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Published Date: October 20, 2010

Published Date: October 20, 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 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…wanted to aspire to His greatness…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, like most human beings, realizes when God is presented in a way that is illogical and unjust. Because of people like Emily, 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.

In many ways our work as egalitarians today resembles those who challenged a defective worldview that considered Africans as destined by God to permanent servitude. Such a mistaken perspective as this one distorts the key elements that shape one’s worldview. These include:

  1. Knowledge: How we understand truth and God’s revelation
  2. Ontology: The nature and value of being, both God’s and humankind’s
  3. Justice or Ethics: The action we take because of knowledge and ontology
  4. 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 this 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 joined the mission field, where their calling and giftedness were evident. Ultimately it became clear that slavery was not a matter of preference or difference in biblical interpretation, it was a worldview with eternal consequences.

Similarly, Christian women are often taught that their divine destiny is permanent submission to male authority (purpose), a view that some say is promoted throughout Scripture (knowledge) and based not on a women’s character, giftedness or intimacy with Christ, but solely because of gender (ontology). Therefore, all 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 began to exercise 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 a lower incidence of abuse (ethics) according to the research of Life Innovations, Inc. 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 that cannot be sustained by Scripture.

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, in the early 1900s, said that Christians must 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.

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