Thursday, March 15, 2012


Women, Church Leadership and the Perils of "Relevance"

Dean said this was "Paul telling a woman off".
No, he wasn't being serious ...
As I am enjoying a brief delay in Qatar en route to Afghanistan, I thought I would share a discussion which came up when I was trolling my new Anglican friend Dean's blog, on which I have guest-posted twice recently (here and here).

There are many differences between Dean and I, both theologically and stylistically.  In particular, Dean frequently posts questions and invites his readers to answer them. On this particular occasion his question involved the very contentious issue of whether women "have the right" to positions of church leadership.

This framing of the proposition as one of "rights" really got my attention.  I carefully read both the post and the responses, which effectively ranged from cautious affirmation on one hand, to "the very fact you are even having a debate about whether women have a role to play just shows how ludicrous church theology is in the 21st century" on the other.  Anyway, it was clear I was about to wade in against a fairly strong tide ... which is precisely why I felt it important to do so.

First, it was imperative that we deal with this notion of the "right" to serve in leadership:
The question of “rights” with respect to church leadership is very presumptuous. Do any of us have a “right” to lead God’s people? Being an American, I’m a huge believer in rights in a political sense (our “Bill of Rights” and all that). But I think we can easily get carried away with the concept, often reframing our desires as “rights” in order to impose a claim on what we want. When we turn a question of God’s commands, purposes and design into a question of of our “rights” we are on very dangerous ground indeed.
Before he became the leader of God's chosen people himself, David clearly recognized this peril.  He twice had the opportunity to assert his right to the throne of Israel--to which he already had a legitimate claim based on his own anointing--yet refused to force the issue and raise his hand against "the LORD's anointed" (1 Samuel 24 and 26).  Leadership of God's people is a charge from God, given in His time and in His way.  It is not a right to be asserted!

Later in his original post, Dean said his theology with respect to gender roles had evolved from complementarianism (in which men and women have complementary roles, but men are charged specifically with leadership) to egalitarianism (full equality in all areas of service).  I thus turned my attention to the meat of the proposition:
Secondly, I have a problem with the “complementarian” vs. “egalitarian” dichotomy, because it masks too much beneath simple answers. Let’s be clear: that God made men and women equal in value in His sight is obvious from Scripture, as [a previous commenter] refers to in Galatians 3:28 above (“… nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”). That he made them to be different and complementary is also obvious from the Creation account and from Jesus’ own words in Matthew 19:4 (“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?”). One could also say it is an obvious biological fact. The problem with egalitarianism is that it tries to assert one against the other, rather than understanding one in light of the other.
First-century culture is the predominant argument for dismissing Paul's teaching on this topic.  Dean asserts that Paul was simply being "pragmatic" when he would not let a woman teach or hold authority over a man.  This search for cultural context ignores Scriptural context, however, and Scripture has much more to say on this subject.
This interplay between our equal value and complementary roles is no more clearly demonstrated than in Ephesians 5:22-27: "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless."  
To argue that man’s headship is cultural ignores the clear context of the passage, which calls out the eternal truths of Christ’s headship over and sacrificial love for His church. What is also clear is that man’s charge is both wonderful and daunting … he is to lay himself down for his wife with sacrificial love. The woman’s charge to submit gets much of the attention, but the command to the man is one of the most beautiful and challenging in Scripture, and often gets completely lost in the controversy. However, this passage provides important context for the larger discussion over God’s design for church roles and responsibilities (again, too often reframed as a human-centered quibble over “rights”).
Finally, it seemed important to widen the aperture to the spirit which gives rise to this impulse to reinterpret God's Word in order to keep it current and "relevant".  In fact, the more relevant we seek to become by becoming like the culture around us, the less relevant we actually are.
Beyond question there is immense good which has proceeded from clearly enunciating the value of women in our Western society. There is also much confusion over roles, because egalitarians have pressed so hard that there is no longer any room in the “enlightened” Western mind for the other half of the equation. There is a great deal to this discussion that owes to intellectual laziness and a desire to conform to our culture’s notions of enlightenment.

This was foretold by the Apostle Paul: ”For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Tim 4:3) We need to be very careful, and recognize that when the church becomes like the world (i.e., when we sacrifice obedience to “relevance”), we cease to be change agents. We lose our “saltiness” and are “no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matt 5:13)
If we want the church to make a difference in the world, why not try God's way?  His perfect design for the sexes is enormously powerful, challenging, and, well ... relevant!
For those who are willing to see it, there is a beautiful model set forth in Scripture for men and women, in which we embrace both the great value and the distinctive roles God has creatively, ingeniously and graciously granted us. When we do so in obedience, we find ourselves transformed and joyful in submission to His design and commands.
And of course, a reminder that all of this confusion has its roots in a very ancient offense:
More thoughts on this here: The Curse: Your Desire Will Be for Your Husband
And here: The Curse II: And He Will Rule Over You


  1. In the supposedly culturally-determined passage in 1 Timothy where Paul will not permit a woman "to assume authority over a man" he gives a reason: "For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one who was deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner." Whatever one tries to make of that, what one may not do, if one has any respect for Scripture, is to say it was just Paul, "being practical in the 1st century"!

  2. There is freedom and peace for women who honor God and respect scripture when it asserts that women shouldn't have authority over a man in the church. The men who must take on the burden of shepherding the flock need strong women behind them, assisting them, because they are the ones who will give an account. That is not their right but their responsibility, and a weighty one at that.

  3. You three have said it all already. Thank you.


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