Preface: I am wholly and unequivocally in support of female leadership in any and every capacity of church and family life.
I am writing this to address all of Gallery, in which I am covenant family, because I want to see health and harmony for all those under your charge and to see Gallery know God better. I hope to accomplish this through a rigorous examination of arguments that reside among us. While a plurality of arguments will, rightfully, always exist, our responses to these arguments, as I am sure you know, will have a serious impact on the Gallery family and the local community because of how we treat people, teach people, and speak of people.
It has been encouraging to me to see the church make a positive decision regarding female leadership (or teaching, specifically, for there is no substantial differentiation in their treatment, in my mind) in the church. I will admit that I was not previously aware of any particular position Gallery held on this “issue” and had I been aware, I would have pushed for this conversation sooner. Since you have requested the covenant family give questions and responses regarding this important decision, I would like to present mine here.
How we discuss female leadership in church can be broken up in three ways:
- A discussion on the content of Scripture
- A discussion on the role we assign to Scripture
- A discussion on the agency, ability, and station of women
I believe the discussion on the content of scripture would be short. Through either a dispensationalist lens or a covenantal lens (both being conceptions that God works differently in different times in history), it is easy to explain away how we move from God’s appointing of Deborah as a leader to Paul’s unqualified statements about women in church studying in submission and never being allowed to teach. In a similar way, it would be easy to show that we live in a different dispensation than that of Paul’s, or to explain that God’s appointment of Deborah carries more weight than Paul’s prescription to one church. So I won’t spend much time on that, as the weight of arguments like these have no objective measurement.
Similarly, the discussion of the agency and ability of women is one that, while historically very relevant, is both familiar to most of us and trivial in that none among us would settle on the idea that female leadership should not be allowed based on some set of identified inferiorities of women. If such a conclusion were to be reached I should expect the church to shrink very quickly, and justly so. But, the station of women is still very much asserted in the “egalitarian vs complementarian” debate, so I believe an explicit discussion on the “place” of women in church is required.
So, I believe that the majority of this argument will rest on the role we assign to Scripture. Even an attempt to identify specific historical contexts that change a plain reading of Paul or Deborah is a contradiction of “complete inerrancy” (where the text itself is the unqualified, eternal truth of God). Given how the church’s stance on scripture does not specify a particular doctrine of inerrancy, it seems that how we read the Bible has been left up to each of us. I value a plurality of perspectives, but when we don’t discuss the role of scripture in an explicit way, we leave these perspectives to be formed as implicit based on the context from which each reader is coming. These implicit perspectives, when they remain implicit, do not generate light when contacting each other, but heat. If we want to know perspectives regarding female leadership in the church, then we need explicit perspectives regarding the role of Scripture. Without this, our discussion (and whatever conclusion follows) will not be one of mutual understanding and knowing, but of frustration due to the individual’s inability to know, or make known, what is implicit.
The Role of Scripture
In order to establish a “biblical” precedent on disallowing female leadership in church, you not only have to adopt an argument that claims Paul’s postulation, that women should be silent and submissive (not leading), outweighs other Scriptures that might postulate otherwise, but you then also have to adopt a view of Scripture that understands everything discussed therein to be, without extra qualification or interpretation, authoritative in a “legal” sense. In other words, if the Bible says something, it has to still be relevant today and we must still follow it as a rule. If we are not dealing with a “legal” prescription, then why would we consider it something we must follow?
Parting from that view for a moment, if we were to take a more nuanced approach to the Scripture and say that only some texts provide a legal mandate, but others are just descriptive of different social and cultural norms, by what criteria can we fit Pauline passages on women into the “legal mandate” category, but exclude Pauline passages on slavery (among others)?
In either case, what must follow from such views is that following Jesus requires following a legal structure laid out in the New Testament canon. Most Christians would probably shy away from concluding this because “legalism” has been stigmatized so much in our culture. But, labeling ourselves one way or another is hardly relevant to the fact that we have said that women should not lead because of “biblical mandate”. We have also responded harshly to things that make our modern-day sin list: infidelity, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, pornography, heresy, etc. At this point, one would have to go out of their way to make yet another argument to show that these sins offend our modern sensibilities for an entirely different reason than do non-traditional gender roles. Our modern conceptions of these things are still greatly informed by the cultural and legal boundaries that have always governed humanity.
Should Christianity look like a legal system? Should it look like traditional patriarchal power structures? Obviously not, but why should we then continue to behave like them? To support female leadership in church is not a departure from holding the primacy of the Scriptures. When we talk about Scriptural primacy, sufficiency, and authority, we should not assume that these concepts have a self-evident meaning. When we say “authority”, it does not require us to also imply “legal authority”. When we say “sufficiency” we do not need to imply “universally sufficient” (meaning that the Scriptures are the only thing we need to understand when making decisions).
If we are to look at the Bible, will we view its role as a new law? Or will we view it as a testimony to help us better know God? When reading Paul, do we believe that the appropriate conclusion we can make about God is that He made women to be less capable to lead? Or that God thinks that female leaders are of lesser value than male leaders? Or, if we were to look at the context of Paul’s letters, do we learn a different principle about pride and oppression (in this case, female leaders forcefully taking position over the church)? It seems to me that the pattern of God’s heart for the oppressed and His anger towards the prideful is a much more Christ-centered narrative than one of women’s place in submission.
If we are to allow historical context in our qualification of understanding Paul, then we must also qualify our own cultural context relative to those found in the Scriptures.
The “station” of Women
Since the beginning of recorded history, women have been viewed as the property of men. The Bible did not mandate this. Men asserted this through force. When the Old Testament law deals with gender roles, it puts prices on their lives and their freedom. It allows (and therefore condones) the forceful taking of women for one’s self. When Paul deals with gender roles, his place of beginning is where women do not speak in public, they are not taught to read and write, and they are traded for money. He thought it was a significant departure from tradition just to let them study with the men!
This is our cultural history. Men taking the lead was not a God-given right, it was a position earned through conquest and subjection. We should not believe men are in the position they are because it’s the way God meant it. That is the way man meant it. Victory through violence is the default condition to which humanity reverts. It is a condition that begets oppression, deception, and death. There is nothing harmonious about patriarchy. There is nothing divine about it.
So, when we read the Scriptures, having been written in the midst of this system of violence by only male voices, it is not to be read as an endorsement of patriarchy in any form. The fact that patriarchy existed and that most all the Biblical authors lived with that mindset is not reason for us to also adopt such a mindset.
In our day to day lives, we do not treat women, or at least we do not believe women should be treated, like they are secondary to men. We vote for female politicians, listen to female journalists, and revere our mothers, wives, and daughters. But, in our church, we still assert a patriarchal view on the “station” of women. They are limited in what they can do in church. We call this limitation “complementarianism” because we take Paul’s understanding of Genesis, that men and women have complementary roles, and turn it into a rigid, legal doctrine for Christians.
When discussing Scriptural arguments for and against complementarianism, I think a major detail often gets omitted: the Bible does not specify the particular ways in which men and women must complement each other. It does talk about the way we serve our spouses using different language for each gender, but it does not prescribe a set of behaviors that women should and should not be allowed to exhibit.
We can, and should, hope that men and women will complement each other in their relationships in a way that relationships between those of the same sex cannot achieve. But, for this to mean that all women cannot lead is a long distance from that. We do not need to adopt a point of view that robs the different sexes of their unique differences in order to say that individuals should not be judged based on their sex. True complementarianism was meant to be lived out and enjoyed in those specific unique differences, not applied as a legal mandate upon all behaviors based on gender.
Jesus and Women
How do we think Jesus would have treated female leaders? A God-man who gave women a voice, revealed Himself uniquely to women, and who protected them from the law’s brutal patriarchal structures presents a very clear pattern. His constant attention to the oppressed should indicate to us that we should give the oppressed our attention as well. Women are victims of patriarchy. I believe that listening to their witness to God and His Word is more important than preserving a legal, patriarchal power structure.
It is my strong conviction that being like Jesus means treating women like I would want to be treated. Sometimes, being like Jesus gets in the way of our specific interpretations of Scripture. It then becomes time to live like Jesus and let go of our interpretations.
Thank you for taking time to read this. I hope it gives understanding and mitigates division.