It’s been a while since I’ve released a post about women in ministry. I’ve still been studying the topic with great interest, but I have wanted not to be hasty in posting my ideas. Most of all, I want to be sure I have biblical clarity on the subject. I also want to be sure I have the clarity of language to say what I mean as precisely as possible. I don’t know that I’m saying anything particularly new, but I want to own the message myself, and not just parrot what I read in some book. It’s important to me to be able to sit down with just me and the Bible and be able to honestly see in the text what it is saying.
I am planning on putting up some posts soon explaining where I am coming from exegetically. But before I do, I feel like it’s important to clarify why I’m even writing these posts. Why make such a big deal out of it?
I have talked with several people who seemed baffled by my choice of study. As they’ve told me, it’s an interesting theological discussion, but it’s hardly a primary issue. And to a point, I have to agree that they are right. The main and plain basics of Christianity are along the lines of who God is (including questions about the Trinity), who Jesus is, how salvation works, and what Scripture is. These are the kinds of theological questions that determine whether you spend the rest of your existence in joy and glory or in fire and torment. These are the really big issues that we need to be willing to stake our lives on. These are the questions that tell us if a person is a genuine brother or sister in the Lord or not.
Note that “women preachers” don’t make that list. That’s not downplaying the issue; that’s reality. Baptism (dunking vs. sprinkling), the mode of taking communion, the timing of the rapture, predestination, church government structure, and many other significant issues also don’t make that list. This is, in part, why we can maintain overall unity with believers with whom we differ. As long as we can agree on the big points, we’re solidly on the same team.
So why drudge up this particular issue so much?
When I had just begun studying it, I was asking the same question. After all, I already believed that the Bible allowed for women to teach, preach, and lead. I work for a ministry that believes the same thing. My father, brother, guy friends, and male leaders are all supportive of women in whatever area of ministry to which they are called. All I knew was that my heart was moving as I was studying the Word, and I knew better than to pass that up. Yet it still seemed so strange to me.
One night, months ago, as I was in the Prayer Room, I began talking to the Lord about this. I was grateful for the direction and energy in my study, but I was also perplexed. Why bring up this issue? Why study it? I was worried that maybe I was just picking a fight. Why invest so much time and energy in a secondary subject that had so little bearing on my present life?
The first thing the Lord corrected me about was that — of course — this wasn’t all about me and my life experience. I’m not particularly proud that I had to be reminded of that one.
In fact, as I was pacing in the aisle and praying, He began highlighting to me different women in the Fire in the Night internship who weren’t joining staff with us once their program was over. I felt Him say to my heart, “But it is a big deal to her… and to her… and to her… and to her…”
I was dumbstruck. I began to weep. The gravity of this discussion really hit home with me. It’s true that this is a secondary issue, as compared to the key doctrines of the faith. But just because it’s secondary doesn’t mean it is minor. And the reason it is not minor is because it involves real people’s lives. Lots of them. Accoring to recent studies,* more than 60% of American church attendees are women. In other words, this doctrine profoundly affects the treatment of more than half the Christian population in this country. That’s a lot of people.
This is kind of a big deal. Make that a really big deal.
We have to remember that this is not just concept. It’s not just an intriguing little debate. It has real impact on real women’s lives.
It’s one thing to hold a good-natured debate as to whether or not women may preach to a mixed audience. It’s another to be that woman with a preaching call on her life, feeling torn between what she feels like the Lord is telling her to do and what prominent teachers are saying is her rightful place. It’s one thing to argue about it and then walk away, with a “live and let live” mentality — after all, it’s a secondary issue. It’s another thing to be a woman who is informed repeatedly that she is out of godly order and in rebellion to the expressed word of God. It’s one thing to decide you would rather not sit under the teaching of a woman, just to be safe. It’s another thing to be a woman invited to address a crowd, and having male pastors turn their chairs around to make a statement about how they refuse to receive instruction from you. (This has actually happened.*) It’s one thing to decide what women were made for, how their hearts work, and what they really want. It’s another thing to be a woman who does not fit that model, and consequently feel like a failure to your gender.
Does this determine which side of the argument is right? Certainly not. The ultimate authority on the subject is still the Word. The debate cannot be about “I want/I feel/he said/she said.” It has to remain grounded in the heart of God and what He has commanded us.
However, this should determine how we talk about it and think about it. This is not just theory. These are real issues that dramatically affect the lives and callings of millions of women (as well as the men in their spheres of influence). It means we take the subject seriously. It means we speak with compassion and kindness to everyone involved. It means we don’t discuss it glibly, as if this is just one of those fun debates on par with trying to figure out whether the two witnesses are really Moses and Elijah. Real women — and men, for that matter — are in real turmoil over this stuff every day. It is not fair to tell women on one hand, “This is who you were created to be”, and then also say, “This is not a big deal.” What that clearly communicates — even if unintended — is, “Your gifts, callings, desires, longings, and very personhood, are not that important. We can’t be bothered to come to biblical clarity on the subject.”
I have also been struck with how this affects women coming into the Church for the first time, as well as women who feel like they have been driven out of it. While we certainly can’t judge truth based on how people react to it, at the same time, if we realize that so many hearts are on the line, we must take great care in what we assert and how we do so.
What do we say to the woman who enters our congregation, having grown up under emotional/physical/sexual abuse, having been told that she is worth less than men and her only purpose in life is to be an object of pleasure to men — and that she has no right to argue or resist? Is she really going to understand the nuances of ontological equality versus permanent positional inequality? What do we say to the strong, single, outspoken woman with leadership gifting on her life, who feels a call to something other than the nursery or the ladies’ teas? Is she going to be able to interpret the insistence on her proper role in life, going against the grain of all her God-given gifts and skills, as anything else than a sign that she is a hopeless failure of a godly woman?
When I think of the thousands of women who have fled the Church to feminism, plunging headlong into the immorality and shedding of innocent blood that comes with it, it makes my heart sink. What if our lack of clarity and lack of truth spoken in love has contributed to this? What if, had we reexamined our position and/or tone, we could have prevented even a handful of these women from getting burned and leaving the faith? What if we have unwittingly caused those women — or even we ourselves — to make the command of God of no effect by our tradition (Mark 7:9)?
I’m not attempting to pin the fall of these women on any individual, organization, or doctrinal stance. Each person will answer individually before the Throne for his/her decision to continue in Christ. We don’t get to blame others for our sin. But I bring this up to stress it again: this is a big deal.
Whatever side of the issue you land on, it is crucial that we acknowledge and take seriously three major areas:
- We hold to our particular view because we believe it is biblical truth. Pretty much everyone understands this point from the get-go.
- This is a serious and significant issue, even if it is not a “main and plain” doctrine.
- This is a serious and significant issue because it affects millions of real people. Hearts are on the line. Destinies are on the line. In some cases, lives are on the line. Quick, easy and dismissive answers aren’t going to help anybody, and may in fact spiritually injure people along the way.
In other words: we all need to regard it with kindness, with biblical understanding, and while earnestly seeking the heart of God for the human beings He loves so much. Whether or not you ever launch into an in-depth study on the issue, we all need to adjust how we see it. Before we can enter into meaningful, edifying discussion about it — and more importantly, before we can even care enough to search out the Lord’s heart about it — we need to open our eyes to what’s really going on and what’s really at stake. That may not change your theological position, but hopefully it will tweak how we all think about it and talk about it.
Exegetical posts to follow. Today, I mainly wanted to set out, in part, the why behind the what.
*Note: I do not endorse the general content of the articles/websites from which these citations originate.