Supporting Women in All Levels of Ministry?

I support women in all levels of leadership in the Church.

I did not always have this “view,” but after years of praying, wrestling, discussing, listening, fasting, and praying some more, I came to this conviction some time ago, and while it has been questioned, pushed back, and tested, I remain convicted. It is a view that endears me to some, and umm, makes me a quasi-heretic to others.

[Insert ‘Farewell, Eugene Cho’ joke here...]

But wherever we stand, kneel, or sit on the “issue,” we should all agree that our convictions and beliefs are not formed for the pleasing and pleasure of people. We seek to faithfully serve the Lord. And while it may tempting, we should also agree to never vilify or demonize those who have different views – even while acknowledging and contending for our convictions. For such reasons, I would never disavow a Christian or a colleague for having a different view and would hope that they would extend ‘egalitarians’ that same grace. Ultimately, we serve the same Lord and preach the same Gospel!

It would be erroneous for me to say that Asian culture is entirely prone to be against women, but I can share my personal experience that, as a young Korean man, I was influenced – partly through the Confucian culture and worldview that women were born to serve their fathers as young girls, their husbands when they got married, and their grown sons when they were older mothers. Their lives and purpose – in part – revolved around men.

As a believer of the Christian faith, I learned – in bits and pieces (both in subtle and occasionally in direct ways) that women should be our “partners.” They should be quiet, submissive, and know their place. Obey and honor their fathers, love and submit to their husbands, and raise godly sons and daughters.

Well, I guess this is the serious, biblical, and theological entry in response to the satire entitled – 10 reasons why men should not be ordained for ministry. And to give you a little context, this is what I wrote in an earlier post about supporting women in ministry:

…we have to ask how are we as revolutionary followers of Jesus – who debunked the systemic structures during his life – working, living, ministering, writing, speaking and creating to work towards that end.

Power [authority], voice, and influence are not easily pursued [and obtained]. It must be distributed and shared from those who have that very power, voice, and influence. And because it is so counter-cultural, we have to be that much more intentional.

As a male, I am embarrassed at times at the manner in which we [men] directly, indirectly, or systemically oppress our sisters. While there’s a legitimate female candidate for the president of this country, there are many [in the church] who still wonder if women should be in leadership. I know that [for them], it’s a biblical issue and not intended to be a personal issue, but why would women want to subject themselves to these questions again and again and again…

Sadly, this is an issue and conversation that will continue until “the Day of the Lord.” Many have already drawn their lines in the sand, and others are on the fence. Regardless, this entry is shared for the purpose of calling each of us to a deeper engagement of the Scriptures since we are called to be women and men not simply propelled by human observations or popular culture but also compelled by biblical revelation and the life of Jesus Christ.

Why do churches, pastors, and Christians believe that women should not be allowed in all levels of leadership and ministry? The unanimous answer is usually:

Because the Bible says so.

Yes, there are places in the New Testament that lend support to that belief. But the more substantive question we should we asking is,

  • “What do the Scriptures mean?”
  • “How do we read the Scriptures?”

I believe in the authority of the Scriptures. I believe in the Word of God. But I also believe that the Bible was written in context and culture and subsequently, we must – with deep prayer and discernment – study, interpret, and be guided by the Holy Spirit.

Let’s be honest:

If the Bible were easy to interpret, we wouldn’t need to study, teach, preach, write, exegete, etc.

Many will say that reading the Bible in such a way is dangerous because it leads us to a “slippery slope.”

Umm, interpreting the Bible as the Word of God is serious business. Anytime we attempt to speak on behalf of God is serious. Period.

It is for that reason that my support for women in leadership is compelled by the Scriptures –

  • the narrative of God’s creation of mutuality in Genesis
  • the life of Jesus Christ
  • the distribution of the spiritual gifts in the Pentecost
  • and the context of Paul’s instructions to the early Church.

My concern is that we often park the bulk of our reasoning behind “forbidding” women into all levels of leadership on the 4th bullet point.

For your reading, examination, and feedback, I’ve copied and pasted a lengthy portion from Called & Gifted – a publication by Evangelical Covenant Church. Quest is part of the ECC, and I am also ordained through this denomination. I was writing a long post and just lost steam. The authors of this publication do a better job articulating a “biblical basis for the full participation of women in the ministries of the church.”

What do you think? Why do you believe what you believe? How do the Scriptures inform what you believe?

My sincere hope is that we can respectfully engage in this conversation – regardless where we stand on this “issue.”

– [originally written in 2008]

What is the biblical basis for this position?

We believe in the Holy Scriptures, the Old and the New Testaments, as the Word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct. Our tradition, therefore, has always been to ask, “Where is it written?” on matters of faith, doctrine, and conduct. Our position on women in ministry flows from our high view of Scripture and is not derived from cultural or societal trends. We believe that “women ought to minister not because society says so but because the Bible leads the Church to such a conclusion.” There are several interpretive frameworks through which people arrive at their conclusions about the subject of women in ministry. This document unpacks the interpretive framework through which the Covenant arrives at its position. We invite those who are in agreement, those who are still searching, and those who disagree to look through the same window with us to see what we see. This document outlines, from creation through redemption, the biblical basis for our position and reflects our conviction that the Bible, in its totality, is the liberating word.

Creation.

From the beginning, the Bible reveals God’s plan for human beings as one of community, unity, equality, and shared responsibility. Both men and women were created in God’s image, and God initiated a relationship with both, without preference for one or the other. In addition, God charged both women and men equally with the blessings and responsibilities of childrearing and dominion over the created order (Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2).

The fact that both men and women were created in God’s image is particularly significant. God’s plan for community and unity was based on the equality of the human beings God had created and on their equal participation and full partnership. The Hebrew words “ezer knegdo” are used as a descriptor for woman in Genesis 2:18. “Ezer” is frequently translated as “helper,” which some have come to interpret or understand as an inferior or one in a supporting role. Unlike the English word “helper,” the Hebrew “ezer” implies no inferiority; in fact, this word most frequently refers to God in the Old Testament, meaning protector or rescuer. 2 Its modifier, “knegdo”, means “suitable,” “face to face,” “equivalent to,” or “visible,” and indicates that God created an equivalent human being to be a good companion for man. This rules out authority and subordination for either man or woman.

Some would argue that the fact that woman was formed from man creates both preeminence and authority for the man. There is nothing in the text that supports this interpretation. Rather, the text emphasizes that man was incomplete, and God kindly created for him a suitable companion (Genesis 2:21-23). God’s loving act to alleviate man’s loneliness did not produce an inferior being; rather God created an equivalent human, underscoring the unity and equality of all human beings.

Finally, some point out that the Bible frequently refers to God as male.

Four points should be made concerning this matter.

  1. The Bible affirms that God is spirit (John 4:24) and has no body or biological sex, as we do.
  2. While the Bible often refers to God as male, this is the language of comparison, employing simile and metaphor. We should remember that Scripture refers to God as a rock and a fortress (Psalm 31:2-3), Jesus refers to himself as a mother hen (Luke 13:34), and God refers to himself as rot and a festering sore (Hosea 5:12). These are examples of God condescending to explain himself by comparison to forms we can understand. Yet these descriptions do not alter the basic teaching that God is spirit.
  3. The limits of human language limit our understanding. Most languages do not have a neutral-gender pronoun (e.g., “it”) that can successfully refer to a higher-order animate being (e.g., a human) let alone a deity, even if that deity is perceived to be without biological sex or gender. The lack of appropriate terminology limits our ability to apprehend phenomena that is normally outside the range of human experience. Lacking appropriate pronouns for God, we substitute male pronouns, with the result that they sometimes shape our perception of God in unintended ways, even while serving to make God more personal.
  4. Finally, in Jesus, God assumed particularity. That is, Jesus was a male Palestinian Jew. Yet neither his Jewishness nor his maleness is meant to be a standard used to exclude Gentiles or women from full participation in the Christian community. The New Testament affirms that in this particularity, Jesus becomes the one for all, the one who draws all to him (John 12:32).3 It was on this issue that Paul opposed Peter (Cephas) at Antioch when Peter withdrew from fellowship with Gentile believers (Galatians 2:11-14).

Paul believed that the truth of the gospel is that old distinctions and divisions ought to have no power or efficacy in Christ. The old, said Paul, has passed away. The new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Effects of Sin.

Sin entered the world through both the man and the woman. They were co-participants in the fall and are equally culpable (Genesis 3:6; Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22).

One of the key results of sin was—and continues to be—the break in unity and fellowship between humans and God, as well as between Adam and Eve. As a result of sin, Adam began to rule over Eve (Genesis 3:16). This hierarchy is an unwanted result of sin and is not God’s prescription. It violates God’s original plan for unity, equality, fellowship, and community. When in discussion with the authorities concerning the law of Moses, Jesus laid down the principle that the standard is the original intention of God found in Genesis 1 and 2 (Matthew 19:3-9).

Another unwelcome result of sin was the corruption of the ensuing culture, which led to hostilities among people and culminated in the oppression and exclusion of those considered to be weaker classes: the poor, the sick, women, the unclean. The Old Testament records these customs, as well as the longing for the day when all creation would be redeemed. The redemption would include the elimination of barriers and reconciliation between former enemies. Isaiah prophesies, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

The Old Testament prophets foretold the Messiah as the one who would bring about a feast for all people, would heal the blind, the deaf, and the lame, would proclaim release to the captives and freedom for the oppressed (Isaiah 61). It is significant that Luke 4:16-21 records Jesus quoting this very passage before announcing that in him it is fulfilled.

Additionally, the prophets pointed to a time when “You shall be called priests of the LORD, you shall be named ministers of our God” (Isaiah 61:6) and to a time when God’s Spirit would be poured out on all believers (Joel 2:28-29), both young and old, men and women. This was later confirmed when Peter wrote, “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5) and “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9) This is confirmed again in Revelation, where it is repeatedly declared that all those who believe in Christ will be priests: “To him who…made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:5-6) “ you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God…” (Revelation 5:10) and “…they will be priests of God and of Christ…” (Revelation 20:6)

The hierarchical, divisive, and patriarchal customs that developed are not God’s ideal order. God’s ideal order, plainly stated through the prophecies about the Messiah, is one of healing and reconciliation. God’s ideal order eliminates the effects of sin, including class divisions, hierarchy, and oppression. It restores the original unity, fellowship, and community between God and humans and between men and women. It reestablishes the God-designed equality of women and men.

The Jesus Paradigm and Redemption

During Christ’s life, he exhibited in his teaching and practices the very qualities that were prophesied: he touched lepers, spoke to women, and consorted with tax gatherers. By doing so, Jesus modeled the new kingdom and challenged the prevailing sexist and divisive prejudices, tearing down the divisions and restrictions that had arisen as the result of sin. Jesus saw women as persons of equal worth to men and rejected existing practices that devalued women (see Matthew 19:29; 26:6-13; 27:55-56, 61; Mark 5:21-43; 10:11-12; 15:40-41, 47; Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28; 13:10-17; 24:10-11; John 4:7-42; 11:2-45; 12:1-8; 19:25). This pattern is evident in his teachings (a woman plays the role of God in the parable of the lost coin) and his actions (in clear violation of Jewish tradition, Jesus invited both men and women to receive theological and spiritual instruction from him).

Jesus also taught and practiced servant leadership and the empowerment of others. According to Jesus, leadership is about servanthood, not authority. Passages in the Gospels such as Luke 22:24-30 and John 13:13-17 record Jesus’ teaching on this subject and show that Jesus ushered in a paradigm that was counter to the existing culture of hierarchical systems and authority. The remainder of the New Testament continues this teaching of servant leadership, emphasizing that spiritual gifts are given to serve others and build the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11– 16; Philippians 2:3-11; Galatians 5:13; 1 Peter 5:2-3).

Most importantly, Jesus Christ came to fully redeem all people, women as well as men. Paul emphasizes that all who believe in Christ are redeemed from sin and become new creations. Not only do we who believe become the children of God and equal heirs, but we also become one in Christ.

These blessings come through our faith in Christ, independent of our racial, social, physical, or gender distinctions (John 1:12-13; Romans 8:14– 17; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 3:26-28). In the world, characteristics such as “maleness” or “femaleness” function as primary markers of personal definition and are used to assign rank, status, and worth. In Christ, we are instead defined by being a new creation in Christ. As a result of becoming a new creation, a believer’s primary identity is his or her new life in Christ. Our old identities—those of gender, race, or social class—become secondary to our true identity in Christ.

In our culture, like that of Jesus and Paul, maleness and femaleness matter. But our beliefs and practices ought not to be determined by earthly cultures, as our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). The domination of one group by another group is one of the effects of sin that Jesus came to abolish. In its stead, the New Testament affirms Christian community as marked by mutual interdependence, where differences are not to be of any advantage or disadvantage (Galatians 3:28). The result is a new community with new kingdom realities.

For believers to continue subordinating other humans is contrary to our new identities in Christ and contrary to the new kingdom community. We can choose to model the coming eschatological community (Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven), or we can choose a hierarchical model conformed to this sinful world.

The New Kingdom and the Church as a Fellowship of Believers

The New Testament gives a model for the fellowship of believers. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit filled both women and men alike, with no distinction made on any basis. The Holy Spirit is sovereign and distributes gifts without preference and without regard to the strictures of a fallen world (Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:7, 11; 14:31).

As a result of this unbiased indwelling of the Holy Spirit, women were involved in all ministry positions and activities, including apostle (Romans 16:7), prophetic speaking (Acts 1:14; 2:15-18; 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5,10), serving as ministers, leaders, elders, or governors (Romans 16:1), coworkers (Philippians 4:2-3; Romans 16:3-5; Acts 18:2, 18-19), and gifted teachers who instructed men (Acts 18:24-26).

The Bible also teaches that after Pentecost, both women and men receive spiritual gifts without regard to their gender, both are called to exercise and develop these spiritual gifts, and both are called to be faithful managers of those gifts that have been freely given to them (1 Peter 4:10-11).

Both men and women are to use these divine gifts to serve one another without restriction (Acts 1:14, 8:4, 21:8-9; Romans 16:1-7, 12- 13, 15; 1 Corinthians 12; Philippians 4:2-3; Colossians 4:15). Based on these examples, we conclude that spiritual authority comes from God and is not determined by our gender. Authority is a spiritual function not a function based on our physical attributes. The result of ministering to one another according to our spiritual gifts is that the church becomes a true fellowship of believers characterized by mutual participation in and sharing of the new life in Christ.

How does the church understand biblical passages that seem to restrict women’s ministry in the church?

There are passages that seem to advocate a restrictive view of women and their place within the Christian community, such as 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:34-35; and 1 Timothy 2:9-15. To ignore any of the passages relevant to this issue is to damage the integrity of the biblical witness and to abdicate our responsibility to be biblical people. However, these passages, though not entirely clear, must not be interpreted in a way that contradicts the rest of Scripture. Space allows only summary consideration of these texts.

First Corinthians 11:2-16 is among the most obtuse passages in the New Testament, yet its main instructions are sufficiently clear. Paul offers instruction on the decorum of those who pray and prophesy. To “prophesy” in the Bible is to speak God’s word. Most often, this takes the form of cogent teaching delivered to the faithful at the behest of the Holy Spirit.

This is the case in 1 Corinthians, where the term “prophecy” is aimed at instruction and exhortation (14:31). It is worth noting that the New Testament identifies men (Silas in Acts 15:32) and women (the four daughters of Philip in Acts 21:9) with the role of prophet. The combination of “pray” and “prophesy” suggests that Paul is referring to public leadership and instruction of the saints. Paul asserts the clear teaching of “nature” is that women should have their heads covered while men should be bareheaded when praying and prophesying. He then claims that women should have their heads covered because of the angels, and because man is the image of God, while woman is the image of man.

While the meanings of the allusions to nature, angels, and creation are difficult to discern, the central issue in the passage is not. The question is how women should conduct themselves while they pray and prophesy, not whether or not they should pray and prophesy. Paul’s argument about nature appears not to reference the created order (after all, Genesis 1 asserts that male and female together are the image of God, and as a Jew, Paul was aware of the vow mentioned in Numbers 6:1-7 by which men did not cut their hair but allowed it to grow long), but rather the then common cultural order of Roman civilization. This is confirmed in verse 11 where the “natural” pattern of gender hierarchy is set in contradistinction to the very different pattern of the Christian community in which woman is as essential to man as man is to woman.

Similarly, it is possible that the term “angels” is a symbolic reference to local customs and culture (see Revelation 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). Whatever else may be said of this passage, it is clear that Paul believed the Spirit led both women and men to pray and prophesy. The rub, as with the discussion of the Eucharist that follows, is that many in the Corinthian congregation were using the church to pursue their own worldly agenda. They celebrated the Eucharist in emulation of pagan feasts that reinforced social status. Paul claimed this practice indicated they had not understood the leveling effects of the work of Christ: differences exist but are not to be of any advantage or disadvantage in the body of Christ.

Socially pretentious women at this time chose to go about in public with their heads uncovered in an attempt to assert social superiority. The point Paul makes here, as with the Eucharist, is that he will not brook efforts at self-glorification that seek to use the Christian community to achieve that end. In 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Paul writes that women should keep silent in the churches, that they should be submissive, and that if they want to be taught, they should ask their husbands at home. At first blush, this seems a rather unbending injunction. However, we must remember that Paul has already argued that women may pray and prophesy (chapter 11). We should also not fail to note that Paul has in view not women generally but wives whose questions about Christian theology and practice have apparently disturbed the worship service. Paul commends their interest but urges them to seek instruction at home.

In what is generally regarded as the most restrictive passage in Paul’s letters, 1 Timothy 2:9-15, Paul claims that he permits no woman to teach or to have authority. While this passage frequently is used to support the claim that Paul (or the Bible as a whole) is against women having authority in matters of Christian faith and practice, this can only be maintained if 1 Corinthians and Romans, among other New Testament documents, are removed from consideration. If Paul did not intend this text as a universal principle for all cultures at all times, then there is no case for restricting women in ministry.

How can this be understood?

As always, we must look at the historical context and translation issues. There are several reasonable explanations of this passage that do not lead to the conclusion that Paul restricts women for all time.

First, the word for “authority” (authentein) is rare in Greek literature, and often means, “to domineer.” This definition makes more sense in the passage than “authority,” as it explains Paul’s recourse to Genesis: it is not God’s plan for women to domineer men, after all Eve was not created first (1 Timothy 2:13-14). It is significant that Paul does not go on to argue that men, therefore, have the right to domineer women. First Timothy 4:3 and 2 Timothy 3:6-7 indicate certain women in the church at Ephesus had come under the influence of false teaching. In light of the fact that heresy was beginning to appear in the church, Paul may be trying to silence the heresy, not women. For example, his intent may have been to say,

“When women are the source of heresy, they are not allowed to teach,” which is no different than his silencing of male heretics in Acts 18. It is possible that Paul is suggesting that these women (i.e., heretical women) should not be allowed to teach and so to domineer/to have authority. It is also quite possible, even likely, that Paul is employing a poetic device parallel to that used in Matthew 6:20 “where thieves do not break in and steal.” The purpose of the first action is to accomplish the second, that is, one breaks in with the purpose of stealing. Read in this fashion Paul’s intent is to say, “I permit no woman to teach if her aim is
to domineer.”

One can conclude that it is possible that in these passages Paul offers injunctions against women in leadership roles within the Christian community. But, if so, they stand in stark contradiction to other clearly authoritative passages where Paul strongly supports, expresses appreciation for, and advocates for women in leadership roles in the church. Since the totality of Scripture must inform our thinking and practice, and since Paul’s thought on women and ministry ought to be consistent throughout his letters, the passages seem to make the most sense when read as suggested above. To claim that Paul did, indeed, intend to restrict women in ministry for all time and all cultures is to attribute inconsistency to Paul and his teaching, which creates a greater burden of proof than does our conclusion, which is as follows:

Based on our examination of the Scriptures as a whole, we humbly conclude that qualified men and women, whether clergy or lay, are free to exercise their God-given gifts in all ministry and leadership positions in the church. As a result, the Evangelical Covenant Church licenses, commissions, and ordains qualified men and women. We encourage our pastors and congregations to recognize, develop, encourage, and use the spiritual gifts of women and men, clergy or lay, in all areas of service, teaching, and leadership, including preaching and pastoral roles.  

Eugene ChoEugene Cho is the co-founder (with his wife) and executive director of One Day’s Wages—“a movement of People, Stories, and Actions to alleviate extreme global poverty.” He is also the founding and lead pastor of Quest Church and the founder and executive director of Q Cafe—a non-profit community cafe and music venue in Seattle. Eugene is considered one of the prominent bloggers on issues of justice, faith, ministry and utilizing social media for good. You can follow him via his blog or Twitter. 

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