Some frame the debate about women sharing authority in the church and home as a “secondary” or a “women’s” issue.
Women advocating for shared leadership may be accused of wanting to be like men, of being selfish, or of fighting for their rights when there are more important things for the church to address. But it’s a mistake to assume that this is a minor issue or something that only impacts women.
Our theology of women and how the dynamics between men and women are played out in the life of the church deeply impacts Christian community, the effectiveness of ministry, and our witness of Christ to the world-at-large.
Dallas Willard¹, a noted authority in the area of spiritual formation, makes this point in his foreword² to the book How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals³. He starts with his own journey:
“As I grew older, and began seriously to study the Bible and the Way of Christ, I of course became aware of the gender issues and of the biblical passages that, in the minds of some, occasion difficulties concerning ‘women preachers’. But it seemed clear to me that those passages were not principles themselves, but were expressions of the principle that Christ-followers should be ‘all things to all people’, in Paul’s language. They were not part of the righteousness and power of Christ any more than not eating blood or being saved by bearing children.”
Then he highlights the importance of our theology of women with three arguments:
1. Spiritual gifts are not distributed by gender
“First, those gifted by God for any ministry should serve in the capacities enabled by their gift, and human arrangements should facilitate their service and provide them the opportunities to serve. There is no suggestion whatsoever in Scripture or the history of Christ’s people that the gifts of the Spirit are distributed along gender lines. It is clearly something that does not even appear on the mental horizon of the inspired writers. And if it had done so, can one even imagine that they would have failed to state it clearly? Especially if it is as important as those who oppose female leadership make it out to be.”
2. Equality should be framed in terms of meeting our obligations to God
“Two, it is misguided and unhelpful to try to deal with the issue of women in leadership in terms of rights and equality alone. People simply are not equal when it comes to their talents, to their ministerial gifts, or to their experiences with God…
It is not the rights of women to occupy ‘official’ ministerial roles, not their equality to men in those roles, that set the terms of their service to God and their neighbors. It is their obligations that do so – obligations that derive from their human abilities empowered by divine gifting. It is the good they can do and the duty to serve that comes from that, which impel them to serve in all ways possible.
Women and men are indeed very different, and those differences are essential to how God empowers each to induce the kingdom of God into their specific life setting and ministry. What we lose by excluding the distinctively feminine from ‘official’ ministries of teaching and preaching is of incalculable value (emphasis added). That loss is one of a few fundamental factors that account for the astonishing weakness of ‘the church’ in contemporary context.”
3. Exclusionary practices are damaging for the church as a whole, not just for women
“Third, the exclusion of women from ‘official’ ministry positions leaves women [and men, I would add] generally with the impression that there is something wrong with them. But if God indeed excludes women from leadership of the church, there must be some reason why he does. What could it be? And if leadership, speaking, and the like are good work, and if work is manifestly in need of good workers, what, exactly, is it about a woman that God sees and says: ‘That won’t do’? Or did he just flip a coin and men won? This line of questioning, of course, affects all women, not just those with aspirations to official ministry positions.
It is noteworthy what a hard time those who oppose leadership by women have in saying exactly what it is about women that excludes them from such positions, and how that puts an unbearable weight upon what was already a very weak hermeneutic (emphasis added).
So the issue of women in leadership is not a minor or marginal one. It profoundly affects the sense of identity and worth on both sides of the gender line; and, if wrongly grasped, it restricts the resources for blessing, through the church, upon an appallingly needy world.”
Interestingly, Willard was asked to contribute a chapter to “How I Changed My Mind,” but declined because he could not honestly say he had ever “changed his mind”, but instead had recognized early on that gender should not be a consideration in the kingdom.
It’s time for the church to be more thoughtful and intentional about addressing teaching and practices that restrict women. As this brief article illustrates, there is plenty of credible biblical and theological scholarship available in our day that refutes hierarchical models and to support an egalitarian interpretation. To borrow a phrase from Pope Francis, “we need a deeper theology of women”.
YOUR TURN: What do you think? Is this a secondary issue or something that should be moved to the top of the list? Why or why not? What can be done to deepen our theology of women?
¹Dallas Willard, a renowned writer and teacher, authored such well-known books as The Spirit of the Disciplines, The Divine Conspiracy, and Renovation of the Heart. Upon his passing in May 2013, publisher Andrew Le Peau of InterVarsity Press described Willard as “someone who was soaked in the presence of Christ”. I had the opportunity of sitting under Dallas’ teaching, and agree with him completely! This list of tributes demonstrates the scope of his influence. If you’re interested in learning more check out The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith by Gary Black.
²The foreword is available in its entirety on the Dallas Willard website. Share with a local pastor near you!
³How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals – with multiple contributors including Stuart and Jill Briscoe, John and Nancy Ortberg, Bill and Lynne Hybels, Cornelius Platinga, and Roger Nicole, the book covers the key points of theology and biblical interpretation related to the issue of women in Christian leadership. If you aren’t sure where you stand on the matter this is a great place to start.