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Published Date: April 30, 2002

Published Date: April 30, 2002

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An Honest Column: What I really think about opposition to women in ministry

Those of us who defend women in ministry are used to making careful biblical and theological cases, wrestling with the difficult texts as well as the occasional difficult person. We are used to listening earnestly to people who argue against women in ministry with furrowed brows and trembling chins. We aspire to be thoughtful, reasoned, and respectful because, Lord knows, we don’t want to make things any harder for women in ministry. Secretly most of us, I suspect, are sick of this circumspection and caution. For even with all our care we are frequently accused of “cramming women in ministry down our throats.”

Recently an incident occurred that has finally caused me to want to take the gloves off and write an honest column. During a mid-winter pastors’ conference, at an evening service I heard one of the most brilliant and stirring sermons I have ever heard. It was preached by Brenda Salter McNeil, an African American woman. The power and presence of the Spirit of God was palpable. After thinking about it for a few days I have decided to say what I really think about opposition to women in ministry. It’s ridiculous. It’s absurd.

This emperor has no clothes and hasn’t had them for a long time. Listening to someone oppose women in ministry is like listening to a medieval surgeon defending the use of bloodletting. This is not to say that the reasoned defense of women in ministry shouldn’t go on. I tried such a reasoned defense last summer in a sermon at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church and hope to see that material in print some day. But it really comes down to this: Women have shown themselves capable of excelling in virtually ever sphere of human endeavor as leaders and visionaries. They have offered leadership in academia, written some of our most learned treatises, and made some of our most significant scientific discoveries. They have skillfully led major corporations and government agencies, as well as cities, states, and entire countries. We have skillful theologians, thoughtful writers, eloquent preachers, and outstanding missionaries who are women. And yet, knowing all this, we say women should not be called to lead some sixty-member congregation in Kansas! I say it again—this is ridiculous!

I actually think many of the proponents of this position know it is ridiculous. But in my opinion they are so afraid of undercutting what they consider an ultimate source of authority (the Bible for evangelicals or the church’s tradition in the case of the Roman Catholics) that they tolerate what the rest of the world knows is really absurd. I for one do not think the authority of Scripture is challenged one whit if a woman is called to serve a church in Des Moines or Boston or Atlanta. Far from it. The real authority of the Scripture is challenged if people see us using our sacred texts to defend ludicrous positions that humiliate and demean half of humanity.

This does not mean we should never challenge our culture. Of course we should. And of course we should say hard things when the Bible says them. But we have been peculiarly selective when it comes to challenging our culture from the Scriptures. We evangelicals have said little about the greed of our corporations or about our government’s insatiable need for power, or our violence, or our acquisitiveness. We have bleated now and then about the suffering of the poor—but, of course, we can’t say too much because that is a cause of the “liberals.”

Brothers and sisters, I say again, this is absurd! Our posture is fearful and belligerent, tremulous and torrid. Called to be prophets of the kingdom, we run around smashing fleas with sledgehammers and wasting precious breath on things the rest of the culture shrugs at. Sometimes I think evangelicals are like the Jews within the city of Jerusalem in A.D. 7 0 , fighting a civil war for control of the temple while the Romans are outside the walls slowly strangling the city and preparing to slaughter its inhabitants. So we keep on fighting these sad and destructive battles that make us look foolish and make the good news of the gospel look like bad news.

I think it was Philip Yancey who wondered why, if the gospel is such good news, are we unable to get people to listen to it? Why does it seem like bad news to so many people? Because we have tragically made it so. And we have made it so out of fear, timidity, and defensiveness.

It is time for all that to end. Perhaps you think I have made a large thing out of little. But ask those women who languish without a call or who are condescended to and ignored. Ask those who have heard God but have not been able to get anyone else to listen.

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