My Perspective on the Women in Ministry Debate

Sharon Church 24 Comments

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Last week I wrote a book review for Her.meneutics, the content of which led one commenter to assume I was hiding an obviously complementarian bias. This assumption made me laugh because I have, at others times, been “accused” of being egalitarian.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by these differing assumptions about my views, because women in ministry is not a topic I weigh in on often. Although I talk about women a LOT, I discuss the complementarian-egalitarian debate only rarely–at least on a public level. There are two reasons why I tend to avoid it. First, it is a deeply divisive topic. Too often one’s stance on this debate allows people to pigeon hole you theologically, and I don’t want my beliefs on one topic to eclipse beliefs that I feel are more important and central to the Christian faith.

I will get to the second reason in a bit.

Despite my pattern of avoidance, I have decided to share a little bit about my journey on this topic, not because my particular convictions on the issue are that revolutionary, but because the process that led me there is. I think you’ll understand what I mean as you read further.

To give you a little bit of background about my journey, I was raised in a PCUSA church but spent the last decade or so in a number of Southern Baptist churches. My last church, where I attended for 7 years, is complementarian. For a three year period I served at this church while attending Duke Divinity School, and this had a powerful and surprising impact on how I thought about gender roles and the church.

Although there were aspects of Complementarianism that I found troubling, I was more troubled by the lack of engagement with the topic at Duke. I would not say this is true of Duke on the whole, but on this particular issue I struggled to find any classmates who could adequately defend their egalitarian views based on Scripture. Most often they compared the verses about women to the verses about slavery and blithely brushed them off as cultural.

To me, this is a thoroughly inadequate approach to Scriptural interpretation. I was very dissatisfied with these answers and decided that if I had to choose between a complementarian church that took the Bible seriously or an egalitarian tradition that offered no sufficient exegesis on these difficult passages, I had to go with the complementarian church. Scriptural authority is too central to me.

So I remained at my church and continued to serve. Although I continued to think through these issues and wrestle with them, I am also someone who takes seriously the Biblical commands to submit to your church authorities, so the process remained largely private. That is the second reason why I have avoided engaging this topic on my blog. I did not want to risk subverting my church leaders by publicly wrestling with doctrines that my church upheld. I still stand by that conviction.

It has now been a year and a half since I left North Carolina to study in the Chicago area, and it has been an eye opening experience. I attend an evangelical seminary and all of my professors are egalitarian. We also joined a church whose leadership is egalitarian, something we discovered after a few visits. Additionally, I have encountered countless evangelical leaders and influencers who espouse egalitarian beliefs as they quietly (or not so quietly) give voice and opportunities to women in the church. And all of these people are doing so on Biblical grounds.

Since leaving North Carolina, I have been exposed to the very best Biblical, historical, and theological arguments for Egalitarianism. I had encountered them before, but it had always seemed like kind of a fringe movement of “liberals” within the evangelical tradition. I had never met orthodox, evangelical Christians who could defend their egalitarians views so Scripturally.

So, as I have continued to study this issue and and take a hard look at historical precedent, Scriptural teaching, the influence of culture on Scripture interpretation, Biblical ecclesiology, and the movement of the Holy Spirit, I have moved away from the complementarian position. I can no longer embrace it personally. To those of you who know me well you are probably not surprised by this–I think I was headed in this direction all along (especially since I have a father and husband who were encouraging me in this direction for years!).

However, that is not to say that I am taking up the egalitarian banner. As I have struggled with Complementarianism I have also wrestled with Egalitarianism. In particular, there are two issues that prevent me from owning the term for myself. The first is that I have yet to encounter a helpful egalitarian explanation of gender difference. Why would God create different genders if our only real differences are gifts alone? I’m sure some egalitarians out there have an answer to this question, but I have yet to find one that is satisfying to me.

Second, it is clear to me that Christian marriage must reflect the relationship between Christ and the church, and the Bible is clear that in this equation, men take on the role of head. My conviction on this topic might lead some to label me as a particular type of complementarian (some complementarians believe that gender roles apply to marriage alone), and I am somewhat comfortable with that but only if I can clarify the terms. In my marriage to Ike there is no power differential. We are partners, a team. Ike’s headship looks less like worldly leadership and more like that of Christ–he serves and he lays himself down in humility. I would love to say that I keep up with Ike in this Christlike model, but he is truly exemplary. He really does serve as the head of our family in the same way that we see Christ serve in Scripture.

All of that to say, this is a journey I am still on. Neither term has been especially helpful to me as I identify my own convictions, but I do see strengths in both positions.

With that in mind, the most important part of this process has been to blur my categories. I used to see complementarians as the faithful and egalitarians as the compromisers, and I can no longer make that distinction. However, I have been disappointed to learn that egalitarians are just as likely to stereotype complementarians as complemetarians are the reverse. While complementarians sometimes paint egalitarians as liberal activists who don’t take Scripture seriously, egalitarians often paint complementarians as chauvinists or ignorant naifs who simply don’t know any better.

To be sure, there are people who fit those stereotypes. For instance, there are bad apples on either side–complementarians who mask varying degrees of chauvinism behind theology, and egalitarians who have a humanistic ax to grind. Likewise, there are Christians in both camps who cannot tell you why they believe what they believe. Some complementarians cite vague cultural constructions about the place of women along with proof-texted verses, whereas egalitarians cite their own vague convictions about women’s rights and their own arsenal of scriptures.

We can sit around and knock down straw men all day. But the reality is that this is a topic on which godly men and women have, after careful reflection and extensive Bible study, come to very different conclusions. And they have done so in good conscience. It is because of this tension that I have trouble listening to anyone who generalizes the other side with sweeping stereotypes or accusations.

I have been on this journey for a long time and it has been a difficult one. However I am grateful for the path that God marked out for me because He has allowed me to be immersed in both “worlds” so to speak. Although it can be tempting to drift toward a black and white understanding of this debate, the spectrum of my experience usually rescues me from doing so.

As a final note, I want to be clear that the grace I show both sides is not the result of a blissfully positive experience in the complementarian tradition. I am sure that, to some egalitarians, I come across as one who has not been hurt by this debate, which is why I advocate for both sides so freely. But that is not the case. I have been hurt by complementarians in some ugly, un-Christian ways. However, I have also been defended against those same people by other complementarians. What’s more, some of the people who love me most, support me the most in ministry, and have been my most loyal friends are complementarians. Yes, I could focus on the times when men treated me like an inferior person, but to do so would not only overlook the far greater number of positive experiences, but it might also lead me down a path whose destination holds only bitterness and poisonous division.

That is why I will close this way too long post with a final caution. Disagreement is not unbiblical. We are are permitted to disagree and work through our problems in a godly manner. That said, both complementarians and egalitarians alike should study this issue and advocate whole-heartedly for the position they believe to be most biblical. However, we have GOT TO monitor the spirit with which these debates occur. When a divisive spirit infiltrates these discussions, two negative consequences are likely to occur: 1) Those with power will exercise it with even less sensitivity and do even greater harm to those who do not have power, and 2) Those without power will be heard even less as they forfeit their credibility, and the ensuing bitterness will pave a way for more destruction if they ever do gain power.

I hope to see neither consequence come to fruition. I do hope to see Christians find a way to hear one another, learn from one another, and love one another, even on topics which are incredibly heated and incredible personal, such as this one.

Comments 24

  1. Caroline

    Thanks for these words. I think it would be helpful to define the labels for those of us who aren’t surrounded by language like this everyday. We joined a PCA church in STL, but it allows women to do most everything except be ordained (and I learned this week that the lack of ordination distinguishes deaconesses from deacons in this church). Does that make us still complementation? I honestly don’t know. But a timely discussion, as John and I are helping teach a class on marriage and submission was the topic this week. I took the easy way out and volunteered to do the announcements.

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    Sharon

    Haha!

    And good point–I probably should have defined the terms. It’s a bit tricky because there is a lot of diversity within each position but they can be boiled down to the following:

    Complementarians believe that men and women are equal in value but were created for different roles. What those roles are depends on upon the complementarian you ask (The spectrum of debate ranges from church leadership, to the marriage relationship, to positions of leadership at secular jobs or in politics).

    Egalitarians also believe that men and women are equal but they believe that there is no role available to men that is not also available to women. Egalitarians therefore tend to place more emphasis on gifting.

  3. Tim

    Sharon, thank you for an irenic call to gracious and godly discussion on issues that tend to divide. This is instructive for us no matter what the issue under discussion may be.

    About 20 years ago, out elder board went over a study commissioned by the Conservative Baptist Association. The study came about because a few congregations in the Association wanted to ordain women, others thought that unbiblical and many did not know the right course to take (principally, whether it would become an issue of fellowship or not). The study came out with three presentations: complementarian, egalitarian and a middle ground. They were all well reasoned from Scripture, and each section’s presentation included a rebuttal from each of the other two positions.

    By the time I finished reading the study, I found myself leaning toward the egalitarian position, and that is the one I have been most drawn to over the years. But I can’t say it is because I am convinced beyond doubt that the others are wrong. Instead, it’s because it is the position that makes the most sense to me as I read the Bible as a whole. One thing I am convinced of, though, is that it is unbiblical to make this an issue of fellowship among God’s people.

    Thanks for another thought-provoker, Sharon.

    Tim

    P.S. Your her.me post was awesome, and don’t let anyone tell you different!

  4. Ed Stetzer

    I appreciate your winsome approach. People can (and do) come to different conclusions but honest interaction with other viewpoints (as you critiqued in your review) are needed.

    Appreciate you.

    Ed

  5. Laura

    Hi Sharon, you don’t know me, but I recently found your blog from a link on Her.meneutics. I want to say THANK YOU for this post. This exact issue has been on my mind a great deal lately. I identify with so much of your journey, as I also was raised in a PCUSA church, currently attend a (gently and respectfully) complementarian church, and I am starting Seminary this week. During my journey toward starting seminary, I have been confronted (by circumstances and by people) with this question over and over again. The more I think about it and read about it, the more convinced I become that it is not at all a black and white issue. I so appreciated reading about your process, as I am very much still in my own process of developing my convictions on this topic.

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    Sharon

    Thanks for all these wonderful comments! I will admit I was a little nervous to share this part of my life, so it’s great to know God is using my words to encourage others!

  7. Melody H Hanson (@melodyhhanson)

    God is using you Sharon, at least in my life this week both through your review and subsequent “conversation.” Your tone of Grace is poignant, when this topic can be so heated, especially for those of us who have had painful experiences in the church the reminder to be gentle, loving and forgiving is a good one.

    I have wondered why God made man and woman as well and conclude for companionship and procreation. (Just based on the creation narrative.) To me there isn’t anything else that differentiates us.

    I found Scot McKnight’s (Blue Parakeet) term of “Mutuality” descriptive of my conclusions about what God intended. I have seen it elsewhere (like with the Christians for Biblical Equality) but his chapters were extremely helpful to me because he is SO BIBLICAL, respects scripture which is so important to me.

    Anyway, thanks for teaching others through your values and restraint.

  8. Elizabeth Hagan

    I grew up in the SBC where women were not even allowed to be ushers. Somehow I finally saw a woman preach when I was 21 and now today at 31 am the senior pastor of an American Baptist congregation. The journey to this place was a hard one. And many don’t believe (from my past) that what I am doing is right.
    But, I know I’m in exactly in the right place and really don’t understand anymore what the fuzz is all about. I read the Bible in the context of its history. And, I have a very equal partnership sort of marriage. I do not submit or obey my husband anymore than than he does the same for me.

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    Sharon

    Elizabeth, thanks for sharing your thoughts and I’m glad you are in a good place.

    I do, however, think that the Biblical model for marriage–namely Christ and the church–is a bit more nuanced and mysterious than simple obedience and submission. My husband would no sooner ask me to submit to him than Jesus forces us to submit to him.

    Submission to God is a beautiful act of trust that becomes easier and less like “submission” as our hearts are united with His. Likewise, I have found that the longer we are married the more like-minded my husband and I have become. We rarely disagree on anything important and our relationship is defined by a wonderful mutuality. However, the sacrificial manner in which my husband loves me also helps me to trust his judgment on the very few occasions when we do disagree. Most of the time he defers to me and my preferences, but if there is ever a time when he has serious misgivings about something I have learned to really listen and take his judgment seriously.

    I think that process of learning to trust my husband is very similar to the process of a believer learning to trust God. It is an imperfect analogy, but in an individualistic world where trust and surrender to another person is a negative concept, I see this as an opportunity to witness to the gospel and stimulate the public imagination with the possibility that yes, in fact, there is a kind of love in which surrender is both safe and life-giving, and we have that kind of love in God.

  10. Tim

    Great insight in that comment, Sharon: “I have found that the longer we are married the more like-minded my husband and I have become.” Just wait until you’re approaching your 25th anniversary like we are; it’s a little scary how like-minded we are sometimes!

    And the way you describe the decision making process in your marriage sounds like a godly example of mutual submission. It also sounds pretty similar to our experience. Hmmm, maybe you’re already ahead of us old fogeys in this marriage game!

    Tim

  11. Rachel Ann Atkinson

    Sharon,

    I enjoy reading your blog! Thank you for sharing. You are a gifted writer and I appreciate your humility and graciousness. Do you have some articles or books that you recommend regarding a Biblical basis for egalitarianism? I’d like to read more.

    Rachel Ann

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  13. phil

    Thanks for this. Would you mind citing what you take to be the best articles on this issue, particularly the best case for an evangelical egalitarianism?

  14. Tim

    Rachel Ann, one book I found very helpful is Richard and Catherine Kroeger’s “I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence”. The New Testament word study scholarship is extensive, and they also brought out a lot of historical and cultural matters that I had never heard of but found helpful in understanding the early church in Ephesus.

    Hope this helps,
    Tim

  15. Eyvonne

    Sharon,

    Thank you for the thoughtful and careful way you have handled this topic. I am a complementarian from a complementarian tradition.

    I would be interested to know what arguments have been instrumental influencing your current view along with the scriptures that support those arguments . I agree completely with your description of the marriage relationship — which is closer to a complementarian perspective than egalitarian by my estimation.

    Specifically, as it relates to spiritual leadership in the church, what has been most influential moving you to a more egalitarian position?

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    Sharon

    Sorry for the delay in responding to some of your requests about relevant reading–it’s been one of those days!

    It’s hard to pin down one or two definitive books and articles that helped me come to my position because it’s such a combination of things that include sermons, lectures, conversations, etc. and I can’t remember where they all came from. However, here are a couple places to start:

    Two Views on Women in Ministry–this book has four authors, two for each of the two positions. I particularly liked Linda Belleville’s contribution. Her explanation of 1 Timothy was really helpful for me.

    For another complementarian position, I have heard that Scot McKnight’s book “The Blue Parakeet” is a great read, and he also just came out with an e-book called “Junia is Not Alone,” which examines the Biblical precedent for women in leadership.

    The following link will also take you to N.T. Wright’s defense of women in ministry:

    http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Women_Service_Church.htm

    Also check out the Groothius.

    Regarding complementarianism, John Piper and Wayne Grudem are the main authorities on the topic, but I would also recommend Wendy Alsup’s blog, Practical Theology for Women. Wendy is complementarian and I really respect and appreciate the way she teaches it.

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  18. Ingrid

    Thank you for your clear and, to echo others, irenic writing on this too often too acid discussion. Since coming to seminary in 2000 and discovering there was an “issue” with women (previously clueless that there was such a problem) I’ve read thousands of pages, exegeted the Greek and Hebrew (esp. creation accounts), spoken with spokespeople from various perspective and found I couldn’t in good conscience put up tent in either the very broad complementarian nor the egalitarian camp. I sighed some relief sitting in on Douglas Walker’s Fall 2011 dissertation defense on the role of women in the church. He entered his research complementarian, but concluded that the foundations of both camps are faulty. YES! One of the core issues lies in the meaning of “head” and approaching the text either with perspectives of organic-relationship or as authority-leadership. I’ve got to take a break from my own work and read his now completed dissertation! Will those who have attained “leadership” status all around be willing to consider the possibility of re-evaluating and abdicating entrenched positions and seek reconciliation between divisive factions? I’m hoping, praying and working with you, Sharon, that even if the camps remain, dialog may be pursued on these secondary matters with humility and dignity, setting the example as those who follow Christ. Thank you for your consistent, godly wisdom.

  19. Deborah

    Sharon,

    I stumbled upon your blog a few days ago and appreciate your honesty in this post. Yet, admittedly, I am baffled by your portrayal of your experiences at Duke Divinity School since I attended Duke Div the same years that you did and had a radically different experience regarding this issue.

    Unlike you, I grew up in a rather conservative, evangelical setting, where the Bible’s authority was taken seriously and women’s ordination was out of the question. I chose to go to Duke Div not serve the church in a leadership role, I thought such an option bordered on scandal, but to stretch my mind and to grow academically and spiritually in my faith.

    Then and now I continue to uphold the authority of the Bible and strive to live by Scripture’s words each day. Yet my experiences at Duke, and more specifically my interactions with Richard Hays and his writings on the topic of gender roles and women in ministry, provided me with the first and subsequently most eloquent articulation that I have ever encountered of a biblically grounded support for women in ministry. As a result, I am now ordained in the PCUSA, served a couple of years in parish ministry, currently work in campus ministry, and am in the process of getting my PhD as well.

    Your post and your portrayal of your experience at Duke pains me. Perhaps the two of us had different conversation partners or were asking different questions, but it is very difficult for me to reconcile my own experience at Duke with the one you have presented here.

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    Sharon

    Deborah, as I mentioned in the above post I don’t think my experience was true of Duke on the whole. In fact, I doubt my experience of this particular issue was true of Duke on the whole either. For whatever reason, the various classmates I tried to engage on this topic were repeatedly uninformed or even hostile to the discussion of the topic, and that led me to the kind of journey I had. I don’t think my experience is necessarily true of everyone, but the above story merely reflects my unique path. The circumstances, even if they were unusual, were what they were.

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    Sharon

    I should also add/admit that I did a poor job of engaging my professors on this topic. I intentionally mentioned my classmates alone in the above post, because it was their conversations that guided me. I felt judged for asking some of these questions about women in ministry and I think it caused me to shut down and disengage. However, had I pressed forward and studied alongside thinkers like Hays, I do think I would have had a different experience in retrospect.

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