Thursday, February 2, 2012

Women in Ministry (Part I): Why I'm glad to support women in ministry

My first genuine encounter with women in ministry happened in college. Week after week, I would listen to faithful women give powerful proclamation to the word of God. At that time, I'd never really given any thought as to whether or not it was permissible for a woman to preach to men or to serve on a church staff. The church I grew up in only had men in the pulpit, but I remember women taking a prominent role in many other aspects of church life. If that church had discussions about the role of gender in church life, they didn't have it with the teenagers. So college was the first time that I encountered women teaching and preaching in any significant way. It was, therefore, the first time I began a serious pursuit of what the Bible had to say about women in ministry. 

The women that first got me thinking about this issue weren't employed by any church. They were my peers at the Baptist Student Ministry at Texas A&M. We would often have students lead small group Bible studies and the larger weekly meetings. Some of the very best teachers/preachers were some of the women students. What is ironic, is that these women, for the most part, believed that it was unscriptural for women to preach. They would explain their own teaching by explaining that it wasn't in a church setting or that it wasn't really preaching. They'd call it testimony or something like that (I think Beth Moore does the same kind of verbal gymnastics). I always found that a little silly. In those days, we Baptist would often talk of having a foot-function, but everyone (including us) knew we were having a dance. The difference between teaching/preaching/offering a testimony is almost negligible.

It's easy to see how someone could come to the conclusion that women shouldn't preach. Passages like 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 restrict a woman's participation in worship. Passages like Colossians 3:18; Ephesians 5:22; Titus 2:5; and 1 Peter 3:1-6 speak of wives submitting to their husbands. Taken together, I can understand how reasonable, faithful Christians might conclude a woman should not preach in the churches.

Of course, to take that position, one has to either ignore or explain away all of the passage in the New Testament that seem to point in a different direction. Women play a prominent role in Jesus' ministry as well as Paul's (several even host churches in their houses). These women boldly witness of their faith in public among men and women (Acts 9:36; 16:14-15, 40; 18:26; 21:9). 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 has had the most impact on me. There Paul writes of women's active role in leading worship through prayer and prophesying (a form of preaching!). He writes matter-of-factly about this, only advising the women to dress modestly when they do so.

An honest reading of the scriptures must admit that both sides of this issue can use the Bible to make their case. I mean, in the book of 1 Corinthians alone we have Paul both permitting and prohibiting women from speaking! Therefore, it's not an issue of whether one believes in the Bible or not, but rather, how one has chosen to interpret the Bible. I've come to my interpretation, mainly, because I believe that when the gospel is most clearly expressed in the New Testament, it communicates the equal participation of men and women in the coming kingdom of God. Peter's sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21) quotes from the prophet Joel of a time when men and women will be filled with the Spirit and will prophesy of God's work in the world. Paul, likewise, notes, that in Christ Jesus, those old divisions that separate us from one another cease to divide (Galatians 3:28). I realize that others will come to other conclusions, but let be said, I have come to my position based on my study of the scriptures, not despite it (For a fuller treatment of this subject check out this brochure by my friend and former professor, Dr. Todd Still. It will be obvious that I've drawn from his work for this post.).

After college, I went to seminary, purposefully choosing a seminary that supported women and ministry. Even so, I knew that culturally, most of my friends still did not support either my decision to attend that seminary or to support women in ministry. Alyson and I began looking for a church in Waco. We looked and looked. We had heard good things about Calvary Baptist and their pastor Julie Pennington-Russell. But, even though we had come to a place where we were OK with women in ministry, we weren't quite sure we wanted to face all the conversations and criticism our friends and some of our family might direct our way for attending a church with a woman pastor. So we tried some other churches. We tried lots of churches. Nothing seemed to fit. Then we heard Julie speak at a conference for students and we knew that we needed to give Calvary a chance. After just a handful of Sundays we joined Calvary and Julie became our pastor. 

That experience changed my outlook completely from being one of passive to active support for women in ministry. I've been blessed to grow up under some excellent preachers, but Julie was by far the best. Her sermons challenged me to walk more faithfully with God and to fall ever more in love with our Savior Jesus Christ. I learned through that experience that the church that quiets female voices is an impoverished church indeed. How many other Julies sit in the pew each week, gifted by the Spirit, but not allowed or encouraged to speak. I still think those classmates back at A&M were (and probably still are) excellent preachers. I just wish they believed the same.

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