In the long running debate between various groups of Baptists, the language and expression of those who are engaging in it has become institutionalized, and the rhetoric flies. In addition to the almost meaningless descriptions of “moderate,” “conservative,” and “fundamentalist,” you can add the term “progressive,” which generally implies that moving in a particular direction with regard to change (however that is defined) and away from whomever may be on the opposite side is a good thing. Recent debates that I encountered, both on blogs and internet message boards (particularly Baptistlife.com) now seem to be applying these terms, and the perspectives that go with them, to the “issue” of women serving in ministry.
While I would disagree with the contention that the “progressive” nature of a church, or a denomination, has little, if anything, to do with the role of women in the church, there are those who insist that it is not only a watermark, but a significant one. There was a time when I would have seen this particular issue as a matter of one’s own interpretation of scripture, as it might be affected by culture and by the experience of the interpreter, but I no longer see it that way. I think the Bible pretty well defines the role that each individual Christian should play in the body of Christ, particularly in the local body, and that those roles are unique with regard to gender. The fact of the matter is that, in God’s ordered creation, and Christ’s ordered church, things always work best when people serve in a capacity that shows submission to, and respect for, God’s order. It’s a matter of recognizing that different people have differing spiritual gifts, given in a sovereign way by God, who intimately knows each created being and is therefore able to discern what gifts are best utilized by the ministry he has given them. This includes recognizing that men and women were created with gender differences, both physical and spiritual, that are designed to compliment each other.
There are those among the Baptist family who insist that a sign of progressive thinking is demonstrated by a willingness to place women in roles in the church traditionally reserved for men, primarily the position of “senior pastor” or, as the term is translated in both I Timothy 3 and I Peter 5, “overseer.” Somehow, by doing this, women are set free and the church is considered “progressive.” Churches which do not do this, and by association, denominations which have something to this effect in their doctrinal statement, are considered backward, repressive and wrong. Women can be doctors, lawyers, executives, administrators, and be as successful as men in just about any professional career you care to name, so why not the ministry? So goes the logic and reasoning.
On the other hand, in society and in the family, men and women have complimentary, unique, and vastly differing roles. Though many times a single parent is forced to be both mother and father, the fact of the matter is that there are few in the world of professional psychology who would say that is an ideal situation, or that one is able to do just as well with one role as they are with the other. That’s just not the case. The ministry isn’t a profession, it is a calling. It is not just another job that someone chooses to do, it requires action by the Holy Spirit, and a set of talents given to the individual for performing that work known as spiritual gifts, which also come at God’s direction through the Spirit. Thus there is a unique purpose for each person called to serve in ministry, and, just as in society and the family, there is an order established by God, related directly to his creation of humankind, that determines which individual will serve in the ministry.
Rather than being “outdated, old fashioned, restrictive” thinking, the idea that the position of pastor, or as some churches use the term, senior pastor, requires the unique gifting and service of a man is Biblical, and whether that meets someone’s definition of “progressive” or not is really of no consequence. It is a matter of submitting to God’s will and following the principles and precepts laid down in the Bible. To arrive at the conclusion that this particular calling is one that can be fulfilled by either a man or a woman requires setting aside the authority of the scripture in favor of human wisdom and thinking.
The requirements for an individual aspiring to the office of pastor are outlined in both Titus and I Timothy. The role of “overseer,” as the Greek term is translated, is equated with the role and position of “elder” and “pastor” in I Peter 5:1-2, as are the roles and responsibilities of the position. This is an individual who is chosen because of his ability and spiritual gifts, for the purpose of shepherding Christ’s church. In that he is under the direct authority of Jesus, who is the head of the church, he is a servant leader, the “undershepherd”. In that he is given responsibility, and accountability, for overseeing and directing the activities of the “flock,” he is a leader with Biblical authority over the church.
I’ve heard a lot of arguments regarding why women cannot serve as deacons or be ordained to other church ministry positions, and it would take several blog posts to explain my views on that. In this particular case, however, with regard to the lead pastor, or “bishop” of the local body, I believe the scripture is clear that women cannot serve in this role, and it is also clear with regard to the reason for this particular restriction.
I Timothy 2:11-14, a passage as often ignored with regard to this subject as 3:11 is quoted, explains that women are not permitted to have authority over men with regard to matters of the church and its leadership. The reason given has absolutely nothing to do with cultural changes with regard to the roles of women in society. Paul states that it is a matter of the order of creation. Adam was created first, and then Eve. The fact that she was also the first to fall to temptation and into sin is also mentioned. To set that order aside in order to elevate women to the few positions of church leadership that are reserved for men requires employing a hermeneutical principle that essentially denies the original context of the scripture, something for which there is really no precedent, and for which there is no justification. And if these few verses can be interpreted subjectively, in light of personal experience, culture, and human reason, what is to prevent the same flawed principles from being applied to anything in the scripture that someone wants to change?
The fact of the matter is that most churches could not survive without the kind of leadership and service that their female members provide, especially in the modern evangelical churches in America. In the churches where I’ve been a member, and where I have served vocationally, without exception, women rose to the occasion, answered their calling from God, discovered their spiritual gifts, applied their talents to ministry and did whatever the Lord asked to a greater degree than most men. Most of those women also recognized, and celebrated, the roles they were called to serve and lead in the church, and accepted the Bible’s teaching that men and women have different roles, and different callings that are clearly related to gender. I’ve met relatively few women who aspired to do things that men did, not because they were beaten down and forced into subservient submission, but because they clearly understood their spiritual ministry calling and wanted to serve God on his terms, not theirs.
I’d call that “progressive.”