In the early 1990s, I worked out my view of women’s place in the church and the home. I had held the traditional views on women’s subordination to men for many years, since my conversion in 1976. It was all I really knew, and I knew that anything like “feminism” was secular or theologically liberal. I have a sad memory of a woman in the college class at First Baptist Church in Eugene, Oregon, in the late 1970s being concerned about women’s status with respect to men. She was told to just get over it. She left.
I only changed my view after studying the issues thoroughly over several years along with Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (1954–2018), my first wife. Shortly after we got married in 1984, Becky and I began to notice how many pastors and other male Christian leaders made disparaging comments about women, often their own wives. This both irked us and caused us to wonder why. Becky launched into several years of study, which led to her writing Women Caught in the Conflict in 1994 and Good News for Women in 1997. She also coedited an academic work called Discovering Biblical Equality, which was published in 2004. I did not cowrite Becky’s books, but we talked over every major issue, and I read every page of her writing. We approached the subject with the conviction that we would affirm what the Bible affirmed, as best we could determine this through careful study and sound theological method.
My convictions were further ratified by getting to know gifted female seminary students since 1993, when I began teaching at Denver Seminary. I have seen them win preaching awards, perform admirably on their doctrinal orals, excel in my classes, and go on to teach, preach, and lead in evangelical churches and other ministries. The proof is in the egalitarian pudding.
I am writing this article largely because women whom I respect have encouraged me to let my voice be heard. It is far easier for egalitarian men to avoid the subject, since it is so controversial and heated. Rebecca and I felt the stress of this for many years. For that reason and because of her declining health before her death in 2018, I pulled away from engaging it for a few years. I am back now, and I hope this essay is a word of encouragement for women in ministry.
I will not defend my egalitarian views here. I have done that elsewhere and I refer you to Rebecca’s work. One can find more recent treatments elsewhere too, but my point here is not bibliographical or apologetic. Rather, I want to edify women called to public ministry or who are pondering it.
First, women who sense the call of God to teach, preach, and lead in public ministry—whether in the church, parachurch ministries, or elsewhere—need to thoroughly work out their theology of men, women, and leadership in a way that does not rely on experience as the ultimate support. Around 1995, a woman pastor was asked by one of my students to defend her ministry from Scripture. While the question might have been a bit rudely stated at the time, it was legitimate. The woman said, “I don’t have to defend it. God called me to be a pastor.” This might be true, but someone who teaches the Bible and who holds a high view of Scripture should be able to defend their theology of women in ministry. Without a solid theological grounding, women in ministry can be accused of putting their experiences or desires above Scripture. That is something we should never do. Scripture should critique us.
Second, I encourage you to grow a thick skin without growing a hard heart. All the great biblical characters—from Jeremiah, to Ruth, to John the Baptist, to the apostle Paul, to Jesus himself—faced, endured, and prevailed against opposition. Jesus was laughed at, mocked, called insane, and, of course, crucified. But he rose from the dead. Let the mistreatment you face as a woman in following the Lord into public ministry, through the Holy Spirit, be transmuted into a more Christlike character. This is a deep biblical theme with many texts to support it. Consider just two:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (Jas. 1:2–4)
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:1–5)
You will feel and carry your wounds, and they are not easily forgotten. Take them to Christ, whose wounds far exceed any we may get in his service. Jesus understands our pain and advocates for us (Heb. 4:14–16). Beware of bitterness, but do not deny the seriousness of the indignities and abuses. As Hebrews says, “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (12:15). Personal prayer and involvement with a sympathetic support group can help apply balm to the wounds. Praying through some psalms of lament (Psalm 22; 88; 90) may minister to you as well. (To learn more about the meaning of lament, I recommend Glenn Pemberton’s book, Hurting with God, and I wrote of our lament over Becky’s dementia in Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament.)
Third, be aware that many insecure Christian men are afraid of women with ministry gifts equal to or exceeding their own. They view women in the role of teacher or preacher as part of a zero-sum game in which they lose some of their authority if women have their own authority. John MacArthur recently voiced this in light of the controversy over Beth Moore’s role as a Bible teacher. I am not poisoning the well (a logical fallacy) by saying that all male criticisms of women in ministry are reducible to an irrational fear. However, male fear of strong women is simply an existential reality for many men. Even more, a man threatened by women with ministry gifts may still give arguments for his position that should be taken seriously. If so, they ought to be addressed, if the situation allows for it.
This male fear is rooted in defining masculinity as possessing an innate authority that women cannot have, simply because they are women. Men must be the leaders in the home and have the final say in the church. Some even call this “biblical masculinity” or “biblical manhood.” Whatever true or godly masculinity is, it is not that, since the Bible and history give us so many skilled and virtuous women leaders, who lead better than most men. I cannot resist pointing out that Deborah was easily the best judge reported in the book of Judges. She had the highest political and military authority and was a prophet to boot (Judg. 4–5). From what I can determine from the Bible, masculinity definitely means restricting one’s sexual intimacy to one’s wife (1 Cor. 7:1–7) and not dressing like a woman (Deut. 22:5). Beyond that, why worry about it? Many of our current ideas of masculinity are far more cultural than biblical or even logical. A man’s masculinity should not be threatened if his wife makes more money than he does, or if his wife is a pastor and he is a plumber.
If men challenge your ministry more because of a perceived threat than on the basis of solid facts and reasoning, it is best to let it go. Such a person will not likely be receptive to the suggestion that your leadership should not harm his masculinity. Pray that someone else can get through to him. This kind of man may enforce a stained-glass ceiling in the church or Christian ministry where you want to serve. If so, I encourage you to look for a ministry that honors your gifts as God-given and does not restrict your leadership on the basis of your gender.
Fourth, when considering a denomination in which to serve, choose a place that fully affirms your gifts and calling to ministry as a woman. Unless you sense a strong prophetic calling otherwise, it is likely best to avoid those denominations and institutions that take a hard line against women’s equality for leadership. It will be hard enough in denominations that are open to women in ministry, since the idea of male superiority and women’s subordination is still the prevailing tendency in many church cultures. It has been so ever since the fall, and patriarchy will not be utterly abolished until the Second Coming. So, as Jesus said, be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove (Matt. 10:16).
Fifth, I encourage you to seek out men who can wisely mentor you and advocate for your leadership. While men are still predominately leading most churches and ministries, it is neither cowardly nor obsequious to find men in positions of godly influence who can speak up for you as a bona fide minister of the gospel. The best way to do this is simply to use your gifts. I try to model this kind of advocacy for the women I encounter. Some years ago, a colleague and I conducted a doctrinal examination of a female student. After her stellar performance, my colleague said, “I would be happy to have you as my pastor.” I seconded that statement. She also won the preaching award that year and now serves as a preaching coach for homiletics classes at Denver Seminary (among other things). I do all I can to support her calling in Christian leadership.
Called and gifted women of God, I leave you with an admonition and a benediction. As God said to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:9). “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor. 13:14).