“Though women are free to use all of their giftedness in teaching and leading in the church, the role of elder seems biblically to be relegated to men.”This statement is the conclusion of a Dallas-area church that has long had a reputation for holding fast to the Word. It also represents what many other Bible-teaching churches have decided. And I think it’s worth discussing here not because of the conclusion they reached, but because of what it has revealed (again) about the dynamic of discussions within the church. We use the most astonishing rhetoric when we disagree!
Look at the statement again. Interpretation: a woman may stand behind the pulpit on Sunday morning, but she may not serve on the elder board. Now, let me say from the start that I have no intention of commenting on this church’s actual decision. Others have done plenty of that. What I am far more interested in doing here is providing commentary on the commentary.
First, some have labeled the decision to allow for women’s preaching as an “inerrancy” issue rather than an “interpretation/ hermeneutics” issue. As a result we hear smears such as “liberal” applied, which suggests that those who have drawn such conclusions take a low view of holy writ. (Surely we can say, can’t we, that even egalitarian scholars such as Roger Nicole, F. F. Bruce, Gordon Fee, and Craig Keener, take a high enough view of Scripture?) We must give each other the benefit of the doubt that a) those seeing in the biblical text less freedom for women are not necessarily doing so because they want to “keep women down” and b) those seeing in the biblical text more freedom for women are not necessarily doing so because they’re driven by a radical feminist agenda. Can’t we show some Christian charity and assume everybody has pure motives unless proven otherwise?
Next, the decision to allow women publicly to teach has been described by some as “egalitarian.” Yet to the egalitarian mind, a decision to go with an all-male board is sort of equivalent to a Civil Rights leader allowing blacks to speak as long as they do so under the authority of whites. Just because something is a move toward more freedom does not make it egalitarian. The statement above is a complementarian conclusion that no egalitarian would embrace.
Such assessments of the statement demonstrate wide differences within the complementarian camp.
Some will allow women to preach but not serve as pastors or elders. Some will not allow them to be preachers. I know of one who would allow women to be elders but not senior pastors. Others place the authority line only within the marriage relationship. All complementarians draw a line, but we see some variety in where they draw it. And sadly each group seems to get a different set of friends and enemies every time they do.Another (and secondary) error made by those on the more conservative end is to blame women’s speaking on American cultural trends started by feminist leader Betty Friedan. In doing so…
- They show a relative ignorance of global Christianity. For example, in the house churches of China “women in particular have been the dominant leaders. Arthur Glasser emphasizes how the modeling by missionary women played a significant part in the survival of Christianity under Communism, and asserts that 85 percent of the pastoral leaders of China’s house churches are women” (Frances Hiebert, “Missionary Women as Models in the Cross-Cultural Context” Missiology l0:4 , 459–460). And then there’s Cuba. Same deal. Also Africa. American evangelicals have often said female leadership is okay because the church really needs these people. When it grows strong enough to have only male leaders, it will change. But the African church is arguably stronger in many places than in North America.
- They fail to own their own heritage of evangelicals who served on the front lines of advocating for women (think: Sunday schools instituted when the culture at large thought women didn’t need educatin’). Things actually got more conservative among many Bible-believers after Betty Friedan came along, probably as a reaction against women’s lib. Have you seen the footage in “Beyond the Gates of Splendor” of Rachel Saint in the 1950’s teaching men doctrine? A past president of Dallas Theological Seminary told me in a private interview that Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, one of the school’s founders, invited a woman, “Mrs. Tan,” to speak in chapel there when this former president was a student. I don’t know the exact year that happened, but Dr. Chafer died in 1952—eleven years before Ms. Betty released The Feminine Mystique. And Moody Bible Institute, a vanguard of evangelicalism and inerrancy, trained women for ordained pastoral ministry in the 1920’s.