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Published Date: September 5, 2010

Published Date: September 5, 2010

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Is Women’s Leadership in the Church a “Primary Issue”?

If you’ve been a passionate egalitarian for any length of time, you’ve probably heard someone say, “Yes, the egalitarian position is biblically sound, but it is not a “primary issue!” What is at the heart of such a comment? Primary issues are generally understood to mean those issues that focus on the gospel, evangelism, and the leading of the lost to Christ. Is women’s shared leadership and authority a primary issue? One’s perspective on gender and authority most certainly advances or diminishes the good news of the gospel. Here is one example from Emily, a woman who contacted CBE recently. She writes: 

I had heard the word of God, and I felt moved by much of it…However, I was held back from this because of what I had been told….Eve [was] really responsible for all sin in the world, and not Adam, even though she didn’t force him to eat the forbidden fruit….[As a woman] I was to be silent in church, and that women could not hold a position of responsibility there…it was as if God had already decided that because I am female there was nothing He cared to hear me say. And worst of all was what was to happen if I were to marry. I would become a slave to my husband, obeying his word as if it were the word of God…I left church behind and my faith in the Lord with it. I couldn’t reconcile being part of a religion that had labeled me as inferior from birth.

Emily may not be trained theologically, but like most human beings, she understands when God is presented in a way that is illogical and unjust. It is because of individuals like Emily that churches, denominations, and Christian organizations are having a second look at Scripture’s teaching on gender. As they do, many are discovering that egalitarians and complementarians (those who hold to a male only model of leadership) hold different worldviews. It runs deeper than simply a difference in interpretation or a matter of personal preference, and this is why so many believers challenge gender hierarchy as God’s ideal. Much of our time at CBE is spent showing individuals like Emily—who have left the church, or who refuse to marry, or who have joined other religions—that Scripture does not extend authority to men just because they are male. Rather, God calls and gifts both men and women to share authority, service, and leadership. 

In many ways our work as egalitarians today resembles that of several prominent evangelicals in history, who challenged a defective worldview that perceived Africans as destined by God to permanent servitude. Such a mistaken perspective distorts the key elements that shape one’s worldview. These include:

  • Knowledge: How we understand truth and God’s revelation
  • Ontology: The nature and value of being, both God’s and humankind’s
  • Justice or Ethics: The action we take because of knowledge and ontology
  • Our Ultimate Purpose and Destiny: As individuals and the church

What is interesting about worldviews is that a corruption in one element creates a disruption in the other elements. As slavery proponents insisted that the divine destiny of Africans was servitude (purpose); they also advanced a biblical basis for slavery (knowledge). Individuals of African descent were therefore said to possess an inferior nature (ontology), which is why they must be ruled by others (ethics). To redress the flawed worldview, abolitionists had to “put right” all four elements. That is why some early evangelicals challenged slavery with a robust biblicism (knowledge); that showed how each person is made new in Christ (ontology), and through God’s Spirit, all believers are gifted for service regardless of ethnicity (purpose). This view, in turn, leveled a serious theological blow to the institution of slavery (ethics). As a more biblical worldview prevailed, slaves were freed and some flooded to the mission field, where their calling and giftedness were evident. Ultimately it became clear that slavery wasn’t a matter of preference or difference in biblical interpretation, it was a worldview with eternal consequences. 

In a similar manner, Christian women are often told that their divine destiny is the permanent submission to male authority (purpose), a view that, some say, is promoted throughout Scripture (knowledge); based not on a women’s character, giftedness, or intimacy with Christ, but based solely on gender (ontology). Therefore, women are to obey men, and men are to hold ultimate authority over females, in the church and home (ethics). Thankfully, like abolitionists, egalitarians have made their case biblically (knowledge), that women are created as strong partners for men (Gen. 2:20) (ontology), and as such are to exercise a shared dominion with men (Gen. 1:28) (purpose). As women exercised leadership and authority on mission fields around the world, it led to one of the largest expanses in all of Christian history—the Golden Era of Missions. And, as women are given equal authority to make decisions in marriages, this not only leads to happier marriages, but also a lower incidence of abuse (ethics), according to the research of Life Innovations, Inc., the creators of the popular premarital inventory Prepare-Enrich. As believers embrace a more biblical worldview on gender, we offer a clear image of God to those who have left the church because of prejudice against females.  

Does the shared leadership and authority of women and men advance a more biblical worldview? Does it promote the gospel and our capacity to reflect Jesus to the world? Katharine Bushnell said, in the early 1900s, that Christians must learn to assess women’s capacity for service in the same way we assess men’s—not based on the fall, but on our atonement in Christ. To do otherwise is to do violence to the gospel, to which all of Scripture and history point.