Two Sides on Women in Leadership

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Polarization is the word Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo use to describe the present debate concerning women in church leadership.

While the authors of Women in the Church, a biblical theology of women in ministry are careful not to be antagonistic knowing that sincere Christians line up on both sides of the issue. They are forceful in criticizing doctrinal restrictions against women from seeking leadership roles. They argue that men and women share equal status in all areas of life, which rightfully include active and equivalent participation in Church ministry.

Throughout the study, Grenz and Kjesbo continually refer back to two major and opposing factions. Traditionalists, or complementarians believe that men and women “complement” one another with equality that still includes recognizable differences of authority. Thus, “God created male and female equal but also designed the woman to complement the man by subordinating herself to his leadership.” Advocates of this position fret that long-standing traditions against women in ministry are being reconsidered due to societal forces rather than because of biblically-based motivation. Egalitarians, at the other end of the spectrum call for a reevaluation of the present status of women in the Church with the full confidence that Scripture has always maintained male-female mutuality.

The book spends two chapters tracing women’s roles within the early church of the Hebrew community through the medieval period and up to the 20th century. Egalitarians realize they are fighting against two-thousand-year-old traditions of male authority consistently cited by those not wishing any change. However, egalitarians insist that times of revival reveal a remarkable openness to women in ministry. Where women served in all areas of Church life throughout the first three centuries, by 400 A.D. they were excluded from active participation by church councils. Instead, the authors contend that Paul’s “Magna Carta” of humanity that states, “There is not longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ, (Gal 3:28),” should be considered primary over and above restrictive texts.

“silence” did not necessarily mean “not speaking.” Rather, it carried the notion of respect thought necessary for students to show their teachers.”

An intensive chapter is spent wrestling with the apostle Paul. Where some feel him misogynistic (women-hating), some believe his writing was intended just for those days, while others seek to transform him into a 20th-century feminist. Pauline’s statements against women are tackled head on in a detailed manner. Advice on head coverings (I Cor. 11) was probably offered in opposition to cultic rituals associated with unbound hair of female prophets. The authors argue these verses are not a direct mandate for women to wear material veils.

Injunctions about women’s silence (I Cor. 14) seem to contradict earlier assumptions about women praying and prophesying. Where complementarians believe the text to be a universal principle governing women’s activities in the Church, most egalitarians believe it a localized problem directed toward “certain women who were asking many questions that disrupted the worship service.”

The “foundational” verse cited by complementarians is found in I Timothy 2:11-15. Here egalitarians soften the command to “learn in silence” stating that the first century understanding of “silence” did not necessarily mean “not speaking.” Rather, it carried the notion of respect thought necessary for students to show their teachers.

The statement about “learning in submission” is similarly directed towards their attitudes when being taught. Nowhere, point out egalitarians, is there license to suggest “women to be in submission to either their husbands or male church leadership.” Having properly interpreted Paul, the authors suggest we follow his lead to welcome spiritually gifted women into ministry.

Stanley Grenz brings to this study a credible voice. As Professor of Theology and Ethics at Carey/Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., he is one of Canada’s most prolific and respected evangelical theologians. Denise Muir Kjesbo offers support to the study serving as assistant professor of Christian education at North American Baptist Seminary in South Dakota. Her insights provide an experiential flavouring having lived through these arguments her own personal struggle for respect as a woman in ministry.

If you are a woman struggling with your spiritual identity; if you are a male pastor questioning the strictures against gifted women in your congregation; if you simply wish to informed, this will be a text that you will go back to time and time again. It should set the standard for the debate on women in Church ministry for years to come.