianity Today reported that the CMA is reconsidering their position. CMA President John Stumbo said, “It’s become clear to me that some of our policies unnecessarily restrict otherwise called and qualified ministers. This grieves me.”

[5] Different churches have different names for their leaders: elders or pastors are most common in North American churches. In some baptist churches, “deacon” is used for the men who lead the church. Biblically speaking, however, “deacon” can refer to someone who is a minister-at-large (see Rom 16:1-2) or someone in a specific local church who helps with more practical, material needs (see Acts 6).

[6] For my friends and family who grew up in Pentecostal traditions, they are much more likely to have experienced female leadership in some capacity. The official position of the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination, is that women are not restricted in any sense: “We conclude that we cannot find convincing evidence that the ministry of women is restricted according to some sacred or immutable principle.”

[7] “Biblical Literalism is the method of interpreting Scripture that holds that, except in places where the text is obviously allegorical, poetic, or figurative, it should be taken literally.” GotQuestions.org, “What is biblical literalism?”

[8] Essentially every major English Bible translation says the same thing for 1 Tim 2:12. See the comparisons.

[9] “Theology proper” in our church’s context would be something like the content of our statement of faith, which primarily covered the essential doctrines of Christianity (the Trinity, atonement, salvation by faith, etc.). A parenting class, for example, would deal with aspects of theology, but would not be “theology proper,” therefore a woman would be allowed to teach it.

[10] You might be asking, “What happened next?!” About 5-6 months later , we announced that we’d be joining staff with Cru. We left the following spring. So, I can’t add much because my part in this church’s story came to an end.

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Ministry Theology

Interlude: Why I’m Writing About Women Now

Throughout this summer series that I’m calling Let Her Lead, I’ll occasionally write a short “interludes” (like this one) to help bridge from article to article, provide context, or say something I think is timely but just doesn’t seem to fit elsewhere. Most likely, these thoughts will be far less organized than a normal series post.

Earlier today, a friend of mine–a woman–sent me a message wondering if I intentionally wrote the first post in the series at the same time that certain male leaders in a large North American denomination spoke out against women in church leadership. (They did this on Mother’s Day of all days.)

You might ask, “What was it?!” Well, I’m not going to link to anything, but I read some posts on Twitter and Instagram on Sunday that broke my heart. You can easily find them and if this conversation has interested you for a while, you have probably already seen what I’m talking about. Suffice to say that what was said didn’t strike the note of Christian charity.

Back to the timing of my post. The answer is “no” but “yes.”

What I wrote wasn’t a direct, flurried response to those very sad and disheartening things I read. I wasn’t on Twitter one moment and then pounding the keyboard the next.

That said, I began this series now because I had been considering it for quite some time anyway. The Christian social media subculture just provided the right opportunity for it. In the words of Dr. King, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

The heartbreak (okay, anger is what I felt first, let’s be honest) is what moved me to say Enough is enough! I have a wife who is so talented and gifted and full of zeal for the gospel and justice (if you know her, you already know this). I have two brilliant, young daughters who love Jesus and know more Scripture than I did at their age. I know many women who have influenced and inspired me at a very deep level. I work on a ministry team with some amazing, talented women. (I’ll share more on all this soon.)

So here’s the thing. Here’s why I started writing: how we talk about and relate to and labor with these women–all women–matters.

And if the Church keeps putting “women” in their “place,” we lose. Every single time. Why?

Because Jesus never did that. And that is where this all starts.

Wherever you’re at in this conversation, it must start and end with Jesus. I want to be like him. And I hope you do, too.

(It’s worth mentioning that not all people who hold to male-only leadership put women down. We’ll talk more about that, too.)

One last reason I’m writing this now. As a white, Christian man who has benefited from a theology of male-only leadership, I sense a holy responsibility to help my brothers in Christ consider a legitimate, biblically faithful alternative. I also sense a holy responsibility to empower my sisters in Christ who for far too long have been marginalized and (let’s be honest) flat-out ignored simply because of their gender.

Doing justice means that the advantaged stand up, speak out, and lay down their perceived rights to uphold and give advantage to others. Or, as Tim Keller has written, doing justice is giving people their due. In other words, what they are owed.

I’ve taken too long to realize this when it comes to women in the church.

But it’s never too late to do what’s right.

Categories
Commentary Let Her Lead Ministry Theology

How I Changed My Mind on Women’s Roles in Ministry

I walked out of the room once she stood up to speak.

It wasn’t anything personal (or so I thought).

It was a matter of conscience. Of conviction! I was taught to believe–and came to the conclusion myself–that a woman should not teach men from the Scriptures in a public worship setting. This wasn’t “church” proper on a Sunday morning; it was a multi-ministry, interdenominational worship event. But it felt the same to me.

I had to stick to my conviction. I had Bible verses to prove my point!

Women aren’t allowed to teach or lead men.

So I walked out quietly.

That night back in mid-2008 in Johannesburg, South Africa, still haunts me. I felt brazen and principled and manly. Like I died on the right hill.

But as I look back at the me from eleven years ago, I feel small. Confused. Cowardly. Anything but manly. Ashamed of my thoughts, words, and actions. Most likely, my missionary teammates wouldn’t remember that night (I hope). But I do.

And I cringe.

I wish I could go back and stop myself from walking out.

I wish I could tell my teammates how wrong I was.

Mostly, I wish I could ask the young woman who stood up to teach from the Scriptures for her forgiveness. She is a person, with a name, gifted by God to minister to his people. Including me.

But I don’t know her name.

I didn’t stick around to ask.

It was more personal than I foolishly believed.

Unfortunately, I can’t go back.

But what I can do is repent.

Pursuing Private and Public Repentance

I’ve repented privately through countless hours of study, prayer, conversations (particularly with my wife, bless her heart), and explaining to others how I now understand specific Bible texts about women and ministry when I have an opportunity.

What I’m writing now, and what I will write over the course of the summer, is what I’ll call my public repentance.

I need to repent because I have knowingly and unknowingly marginalized and even rejected women who were gifted and called by God because of a shortsighted and narrow view of gender roles, the Scriptures, and how we apply certain passages.

It’s a vulnerable position to be in. “I think I was wrong on this before and am changing my mind” is one of the most humbling things you can say. It’s also one of the most freeing.

The combination of being humbled (aka humiliation) and freedom is at the core of what repentance brings in our relationship with God and each other. It’s powerful and beautiful and I forget it far too often.

What I’ve Come to Believe About Women in Ministry

Repentance means change. So what am I changing? Over the past twenty months or so, I’ve intentionally reexamined the Bible to see what it has to say about leadership in the church, in general, and the role of women, in particular.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to embrace:

We must not only permit but encourage and champion the full participation of women in the life and leadership of the Church.

It’s important to say that this is not a belief that someone needs to hold (or even have an opinion on!) to be a Christian. It’s not, in Christian lingo, a “salvation issue.” For some Christians in other parts of the world, this would never even be an issue.

We must not only permit but encourage and champion the full participation of women in the life and leadership of the Church.

But what we believe about women in the church has real-world implications and consequences. If Christians (read: Christian men) treat women as second-class kingdom citizens, we undermine the very essence of God’s kingdom and how he has designed his people to function. We’ll operate at 50% efficiency (at best), meanwhile destroying our witness before a watching world. There’s much more to say about this and I will (hopefully) write more in upcoming posts.

When I’ve told people recently that I believe we must open up the full participation of women in the life and leadership of the Church, it’s often met with this kind of question, “So, what does that mean? Can women teach? Be pastors? Elders? What can they do?”

In another post, I’ll explain why those questions are actually the wrong place to begin.

For now, I’ll answer: yes. I believe women should be able to exercise their gifts as teachers and leaders (elder, pastor, bishop, etc.–whatever a denomination calls them) in order to minister to women and men in the church.

How Did I Get Here?

Three lines of evidence helped me arrive at this new place: 1) personal experience in life and ministry; 2) observations within evangelical subculture that emphasizes male dominance and female subservience; and 3) conclusions drawn from my own extensive biblical study of the issue.

If you’re freaking out right now that the Bible was third on the list, these are not in order of importance. (Keep reading for an explanation!)

My journey didn’t start on a whim. I didn’t wake up and say, “I’m going to read Paul’s letters differently today!” No, experiences and observations snowballed over time. As I put the jigsaw pieces together, I started to make sense of what I (and my wife) had experienced, seen, and heard for decades.

Experiences and observations then forced me to go back to the Bible to ask the all-important question: are my inclinations in line with God’s word or am I way off?

It’s been a long and grueling, yet rewarding, journey. Of course, it’s not over. I don’t have all the answers. But I’m moving, I think, in the right direction.

About six months in (to the twenty month journey I mentioned above), I began to sense my view on women was shifting. I realized, eventually, since this shift would be seismic, I needed to tell my wife!

When I did, she was a bit surprised, but not shocked. There were things in our life, as individuals and a couple, that helped break up the concrete-hard “male-only leader” position we both held from childhood. We both had icky feelings about how women had been treated in the church. But icky feelings alone aren’t a good reason to change a theological position and practice.

After initially telling my wife, I continued to examine the key Scriptures in this conversation. As I did, I only became more convinced that women ought to be fully included in the church’s leadership.

As you think about the three lines of intersecting evidence I mentioned, you may have an immediate objection: What if your observations and experiences have influenced your biblical conclusions?

That may be true. I’m self-aware enough to acknowledge that. No one is an unbiased interpreter of any text, Bible or otherwise. However, consider an alternative perspective.

I never intentionally sought to change my mind on this issue without God’s gracious intervention. In fact, to maintain my (now old) position would have benefited me as a male in the traditional North American structure of the church. It required no sacrifice on my part.

To champion the full inclusion and participation of women in church leadership means that I must divest myself of any power I had or could have. The sinful nature in me would never depart with anything that feeds the idols of power or control. Instead, sin seeks to hoard it.

To champion the full inclusion and participation of women in church leadership means that I must divest myself of any power I had or could have.

As a man, this makes no sense if we are playing for keeps. But since the foundational principle of God’s kingdom is that we lose our lives to gain our lives, the inclusion of women aligns more fully with what Jesus taught about relationships and leadership in his kingdom.

This all makes me wonder if it is possible that God, in his kindness, has provided these experiences and observations to open my eyes to see his word in a fresh way that I never could have before. I think so.

The Scriptures never change. But the way I see them certainly does. Prayer, community, wisdom, and empathy will help us use–not ignore–the experiences to see more clearly to love God and our neighbor better.

We can’t hold up a stonewalled hand to God and say, “I do not permit you to teach me!”

If we did, well, then we might still be practicing slavery today.

Journey with Me and Practice Charity

This summer, I’m going to write about my journey. I’ll start by sharing parts of what I’ve experienced and observed as it relates to gender in the church, hopefully framing it within the wider cultural context the church is in now.

Then, over several posts (who knows how many), I’ll explain what I see in the Scriptures that lead me to believe that women can be full participants in the life and leadership of the church.

I don’t have it all figured out. There’s still a whole lot I’m struggling through. But, right now, it’s a good place to be.

It likely won’t be this neat and tidy, but in general I’ll have four major themes or types of posts:

  1. Examining the overarching narrative of the Bible. We’ll see how it reveals God’s design for gender roles in his Kingdom, how sin has marred that design and brought about all kinds of destruction and division between the genders, and how God is graciously, incrementally, and radically redeeming this brokenness.
  2. Examining the elevated place of women in the ministries of Jesus and Paul. We’ll see how Jesus and Paul, even though they operated in patriarchal cultures, empowered women to be full-fledged, active participants and leaders in the ministry of the church.
  3. Examining closely the controversial texts that relate directly to women in the church. This is what you’re here for, I’d guess. We’ll tackle head-on those passages that have been traditionally understood to limit, silence, or exclude women. What we’ll see is that these passages can be viewed in a different light with a few key historical and cultural insights as well as analysis of the original language, particularly in Paul (it will only get a little bit nerdy, I hope). We’ll see that these passages can’t always be applied generically and universally to all church situations everywhere.
  4. Examining anything else noteworthy I have filed away in my notes. There may be things outside of these categories that I come across as I review what I’ve studied. Those will get lumped together at some point. Think of it like a junk-drawer appendix.

The heart behind all this writing is to benefit everyday Christians, not impress the academics. Of course, I’ll cite lots of sources (there has been a whole lot written on this for decades) and get into some heady stuff. But I’ll do my best to cut through the mire, define big churchy words, try to keep it easy to follow.

You may be shouting for joy. You may be ready to cancel me. Wherever you are, I invite you to follow me on this journey.

And if you do (especially if you’re inclined to comment), please practice charity.

You’re free to disagree here. All you want, in fact. I want to hear your side. But, if you follow Jesus–whichever “side” you’re on–you are not free to be uncharitable.

As it is written, “If I can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge…but don’t have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2-3).

Let’s heed the warning, and get into it.