Our Church’s Biblical Journey to Allowing Women in Leadership
Recently, my local church family made the decision to allow women to serve in leadership roles in our church community. Since the founding of our church in the early 1970’s these roles were only open to qualified men. The view of our church (and the view which I held for many years) was that the Bible does not permit women to serve in leadership in the church. Throughout my Christian Journey whenever I heard that a church had allowed women to serve in such leadership positions I immediately believed that they had watered down the scriptures. In my mind I believed such churches were simply compromising to secular society, which was seeking to rid itself of all beliefs and systems the church held dear. If I were to accept egalitarian leadership, it would simply be a slippery slope to allowing the Bible to say whatever culture wanted it to say.
Today I no longer believe that allowing women to serve in leadership is the root of secularism or a denial of scripture. If anything, I have come to believe that allowing women to serve in leadership is not only culturally right but biblically correct as well. How could I make such a change? How could our church make such a change? The answer lies in seeing the story of the Bible.
Early in my Christian journey I was taught that we can see scripture through two lenses. The first lens was a liberal one. This lens allowed one to interpret scripture through different starting points. Each starting point was based upon one’s experience or background. This starting point was a springboard to such things as liberation theology, feminist theology, LGBTQ theology and an assortment of other systematic theologies. I whole-heartedly rejected this way of seeing scripture because at its foundation was human experience rather than God.
The second lens I was taught to see scripture through was a conservative one. In this approach, one seeks to use all hermeneutical tools available to try and determine what the text meant to the original audience and then seek to make it applicable to today’s audience. This approach was a very systematic approach to the Bible. The belief was that the Bible had set categories (i.e. God, Jesus, sin, salvation, atonement, end times, women’s issues etc.) If we understood these categories correctly we could systematically find scriptures to back up what we believed the Bible to be saying. Therefore, if we believed that women were not permitted to preach or lead we should be able to go and find scriptures which could prove our point of view or disprove it.
There is some value in this historical/cultural approach but I find that it, too, makes some of the same mistakes as the liberal view. This is why I have opted for a third way of interpreting scripture, one which focuses not on turning to the Bible as a source of propositional truths to decipher (although propositions have their place) but on a story to understand. The method I’m referring to has been called “narrative theology.”
The central assumption of narrative theology is that the Bible has a story to tell. It is not an “encyclopedia” of “facts” we can use to build a case for our beliefs; rather, it is a story of God’s great renewal project of the whole World. The story of creation, the fall, a family, a nation, a messiah, a church and a new creation are not illustrations on how one gets saved and goes to heaven, but they are the framework from which all things must be interpreted in scripture.
So, when discerning whether women can or cannot serve in leadership of the church we decided to look at this issue through the narrative of scripture. The narrative of scripture forced us to look at the whole forest before we could even decipher what individual trees in that forest might be telling us. Here is the story we saw concerning women and leadership.
Understanding Gender Roles Narratively The story begins in the garden. In the creation account we learn right away that God saw no hierarchy between men and women. They were created equal and they had a task to do. They were invited by God to help manage all of creation. Genesis 1:28 says,
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Genesis 1:28 This was God’s intended design—male and female working together on a common project. Yet it is not long before the story takes a sharp turn and God’s great creation project went wrong. In their arrogance the man and the woman decided they knew what was best for themselves rather than trusting in God. So, in Genesis 3 we see the results of the fall. Many complementarians (people who believe that women should not have leadership roles in the church) will admit that man and woman were to rule equally but that the fall changed this plan. Our church, however, did not see this in the story. What we saw in the story was not a change in God’s plan but a change in people. Our old view was that, after the fall, God wanted men to be in charge over women. When we carefully read the scriptures we saw the story was trying to tell us something completely different.
In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve’s sin, God curses the serpent and the ground. If you read the text carefully, you’ll notice he never curses Adam or Eve. Yet they are told that because of sin the world has been altered. Growing crops for the man will not come easy. For the woman child bearing will be painful (possibly to remind us how valuable life is). Then God tells Eve near the end of verse 16, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” We saw this not as a command of God’s will but as a declaration or a warning about what is ahead. God knew that sin would cause a battle between the sexes, a struggle for power which would see women usually on the losing side of in history.
The rest of the story in the Old Testament, we believed, could back up this interpretation. Throughout the OT (although male dominance was a part of the culture) God never forbade women to lead. Instead, he actually called women to lead in some phenomenal ways. Three women in particular stood out to us in our church. Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah. Miriam co-led with Moses and Aaron the nation of Israel in its infancy (Micah 6:4). Deborah led Israel during the time of the judges. Huldah, the prophetess, gave King Josiah direction on how to deal with the nation after finding the Torah. These three women were not simply placed in these positions because there were no good men available! They were called to lead because they were the right person for the position. This is what the story of the Old Testament was telling us. But what of the New Testament? If women could be leaders in the Old Testament did God change his mind in the New Testament?
When the story picks up in the gospels, patriarchy was alive and well. Yet the biggest defender of women was Jesus. Jesus treated women differently than his Jewish brothers and sisters. Jesus allowed women to sit at his feet to learn (In Jewish culture this was a man’s position only). He allowed women to be his disciples (again culturally reserved for men). And the irony of all ironies, women became the first witnesses and preachers of the Resurrection! When Jesus ascended to heaven it was both men and women who waited in the upper room to receive instructions from the Holy Spirit. Finally, when the day of Pentecost came Peter proclaimed from the prophet Joel (Acts 2) that it would be both men and women who were to preach that the Kingdom of God had arrived. This is the story that the gospels and the first two chapters of Acts tell us. So what part did women play within the early church? What does the story tell us from the New Testament letters?
The Apostle Paul has gotten a bad reputation in our present day because some believe that he taught that women had no part in leading or preaching and even forbade women to speak in churches. I believe his letters have been misrepresented and have been interpreted in such a way that does not follow the story of the Bible and especially not the story of the New Testament. I believe a careful study of the story shows a picture in which Paul saw women preaching and leading not as subordinates but as equals.
In Acts we learn of women like Philip’s daughters who were preachers, while in Paul’s letter to the Romans we learn of some of the women who were leaders in the early church. Phoebe was a leader in her house church in Cenchreae, Priscilla taught Apollos theology, and Junia was considered great amongst the apostles. The story seems to show that Paul did not deviate from the Old Testament story nor Jesus and the early disciples’ view of women.
Certainly, when we get to some of the more difficult passages where Paul seems to forbid women from leading we must interpret what he says through the lens of what the story tells us he did. Paul served with women leaders. Now as a church we did look at these difficult passages of Paul’s. Yet when we saw what the story had already told us and began to read about these churches in Corinth and Ephesus, what we saw was not forbidding of women leaders but instructions to these churches about some issues they were facing.
On the topic of women’s roles in the church, I believe that if we allow the narrative to speak, we will find that, rather than forbidding women to serve in leadership the Bible actually opens the door for it. This is the journey our church has taken. We have a high view of scripture and ultimately want to make sure we do not allow culture or trends to decide how we serve in the Kingdom. My hope is that for churches who have forbidden women to serve in leadership to at least look at the scriptures again with fresh eyes. Take a look at the story again allowing it to shape you. You might be surprised at what you find.