Toward a Deeper Theology of Women

Gail Wallace


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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 themBut 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 DisciplinesThe 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.

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  • Gail, we appreciate your advocacy of bringing gender equality in the church. Thank you for creating a comprehensive resources for us all. I forward your blog to many Asian American pastors and will be recruiting them to subscribe. One of the areas I have been thinking about related to gender inequality is ecological damage. As a Yinist (taken from Daoism), I see a deep connection between patriarchal hierarchy and ecological crisis. The hierarchy of humans over nature is something I have been grappling with. Just a thought.

  • I once saw a picture in prayer of a beautiful racehorse that was hobbled on 3 legs. There were men around the horse scratching their heads as to why the horse could not run. They knew it had the finest pedigree. I knew that the 3 legs hobbled represented the gender, racial, and clergy.laity divide in the church. Unleash those three legs and the gospel will run freely through the earth.

  • Gail, thanks for sharing Willard’s perspective with us. Very insightful. Last week, I had someone try to tell me that women in ministry is a “tertiary” issue for the church! I didn’t get a chance, but I would have loved to hear her taxonomy for ranking such things!

  • My initial response was that this can not a secondary issue if you are a woman. Who I am in Christ and how I fit into the Body is a primary issue for any believer.
    Then I started thinking about how a similar issue was handled by the early Church, namely the Jew/Gentile debate. In the first days of the Church, only Jews were considered worthy of salvation. Any Gentile who wanted to follow Christ had to convert to Judaism first. There is quite a lot of Scripture to back this up, God’s “chosen people” and all. Peter was called on the carpet about bringing the Gospel to Cornelius and his household. His response was, (to paraphrase) “The Spirit of God showed up and I can not argue with God.”
    Paul also faced criticism and opposition to his ministry to non-Jews. In fact, much of the New Testament is devoted to the issue. The conclusion by the entire Church was (and is) that, despite the OT Scriptures to the contrary, Gentiles are full fledged members of the Body of Christ and are able to hold any and all positions of service and authority, Where would the Church be today if only Jews could serve as leaders and Gentiles could have only “supporting roles”?
    The fact that for nearly 2000 years women have been (and still are) ministering in all roles in the Church, bringing many to salvation and healing, and living out the mandate to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth should cause all of us to be like Peter and his fellow Apostles and realize that when the Spirit of God is present in a life, man or woman, we can not argue with God.

    • Marh, thanks for that thoughtful response. I wish more people would remember that the early church was able to work through these kinds of issues and change it’s position from time to time. Who are we to say that God doesn’t want women to serve alongside men in the church in this day and age? Obviously, there have been great changes in practice in the community of faith through centuries. No reason that can’t happen again!

  • I’m so encouraged to know that about Dallas Willard. I have read the book ‘How I changed my mind… ‘ and would have read the forward but obviously forgot. I love the way Willard puts forward such clear and succinct points, with such an integrity that it would be difficult to gainsay it… should those who might gainsay it even choose to read what he said.

    Honestly, I have in the past believed that the women issue is secondary and it is on that basis that I believe that complementarian theology has been allowed such a wide sweep in the church – because egalitarians don’t want to make a fuss. I think it’s time to make a fuss. I think it’s time that egalitarians stood up and were counted.

    And I also believe it’s happening. Even in this past week a young pastor wrote to me and asked for reading materials he could get into to advise him how to be a greater advocate for gender equality in the church. And this is happening more and more. By the way… can you recommend anything specifically for him in this context.

    The depth of this argument and its ability to be understood, relies on people being willing to go for the deeper theology. It means that people must come to the table with open hearts as well as open minds, because much complementarian theology actually comes from a mindset of fear and intimidation by guys who need their egos shored up.

  • What is this saying about the people of God and our understanding of His will and word if we have to be having this conversation in the first place? Mind you, I speak from a primarily “egalitarian” denominational background where women (theoretically, at least) have always been afforded equal access to the pulpit and to leadership positions. So, maybe I tend to take such “rights” for granted. Yes, I acknowledge that it is indeed a privilege – and a responsibility – to take on such God-ordained roles, but do not all of God’s people – male or female – need to grasp those privileges and responsibilities that God holds out for us? Should we not all participate in the work with which He has entrusted us – no matter what our gender may be? … That being said, I look forward to the ongoing conversation and all that it will reveal about God – and about ourselves! So, thanks for the conversation! (previously posted to Facebook – thought I should go to the source!)

  • Thank you. As a woman with gifts, even if they are not of a pastoral nature, I do not feel like a secondary issue.

  • Well done, Gail. Sharing this one on FB tonight. Thank you.

  • I used to say that mutuality, or equality, was a secondary issue, and that it wasn’t a gospel issue. I don’t say that anymore. I’ve come to realize that equality in Christ and in the community of God’s people (which includes Christian marriages) is most definitely a gospel issue and not at all secondary.

  • Hi. Yes, I must agree that we need a deeper theology of women. One book of the Bible that I find extremely helpful is Song of Songs, which is not taught much. This book presents a woman with a strong voice and the relationship between her and her beloved is clearly egalitarian. The man and woman enjoy each others companionship doing the everyday things of life, but neither tries to dominate the other. It’s like they live in the garden before the Fall. I believe God teaches us about marriage and sexuality in this book.

  • When I began ministry, I immediately taught on women in leadership and made sure I had women on our church leadership teams. The church I serve now has women on the board and I have an all female staff. My closest ministry partner is my youth pastor, who is female and been with us over ten years. It is such an honor to lead in this type of setting. There is no way this is “secondary” in our ministry and I am so deeply thankful for the partnerships we have developed over the years.

    Dallas Willard is one of my spiritual heroes, so I am not surprised at all by his comments. It was who he was while on this earth.

    God’s BEST in this platform!

    • Dan, thanks for being such a great testimony and example! I just added your church to our Pinterest board of Egalitarian Churches. Your comment underscores the importance of the senior pastor teaching this from the pulpit and being intentional about having women’s input. I know it’s not always easy to find women to serve, as women are sometimes stretched too thin to add something else to their plate, and may not feel confident or qualified. So it’s very impressive that you have so many women in strategic positions! Thank you for visiting – come back soon and often! We could really use input from senior leaders here 🙂

      • Thank you for the kind compliments. Anything I can help add to the conversation would be a pleasure.

  • In a world where 200 million women are “missing” because they aren’t valued as highly as men, this cannot be a secondary issue. Any message that women are less valuable must be changed and the church should be leading the way. As long as we perpetuate the idea that women aren’t essential it’s not just the church that loses, the whole world loses.

    • That’s my stance as well – this is a justice issue! And the church should be leading the way in elevating the status of women as Christ did, not dragging behind. Thanks for your comment!

  • Excellent post, Gail! I was not aware Dallas Willard had written on the topic, and thus my reading list has just expanded. Thank you for starting such an important conversation.

    • Thanks, Holland. I’m not sure he has written anywhere else on the topic. It’s a shame we can’t ask him about it 🙁 I’m going to see if Gary Black knows of any other references in his writing to the issue.

  • Thanks for another great blog post. I’m new here and have loved what I’ve seen so far. My question is horribly off topic though. Where is the picture at the top of the page from?

    • Hi, Janice, and welcome. Great question! That is from a site called Unsplash, which send out free photos for public use each week. It is labled Scala Santa Maria del Monte, Caltagirone (Sicily, Italy) I thought it was a nice touch, after quoting the Pope 🙂

  • To be clear, I’m in complete agreement with you about the importance of advocating for egalitarian theology.

    But I don’t believe that complementarianism – at least, soft complementarianism – is something to break fellowship over.

  • How do we define “secondary” issue? Is it possible for something to be a secondary issue and still be of major importance for the entire body of Christ?

    Can we remain in fellowship with those with whom we disagree on secondary issues? primary issues?

    I do agree with Willard, and with you in this post that “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.”

    But I also believe that I can remain in fellowship with, learn from, and listen to people who believe that Scripture teaches that ordination is for men only.

    For me, the primary issues – those I would break fellowship over – are those in the Apostles’ Creed. There are many other – vitally important! – issues that impact the Christian community, the effectiveness of ministry, and our witness to the world at large. But I think there is space for disagreement and respectful engagement there.

    • Amy, I see your point, but unfortunately, the egalitarian side does not seem to be the ones having a problem with respectful engagement, from my observations. Those holding our theology of women are increasingly being labeled as heretical, as having a low view of scripture, of being influenced by the culture, etc. This is coming mostly from the leadership of the SBC and CBMW. They are also pushing some strange teaching – for example, the eternal functional subordination of Jesus to the Father (to support the idea that women are eternally subordinate to men, even in heaven).

      More and more, though, I’m seeing that people aren’t buying it – it isn’t logical and doesn’t square with the whole teaching of scripture. So that’s encouraging! But I believe churches that do support women in leadership need to develop their apologetic for that more fully and teach it to their congregations. I agree with you that there is space for engagement, and hopefully, that space will grow!

      • It’s definitely a problem on the comp side, too. I grew up that way and heard a lot of “they don’t obviously care about scripture if they have a female pastor.” That breaks my heart. I just don’t want to see egals starting to use the same kind of rhetoric…

      • Gail, thank you for an excellent post (as always). I had not realized that Arianism had raised its (his? ) ugly head again! We might need another Athanasius as champion of biblical orthodoxy and biblical interpretation.

        Thankfully, I am a graduate of a Methodist seminary (2005), so I did not need to deal with gender equity issues. I am currently serving as an interim co-pastor with a wonderful UCC pastor. St. Luke’s, our small church in Morton Grove (a suburb of Chicago) is emerging-egalitarian.

        Funny thing, isn’t it, that often when churches are small, they will accept most ANY person’s willingness to minister where needed? That’s been my experience, anyhow.

    • Just wanted to add that after thinking about it, if you make the Apostles’ Creed your measuring stick, wouldn’t racism then fall under non-primary issues?

  • What I don’t understand is why this topic is not even discussed in most evangelical circles. Why is it the one-sided presentation of the male authority/female submission? I am a Bible College graduate–and this was not even discussed or presented in our theology or hermeneutics classes. They must really be afraid that this side of reasoning makes too much sense.

    Thank you so much for your insights. I felt completely upside down in that complentarian mindset. I have gifts that don’t fit the hierarchy, and I was so frustrated. Now I understand why.

    • Kim that baffles me as well. Why are colleges and seminaries with a Wesleyan heritage not teaching this more? One professor suggests it is because they never had to – they just always operated under an egalitarian understanding. Now there is a great need for a solid apologetic for mutuality and shared leadership. So glad the article was helpful to you! Hope you’ll take a look at some of the other posts – there is a lot here to glean from.

  • Gail, What a great post! I did not realize that Dallas Willard held this stance, and I also appreciated the resourcing you did for us at the end of the article. I feel encouraged when I hear you say that in the coming year that Junia Project will continue exploring the theme of a deeper theology of women. As you know, I believe that part of that deeper theology will be having conversations about a “beyond gender” God and the conception of women and men in the church through that lens. Looking forward to more insights!

    • Thanks, Stephanie. I do hope the church is ready for a deeper theology. It seems that first we have to get past the confusion that this hierarchical theology has caused! Looking forward to your input on the conversation 🙂

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