One of the major controversies that separate churches to this day is the role women should or should not be allowed to play in ministry. The debate over women in leadership roles in the Church is not new. For a majority of my life, I had been taught to believe that women and men have separate roles to perform within the life of a congregation.
I never saw women in leadership roles in the church (Baptist) I grew up in.
Traditionally, women in the church cooked, cleaned, ushered, sang, greeted, taught Sunday school, etc. and supported the church financially through tithes and offerings. The Pastor, Assistant Pastor and Deacons were all male. Although women are the backbone of the American evangelical church, the leadership of the church is male dominated and many women in ministry are not allowed to apply their spiritual gifts in the full life of the church.
Despite their diverse trajectories to faith and ministerial service, and varied socialization and experiences in community and ministry, they stand in concert on this dispute – women are indispensable to the life of the church and it is wrong to exclude them from leadership opportunities. Yet, many churches restrict the leadership roles available to women in ministry.Having worked in corporate America for over 20 years, I have personal experience with its glass ceiling, so I can certainly recognize the stained-glass ceiling endemic in the American church beyond which women struggle to rise in vocational ministry/leadership.
Unfortunately, this patriarchal paradigm has not shifted much. When I look around our churches on Sunday morning, the pews are populated by women and the pulpit by men. Women constitute the majority of its congregants, committee members, and financial contributors, but not its pastors or deacons. Absent the participation of women, or as author Cheryl Townsend Gilkes asserts, “If It Wasn’t For The Women . . .” in even traditional roles, I am afraid to think what would become of the church? In his book,“The Resignation of Eve: What If Adam’s Rib Is No Longer Willing to Be the Church’s Backbone?”Jim Henderson also posits this very concern. The church discriminates against women in ministry by making distinctions between the roles men and women perform in the church. No person, called and gifted by God, should be denied any role in ministry or leadership in the Church because of their gender. As Dr. Daniels stated so succinctly, “When Moses can’t come, Miriam and Aaron are still there!”
Historically, opponents of women in ministry center the heart of the gender debate on certain verses in the New Testament, which seem to ban women from ministry positions in the church. Specifically,
1 Corinthians 14:34–Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says (NRSV).
1 Timothy 2:11-12–Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent (NRSV).
We have many proofs from Paul himself, however, that he is not addressing women who were in the ministry, but rather those in the congregation who were out of order. Paul supported a number of women in influential positions of leadership in the early church, i.e., Pheobe, Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche, and Junia to name a few. There are other women throughout the Bible in positions of leadership, such as prophetesses, evangelists, judges, leaders, etc. If Paul believed that all women should never teach or speak in church, why does he commend many women who did just that?
God placed several godly women and men at strategic and crucial times in my journey. My journey began in what is known as “store-front” churches. Now that I think about it, this was a blessing becauseit was at these small, non-traditional, non-denominational churches where I first saw women pastors, prophets, evangelists, and missionaries. This image of women in leadership positions in the church stayed with me. Many years later, when I visited and eventually joined Progressive Community Church under the leadership of Sr. Pastor Rev. B. Herbert Martin, Sr., it was refreshing and reaffirming of the call God had placed on my life to see women participating in every aspect of ministry from the back of the church to the pulpit. I have served as an ordained minister at Progressive since 2008. In addition to me, there are three (3) other ordained women clergy and two (2) female ministers in training serving alongside our male counterparts. This freedom to serve as God ordained is not the norm for women in ministry but it is the prize we have our eyes fixed on.
God’s plan of ministry includes women, for He is no respecter of persons. He is looking at faith, not gender: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NIV).The 21st century church has not made a lot of progress in gender equality or in promoting an inclusive culture for women in ministry, but the landscape is changing and it must change. The body of Christ requires a balance of male and female leadership to remain whole and healthy. How do we get there?
Our panelist offered many inspirational words of wisdom on moving forward: a) we get there by bringing the whole of who we are – intellect and passion, memory and hope, wounds and prayer – to the table using every gift God has given us for the sake of the Kingdom to the glory of God;b) women need to use their agency and bring together open-minded opponents and supporters to continue the conversation on gender equality aimed at achieving an inclusive culture in our churches;c) women must support and encourage one another and stop waiting for someone else to affirm them; d) reconsider giving money to organizations, events, and churches that dismiss equality and remember women are a powerful economic influence, not to be dismissed; and last but not least, e) rely on God’s provision and we will be victorious!
Be encouraged ladies. When Jesus met the woman at the well, He began the movement to take down the “For Men Only” signs and replace them with “whosoever will.”
Rosalind’s Reading Recommendations:
Gilkes, Cheryl Towsend. If It Wasn’t for the Women…: Black Women’s Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community (Orbis Books: New York, 2001).
Henderson, Jim. The Resignation of Eve: What If Adam’s Rib Is No Longer Willing to Be the Church’s Backbone? (Tyndale Momentum: Illinois, 2012).