Second-class children: Women in church leadership

"Mary Magdalene," El Greco

I am not a theology blogger, so go easy on me here. This is just something I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time.

I grew up in the company of strong, intelligent Christian women, my mother especially. It is fair to say that most of what I know about God has come from women. Yes, our pastors were always male, and from them I learned the tenets of theology, but I really learned about Jesus–his ministry, grace, and compassion from women, whether from doing morning devotions with my mother, from watching the many women quietly and tirelessly serve our church, or from small groups with other women in high school and college.

When I was old enough, I marveled at the injunctions in the Bible that said women were not permitted to teach or hold any authority over a man. How could that be? All of my best teachers in my faith had been women. This seems appropriate. I was, after all, a girl. But it seemed strange to me, even then. Women can teach other women, but women can never be permitted to teach men in the church. This is odd. No Christian I know is upset by the fact that 76 percent of public school teachers are women. Women can and do preside over men in the workplace (finally). The famously misogynistic Liberty University has Michele Bachmann, candidate for the U.S. presidency, give their convocation speech, and yet they won’t permit women to graduate from their university with degrees in biblical teaching. (Liberty, therefore, seems fine with the idea of Bachmann running the entire country, but she can’t give a sermon at a church. What superb logic.)

So, what gives, 21st-century church? At long last, women can teach and “hold authority over” men in every other segment of society, but as soon as they step inside a church, they become subjugated again, not fit to teach a man anything. We are told that we are all children of God, but as a woman, I often feel like the second-class child of God.

Scripture does plainly say that women should not be permitted to teach over men. I know it does. But it also says that women have to wear veils in church, because they’re a symbol of a woman’s subjugation to her husband. Scripture also says that women aren’t allowed to pray, speak, or even ask questions in church. Mercifully, most churches today do not force women to wear veils or keep silent. These Pauline rules are now interpreted as culturally specific mandates. So, yay, we don’t have to follow them anymore, because we’re living in a supposedly post-patriarchal age!

My question is: Why aren’t we interpreting the passages about women in church leadership as culturally specific mandates? These anti-women-teaching rules for churches were handed down by a man in an undeniably patriarchal society–at the same time as these other rules on veils and speaking. But the vast majority of churches are still keeping women from any teaching or significant leadership roles today.

I’ve really appreciated the perspective of Guion’s aunt on this topic. Dr. Jane Tillman is a well-respected clinical psychologist in Massachusetts, but she is also ordained in the Episcopal church. We’ve exchanged a few e-mails on this topic and I’ve deeply appreciated her perspective, as a woman, believer, and seminary graduate. I did a lot of research on this subject but had such a struggle finding a woman’s input. All of the opinions I read were written by men who were in favor of keeping women out of teaching roles in the church. Until I heard from Aunt Jane. After providing a thorough historical perspective on this issue, she wrote this to me:

The role of an ordained person is 1) to teach; 2) to provide pastoral leadership, 3) to exercise sacramental authority.  I don’t see that women, by virtue of being women, are to be excluded from any of these practices.  Of course there is SOME scripture and certainly the weight of tradition arguing against this, but if the Kingdom of God on earth means that we are growing, dynamic, people then change over time is part of the plan.

Preach it, Aunt Jane! I can’t say it any better than she can, but my last word is this: If Jesus should be our model for how we treat people, I think we’re a far cry from what he practiced. Jesus was radical in his approach to women. He welcomed them into his community and named many of them as his disciples. He reached out to them; he sought their company. Women are recorded as starting and hosting some of the first churches in their homes. Then patriarchy crept in and kept women out. I think it’s time for the modern church to reverse its antiquated and discriminatory policies against women. I can’t help but think Jesus would have pushed the religious institutions of his day to do the same.

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7 thoughts on “Second-class children: Women in church leadership

  1. Hey girl.
    Love that you’re thinking about all of this! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    I have thought about this before. Based on what I gather from that quote of Jane Tillman, she may an incorrect view of the interpretation of the Scriptures you quoted.
    I sat under this teaching at my home church a little while ago, as it was prompted by some problems we were facing, and it was REALLY helpful for me, plus they posted the teaching on the blog just a bit ago! Here’s a highlight from it!
    Original post: Women in the Church

    II. 1st Timothy 2:11-15

    At the end of his ministry when he was writing from a Roman jail, Paul gave Timothy his last bit of instructions for the care and health of the churches. He wrote,
    “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. 13 For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. 14 And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. 15 But [she] will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.” (1 Tim 2:11-15)

    This time Paul was clearly writing a rule for all Christian churches (1 Timothy 3:15). The basis of his argument was not heathen temples, priestesses, deviant rituals, or rabbinic tradition. He reached back to the beginning of the book of Genesis before sin entered the world and said that women (Peter’s “weaker vessel”) owed their quiet and silent status in the church to Adam being created before Eve, thus showing Adam’s headship and rule in the family. Even though she is blessed in childbearing (a blessing men cannot participate in), Paul would never allow a woman to openly teach the congregation on the Lord’s Day or exercise ruling authority that was given only to men because it violated the creation order of Genesis 2. Women are to be quiet, receptive learners like all good students and they are to remain silent under certain circumstances. Therefore, this leads us to believe that Paul’s command to the Corinthians was based on his convictions about the church at large; i.e., all churches everywhere, and not just a one time instance. Thus, regardless of which interpretation one takes above on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, the following combined teaching from both passages is agreed upon by all complimentarian scholars:

    1. Women are to learn quietly and receptively like everyone else in the church meeting.

    2. They are to recognize the headship and authority of the men in the spheres of the church and home and put themselves in subjection to that authority.

    3. If a woman has a question or concern about a particular teaching, edifying remark, or insight that has been offered by an elder or someone else that she heard during the church meeting or even if she (or he) desires to learn more beyond the normal time required to answer a question during a teaching or Q&A time, then she should avoid debating publicly with the teacher and instead ask her husband at home since he has the obligation to teach his wife the word.

    4. While women can publicly lead in prayer or prophesy (i.e., preach) outside the gathered assemblies on the Lord’s Day, it is shameful for a woman to publicly speak up during the church meeting for the purpose of teaching, preaching, judging, questioning, rebuking, and criticizing anyone’s verbal statements because to do so is to usurp the God-ordained authority of her husband and her elders per 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. The elders and the adult males of the congregation have the responsibility and authority to openly weigh, test, sift, and judge everyone’s comments by the word of God (1 Corinthians 14:29). A woman’s silence in this regard will encourage the adult males to speak up and exercise their God-ordained responsibility for engaging the truth of God’s word as well as maintain and promote doctrinal soundness and purity within the congregation, thus encouraging them to do so in their homes as well.

    5. For a woman to teach, criticize a prophecy or teaching from an adult male in the gathered congregation is a reversal of the God ordained order of things according to Paul [1 Timothy 2:12-13].

    6. These ordinances are in accordance with “the Law”, i.e., the Old Testament teaching in Genesis 2:18 and the rest of the Old Testament with its emphasis on male leadership.

    Food for thought!

  2. I have a female friend at seminary that felt the call of the Lord telling her to proclaim the gospel and so she did. The evangelicals wouldn’t talk to her because she was a woman, and the liberals wouldn’t talk to her, because she was an evangelical!

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