“Most Christians do not realize how much our backgrounds and traditions affect the ways we read the Bible. Having held both egalitarian and complimentarian (or hierarchicalist) views on women’s ministry with sincerity at different times in my life, in both cases dependent on my desire to be faithful to God’s Word, I recognize the sincere reasons for which many believers stand on either side of the issue.”
So begins one of the series of essays in Two Views on Women in Ministry, a book that seeks to put into conversation, those who hold divergent views on the question of women serving in leadership positions (especially as Pastors or “overseers”) within the church.
For a book that is overflowing with exegesis, textual analysis and argumentation, this is a helpful place to dive in. For most people coming to this discussion, our views are largely shaped by our own backgrounds, traditions, and experiences when it comes to women in leadership in the church.
For myself, there have always been women serving as pastors in the churches that I have been a part of. They have preached, counseled, loved, and led the people in these churches and have played important roles in my life and development as well. Reading this book caused me to reflect on some of those women in pastoral ministry, and to remember them by name. The list includes:
Rev. Nan Swanson
Rev. Nancy Lammers Gross
Rev. Linda Galligan
Rev. MaryEllen Azada
Rev. Beth Frykberg
Rev. Rachel Hamburger
Rev. Chris Foster
Rev. Jinny Smanik
Rev. Julie Kim
Rev. Erica Rader
I come to this book and topic as a person with a perspective, a deep and abiding belief in the way that God calls women and men into ministry in ways that span the spectrum of leadership and service. My own experience has largely shaped my thinking. No one ever taught me to include women in ministry or to accept women as my pastors, they were simply always there.
I suspect the flip side of this coin will be true for others. For those in traditions that do not fully affirm women in ministry, the truth is, that since women were never in those roles, that became the norm and may still the accepted practice. Change is hard in many areas of church life, especially when something has “always” been done a certain way.
Our book for this week is not designed necessarily to persuade or change minds, so much as to offer the full, biblical exegesis and theological analysis that stands behind each of these two positions. In reading it, I found that my mind was not being changed so much as being even more made up. Some of the most helpful essays to me, were those that gave me more insight and material to support the view that I already hold.
Maybe that’s something I shouldn’t admit, but it’s true. One of the terms that essayist Linda Belleville uses in the book is “adiaphora—matters about which believers agree to disagree because Scripture is not clear.” This is one of those questions that may ultimately fall into the category of adiaphora. As a result, I don’t want to dive into every detail or argument that is put forth in this book. To debate the exegetical detail and minutia may not be helpful in this case.
In reading more around this topic, I came across the story of a number of prominent women in ministry roles, especially within the African American community and the Pentecostal movement. One way to break out of the easy binary thinking on this subject is to broaden the scope of my own thinking, to include the African-American experience and the global church as well.
Alexis D. Abernethy of Fuller Seminary writes, “While African American women represent an estimated 66–88 percent majority (Barnes, 2006) in African American churches, men still tend to hold most of the leadership roles. The greatest disparity in women’s leadership is in the pastoral role, specifically the senior pastor. Despite these challenges, women are being ordained and appointed as pastors and bishops at increasing rates. The appointment of Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie in 2000 as the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church was an important step toward gender inclusivity.”
It is helpful to see that the question of women in leadership is not contained to the predominantly “Anglo-American” church world, but that it is being addressed in the African American community as well. Looking back into history, we see that this is a long-term trend. One of the women pastors from a previous era was Lucy Farrow, who was born as a slave in Virginia and was the niece of Frederick Douglass. She was a pastor of a Holiness church in Houston, Texas, before being invited to come to Los Angeles in 1906. “Her arrival sparked what came to be known as the Azusa Street Revival. Her touch filled people with the Holy Spirit, and her ministry demonstrated healings and the power of prayer. From Azusa Street, her ministry spread throughout the Southern United States and to Liberia and West Africa.”
In the end, questions about women in ministry will not be decided in our lifetimes, or probably until the kingdom comes. Part of the reason is the adiaphoric nature of these questions, where sincere Bible-believing Christians can disagree in how to read and interpret the text.
When I look at the movement of God’s Spirit through history, it has an ever-expanding, all-encompassing, liberating thrust. From those Pastors in my life who have been women, I saw daily and weekly, the way that their gifts would feed and lead me and our churches. This is my context and experience, and I thank God for the gift of swimming in these waters. My prayer is for God’s Spirit to continue to move and guide others who are on a journey with this topic.
Alexis D. Abernethy, “Women’s Leadership in the African American Church,” Fuller Studio, accessed April 4, 2019, https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/womens-leadership-in-the-african-american-church/.
Ruth Perry, “10 Awesome Women Pastors from History,” CBE International, March 8, 2018, https://www.cbeinternational.org/blogs/10-awesome-women-pastors-history.