A Church's Journey of Studying the Biblical Texts on Gender

A Conservative Evangelical Church Encounters Change

I attend a Spirit-filled, conservative Baptist church in the Midwest where, until 2010, women could not teach mixed gender adult Sunday School classes or serve as elders or pastors. However in recent years, more and more voices in the congregation raised questions about the accuracy of interpretations of the Bible that excluded women’s leadership. In 2008, two male pastors and the all male elder board responded to calls to honor the New Testament proclamation that the Holy Spirit falls on men and women

(Acts 2), who are both called to exercise their spiritual gifts to edify and build up the body of Christ (Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12–14, Eph. 4:1–16). After a slow start, the elders appointed a small group — consisting of two pastors, an elder, and nine other women and men who represented complementarian/hierarchical and egalitarian perspectives — to examine Scripture and report its findings on the question of women in ministry.

This “Gender Committee” undertook a thirteen-month study of what Scripture teaches about women’s roles and how to interpret the relevant (and sometimes difficult) passages from Genesis to Timothy. We encountered tension as some wanted to review only Genesis 3:16, 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, and 1 Timothy 2:12–15, resisting attempts to examine theological or lexical research and commentary other than that found in the notes of their copies of the NIV. However, after months of weekly meetings and behind the scenes research, we came to a consensus and gave a 28-page single-spaced report to the elder board in November 2009. The congregation, at the January 2010 business meeting, voted unanimously to “receive” the “Elder Board Position Statement” based on our report and is currently wrestling with the ramifications of allowing women to teach Sunday School to men and serve as “pastors” — but not elders or head pastors. I will teach the first class led by a woman this fall.

I hope that by sharing the history of how my church’s decision-making process developed, other evangelical churches might benefit from our experiences.

My Story

In 1987, while teaching political science at a secular liberal arts college, I became a born-again Christian and joined an evangelical church. I questioned the “understood” church policy that women could not teach men. While the elder board soon invited me to address them regarding this policy, they took no steps toward change. That was twenty years ago, and since then, I have remained a church member without the freedom to exercise my spiritual gift of teaching. I volunteered in 2008 to serve on the “Gender Committee” and, in the process, became a diligent student in biblical research and found myself embracing egalitarian precepts.

My primary challenge on the Gender Committee was to persuade, in love and in submission to the Holy Spirit, some of my fellows that we all needed to study: 1) the nature of translation and interpretation from the original Greek, 2) the impact of culture at the time of Paul, and 3) contrasting theological views. I struggled, sometimes impatiently, to persuade traditionalists that understanding the meaning of Greek words, cultural norms, early church practices, and the nature of epistle writing itself would help guide us to better interpretation of God’s ever true Word. Thankfully, most of us understood that one of our key challenges was to discern when various passages or prescriptions were “universal” (referring to principles of God’s Word that are to be observed by all people, throughout all time) or “occasional” (pertaining to the cultural, physical, or organizational needs of the original recipients of Paul’s letters).

Despite intense disagreements at times, we wrote a document that moved our church to God-honoring change regarding men and women working together in ministry. We did not move as far as I thought we should (but too far, according to others). I offer our conclusions below, followed by advice on how to encourage Bible-based change in conservative or complementarian churches.

Our Study Group Approach

For us, the Bible is the inspired Word of God and the only rule for our beliefs and behavior. The Bible teaches that we are created equally in God’s image as male and female, and that God gives the Holy Spirit to everyone who believes. He gifts every Christian to serve him, without respect to gender. These beliefs were our starting point.

We studied how women in the Old and New Testament served God and worked together with men to serve God’s people. Despite our differing views about how women might serve (and lead) the church and how to interpret biblical texts with consistency, we discovered only a few passages over which we disagreed. Our goal was to foster a church environment where all are encouraged to exercise their spiritual gifts.

Study Group Divisions

The group differed over whether women could serve as elders. A majority of us believed this is a gender-specific (male only) office, rather than a spiritual gift. The minority noted that Scripture does not preclude women from leadership. Another division concerned whether women should be allowed to teach men. Although we did not fully agree on the exact meaning of 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 and 1 Timothy, we agreed unanimously that as long as a woman was gifted to teach and ministered under the authority of the elders, she should be allowed to teach — even from the pulpit.

The most contentious issue was over the title of “pastor” or shepherd (poimenas in Greek). Most agreed that poimenas designated a person exercising the gift of shepherding; thus the functional title of shepherd or “pastor” is appropriate regardless of gender. We recognized that “pastor” could refer to a “senior pastor” (an elder at our church and therefore male). It could also refer to a church worker who ministers under authority of the elders or to someone whose spiritual gift is shepherding (e.g., leading small groups). Therefore the use of the word “pastor” (for women or men) depends on how one defines it. (Elders at our church determine staff titles and responsibilities.)

Study Group (and Elder) Conclusions

At the close of our studies, we came to several conclusions: God decides who receives spiritual gifts, and he does not discriminate on the basis of gender. Thus both men and women are to be encouraged to use all their spiritual gifts, including “pastoring/shepherding” and teaching — even from the pulpit — when under the authority of the elders. The group maintained, however, that the local church ought to choose only men to fill the office of elder.

Lessons and Strategies for Traditional Churches

While my church failed to open the position of elder to women — despite the precedents in Deborah (prophet/leader), in the twelve to fifteen women Paul praised as coworkers, and in early church deployment of women deacons — I remember that my goal is not egalitarianism per se. The goal is biblical faithfulness and building and sustaining unity in the body of Christ. As women and men exercise their gifts, obey and spread God’s Word, and serve in ministry together, God will grow us until we see that all gifts, including leadership, should be encouraged in a church mature in the Word. Through the Gender Committee, we certainly grew in our understanding of biblical texts. I also learned, through trial and error and by seeking input from churches engaged in a similar study of women in ministry, some practical ways to be a positive influence on the group and elders.

Lessons

Lesson 1. Look only at Bible-based arguments and examples. Do not trump God’s Word with cultural arguments about how things “ought to be these days.”

Lesson 2. Model submission to the Holy Spirit. Starting and ending meetings with prayer was, shall we say, a Godsend for souls sometimes divided.

Lesson 3. Nourish respect and love for each other as you consider all sides of issues.

Lesson 4. Avoid vocabulary that is provocative or elicits strong emotional responses. While even the phrase, “Scholars say…” was incendiary for those few who studied only “note-lite” Bibles, it is vital in a complementarian church to refrain from using words like “feminist” and “hierarchicalist.” Other assertions such as “It is unfair to have only male elders” or “What will society think if we have only male pastors?” should also be avoided.

Strategies

Strategy 1. Take small, but deliberate, steps to expose folks to the importance of understanding the challenges of translation, interpretation, and incorporating theological commentary from a diverse set of biblical scholars. As we studied and shared on these challenges, including long discourses on Greek words like kephale (head) and authentein (exercising authority in a domineering way), I found myself and even some of my opponents welcoming Greek “word-study” and scholarly input.

Strategy 2. Remind the group that, as we learn more about what God’s Word says to us, we ought to act on our discoveries. In love and humility, anticipate and defuse as much as you can the fears of traditionalists. Be prepared to lose battles, but remember that as long as we all focus on the possibility of learning and growing, fear will be replaced with the joy of probing further into the meaning of God’s Word.

Strategy 3. Maintain solidarity among allies and gently recruit new allies from the “undecideds.” I had two key allies: a woman with a staunch, and not always well-received, egalitarian reputation and the complementarian senior pastor. Having the senior pastor on board was invaluable. As he became convinced, after twenty years at our church, that the practice of restricting women’s gifts was hurting people and the church, he embraced the need to pay whatever personal price was required to foster Bible-based change.

Strategy 4. Ease your way into discussions about differences between what in Scripture is “universal” and what is “occasional” (practices limited to first-century culture.) Judicious caution is also required when discussing the sometimes difficult to digest idea that one reads and interprets an epistle differently than one reads the Gospels.

Strategy 5. Use commentary by male scholars early and often in your discussions. I was most effective when I referred to complementarian scholars to make egalitarian points. (See Doug Moo’s work on Romans, for example, for insightful references to women in ministry, including Phoebe the deacon/church-builder and Junia the female apostle/messenger.)

Strategy 6. Keep hammering away to show that throughout the New Testament we see the impact of Jesus’ calling and empowering of women in the development of the church.

I found that one could not reiterate too many times that the New Testament includes many examples of women being filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesying, evangelizing, building home churches, co-laboring with Paul, and serving in teaching and ministry roles. Review a summary of these findings before and after introducing discussions on challenging passages.

Strategy 7. Plan how to proceed if your church decides to alter its traditional practices — whether in part or in whole. So far, my church has changed more in theory than practice, as the pastors and elders are now dealing with some hostile reactions from complementarians and also disappointment from those who see too little change. Do what you can to make the process of change as painless as possible. Volunteer for service and work to foster unity and healing in your congregation.