Almost every day the debate simmers over the role of women in the church, a topic that appears to me to be escalating, potentially causing further fragmentation in the Christian community. Each blog post, article, and conversation rightly involves discussion of relevant scriptural texts including passages out of Genesis, Ephesians and 1 Timothy. And in every instance, people who represent each side of the argument find themselves unable to be persuaded otherwise. Some choose to disagree agreeably, remaining amiable to their theological adversary while others persist in exactly the opposite, lacking respect for one another and silencing healthy dialogue altogether.
This essay is a product of my engagement in the debate at various levels, with every desire to honor God in both my understanding of the issue and in my character as I interact with other believers—no matter their position. This essay is not intended to serve as defense for either side of the debate, though I make no effort to hide my views. This also is not a proposal for “balance” between the two dominant positions. Unlike some prominent voices in women’s ministry, I am not suggesting that the correct position is to be located somewhere in between as is often asserted about the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. That approach to locating theological truth is, at best, misleading in that it suggests it is generally found somewhere in the middle, never to be found with one of the “extremes.” This is a politically-motivated approach to doing theology, seeking to eliminate both mystery and conflict and puts at risk all knowledge claims.
What this essay is is an acknowledgement of what has been missed—to the best of my knowledge—among those on both sides of the debate. In a very real sense, we are being distracted by the debate of women’s roles in the church, failing to ask ourselves how we can appropriately integrate the gifts of these women into the body. Few wonder how we can think outside of the box about the areas women traditionally serve in the church even while many of these areas do not cohere with the gifts of these same women. I believe the time has come for us to move the discussion of women in ministry—at least temporarily—to a new geographical area. This is the area between the pulpit and the kitchen, a very large ministry-space where God has placed many to serve in a variety of capacities. The emphasis of this essay is that many women have a variety of gifts they know do not belong in the kitchen but may perceive them to belong in the pulpit because, for many of these women, there is no other ministry space that coheres with who God has made them.
To any competent student of the Word—male or female—pulpit ministry and the pastorate can be very attractive. So putting aside for a moment what scripture says about the qualifications for pastor and elder and the conversation-ender “no you can’t,” I believe it could actually benefit the church to learn more about the attraction both men and women have to this ministry. What do we know specifically about these women—their gifts and talents—who believe they are called to pastoral leadership in the church? What do we know about the tasks associated with the pastorate in relation to the women who desire the role? Can the church, for just a moment investigate this attraction and conclude by saying “we understand.”? This does not necessitate that the church change her position on this matter, compromise of theological truth is never appropriate. But an acknowledgement of the valid reasons why women might desire and pursue such roles has the potential to guide everyone in the conversation to implementation instead of alienation of these women and their gifts in the church. The attraction to pastoral leadership need not necessarily be reduced to woman’s “desire for her husband,” to fulfill her need to usurp authority at every turn. The knee-jerk “you’re a woman, you can’t” response must be replaced with an analysis of the kind of woman who seeks such a leadership role and consideration for how the church can better steward these gifts.
It is my assertion that these women with intellectual gifts of varying degrees can conceive of no other venue in the church for implementation. And I completely understand (though not agree) why it is they then claim the call to these roles. You have probably heard this same defense, “God gifted me this way, so I need to heed the call.” Or “Who am I to question God’s will?” With few other options for plugging in as members of the body with these particular gifts, their response makes sense.
But this should not be a surprise, either. In many churches, spiritual gift inventories and other personality instruments are utilized to learn more about the landscape of their particular corner of God’s church. Yet, I have seen few churches actually do anything constructive with the results.
As a complementarian, I am continually bothered by the lack of women in the church implementing their intellectual gifts as theologians, philosophers, apologists, ethicists, economists and so forth because I believe we have put women and their gifts, needs and interests in a box and tied it up—tightly—with a pretty lace bow. Because of the important role she plays in the family, there is often the perception that women’s gifts and needs are limited to the realm of the home. I am not suggesting that those women who abide in this realm are excluded from the community of intellectually-gifted women, many, in fact, are one and the same. But when “keeping the home” (Tit 2) is reduced to teaching women how to make pot-holders out of old socks to the exclusion of developing the life of the mind, then we run the risk of not only losing more women to the theological wimpiness, but their children as well. All of this causes me to wonder if the complementarian community is losing intelligent women to egalitarian-leaning churches because little effort is put forth to see their gifts truly bless the church.
Apart from pulpit ministry, how can women serve the church with their intellectual gifts? The idea of the church’s feminization has done more harm than good in its “glass half empty” perspective. Yes, of course it would be wonderful to see more men—husbands, fathers, brothers, etc.—involved in a local church, but the fact remains that women are at church and are an important area of ministry not to be ignored. Meeting the next generation with the gospel and helping them develop a Christian worldview cannot happen without the equipping of women who are in positions of responsibility for this future generation. Yet we often act as if women are a not a factor in the equation. With women as a majority of those who attend church, perhaps it is time (some would say we are long over due) to discover new ways for women’s voices to be a strong, compelling means for discipleship and outreach for the church without compromising views on church leadership and government. As we allow diverse voices to be present because diverse listeners want to hear from people like themselves, it is not a stretch to accept and embrace the fact that women do want to hear from women, somewhere between the pulpit and the kitchen.