I thought about leaving this topic alone. All day yesterday, as I saw the subject popping up on one site after another, I deliberately kept away from this blog; didn’t allow myself to start drafting a response in my head. I know I have a reputation among some of my acquaintances. They see me as obsessed with the subject of gender roles in the church. I have a hobby horse, and I can’t stop riding it. Okay, fair enough. But as long as inequity persists, isn’t it important to speak against it? If we keep quiet to keep the peace, will our silence be mistaken for agreement? And so I’m joining the fray after all.
This morning I sat with Bee while she read two “Fox and Bear” stories. Reading is very difficult for Bee. I’m not sure what the problem is; goodness knows, she’s a bright girl. But when it comes to reading, something doesn’t quite compute. We can have deep discussions about theology, but she still labors over three-letter words. Some day it will click, I know. Someday I’ll have the pleasure of hearing Bee read smoothly, as her older sisters do now. And when that day comes, God forbid she should be in a church that tells her she is unsuitable for the task of publicly reading the Word of God, because of her gender.
It started with Tim Challies, a high profile Reformed blogger, writing a post on training those who read scripture in church services. Many of the instructions he shared were quite helpful, and I don’t believe he intended to start a fire with his post. But here’s the bit that got the most attention:
Because of the importance of the Word of God, at Grace Fellowship Church we ask certain members of the church to be involved in a Scripture Reading Ministry—a ministry of those who are specially trained and equipped to read the Word of God and to read it well. We consider this a teaching ministry, which means that it is a ministry reserved for men.
At Jesus Creed, the Internet Monk, Cripplegate, and elsewhere, the debate started quickly and raged on. For some, such as Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed, the issue was not with limiting the teaching authority of women (a practice McKnight rejects, by the way) but with the strained definition of reading as teaching. As McKnight said,
Anyone who says reading Scripture is a teaching ministry is just making stuff up. Reading is reading and teaching is teaching, and preaching is preaching, and prophesying is prophesying, but reading is not teaching, preaching or prophesying.
Efforts to stick to that subject – is reading the same thing as teaching? – were derailed by the same old argument over the role of women in the church. It’s all of a piece, really, and I’ve heard the points on both sides more times than I can count. What floored me was the lengths that some churches go to in an effort to keep women from having even perceived teaching authority over men. And so blog posts and com boxed filled with stories of churches in which women are never allowed to stand up front; in which women are allowed to sing in ensembles, but not solos; or to play instruments, but not sing; in which women are not permitted to pray aloud; even of a church in which a visiting missionary (female) was only allowed to speak over a microphone from another room. Many of these accounts came from defenders of these practices, mind you. “The point,” as one commenter at Internet Monk said, “is that it is inappropriate for woman, whose role is by nature subordinate, to represent God’s sovereign majesty.”
It’s as if there’s a competition among some complimentarian churches these days, to be more-hierarchical-than-thou. They are going to prove how very, very much they love Jesus by placing a yoke of bondage on half the church. And so the logic that keeps women from preaching a sermon is pushed farther and farther until women are silenced in almost every way.
A few tenacious souls in the com boxes kept asking in various ways, “What about Priscilla? What about Junia and Phoebe? What about the leadership of Lydia? What about the Word that came through Miriam, Mary, Elizabeth and Anna? Are you telling me that in your churches, Mary wouldn’t be able to even read her own song?” Those questions were mostly ignored, but I did see one complimentarian reply with, “I don’t know what to do with the exceptions, but the principle is very clear.” This seems like grounds for compromise. You acknowledge the exceptions? Then how about giving more women the freedom to be exceptional? How about setting aside the question of gender when deciding who can read scripture or preach a sermon or serve a meal or teach kindergarteners, and letting people serve where the Spirit of God leads them?
This is not a gender war: there are men and women on both sides of the debate. It’s also not a “first order doctrine” in my mind. I have no problem believing that Tim Challies is a devoted follower of Christ, and my brother in the faith. Unlike some, I don’t see deliberate evil behind restricting the role of women in the church. And so that takes me back to the beginning of this post. Why talk about it? I’m in a church that allows women to serve in leadership. Others choose to be in churches that do not. Why stir the pot? Why not simply live and let live?
Because it matters. Because while Christians may sincerely disagree, this is not a morally neutral subject. Because there are girls and women who are gifted and called, and they need to be affirmed in what God is doing in their lives. Because the legalism at work in some churches is an affront to the gospel and poisons our manifold witness. Because the harvest is ripe and the workers are few, and we should not turn away any worker that God sends. Because it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
So I echo Rachel Held Evans in her response to this controversy. We cannot wait for others to make the change. Women and men who see the freedom Christ offers in scripture must act and speak accordingly. I pray that I’ll always be able to do it with love, but I also pray that I’ll never stop doing it.
Addendum: A commenter at the Internet Monk posted the following list in the comment thread on this subject. It is, of course, completely absurd. But if you’ve read the arguments against women in church leadership, the absurdity will seem awfully familiar. The original source of this list is unknown to me.
Top 10 Reasons Why Men Shouldn’t Be Senior Pastors
10. A man’s place is in the army.
9. For men who have children, their duties might distract them from the responsibilities of being a parent.
8. Their physical build indicates that men are more suited to tasks such as chopping down trees and wrestling mountain lions. It would be “unnatural” for them to do other forms of work.
7. Man was created before woman. It is therefore obvious that man was a prototype. Thus, they represent an experiment, rather than the crowning achievement of creation.
6. Men are too emotional to be priests or pastors. This is easily demonstrated by their conduct at football games and watching basketball tournaments.
5. Some men are handsome; they will distract women worshipers.
4. To be ordained pastor is to nurture the congregation. But this is not a traditional male role. Rather, throughout history, women have been considered to be not only more skilled than men at nurturing, but also more frequently attracted to it. This makes them the obvious choice for ordination.
3. Men are overly prone to violence. No really manly man wants to settle disputes by any means other than by fighting about it. Thus, they would be poor role models, as well as being dangerously unstable in positions of leadership.
2. Men can still be involved in church activities, even without being ordained. They can sweep paths, repair the church roof, change the oil in the church vans, and maybe even lead the singing on Father’s Day. By confining themselves to such traditional male roles, they can still be vitally important in the life of the Church.
1. In the New Testament account, the person who betrayed Jesus was a man. Thus, his lack of faith and ensuing punishment stands as a symbol of the subordinated position that all men should take
I still remember Debbie Devall (Miller) starting a revival at Greenville with a few simple words. Imagine what would have happened had she said everything she wanted? The church needs to grow up. I watched my beloved F.M. in Taylorville flourish under a female pastor, going to 2 services, actually purchasing a flashy arrow sign, and growing. When she left (told to go to seminary) the church crumbled and is today vacant.
God Speed Gherkin…let me know when you preach your first sermon and I will proudly be in the front row (unless you have a tendency to spit a lot).
I only spit a little, but under the annointing of the Spirit, I expect I’ll use the front row people in my sermon illustrations.
This is one of those topics that seriously irritates me. Here’s my solution…..if you are unhappy with the way things are done, LEAVE. Walk out the church doors and find a place that respects you and treats you as an equal. Period.
Any church that does not encourage women to read and teach and preach, is a church I would not want to be a part of.
I agree. I also believe (naturally) that if a women is content in that kind of church, if she’s there by choice, that’s certainly her prerogative.
Amen! and Amen! Lord, help me to “Speak the truth in love.”
That Top Ten list had me laughing… until the sheer inanity (and familiarity) of the arguments had me crying. I agree it’s not first order doctrine… but I also agree that it needs to be spoken about. Thanks for sharing, as always 🙂
I appreciate the seriousness of the post and the passion evident in it. And I agree with you wholeheartedly. But I must confess that the top ten list at the end is hilarious, so I was able to wash away all the dismay and indignation with nice laugh at the end. 🙂
I also was struck by the comment that according to these folks Mary wouldn’t be permitted to read her own song in church. That is just beyond absurd.
One thing I’ve noticed out here in the country is that some of the churches that have traditionally held to these notions are having to modify them by necessity. There just aren’t enough men coming to church in some of the small country churches to fill the need for Sunday school teachers, etc. So they’re redefining “teach” in order to allow the women to have roles while still insisting they’re following the rule.
Thanks for the excellent post.
I agree with you about the list – it made me feel better, too.
My father has pastored several small churches, and in many of them it was the women holding the churches together. In fact, the absence of men in many churches is a problem deserving of its own post!
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