The Theological Journey of a Female Pastor
We are in the middle of the “Elephant in the Church” series, and it’s been one of my favorite sermon series that we’ve ever done. From lifestyle elephants like alcohol and legalism to doctrinal elephants like Biblical inerrancy and hell, we’re covering quite a spectrum. But there are lots of other elephants out there.
One elephant in the church that we haven’t touched during this series is the topic of women in leadership/ministry/the pulpit. It’s particularly relevant at NCC because we’ve got a lot of people from church backgrounds that didn’t allow women in these positions. But NCC has a woman in that position. Me.
I’ve been asked many times before, even recently on this blog, to address the topic. I always shy away from it. Okay, I run away from it. Not because I don’t know what I think or because I’m ignorant of what the Bible says. It’s mainly because I don’t feel like that’s my particular battle to fight. I don’t believe that God has given me a mission of proving that women should be in leadership. I don’t even believe that God has given me a mission of helping other women find their way into such positions. Rather, I just want to keep my head down and focused on the work that God has given me to do—to make disciples.
And yeah—I’ll admit it. I’m a little scared because I know I don’t fit perfectly into any one theological camp. Those who approve of women in ministry may scold my remaining doubts and my rather traditional views of marriage. Those who disapprove of women in ministry may question my theology. But I guess it’s time for me to tackle this elephant.
National Community Church is affiliated denominationally and theologically with the Assemblies of God and methodologically with the Willow Creek Association. Both of which unapologetically endorse women in ministry. You can read the A/G position here and you can order a great message from John Ortberg (formerly of Willow Creek) here.
When asked about this issue, Pastor Mark once wrote, “My short answer is that we do have women in pastoral and leadership positions. This is one of those issues that has been somewhat divisive within the church for a long time and while I understand both sides of the issue, we've landed on the side of women having equal access to any leadership position within the NCC community. I won't go into the theological basis, but we believe that is the precedent set within the New Testament despite contextual verses that could be used to argue the opposite. It's a tough one, but that's where we stand.”
Unfortunately for me, my gender and perceived calling forced me to wrestle with the theology…
Here’s where I ramble on about stuff that few people beyond my mother will really care about. But it’s probably helpful to know where I’m coming from. Plus, it gives me more time to procrastinate tackling that elephant at hand.
My preaching gift emerged at a young age. When most kids were playing school and house, my sister and I played church. We’d come home from a typical Sunday at our neighborhood Southern Baptist mega-church, and we’d line up our stuffed animals for another round of Gospel preaching. My sister Laura was the pianist, organist, and song leader. I preached.
Through Vacation Bible School, Bible drill competitions, youth group, high school missions trips, and college ministry, I became more and more excited about the Bible and about the “destiny” – as my college pastor would refer to it—that God had for my life. To me, that meant being the best engineer I could be. Maybe going on some engineering missions trips or even working as an engineer in a third world country. Sometimes, I would catch myself outlining sermons during my quiet time.
I served in various ministry capacities- kindergarten Sunday School teacher, camp counselor, drama director, small group leader, campus ministry president, etc—throughout high school and college. Each position gave me the opportunity to hone different ministry skills and experiment with new spiritual gifts (and opportunities to fail miserably). I did some leading, teaching, and minor forms of “preaching” (I’d call it more like “sharing”) in many of these roles, but none of them seemed outside any Scriptural bounds.
The real trouble came when I returned to Washington, DC in 2001, and Pastor Mark Batterson asked me to come on board as the “small group coordinator.” That didn’t seem so bad. I would just be helping the small group leaders. Serving them. Giving advice here and there. Then, the day came when I was sitting in my cubicle in the Senate, busily working to keep freedom alive, and an email popped into my box, “Wanna preach next month?” Whew. Okay, it was just one sermon and it would be about our new small group model. Again—this is an exception to the rule. “I’m just sharing. It’s more informational than exegetical,” I convinced myself. Fast forward to the day when Pastor Mark asked me to join the staff of National Community Church full-time. Hmm…something to think about. As Pastor of Discipleship. Whoa…not prepared for that title.
That sent me on an intellectual and spiritual quest that lasted for about 2 years. I tried to glean as much as I could from lots of people I respected. From C. J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries to John Ortberg and Willow Creek Community Church. I read everything I could get my hands on—Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood – the book and all the online stuff (John Piper and Wayne Grudem), Discovering Biblical Equality (Ronald Pierce and Rebecca Groothuis), Men and Women in the Church (Sarah Sumner), Women in the Church (Stanley Grenz), and others. There were people who loved God and were much smarter than me on both sides of the issue. I emailed men and women that I respect and have been very influential in my spiritual growth. I talked it over with my soon-to-be husband Ryan…a lot. I did (and do) believe that there was a God-created and God-ordained “order” in marriage and even to some extent in relationships between men and women in general. But on the question of women in ministry, the debate seemed to be coming back to a draw.
The Troubling Verse
For me, the entire debate centered around 2 Timothy 2:12, “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” (NASB).
That seems pretty clear when we take it at face value. There are two ways to interpret this. One interpretation takes the verse at face value and lands on the side that women should not be in certain leadership positions. The second interpretation plays the cultural card, claiming that Paul was making a special rule for this particular church at a particular time in history. They land on the side of affirming women in all leadership positions. (For the sake of this discussion, I will use “ministry,” “leadership,” “eldership,” and “preaching” interchangeably. I know some people make distinctions and believe that some of these positions are permissible and others aren’t, but I’m not getting in that deep).
Whenever people begin to play the culture card, I get a bit suspicious. You’ve got to be very careful when you go that route because we run the risk of “culturing” our way out of anything we don’t like in Scripture. However, understanding the text within the context of its intended audience, history, and culture is one of the most basic principles of good exegesis. It's bad Biblical study to not consider the culture.
Another principle of Biblical study is to examine verses within the context of the larger text. Let's begin there:
9Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, 10but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.Local Applications and Universal Truths
11 A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.
13For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.
15But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.
Alright, let’s look at this passage in terms of local applications and universal truths. Universal truths are Scriptures that can be taken at face value. They apply in all places and all times. Examples are Micah 6:8 (“He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you. But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?”) and Luke 10:27 (He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'") We don’t need to question those verses. They are plain and are consistently confirmed by other Scriptures.
Local applications are verses that apply to a specific place at a specific time for a specific reason. While there are universal and timeless principles that we can learn from such verses, they should not be taken at face value. An example of a local application is 1 Corinthians 7:1, “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” (NASB). Paul is speaking here of marriage. The NIV translates it, “It is good for a man not to marry.” We cannot take this at face value because we know that God ordained, encouraged, and blessed marriage. We have to dig a little deeper to find out what Paul was communicating to the Corinthians in this particular verse.
Applying Local and Universal to 1 Timothy
Alright, back to 1 Timothy 9-14. Most scholars and average Bible readers would assign local application to verses 9-10. The principle in the verse is that women should be modest and carry themselves in a manner that is pleasing to the Lord. We would never consider braided hair to be a sign of immodesty. That was a cultural thing.
We would apply the same sort of nuance to verses 13-14. When Paul says that women will be saved through childbearing, no one takes that literally in any possible sense of the word. Volumes have been written to try to unravel what Paul meant there.
So, we apply local applications to verses 9-10 and verses 13-14. But many people want to apply universal truth to verses 11-12. I’m not sure that’s good Biblical interpretation. I think the more correct assumption would be that we need to apply some sort of cultural context to verses 11-12, as well.
Why would Paul say that? And what is the underlying principle that is universal? Some scholars believe the verse could also be translated, “I am not currently permitting a woman to teach.” Jesus brought tremendous equality to women. The idea of women being able to sit with men and learn alongside them was unheard of in Judaism at this time, but Jesus turned that upside down. So it’s quite possible that the primary emphasis here is an encouragement for women to take advantage of the opportunity to learn. The focus may be that Paul wanted this particular group of women to learn for the time being and to focus on the proper way to learn. He wanted them to learn before they taught. He wanted them to have first-hand knowledge so they wouldn’t pass along bad information like Eve did in the garden.
Also, I think the phrase “exercise authority,” which may be better translated as “usurp authority,” is significant. Paul may have been most concerned here about women who want to grab authority away from men or women who want to elevate their status, authority, and importance over men. The city of Ephesus revolved around the Temple of Artemis, a religion that exalted females and considered them superior to men. In this particular environment, Paul may have wanted to re-establish respect for and authority of men.
Finally, he may have been giving Timothy some warnings based on problems he had encountered with women teaching in the church of Ephesus.
The bottom line—we can’t really know for sure, but we’ve got a logical interpretation that preserves the universal Biblical principles within the cultural context. Either way, it’s difficult to take those verses at face value when the preceding and following verses are assigned cultural applications or nuanced readings.
The Women of Scripture
I read a lot of convincing stuff on 1 Timothy 2:12—on both sides of the debate. And I felt stuck. I needed to get out of the weeds and get a new perspective.
Another principle of Scriptural interpretation is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. To take the whole counsel of God’s Word to bear on the issue at hand.
When I began to look at the story of God from a bird’s eye view, I began to see women being used in all kinds of teaching and leadership roles in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Deborah was a judge. That means she was the spiritual and political leader of Israel. The prophetess Huldah taught both King Josiah and the priest and brought revival in 2 Kings 22. Moses’ sister Miriam was a prophetess. In the New Testament, we see Priscilla and Aquilla discipling the apostle Paul. When their names are mentioned, Priscilla is often mentioned first which is significant for that particular culture and indicates she may have been the more prominent teacher. Phoebe was a deacon in the early church (Romans 16:1-2). Someone named Junias was listed as an apostle (Romans 16:7). While we aren’t completely sure whether Junias was a man or a woman, it is a female name.
While I cannot honestly say I’m 100% sure about my interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12, here’s what I know for sure—God used lots of women in many different leadership roles within worshipping communities in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. In deference to those who disagree with me, we still cannot draw any definite conclusion from that observation. A lot of people try to nuance the actions and positions of each of these women to make them “fit” into their presupposed theologies. Others will more nobly and honestly admit that they these women did assume leadership roles but warn that we cannot assume that was God’s perfect plan anymore than we could assume that the ubiquity of polygamy among the patriarchs indicated God’s approval.
My Restless Conclusion…for Today
Most credible scholars in this debate confess a level of uncertainty. The Scriptures simply aren’t 100% clear. Some argue, in a genuine attempt to remain true to Scripture, “We will not allow women into leadership until you can remove all uncertainty from all Biblical passages.” They run the risk of excluding many gifted women from certain positions of leadership. Others argue, also in a genuine attempt to remain true to Scripture, “Yes, there are passages that are difficult, but we need to acknowledge the leadership roles of women in Scripture and allow women to pursue every possible opportunity God would give them.” They run the risk of allowing women into positions that God has not designed them for.
Both sides are taking risks based on Scriptural uncertainties. Today, I’m taking the risk of being in a position of leadership and teaching. Am I always 100% certain of that calling? It’s tricky.
I’m absolutely convinced I’m called to preach.
I’m absolutely convinced I’m called to make disciples.
Does it mean doing it in a mixed-gender context? On some days, I’m not absolutely sure. But for now, the Old Testament judge Deborah is my role model, and I’m going to do my best to serve my pastor, my church, and leaders in every opportunity I receive.