Our View of Women in Ministry
Why this blog post about women in ministry? “Our” is the first person plural possessive pronoun, and I employ it even though I do not speak for every member of ATLPC. But I want to speak for our denomination, ECO, and the leadership of our church. The newly constituted Nominating Committee is about to begin its work of discerning who God might be call to serve in our church as our ordained deacons and elders. It is important for our fellowship to understand our denomination’s perspective and its explicit commitment to our sisters in Christ who are called to serve as leaders in His church. I offer this post not only to express my own view, but also in support of our new denominational home and our sisters in Christ who are called to leadership in our church.
Galatians 3:26-29 teaches that baptism into Christ dismantles the significance of distinctions people might want to assert. For Paul, to be in Christ is to be part of the new creation. In the new creation the gifting of the Holy Spirit is what matters now and such gifting precedes all presumptions about roles and structures. Old structures and hierarchies may still exist in which these distinctions matter, but they are of the old age, not the new. The truth of Galatians 3:36-29 brings such distinctions down. Today we probably need not address the issue of “slave nor free” or “Jew nor Gentile” but the implications and meaning of this last category “no male and female” is often debated. Some think the passage is simply talking about the gift of salvation, but Paul is speaking not only about salvation but also its implications for life in the church. To put it another way, the sociological meaning of salvation for all who believe is in view.
Before I went on study leave, Elder Ben Tran and I were in Dallas for the National Gathering of ECO. The Session chose to be dismissed to ECO a few years back and I have shared with many of you that am thankful because I valued ECO’s stand on the ordination of women and, as your pastor, I wanted to make sure that the ordination of our sisters in Christ in our fellowship would never be questioned or debated. I have included in this post, a video that I wanted to share with you from the National Gathering. It was made by an ECO pastor. She describes the impact of her role on a young girl in her congregation. I think you will enjoy it.
I realize there may be differences among us but I want us to understand how the matter is addressed by the Essential Tenets of ECO – If you have not read the Essential Tenets of ECO it is readily available on line at ECO’s website or just let me know and I will send you a version that you can download. But I want to focus for a moment on where it explains what is described as the “stewardship of life.”
Faithful stewardship of all of life
The ministries of the church reflect the three-fold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king – reflected in the church’s ordered ministries of teaching elders, deacons, and ruling elders. We affirm that men and women alike are called to all the ministries of the Church, and that every member is called to share in all of Christ’s offices within the world beyond the church.
As part of ECO, all of our ordained leaders – elders, deacons, and pastors – have to be in agreement with these tenants as the teaching of Scripture. The ordination of women in our church is not a liberal notion from the women’s lib movement of the 1960’s that has made its way into the church. I could spend a long time explaining my view but I will depend here on what I think is the best summary offered by FF Bruce – known as the “Dean of Evangelical Scholarship” until he went home to be with the Lord in 1990, and arguably, while he was alive, perhaps the greatest biblical scholar of the 20th century. He comes to this verse in Galatians and says in his simple, direct, and characteristic way:
No more restriction is implied in Paul’s equalizing of the status of male and female in Christ than in the equalizing of the status of Jew and Gentile, or of slave and free person. If in ordinary life existence in Christ is manifested openly in church fellowship, then, if a Gentile may exercise spiritual leadership in the church as freely as a Jew, or a slave as freely as a citizen, why not a woman as freely as a man?
There are other passages in the New Testament that talk about women and their role in the church. These texts must also be considered and adjudicated but how? For ECO, and for us an ECO church, Paul’s teaching in Galatians is central guidance. It helps us as we read other texts. People might ask about 1 Timothy 2:11- “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she must be silent” or 1 Corinthians 14:34 – “Women are to remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak …” These and other texts have an explanation but whatever the meaning is, it should not be used to contradict or minimize what Paul says in Galatians 3:26-29. Again, I rely on FF Bruce’s insight:
Paul states the basic principle here: if restrictions on it are found elsewhere in the Pauline corpus, as in 1 Corinthians 14:34f. or 1 Timothy 2:11f. they are to be understood in relation to Galatians 3:28 and not vice versa.
The point he is making is that the Galatians verse is the overarching teaching or principle guidance. Other texts in the New Testament, such as cited above, are addressing unique, cultural, and/or circumstantial matters that required particular instruction and variation and some temporary adjustment. Those variations should not control what we think of the Galatians text. The Galatians text is the principle guidance.
Let me illustrate this point with two texts from the Bible about slavery.
Which text gives us the principle guidance of Scripture on the morality of slavery? Which text controls our understanding of the other? Should Titus 2:9 control what we think of slavery at all times in all places? Or might there be certain cultural conditions that limit its application? Which of these texts might have been conditioned by the particular culture of the time? I think most of us would agree that the Exodus text is the Bible’s guidance on the morality of slavery, not the Titus passage. Moreover, unless the reader of the Bible discerns the universal application of the Exodus text to slavery in all times and places, they can have no biblical objection to the establishment of a modern slave state. Interestingly, in the run-up to the Civil War, the great theologians of the South did not think the Exodus text above really had anything to say about their practice of slavery.
The point I’m making is that just as the Exodus text makes clear God’s view of slavery, Galatians 3:26-29 makes clear His view of the role of women in the church. Our understanding about women’s roles has developed in the church and world much like our views on the issue of slavery. The practices of the early church with regard to women (and slavery) conformed to the structures of the patriarchal Greco-Roman society in which these groups of believers existed. Men ruled the churches, that is true, but not because of what is described by some as the principle of male headship, but because the early church began in a culture in which this was the norm. Within those cultural contexts, women were able to prophesy and probably engaged in limited diaconal duties, but did not generally participate in the government of the church. However, as can be seen in numerous examples from Paul’s ministry, an escalating number of women are observed in ancillary and critical leadership roles.
God’s blessing on women in ministry is envisioned and observed in the Bible. Bruce’s understanding of its full implication is correct and it harmonizes perfectly with what is said elsewhere in Scripture in Acts 2:17 at the founding of the New Testament church. In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter quotes the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on My servants, both men and women I will pour out My Spirit in those days. Acts 2:17, Peter quoting Joel 2:28-29
Peter’s emphasis on Joel, make it a headwater passage for understanding the church era. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost begins a new era. The inclusive tone indicates a striking departure from the past. In the drama of redemption, the curtain is coming down on the male Levitical priesthood and the patriarchal era. Joel in his prophecy, and Peter in his proclamation, and Paul in Galatians, raise the curtain on a stage reset for our era: the coming of the Holy Spirit. In this era issues of age, gender, and social status no longer matter. It is an era in which women will be gifted and called to serve alongside men, and thus fully participate in the ministry of the gospel. It should not surprise us that this was not fully accomplished within the patriarchal Greco-Roman structures of the New Testament era. But as in the case of slavery and other class and social structures, a significant beginning was made that would eventually lead to its fulfillment.
For ECO and for our church, the realization of Joel’s prophecy pronounced by Peter and the assurance Paul offers in Galatians together provide an important biblical basis for women serving alongside men as leaders in the church, and therefore ought to be acceptable to all believers everywhere. Any approach or conclusion that downsizes Joel’s vision or Peter’s declaration or reduces the significance of what Paul says here in Galatians are suspect.
Restricting the ministry on the basis of gender is a quenching of the Holy Spirit and goes against the scope of Peter’s announcement in Acts, Paul’s declaration and assurance, and circumscribes the grandeur and plain-as-day magnitude of Joel’s vision.
I will be retiring from this ministry this year, and I think back to one of my reasons for wanting to become the pastor of ATLPC – it was your practice of encouraging and equipping women to serve alongside men in ministry at every level in the life of our church. This is the kind of church I wanted to pastor! This is the kind of church our community needs and people will want to join! Women serve in ministry in our fellowship here not because of feminism or biblical liberalism. To the contrary, their ministry is through the gifting and calling of the Holy Spirit, rooted in Holy Scripture, and of greatest importance for a healthy and growing fellowship of disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.