A Biblical Case for Women Leaders in the Church (Yes, That Means Pastors, Too)

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As with most progressive issues in the Christian community, the case for women in leadership seems to boil down to one side saying, "This is outdated thinking," and the other saying, "But, the Bible!" As someone who loves Scripture, I am worried about arguments like these destroying its perceived relevance. The Bible, and the values taught within it, are the core foundation of Christianity. The issue here is that we are throwing away those core values for a specious defense of our own backward traditions.

Stop Reading the Bible Backwards

So let's get this straight: The Scriptures, as a whole, are about a parental deity, God the Father, dealing with and speaking to a childish and backward society. They are NOT a divine defender of past traditions and customs. This is not my interpretation of Scripture; it is exactly what Scripture itself says it is. Behold:

In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. - Galatians 4:3-5 ESV (Feel free to read the whole chapter)

He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. - Matthew 19:8 (Remember this one, as we are going to talk about it in a bit)

Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew, and your forehead brass - Isaiah 48:4 ESV (God throws a really poetic burn)

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. - Hosea 11:1 ESV

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. - John 16:12 ESV

There are a lot more, but we'll pause for now. The point here is this: Today, we interpret Scripture against the present. Because of this, it seems to be pulling us back. However, Scripture was written to people in the past, directing them to the future. If you just take a moment, you will see that the direction Scripture points us to is a future where women are leading our communities just as much as men. This "future" is called the Kingdom of God.

Let's Fix Some Street Signs

Remember Matthew 19:8 (Look up)? I bet that you remembered this verse as "allowed you to divorce," when in fact it says, "allowed you to divorce your wives." Jesus is talking to gasp MEN! In the time of the Old Testament, and largely still in the context of Jesus's time, women were property. Marriage isn't what we think of today; it was a form of ownership where men OWNED women.

In Moses's time, when a man grew tired of his wife, he would just go marry another. His older wife, now discarded, still belonged to him and was trapped in loneliness. The instruction from Moses for men to provide their wives a certificate of divorce (Deuteronomy 24) was an act of MERCY towards WOMEN. An act, by the way, that Jesus now indicates is from a rather disgusting tradition.

Sadly, many perverted church communities use these verses to shame women from freeing themselves of abusive husbands, or anyone from a toxic relationship. However that is BACKWARDS to the intent and purpose of what Jesus is trying to teach.

Here's another one:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. - Ephesians 5:22 ESV

What a doozy! Oh, the countless times this verse has been spoken to a woman crying with a black eye under the perverse veneer of religious zealotry. Again, we are reading it backwards. If you read the entirety of Ephesians 5, (Go on, I'll wait), it paints a picture of a very mutual relationship of respect. An idea, by the way, that was extremely radical for the time. It is a call for some measure of equality, worded gracefully for a time where women were property.

A Biblical Game of Chicken

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For those of you who are still skeptical, who are still holding to those couple of Bible verses that seem so clear and comfortingly black and white, let me give you a few of the big ones:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. - 1 Timothy 2:12 ESV (Ouch)

Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse. - 1 Peter 2:18 NET (What?!)

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. - Exodus 21:7-8a ESV (That's very illegal now)

Greet one another with a holy kiss. - Romans 16:16 ESV (I DARE YOU)

How far are you willing to go being over-simplistic and pretending that all Scripture is just cut-and-dry law? You have two options: either Scripture is truly irrelevant and cherry-picking verses you like as law and ignoring others makes you a hypocrite, OR you can understand most of Scripture isn't cut-and-dry commands but advice or temporary arrangements dealing with terrible and often barbaric cultures.

The Real Commandments of Scripture are VERY Clear

What frustrates me the most is that the same people who read advice and instruction given to a different culture as "black-and-white" pretend that the immutable commands of Jesus are "guidelines." Scriptures give us clear commands, principles and values for living, and they are universally relevant in all times, cultures, and contexts:

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” - Matthew 12:29-31 ESV

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ - Matthew 25:40 ESV

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. - John 13:34-35 ESV

Do you notice the difference? These commands are what we, as the children of God, are supposed to have as our compass. They tell us the direction we are supposed to go. If we put the previous verses in the proper context of cultural development, you can see that they point in the same direction. Scripture isn't the problem; reading it without the love of Christ is the problem.

Back to Women

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OK, now that the muck is cleared away, the Scriptures are full of gender-equality and pro-women messages:

  • How about that time Deborah, a woman, ruled all of Israel (Judges 4-5)? I'm pretty sure that means she had "authority over a man."
  • Rahab, a prostitute and spy, help Israel conquer Jericho. She is listed as an ancestor of Christ (Matthew 5:5) and declared as a model of great faith (Hebrews 11:31).
  • And let's not forget that Jesus appeared to women first after his resurrection. (Matt. 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–11; Luke 24:1–10; John 20:1–18).
  • Jesus used women as the protagonist in many of his parables, included them in his ministry, and treated them with respect far above what was acceptable in the culture of his time. (Luke 8:43–48, John 4:7–42, John 8:1–11, Matt. 15:21–28, Mark 7:24–30).
  • Acts 21:8–9 mentions that the four daughters of Philip the evangelist were known for their gifts of prophecy (which means that they were talking in church).
  • Acts 18:26 describes Priscilla and Aquilla teaching Apollos, an apostle in need of further training.

"Ok sure, but you don't have any examples of women actually leading a church." You're right, I don't. But I also know why: It was simply impossible. In those days, a woman leading a church would have ended in all of them being killed (more than usual) and the Gospel would never have had a chance to grow. And if you don't think God works like that, remember this:

To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. - 1 Corinthians 9:22 ESV

There is No Gender in the Kingdom of God

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. - Galatians 3:28 ESV

The Kingdom of God is not "heaven;" it is the world Jesus came to help us build. We aren't supposed to be twiddling our thumbs waiting to die and have God fix everything for us. We are called to build of Kingdom of God here and now. Heck, it's the whole point of The Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13).

Jesus explained that there is no room for owning each other in the Kingdom of God (Mark 12:25), and Paul repeated that value in Galatians 3:28 above. Seeing each other through race and gender is part of the fallen world, not the Kingdom to come. Hasn't history already shown that each step we make toward this vision creates a better world? Do we want to go backwards?

But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? - Galatians 4:9-10 ESV

Without a Few Verses, There Would Be No Hiding

So let's be honest, if it were not for those few passages in Scripture being perversely used out-of-context, there is nothing left to fuel this debate over women leadership other than pure sexism, misogyny, and men fearing a loss of power over women. The values and principles of Scripture are against such attitudes, with the exception of extreme grace and patience God has shown humanity on its way here, but time is up.