What can women be and do in the church today? Or more to the point, can a woman be and do everything a man can? Can they preach and teach both women and men? Can they be pastors, elders, or overseers? Can a woman be the lead elder or senior pastor? Are there any restrictions placed on women about what they can do? They are big and important questions.
Depending on the denomination or stream you come from, it will no doubt influence your response to it. In some areas of the church, it has never been a problem; in others, it is a big issue. For still others, there has been some “to-ing” and “fro-ing” on the subject over the years as the leadership of the church or denomination has changed (i.e. the Southern Baptists in the United States). The Wesleyans, though, were ordaining women as far back as 1853. The Salvation Army saw Catherine Booth preaching from the beginning in 1865, as equality was always a founding belief. The Nazarenes, likewise, since their founding in 1908; the Free Methodists since 1911; and the Assemblies of God since 1914. What’s more, we’ll find out that the role of women goes back much further than we think, way before there was any talk of feminism or inclusivity. Church history also reveals the amazing contribution of women to the life, ministry and the mission of the church.
So, there’s nothing new here. It cannot be put down to a cultural shift, political correctness, being ‘woke’ or the result of feminism. Much of what has been written in recent years on the complementarian role of men and women, both in church and the family, has more to do with the church wanting to shore up marriages and families against the seeming onslaught of a world intent on destroying them. The danger then is that we go in the other direction and develop a siege mentality, and the doctrine we develop has more to do with that, than with what scripture says, as texts are overworked and made to fulfil an agenda…
Sadly, over time, it has become a controversial and contentious issue, with strong views being expressed on both sides. The rhetoric at times has been shocking. As such, it has the potential to cause division as lines are drawn and judgements are made. Unfortunately, it has not been helped by the suggestion that those who believe that women can fulfil some or even all roles, do not believe in the authority of scripture, and are “clearly in conflict with God’s word.” Neither does it help to suggest that they are more likely to compromise the gospel, or downplay it in some way to make it possible, or that they are Arminians (yes, I’ve read that kind of thing, as if being Reformed and holding to “biblical womanhood” means that you hold the theological high ground, and are the ones who are truly orthodox, and able to make the final judgement call). Worse is the accusation that any Christian who holds such a view is considered to be an outright liberal with a feminist agenda, and if we cave in on this, then the next thing will be sexuality.1
It doesn’t end there. Worse still, is the accusation that “Pagan ideas underlie evangelical egalitarianism,” and that it will lead to a “denial of the gospel” and the “disintegration of marriage in our culture.”2 In the recent discussion in May 2021 over a well-known church in the United States ordaining women pastors, someone on Twitter described it as, “open rebellion against Christ our King, and high treason against his sovereignty.”3 Enough said.
Such statements and accusations are not helpful. If you take the time and make the effort to look and listen, you’ll find people on both sides of the debate who have a high view of scripture and regard the Word in the same way that you do. In his book, Man and Woman, One in Christ, Philip Payne says,
“My belief in both inerrancy and the equality of man and woman may seem absurd to many on each side… How can a thinking textual critic with an enlightened egalitarian view still cling to the notion of biblical inerrancy? Conversely, how can someone who believes everything taught by God’s inspired Word come to the position that the bible permits women to teach and exercise authority over men in the church?”4
The first premise in this discussion is that we truly honour and respect one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. That we do not throw stones at each other, or “diss” one another as the younger generation would say, or worse still, “cancel” them out and shout them down as nobodies. This is of primary importance, otherwise, we end up digging our trenches and throwing hand grenades at one another, and that is not helpful or edifying, and neither is it a good witness.
Excerpted from my book: Exploring the Role of Women in the Church
1 See Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, A New Path to Liberalism? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).
2 Duncan and Stinson, quoted in “A New Case for Female Elders: An Analytical Reformed-Evangelical Approach” (University of South Africa, 2013). 85.
3 B. H. Carroll quote on Twitter @AdamGreenway in response to Saddleback ordaining female pastors, 9.05.2021.
4 Philip Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015). Epub: Paragraph: My Odessey.