Women and church leadership

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I wanted to say a little bit more here about church leadership and my previous comments about churches needing both mums and dads.  I’m a complementarian which means that I believe men and women are created equally in God’s image and are co-heirs in Christ.  It also means that they bring different perspectives, gifts, roles both to marriage and to church. 

On that basis, I’ve been arguing for some time that eldership is male, however that leadership is about more than eldership and includes men and women.  If this is so, then it suggests that both complementarians and egalitarians alike have failed to give proper space for women to use their gifts for the benefit of the church and God’s glory.  Complementarians because they’ve assumed that only elders are involved in leading and that only men are elders. Therefore, there has been no place for the voices and discernment of women.  Egalitarians because they’ve been trying to force everything into a one size fits all instead of allowing those different types of gifts and different perspectives to truly flourish. 

The Biblical basis for this is as follows. First in 1 Timothy 3:11, there are instructions to  “the women” as part of the instructions to elders and deacons. These have sometimes been treated as instructions to “deacons’ wives” because the same word is used in Greek for “women” and “wives”.  However, it would be strange in the context to have instructions to wives of deacons but not wives of elders. So, I think there are three types of leader in 1 Timothy 3, elders, deacons and women. 

Then, there are other clues about New Testament church practice.  In Romans 16, Paul gives or sends greetings from some of his co-workers. These were key people in establishing, supporting and leading churches. They include Phoebe, described as a deacon/servant of a church. She is commended by Paul and it seems that she was the one entrusted to represent him and deliver the letter (v1).  Then you have Priscilla who with her husband had taken responsibility for teaching Apollos.  Notice that Priscilla is mentioned first (v3).

There are a few others such as Mary who worked hard on behalf of the church (v6), suggesting she has been set apart for some form of ministry, but of particular interest is Junia (v7). Her inclusion and the specific detail about her led some to amend the name, assuming a mistake to a masculine form. In recent times, others have suggested that there is no way that she could have been an “apostle” and so have interpreted the phrase “outstanding among the apostles” to mean that she was outstanding to them or considered “trustworthy (HCSB).  I’m not sure that this latter option really gets around the problem, the inevitable follow up question is “what was she trusted by them to do?”  I think the phrase is best taken at face value with Junia being outstanding, worthy of respect among the wider band of apostles. We would then distinguish the twelve (capital a) Apostles who had a foundational role as eyewitnesses of Christ’s life, death and resurrection and were chosen to reveal Scripture from others such as Barnabas, Timothy and Titus that seem to have had key roles, sent out as ambassadors of the church, often with a concern for the situation beyond one local church.

All of this means that women have a critical role to play in church life. Incidentally, I don’t think it needs us to do what Michael Bird does here in arguing that women were both patrons and pastors.  In fact the role of patron in the context of a local church’s needs at that time seems to have been around hosting and facilitating so that there is perhaps a nurturing dynamic at work meaning that this was a spiritual and not just practical responsibility.

In practice, I believe this means the following:

  1. We should find ways for women’s voices to be heard prophetically within the church.  How this will happen may depend from church context to context.
  2. Women should be involved in the spiritual leadership of the church, not just as practical deacons. Again, how that looks might vary from church to church.

Two ways in which I’ve seen churches approach this is first by setting specific women aside and encouraging them to look out for the spiritual care of women in the church.  Secondly by  ensuring that there are leaders’ meetings where elders and women leaders are present to enable conversations about pastoral care and discipleship where women leaders have their input. Again, specific practice will vary from church to church.

I believe it is possible to structure leadership in a way that is honouring to God, true to Scripture and where women are valued, their voices heard and their gifts used.

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