Last Monday was the first night of our depth class on Faith and Gender. As a woman pastor in the Evangelical church, I am aware of the difficulties of dealing with this topic, and the emotional vulnerability entering into such a discussion requires. I can distance myself emotionally, while clearly elucidating that this is not merely an issue of a few isolated scriptures, but largely an issue of power and privilege. Or so I thought.
I intentionally attended a seminary that affirmed women in ministry without question. It was never a discussion because no one disagreed, from the faculty to those I met in the student body, that women and men are called and gifted to work in ministry. It was great to learn about scripture, theology, to deepen in my own relationship with God without dealing with questions of whether it was somehow ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for me to follow the call to ministry I had felt for years placed upon my heart and life.
I’m used to getting questions here at Quest regarding our theology on the issue, and answering questions while wrestling alongside those who have not arrived at a conclusion on the issue.Last Monday, in a presentation crammed into too short a time period, and thus presented in auctioneer-like fashion, I vocalized our denomination’s theology and viewpoint on the issue: a beautiful depiction of how we are all called to enter into a newly restored order through the person of Jesus Christ, and that as a natural outgrowth of our faith, we are called to live as people of this divine order. Jesus overturned social and political hierarchies, and offered life to all without regard to status, gender, or ethnic background. I’ll include a snippet from the talk below, but really I just pulled straight from the ‘Called and Gifted’ document published by the ECC. I didn’t feel I was saying anything revolutionary, and was very surprised when I heard the criticism of the evening from another staff member: it’s not the ‘Quest way’ to not leave room for people to question. I think we need to open up more space for dialogue and for people to have other viewpoints.
I know that as a church, as a people, we wrestle with things, come to different conclusions, and still have the grace to live together as people of God. This time, it stung to hear that presenting our denomination’s viewpoint almost verbatim, the viewpoint we as a church adhere to on a ‘close fisted issue’ was seen as somehow too extreme. For many, especially those with the privilege of always seeing themselves as created in the image of God and able to be fully called and affirmed ministers of the gospel, this is an issue that can be discussed and debated. It is something that might not be a deal breaker for churchgoers who don’t understand the implications of the theology that does not affirm women in ministry. For those of us who happen to be on the other side of the gender line, it can’t possibly be a negotiable issue. For women who sit in the pews week in and week out, knowing that you are viewed as ‘less than’, as one who is not qualified to any sort of leadership position in the church, regardless of how God has gifted you and is calling you, is heartbreaking and demeaning. I can’t think of a person (well, maybe one) who would argue a woman can’t be a district attorney, a doctor, or a teacher or professor who guides, mentors, and teaches others how to be great in their profession. But knowing these same folks would draw a line at ministry and say “in this area, that most touches your heart and life, you are not good enough.” To top it off, when a woman argues against this kind of theology, she is called ‘angry’ or ’emotional’, and discounted as some sort of feminist (which must, in Christian circles especially, be a very bad thing indeed).
Truly understanding the theology behind our position, I am okay with it being a close-fisted issue. In fact, I agree that it is an issue of justice, in allowing all people, women and men, educated and without opportunity, young and old, from all cultures, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds to see themselves as equal in the eyes of God, created in God’s image, and all called to follow the gifts God has given them, in whatever areas of life or ministry. Check out the passages below if you are curious as to how our denomination, or I personally, arrive at these conclusions.
Effects of Sin. Sin entered the world through both the man and the woman. They were co-participants in the fall, and are equally culpable (Genesis 3:6; Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). One of the key results of sin was—and continues to be—the break in unity and fellowship between humans and God, as well as between Adam and Eve. As a result of sin, Adam began to rule over Eve (Genesis 3:16). This hierarchy is an unwanted result of sin and is not God’s prescription. It violates God’s original plan for unity, equality, fellowship, and community. When in discussion with the authorities concerning the law of Moses, Jesus laid down the principle that the standard is the original intention of God found in Genesis 1 and 2 (Matthew 19:3-9).
Another unwelcome result of sin was the corruption of the ensuing culture, which led to hostilities among people and culminated in the oppression and exclusion of those considered to be weaker classes: the poor, the sick, women, the unclean. The Old Testament records these customs, as well as the longing for the day when all creation would be redeemed. The redemption would include the elimination of barriers and reconciliation between former enemies. Isaiah prophesies, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). The Old Testament prophets foretold the Messiah as the one who would bring about a feast for all people; would heal the blind, the deaf, and the lame; would proclaim release to the captives and freedom for the oppressed (Isaiah 61). It is significant that Luke 4:16-21 records Jesus quoting this very passage before announcing that in him it is fulfilled. Additionally, the prophets pointed to a time when “You shall be called priests of the LORD, you shall be named ministers of our God” (Isaiah 61:6), and to a time when God’s Spirit would be poured out on all believers (Joel 2:28-29), both young and old, men and women. This was later confirmed when Peter wrote, “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5), and “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). This is confirmed again in Revelation, where it is repeatedly declared that all those who believe in Christ will be priests: “To him who…made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:5-6); “ you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God…” (Revelation 5:10); and “…they will be priests of God and of Christ…” (Revelation 20:6).
The hierarchical, divisive, and patriarchal customs that developed are not God’s ideal order. God’s ideal order, plainly stated through the prophecies about the Messiah, is one of healing and reconciliation. God’s ideal order eliminates the effects of sin, including class divisions, hierarchy, and oppression. It restores the original unity, fellowship, and community between God and humans, and between men and women. It reestablishes the God-designed equality of women and men. The Jesus Paradigm and Redemption. During Christ’s life, he exhibited in his teaching and practices the very qualities that were prophesied: he touched lepers, spoke to women, and consorted with taxgatherers. By doing so, Jesus modeled the new kingdom and challenged the prevailing sexist and divisive prejudices, tearing down the divisions and restrictions that had arisen as the result of sin. Jesus saw women as persons of equal worth to men and rejected existing practices that devalued women (see Matthew 19:29; 26:6-13; 27:55-56, 61; Mark 5:21-43; 10:11-12; 15:40-41, 47; Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28; 13:10-17; 24:10-11; John 4:7-42; 11:2-45; 12:1-8; 19:25). This pattern is evident in his teachings (a woman plays the role of God in the parable of the lost coin) and his actions (in clear violation of Jewish tradition, Jesus invited both men and women to receive theological and spiritual instruction from him).
Jesus also taught and practiced servant leadership and the empowerment of others. According to Jesus, leadership is about servanthood, not authority. Passages in the Gospels such as Luke 22:24-30 and John 13:1317 record Jesus’ teaching on this subject and show that Jesus ushered in a paradigm that was counter to the existing culture of hierarchical systems and authority. The remainder of the New Testament continues this teaching of servant leadership, emphasizing that spiritual gifts are given to serve others and build the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:1116; Philippians 2:3-11; Galatians 5:13; 1 Peter 5:2-3). Most importantly, Jesus Christ came to fully redeem all people, women as well as men. Paul emphasizes that all who believe in Christ are redeemed from sin and become new creations. Not only do we who believe become the children of God, and equal heirs, but we also become one in Christ. These blessings come through our faith in Christ, independent of our racial, social, physical, or gender distinctions (John 1:12-13; Romans 8:1417; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 3:26-28). In the world, characteristics such as “maleness” or “femaleness” function as primary markers of personal definition and are used to assign rank, status, and worth. In Christ, we are instead defined by being a new creation in Christ. As a result of becoming a new creation, a believer’s primary identity is his or her new life in Christ.
Our old identities—those of gender, race, or social class—become secondary to our true identity in Christ. In our culture, like that of Jesus and Paul, maleness and femaleness matter. But our beliefs and practices ought not to be determined by earthly cultures, as our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). The domination of one group by another group is one of the effects of sin that Jesus came to abolish. In its stead the New Testament affirms Christian community as marked by mutual interdependence, where differences are not to be of any advantage or disadvantage (Galatians 3:28). The result is a new community with new kingdom realities. For believers to continue subordinating other humans is contrary to our new identities in Christ and contrary to the new kingdom community. We can choose to model the coming eschatological community (Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven), or we can choose a hierarchical model conformed to this sinful world. The New Kingdom and the Church as a Fellowship of Believers. The New Testament gives a model for the fellowship of believers.
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit filled both women and men alike, with no distinction made on any basis. The Holy Spirit is sovereign and distributes gifts without preference and without regard to the strictures of a fallen world (Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:7, 11; 14:31). As a result of this unbiased indwelling of the Holy Spirit, women were involved in all ministry positions and activities, including apostle (Romans 16:7); prophetic speaking (Acts 1:14; 2:15-18; 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5, 10); serving as ministers, leaders, elders, or governors (Romans 16:1); coworkers (Philippians 4:2-3; Romans 16:3-5; Acts 18:2, 18-19); and gifted teachers who instructed men (Acts 18:24-26). The Bible also teaches that after Pentecost, both women and men receive spiritual gifts without regard to their gender, both are called to exercise and develop these spiritual gifts, and both are called to be faithful managers of those gifts that have been freely given to them (1 Peter 4:10-11). Both men and women are to use these divine gifts to serve one another without restriction (Acts 1:14, 8:4, 21:8-9; Romans 16:1-7, 1213, 15; 1 Corinthians 12; Philippians 4:2-3; Colossians 4:15). Based on these examples, we conclude that spiritual authority comes from God and is not determined by our gender. Authority is a spiritual function not a function based on our physical attributes. The result of ministering to one another according to our spiritual gifts is that the church becomes a true fellowship of believers characterized by mutual participation in and sharing of the new life in Christ.
Furthermore, why do we as a church affirm women in ministry?
•The subject of women in ministry is about mission. It is about empowering the whole church to be engaged in the task of carrying out the great commission and the great commandment with all of our gifts and abilities. At its heart this is about carrying out the mission that unites us in Christ.
•The subject of women in ministry is about freedom—the freedom of all people in Christ and the freedom of women to exercise their God-given gifts, to respond to God’s call to ministry, and to find a welcoming place within the Covenant as they do so.
•The subject of women in ministry is about justice. When women are not allowed to exercise their God-given gifts, it is an injustice. We hope and pray that all Covenanters will work together to eradicate these injustices.
•The subject of women in ministry is about a clear understanding of grace, redemption, and living new kingdom realities. More important than our commitment to freedom is our biblical and historical commitment to the need for salvation, and our belief that salvation has a real outcome. Covenant theology has always embraced the necessity of new birth, and we believe that new birth results in new relational dynamics. Consequently, we perceive that affirming women in ministry flows out of our Covenant identity, which is centered on salvation.
•Recognize that the body of Christ should not be conformed to the world, which is characterized by discrimination, prejudice, and segregation. The body of Christ should be a model of unity and equality. When we preach the good news, our credibility is undermined if we are seen as restrictive rather than freeing.