While great strides have been made towards gender equality in church leadership, a staggering segment of churches still subscribe to a narrow view that permits females only certain opportunities to exercise the call of God on their life. Women may exercise authority over children and other females in the Western church context. Women are also commissioned as missionaries and sent to the furthest reaches of the world that the borders of God’s kingdom may expand. In this role they certainly teach, have authority, and pastor congregations of believers. Yet, women are excluded from teaching/pastoring roles where males are present in the same churches that commissioned them to the mission field. As a scholar of theology, I find this position inconsistent with scripture and harmful to the global church.
Not only is this position inconsistently applied within churches that do not affirm female leadership, it is damaging to women theologically, vocationally, and personally. When taken to its logical conclusion this position is also harmful to congregations in other countries that have been planted by female missionaries. Essentially, this position views male members of these churches who have been led to Christ and growth in spiritual maturity by a woman as less valuable than Western males, or less worthy of “proper” teaching, since they would not be permitted to receive instruction from a woman should they live in the United States.
To even begin a dialogue on this subject matter, it is crucial that we define a key term. The office of “Pastor” involves the grave responsibility of a person to watch over, care for, and provide instruction in righteousness to a congregation. “Pastor” literally translated means “shepherd.” Females are not automatically excluded from this office by any physical or mental differences that might prevent them from providing care and exhorting a congregation to reach spiritual maturity. However, it must be admitted that the church (global) has cited certain scriptural texts as foundational in the exclusion of women from the pastoral role. Here we briefly examine these passages in light of the entire canon.
At first glance, 1 Timothy 2:12 appears to preclude women from leadership roles, as Paul states “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.” Grammatically, “I do not permit” should be rendered as “I am not permitting,” which connotes a present restriction based on circumstance, not a universal ongoing prescriptive against all women everywhere. In the church in Ephesus there was a crisis of false theological teaching and many women were being led astray. Here Paul is not prescribing that every female from that date forward should not be allowed to authoritatively teach a man. Rather, Paul sought to prevent women who had not been officially recognized by the church from spreading false doctrine. As an example, Priscilla is present in Ephesus (see 2 Timothy) and explains to Apollos, a man, the way of God more accurately. In every passage about Priscilla and her husband’s ministry, her name is listed first. If Paul did not allow women to teach with authority, he would have called Priscilla out specifically and certainly not included her in multiple positions of honor in the scripture.
1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 discuss the role of overseer in the church, and these texts are utilized to prevent women from holding this office. 1 Timothy 3:1 reads “Anyone who desires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” “Anyone” is a gender neutral pronoun in the Greek. Should Paul have desired that this apply only to men, he could easily have used a male pronoun. In 1 Timothy 3:2, Paul states an overseer should be the “husband of one wife.” This is not meant to exclude persons who happen to be biologically female, but to prevent polygamist men and men who were sexually unfaithful to their spouses from taking this position of authority. Incidentally, the phrase “husband of one wife” is found in the King James translation of scripture. The NIV translates this phrase as “faithful to his wife.” In Titus 1:6, overseers are also told by Paul that their children must believe in Christ. If this were extrapolated to all men universally just as this passage is applied to all women, then no single men without children could be ordained. This would exclude Paul himself, as he was single and had no children.
Finally, a few words should be said on the created order between males and females. Genesis presents gender equality as the created order. Male and females were created equally in the image of God and were to hold dominion over the earth together. The word “helper” in the creation narrative should not be interpreted as the woman being subordinate, as it is not interpreted this way anywhere else in the OT (it may be translated as “strength, might, and assistance”). As Christians, we are called to live in the “already, not yet” of the eschaton, in which we already experience complete redemption and transformation in the blood of Christ, but we must continue to press forward as God’s Kingdom is not fully revealed on earth yet. God created male and female equal in his image, and we are called to live in equality and mutuality as Christ-followers waiting for the final revelation of the Lord. May we continue to press into this reality, affirming the call of God on our female ministers.
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