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.