The choice was simple: it was time to get a new stereo in my car. My classic rock ‘n’ roll eight track tapes—yes, this was a number of years ago—worked well except for one issue: the music was coming out of the speakers on only one side of the car. That would be like listening to Crosby and Stills, but tuning out Nash and Young. Of course it was time for a change; who would choose to live with an unbalanced speaker system?
Tragically, the church of Jesus Christ has done that for centuries. Every time I click on the leadership tab on the website of a Protestant church and see an all-male team of elders, I am dismayed at the foolishness of choosing not to hear the fullness of God’s “sound system.” The Catholic and Orthodox branches of God’s family tree have been even more reluctant to balance out their leadership by including the voices of women.
The church needs women leaders
I am a wiser man and pastor because I have learned to appreciate and to trust my wife’s instincts and perceptions of situations and of people. In the same way, when a church recognizes and relies on the gifts of all its members—men and women—it can more fully live into God’s design: “God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10, NLT. Emphasis mine).
As 2014 ended, our church council chair, Bob, completed his three-year term of service. In the past, Bob had served as a pastor in a denomination that didn’t consider women for leadership or preaching. Several times during his tenure as our chair, he shared with me his gratitude for having both women and men on the council, saying it brought a needed perspective to congregational leadership.
Bob was right. Our congregation has also been enriched by the simple experience of having women minister in key roles. A few years ago Megan Gillan, the women’s ministries leader for the Evangelical Covenant Church, worshipped with us on a Sunday when we celebrated communion. I asked Megan to lead our time around the Lord’s Table, and I would assist her. After worship, a woman came to me with joyful tears. Relatively new to our congregation, it was the first time she’d seen a woman preside over a communion service. Her experience is tragic, but all too common.
Our congregation is also stronger because Peggy Melhaff is one of the pastors on our staff. Formerly a registered nurse, she now serves primarily as our children’s pastor and she is an incredibly valuable gift to our entire congregation. Her encouraging and exhorting life and witness bring a needed balance to the other (male) staff members that serve our church. Additionally, her tender heart opens doors into pastoral situations that I, as a man, would struggle with the propriety or advisability of opening.
You are not to be like that!
Yes, our congregation is wiser, richer, and stronger because we refuse to make gender an issue in congregational leadership, but these are only pragmatic reasons. Our decision is not primarily about helping us to do church better. We refuse to place limits on the ministry of anyone in our congregation for one vitally important reason: we are simply being faithful to how God always intended the church to be.
Every believer prays as David did, “Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long” (Psalm 25:4–5). Those entrusted with congregational authority must also seek the Lord’s will and ways. How would he have us administer our worship services? Who would he have us take up positions of leadership?
I cannot imagine Jesus standing up during a sermon delivered by a female disciple and instructing her to sit down and stop talking. I certainly can’t fathom that he would leave the room or turn his back to her in the middle of her message, as is the experience of some contemporary women pastors.
I can imagine one of the twelve disciples treating a woman in that manner, however, for the gospel writers record multiple instances of disagreeing with the ways of the Lord. They were astounded that Jesus would even speak to a woman (John 4), and Mary Magdalene, the first person to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus, was ignored and thought to be out of her mind.
The Twelve didn’t only have a problem with women; they sought to silence anyone who wasn’t a part of their little group, and hoped they could call down fire upon a Samaritan village for not giving Jesus a warm welcome (Luke 9:49–56). At the Last Supper, they were more concerned about their place in line close to Jesus than with his impending passion (Luke 22:24ff).
The twelve disciples may have passed away long ago, but their pride and hierarchical ways live on in the majority of churches today. Tragically, these churches refuse to allow their “biblical” views—women are prohibited to teach or lead—to be interpretively balanced by the call of God upon Deborah and Huldah, among others, and the refreshing accounts of women prophesying and serving in leadership in the churches of Rome, Philippi, and Corinth.
How can these multiple examples of God’s ways be ignored? It is always tempting to conveniently turn down the volume on a portion of the Bible’s message. Any passage that fails to reinforce a specific preference for keeping the boys in power will simply be ignored as inconsequential, or viewed as an exception to God’s supposedly preferred way of acting.
Having strayed from the ways of God as wonderfully modeled for us in the life of Jesus, the men of the church have clung to their power and brazenly pronounced their patriarchal organizational charts to be the divine design. Three times Peter stubbornly refused to part with his old ways as the Spirit showed him the new thing God was doing with the Gentiles—“Surely not, Lord!” At least Peter repented, but our church leaders have not seen the need.
Can we hope for a better future?
How can we repair the ecclesiastical sound system? How do we make it natural and normal for children to hear God speak through both male and female voices, and to appreciate the giftedness of all his children?
This question is being addressed in 2015 in my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church. Even though women have been ordained in the Covenant for almost forty years, few congregations are considering women for their lead pastor position. The Covenant’s Commission for Biblical Gender Equality is attempting to address that problem at the local church level through an initiative we’re calling “Develop A Deborah.”
Deborah was one of the first leaders of Israel, and her leadership was so appreciated that she held court under a palm tree named for her. We’re told that the villagers in Israel would not fight until she arose. Her calling was unquestionably from God, for we read, “Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies for as long as the judge lived” (Judges 2:18).
We’re asking our leaders a simple question: Is it possible that there is a Deborah among you today? Assuming there is—there’s no reason there couldn’t be—we ask them to disciple gifted women and girls, demonstrate that God gifts women for all facets of ministry, and direct women into all opportunities to lead in their ministry settings.
Most of the pastors in the Covenant believe that God does not consider gender when he calls his children into vocational ministry. Too often, however, our congregational leaders do not follow in God’s ways, but take gender into account. The Deborahs among us have been passed over whenever the questions are posed: Who will deliver the word of God to us? Who will help us make godly decisions?
It should be natural and normal for a congregation to be invited to eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, to have a congregational meeting called to order, and to hear the good news proclaimed or the Bible taught without ever thinking about whether the person leading was a woman or a man. We don’t want to merely hope for that day to arrive; we’re praying that the work of leaders to change their local culture will have a powerful effect on the larger church.
Sometimes our worship leader will sing the melody alone, which is a beautiful way to begin a congregational song. But we’re ushered into a vision of heaven when we hear others join in, some following along with the melody, but many blending in with the harmony. It’s likely that your soul has been thrilled by hearing the fuller sound of God’s rich choir, with all the voices—young and old, dark-skinned and fair, women and men—raised in praise to the King of Kings.
May God’s full harmony of voices—both women and men—be joined in all facets of our life together, not just in our times of praise. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.