Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Honorable Mention. Enjoy!
We’ll just have to agree to disagree.
Around twenty-five years ago, I had lunch with another pastor during a conference. I do not recall what we ate, but I do remember one topic which we discussed, and about which we differed: women in church leadership.
John was firmly opposed to it, and he confidently explained his stance. At that time, I had only recently become convinced of the egalitarian position. I recall responding with a half-hearted statement—some would say it’s a justice issue. We ended our lunch as brothers in Christ, politely agreeing to disagree.
I love thoughtful conversations, sharing opposing views along with a basket of French fries. But in the years since that lunch, I have become convinced that to continue our long-standing tradition of male leadership indeed perpetuates an injustice. We can no longer agree to disagree.
Is the Old Better Than the New?
Jesus made a short descriptive statement that has been all but forgotten. Speaking about the kingdom of God as the new wine of the covenant, he declared: “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better’” (Luke 5:39).
Male-dominated religion has mostly been in place since the days of Moses, and the church Jesus founded continues to stock and serve that well-aged vintage. But Christian ministry was never meant to be a patriarchal club for men, although that’s the tradition to which we’ve become accustomed. It’s what we prefer. The old is better.
Since the death and resurrection of Jesus, there have been devoted men and women of faith who have decided to stand with Jesus, even though their choice went against what they had previously believed. One of those was the apostle Peter. A few years after Pentecost, God showed Peter that he would be opposing God if he held onto one of his preferences. We need to learn from Peter’s experience because it speaks directly to what the church needs today.
But before we look at the passage in which that occurred, we need to be aware of one of his lesser-known and unfortunate habits, a tendency to speak a certain phrase. On four occasions Peter passionately opposed God with a firm Never Lord!
We Often React with Never Lord!
Peter’s protests were met with a divine stiff-arm. No surprise there; God did not—and does not—alter his plans to accommodate the preferences of his followers. Three times Peter spoke these words directly to Jesus, voicing his opposition to God’s plans, ways, and analysis, in Matthew 16:21–23, Matthew 26:31–34, and John 13:1–17.
The fourth instance, the instructive one for us, is in Acts 10:1–11:18. We know it primarily as the account of an incredibly important milestone for the church: the good news of Jesus is for the Gentiles as well as for the Jews—for all the people of the world.
Peter’s involvement in the story began with his receiving a heavenly vision, in which God commanded him to violate what he had been taught and had practiced. Three times the vision came, and three times Peter protested: Surely not, Lord! I would never!
But the Holy Spirit subsequently gave Peter more specific instructions: do not hesitate to go with the messengers God sent, leading him to the house of a Gentile named Cornelius. After listening to Cornelius share his story, Peter made a powerful admission: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism . . .” (Acts 10:34).
Actually, Peter already knew this. The Old Testament practically shouts the impartiality of God, who has always expected the same of his people. But in this event the Holy Spirit connected the dots between something Peter inherently knew about God and how his behavior contradicted that knowledge.
Peter realized that he had favored Jews over Gentiles and that he needed to repent of favoritism—which for him was a racial bias. And so he did repent, and he subsequently led the church into alignment with God’s character, despite some significant pushback.
There Is No Favoritism with God
The Holy Spirit has long been seeking to convict the church of favoritism in another area: the sin of the preferential treatment of men at the expense of women, a gender bias. For several hundred years the Christian church has blatantly ignored the Holy Spirit’s guidance, showing special favor to men, especially in regard to the distribution of gifts of the Holy Spirit for the building up of the church.
The New Testament could not be clearer: “God does not show favoritism” (Rom. 2:11). We must not either: “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism” (James 2:1). But we have lived with it for too long and continue to tell people that God endorses it.
Galatians 3:28 needs to be engraved on the hearts of all believers, for it identifies the three areas in which favoritism flourishes—race, class, and gender—and proclaims for all time God’s essential opposition to it: “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal” (MSG).
By his teaching and by his example, Jesus called his people—and all the nations of the earth—to drink the wine of the new covenant, relating to each other without favoritism among races, classes, or genders.
Let’s be direct about this. Church leaders frequently make decisions about who will serve in various capacities, such as leading worship, teaching, serving communion, preaching, and serving on the leadership team. Imagine the raised eyebrows if nominations for the capital campaign team were being considered and someone was rejected for living on the wrong side of town. Can you imagine someone passionately declaring, “This church will never have a black worship leader”? These examples would never happen because that would be blatant class or racial bias, and we see that as unthinkable.
But women are routinely and regularly disqualified for many roles in the church simply because of their gender.
- Can the female children’s ministry director lead the communion service? Never Lord!
- Will you consider one of our women leaders to serve as church chair? Never Lord!
- Would the search committee consider a female candidate for our pastor? Never Lord!
- Could the female professor teach the adult Sunday school class? Never Lord!
We cannot affirm that the Bible condemns racism and classism yet cheerfully assure ourselves that gender bias is acceptable to God. It’s time for the church to realize, like Peter, that God does not show favoritism!
Do Not Hinder Her!
Peter recognized that living with an unjust practice has serious implications when he asked, “Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17). We have been doing exactly that—opposing God—by hiding behind our biased interpretations of a select few passages of the Bible to defend our preferential treatment of men. We have rejected the wine of the new covenant that Jesus poured, a blend with strong notes of worth and dignity in how women are to be treated.
The church needs to receive a powerful rebuke from Jesus about the favoritism that has been shown against our sisters.
“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49–50)
The Greek word for “stop” is a common term meaning to attempt to hinder, forbid, or prevent someone from acting. Jesus is saying to the church today: Do not hinder her.
- Do not hinder women from fully serving God with gifts given by the Holy Spirit.
- Do not hinder women by saying Never Lord! regarding their leadership in your church.
- Do not hinder women from speaking the words of God.
- Do not hinder women from administering the sacraments.
- Do not hinder women from carrying out the ministries to which God has called them.
As long as we continue to drink the long-preferred old wine of male-dominated church leadership, we are preventing at least half the church from fully living out their calling, and that is a gross injustice. It’s well past time that we foster the flourishing of women in whatever role God has called them—just like we do for men. May we say Never Lord! no more!
Painting by Domenico Fetti, ca. 1619.
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