March 9, 2011
Our Journey toward Women in Leadership (Part 1)
Is it "creeping egalitarianism" or honest and humble wrestling with Scripture?
I was raised and educated in church communities and traditions that held a complementarian view of women in ministry. So when I helped plant Evergreen, our community here in Portland, I did so with complementarian values. My original vision for our community included a male “elder” board that handled the “shepherding” and a co-ed “leadership team” that handled the details of administration and ministry.
But a funny thing happened: I changed. I went back to Scripture, prayerfully re-examined what it said and what that meant against the backdrop of the culture at the time, and I came to different conclusions.
My process started when I heard someone describe the thesis of William Webb’s book, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals. Webb argues that when we compare Scripture against the cultures in which it was written, it is always progressive on the issues of slavery and women—Scripture consistently challenges culture to raise the status of women and slaves. But more than that, there is movement even within Scripture, a progression from what Moses taught about women, for example, to what the New Testament teaches. This progression is pointed toward an ultimate ethic of freedom and equality (see Gal. 3:28). (By the way, Webb doesn’t see this progression on the issue of homosexuality.)
Webb’s thesis planted some real seeds of dissonance in me. I was having a harder and harder time arguing that many of those whom God had gifted to lead (i.e. women) should or could lead only certain kinds of people. Fast forward to 2004 when we planted Evergreen. I was still complementarian, but we were planting a church community designed to make sense to and be a home for the unchurched and the formerly churched. I soon discovered that the role of women in ministry is a huge issue not only for the people we had built our community for, but even for those we had built it with.
When I combined what my community believed with what I was beginning to think and feel, I knew we had to work through this issue again. If we arrived at the complementarian view, fine. At least we did our homework. If we arrived elsewhere...well, we knew there would be implications, but we'd deal with those later.
Our elders had many long discussions. We read Sarah Sumner’s book Men and Women in the Church. We prayed. We talked. After about seven months, we had arrived at a position different than complementarian.
Here are a few of the instrumental realizations that led us to our conclusions:
1. Jesus allowed women to follow Him and sit in the place of disciples (Luke 10:38–42). Women were prominent in the early church as deacons (despite the clear instruction of the apostles in Acts 6 to choose “men”), and well-known as teachers (Priscilla). The fact that Paul, contrary to much of his culture, advocated that women be taught said to me that God was still about raising the status of women.
2. In the New Testament context, women in leadership positions may have been a hindrance for the Gospel, particularly among the Jews. But in our context, not having women in ministry, or at least not being open to the idea, was a huge hindrance to the people we were trying to reach. We asked ourselves, Is this an “A” level issue? We decided it wasn't (to us). We knew that good Christian churches existed on both sides of the spectrum, we knew that our commitment to the Gospel was strong. So we began to worry less about what one famous pastor called “creeping egalitarianism in the emerging church.” If our mission was to reach these people, we wanted the offense to be in the Gospel, not our polity, ecclesiastical structure, bad coffee…whatever.
3. We realized that God had placed women in positions of leadership and/or spiritual influence all through Scripture. Whether Deborah the Judge, Huldah or Anna the Prophets, or Priscilla the teacher, it was impossible for us to say, “It is a universal principle that God does not desire women to be in leadership or teach men.” That was clearly not the case. If these are exceptions to a universal rule, then at least we know there are exceptions, don’t we? We decided that if God should put a Deborah or an Anna or a Priscilla in our midst, we had better be prepared to recognize that.
And just like that, we became open to women in leadership. I guess we thought that if God was laying down an absolute law in the New Testament and backing it up by the order of creation, He would have been a little more consistent in His application of the principle throughout the narrative of Scripture.
Of course we had to deal with 1 Timothy 2:11–12, which seems to bar women from leadership in the church. I’ll tell you how we understand that passage in another post.
So where are we now? “Open” would be the best word to describe our position. We are open to whomever God raises up and gifts as an elder in our midst. We aren’t concerned with balancing the number of men and women. We just know God has put some amazing women leaders in our midst and we are very grateful for them.