Women in Church Leadership Isn’t a Secondary Issue

Kate Dewhurst

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This is the first of five blog contest winning entries The Junia Project is showcasing. The category for this post is “Why Women in Church Leadership Isn’t a Secondary Issue”. Look for other winners over the next two weeks!  We”ll also be posting entries written by the runners up, so stay tuned!

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When a friend of mine asked me to screen sponsorship mail for a local non-profit, I was expecting to be deeply moved. But I wasn’t expecting a child to remind me of the importance of egalitarian theology.

“When I grow up, I want to be a pastor.”

These words were proudly written by a seven year old girl in a small village somewhere in southern Africa. Along with the many boys whose letters expressed the same desire, this little girl with a beaming smile realized that she, too, could be a leader and a preacher and a spiritual guide.

Her words surprised me with hope.

The presence or absence of same sex role models greatly influences the options we believe we have because we learn our acceptable roles through the stories and examples we are shown.

Some say the issue of women in leadership is important, but it’s not a primary issue. However, if the gospel is the primary issue, if the good news of Jesus is the primary issue, if the transformative power of God is the primary issue, then the flourishing of women and girls in their gifts is inextricably bound up with it.

About one year ago, I attended a women’s gathering where women shared personal stories. An older woman, a mother and grandmother, explained that she felt left out of her husband’s ministry. He was a pastor and frequently traveled and preached, while she remained home. She said, “I have a Bible school degree just like he does. Why shouldn’t I be out there doing it, too?” There was a tone of frustration and sadness in her voice. She seemed to be looking for her place.

How many women long to use their God-given gifts for building up the church—in addition to the important roles they already play in women’s meetings and Sunday school– in ways that acknowledge their value to the entire community?

Nowhere in scripture are gifts apportioned according to gender. But so often, women with teaching gifts are stunted and stifled.

An acquaintance of mine once said that he had never learned anything from hearing a woman speak in church. He had basically concluded that no woman, anywhere had wisdom or insight he hadn’t already gleaned himself. In some ways, it’s hard to blame him for thinking this way since so many churches and prominent leaders conclude that women should not teach men.

Recently, an influential Bible teacher suggested that merely having a female form in front of him is a temptation and prevents him from hearing her message.

Is it any wonder that Christian women often view themselves negatively, feel unworthy, and think they have nothing valuable to say?

The truth is that gifted women teachers and preachers have much to contribute. Women bring different life perspectives from their roles as daughters, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, and wives. They bring gendered insight and understanding to the study of Scripture. Excluding women from leadership roles is damaging to the church community as a whole because it means that women’s enriching voices and stories are not shared.

Exclusion also teaches women that they are lacking in some way, while giving men and boys the same message.

And this is why an egalitarian view is a primary issue. It has everything to do with the Gospel. How can we expect women to believe that they are received, loved, accepted, worthy, valued, and beloved by God, when exclusion teaches them they are second class?

In his slender volume, Finally Feminist, John Stackhouse writes:

“When society was patriarchal, as it was in the New Testament context and as it has been everywhere in the world except in modern society in our day, the church avoided scandal by going along with it – fundamentally evil as patriarchy was and is. Now, however, that modern society is at least officially egalitarian, the scandal is that the church is NOT going along with society, not rejoicing in the unprecedented freedom to let women and men serve according to gift and call without an arbitrary gender line. This scandal impedes both the evangelism of others and the edification – the retention and development of faith – of those already converted.”

Today, in our culture of increased equality, the barring of women from leadership roles in the church not only prevents their gifts from building up the church, it actually impedes people from seriously considering the Gospel message.

When I worked in a pastoral role in a small church in Nova Scotia, I was often asked by secular folks about my job. Interestingly, people were intrigued that a church had seen fit to hire a young woman in a pastoral role; this caused them to consider giving church a chance.

An egalitarian view is far more attractive to many spiritual seekers than prescribed and limited gender roles, and antiquated views about women are one reason many people write off exploring what the Gospel is really about.

Embracing women in church leadership matters.

It matters because it affects all layers of ministry, from the individual’s ability to express her God-given gifts and find a place within community, to the church’s ability to fulfill its mission.

It matters because it influences the way little girls think about themselves and dream about how they will use their gifts and impact their communities.

One day I hope little girls from many parts of the world will say, “When I grow up, I want to be a pastor.”  May the church have ears to hear them and nurture their potential.

Click here for a Spanish translation of this post.

Photo Credit: World Vision International.

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28 Comments

  • That little girl is a new hero for me, especially when there are prominent pastors who insist on silly things such as women not being allowed to even read scripture out loud to a mixed assembly of men and women. Thanks for reminding us that God is working all over and with all ages, and with both little girls and little boys.

    • Thanks, Tim. She’s an inspiration to me, too.

  • While it’s true & tragic that women (like the pastor’s wife mentioned) suffer when their gifts are suppressed, I think the equal, perhaps even larger, tragedy is that the whole church suffers. Think of the wisdom, maturity that the church is lacking because leaders & teachers God has called & gifted are barred from offering the gifts God wants to give God’s people. Think of the others, men & women, whose own gifts haven’t been fanned into flame. Because that’s what God gifts pastors & teachers for – not primarily for their own sake, but to build up the Body of Christ. The ripple effect of denying these gifts is terrible – and the whole church is crippled & immature as a result, unable to grow & thrive itself in the way God intends, and less of the witness & blessing to the world that God intends. Yet another reason this is not just a “women’s issue”. There is so much at stake!

    • Agreed, Lucy. It’s sad and unfortunate on both levels.

  • Who are you describing in this sentence? “Recently, an influential Bible teacher suggested that merely having a female form in front of him is a temptation and prevents him from hearing her message.” Do you have a link to this statement?

  • Great post.

    What I find unfortunate in the modern day church is not just that some men want to keep women away from the pulpit and away from the leadership roles; but that even the women themselves limit what they can be. I recently heard a female, who is also a leader in her local church, calling females, in a blanket statement, sensation seekers. It made me think that we still have a long way to go to change the mind of little girls who listen to women like that.

      • Elena, yes, I echo your frustration! How we women talk about ourselves–be it using stereotypes or negative labels, suggesting that we should not be teachers/leaders because “we’re too emotional” or “sensation seekers” right down to the ways we talk about our own bodies– has a huge impact on the little girls who are observing us and how they see themselves. What a challenge to set a different kind of example!

  • I love this post, Kate, and the sentiments expressed.

    Like Lisaleben, I’m stunned that a Bible teacher would so openly admit the problem he clear has with a form of sexual addiction, and suggest that he and his wife do some serious talking about his inability to listen to the word of God because his temptation is so strong.

    This kind of thinking, taken to an extreme, is the reason there are cultures out there who clothe their women in black sacks in order to prevent that same temptation.

    And as for the guy who never was taught anything by a woman preacher, may he think through that most churches have so not trained their women that, put on a platform, many women are just finding their feet. If we put the same time and effort into training women to lead and to preach, he would perhaps be a bit more teachable.

    Well done.

    • Well stated. Shocked that a supposed Bible teacher would say such a ridiculous thing. A bit frightening too as I thought just what you stated about how other cultures with these ideas force women into wearing burkas.

  • I’m in full support of our teaching and modeling women in pastoral leadership, because God calls girls and boys often at an early age. In fact, my mother dedicated me to the Lord when I was still in her womb and desired to see me in full time, vocational ministry. What a boost that gave me when I began wrestling with my call.

    • Wow Grace May, that’s amazing! What a great mother 🙂

    • Three cheers for fantastic moms–and dads– who support their daughters this way!

  • What I see in church is women slowly feeling less important as they age, and ultimately feeling less valuable. I know of some who eventually left altogether as they felt there was little for them. The exclusion of women in the gospel also encourages domestic abuse as many men feel they are less christian if they don’t rule over their wives. It’s truly tragic…It also is a cause of women trying to be as religious as possible in order to compensate for the lack of acceptance. This leads to spiritual abuse or eventually disillusionment in the gospel. Can we not see how we are literally persecuting a person for being a woman? It’s very grievous and disheartening for this woman.

  • “Recently, an influential Bible teacher suggested that merely having a female form in front of him is a temptation and prevents him from hearing her message.” That is HIS sin that he needs to repent of, not the woman’s. A woman preacher is NOT the problem here, his lust is. Removing the temptation doesn’t mean removing the woman, it means getting control of yourself. There are women on the street everywhere, does he lust after every one of them? And I suppose if it were an “ugly” woman, there would be complaints about her “lack” of good looks. This is just an excuse for oppression and I’m sick of it.

      • Agreed, Lisaleben. It’s very disheartening. I hear your frustration. As you’ve pointed out, and this seems to be a much larger discussion at the moment, it’s unhelpful and unfair to hold women responsible for problems men have.

    • lisaleben, I would have responded with the words of Jesus: “If YOUR EYE causes you to sin…”. How these theologians can read those words and all that Jesus taught about defilement coming from within a person, yet say the opposite when it comes to women, is a tragic mystery (aka hypocritical).

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