From Bondage to Blessing

Chapter 1 - A Symphony of Discordant Notes

"Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle?" (1 Corinthians 14:7-8)

I vividly remember my first introduction to the confusion surrounding the issue of women in positions of ministry or authority in the Church. My husband Dave and I had been pastoring a local church for several years as licensed ministers and were both submitting applications for ordination to one of the networks functioning as a covering for us. Included with our applications were to be several letters of recommendation from other church leaders and pastors with whom we had worked. We decided to ask a local denominational pastor who had known us for a number of years. He was perfectly willing to write a letter of recommendation for both of us. However, his comments took us by surprise! He told us that while his denomination allowed women to function in church leadership, they "didn't believe in" ordaining them. In other words, women could do the work, but they couldn't be officially recognized as doing the work. Dave and I looked at each other and wondered, "What sort of double talk is this?" not realizing that in the coming years we would find the disparity even worse than we imagined.

The issue heats up in the Church

The gender issue, or "the woman question" as it is often called, has become more prominent in the Church in recent years due to particular developments within western culture which arose in the 1960's and 70's. The advance of the women's liberation movement and the dramatic increase in numbers of women seeking involvement in ministry were catalysts which initiated a new uncertainty in theological circles. As a result, theologians, church leaders and saints within the Body of Christ were prompted to question in a fresh way the theology behind traditional views of gender roles and the place of women in the Church. Although these developments have initially created much controversy and confusion within the Church, I believe they can challenge us to a place of greater openness, honesty and objectivity in our interpretation of the Scriptures. Let's look at them more closely.

Women's lib

When radical feminism began to raise its strident voice, it muddied the real issues that we face in the Church. "What does the Bible really say? What is God's heart and mind on women in leadership, and what are His eternal purposes for women?" are the questions Christians needed to be asking. The loudest voices in the feminist movement were often those who were the most hurt, and they spoke angrily out of that hurt. Many determined that the movement was merely a great deal of emotionalism and rhetoric spewed out by "angry, bitter, man-hating women". This was not just the male viewpoint either. As a young woman watching with interest from the sidelines, I have to confess this was my conclusion as well! To a great degree it was probably true. But, sadly, such assessments began to color our perception of anyone who questioned the "traditional" interpretation of the Scriptures regarding authority, headship and women's roles, or who presented evidence contrary to this traditional interpretation.

The radical feminist movement adapted much of its philosophy from humanistic sources, Greek mythology, hedonism, fertility cults and goddess worship.1 For this reason, many Christians began to view any defense of women in ministry as a feminist challenge to biblical authority, even if those raising the questions were scholars or leaders equally as committed to biblical authority.

Those who, in recent years, have presented evidence that questions the accuracy of the traditional interpretation of Scripture regarding women have been labeled as feminists or accused of giving in to their influence. Because most people are unaware of the wealth of scholarship available which predates the feminist movement (from as early as the seventeenth century2), they assume that such ideas are "new" and a product of this secular movement. The result has been that many in the modern Church have never bothered to prayerfully consider the validity of such studies or the weight of the evidence presented.

In some cases, the Church has gone beyond ignoring those who would raise questions to actually attacking them. For example, the April 1989 issue of Christianity Today ran a news story about possible heresy charges facing a Lutheran pastor and professor for his article addressing the role of women in the early Church and possible sexism in the Church today.3 He was quoted as saying that his intent in writing the article was to "strip away the sexism of the church and get back to the root of how Jesus and the apostles treated women." He continued, "It is my opinion that we are wearing cultural blinders. I wanted to ask the church, 'Do the beliefs we hold reflect the biblical message? And can we divorce ourselves from the centuries of conditioning, set our blinders aside for a minute and look at how our Lord considered the role of women?'." For asking these kinds of questions, this church leader faced formal heresy charges!

Increased numbers of women seeking ministry involvement

The second significant development that has caused the issue of women in ministry to come to the forefront in recent years is that of the changing complexion of the clergy. More and more women are seeking to answer the call of God that they feel is upon their lives. As one Foursquare minister was quoted as saying in a 1996 issue of Charisma magazine,

"We are not women who wish to displace men. We are women who simply and humbly ask that we be given room to be obedient to the Lord who called us."4

The Atlanta Journal and Constitution ran a prominently placed article in August 1989, looking at the flood of women into ministerial training institutions. They showed that between 1976 and 1987, the percentage of women in America's theological schools had doubled. In looking at some of the Atlanta area seminaries, they found that some had extremely high ratios of women studying for the ministry. At Columbia seminary, for example, it was revealed that 42% of the student body was female. They concluded, "in a majority of Protestant denominations, tomorrow's minister is much more likely than ever to be a woman."5

This phenomenon has caused the Body of Christ to examine over the past decade the question of women in ministry as never before. Reflecting this flurry of concern, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, for example, spent countless dollars running a 2 page ad in a 1989 issue of Christianity Today. They were seeking support for their "Danvers Statement", which basically affirmed what has been considered the traditional view of women in ministry.6 As an example of more recent interest and concern, Strang Communications in the United States, publisher of several popular Christian magazines, has featured articles on the woman issue every year since 1995.7 In recent years, Strang has offered a new magazine called Spirit Led Woman to meet the billowing cry among women for validation and greater equipping for ministry.

Even among evangelicals - confusion reigns

With an increased determination within the Body of Christ to re-examine what the Bible has to say about women in ministry, the sound emerging from the evangelical community, in particular, has been one of discordant notes. In other words ... noise!

This lack of harmony has created a great degree of uncertainty and confusion among the many tenderhearted saints who comprise our churches. Is it any wonder? Some have been taught that women should not speak in church. Others have been taught that women may pray, even "prophesy" in the church, but may not "teach". Then, of course, there is the common position that women may teach; they just should not teach men ... or they may teach men, but not from behind a pulpit. Or they may preach and teach, but women should hold no "positions of authority" within the church. Some circles even allow women to hold such positions of authority on the mission field (acceptable) but not in the local church (unacceptable). Other groups, such as the denomination with which our pastor friend was affiliated, allow women the liberty to preach, teach or hold positions of authority within the church, but refuse to ordain them. Interestingly enough, all of those who hold these differing points of view regarding women in ministry claim to base their conclusions and teaching on Scripture. No wonder the saints are confused!

Even Evangelicals with the same commitment to inerrancy of the Scriptures, using similar guidelines for interpretation, frequently arrive at opposing conclusions. Robert K. Johnston, Dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago in the 1980's, pointedly illustrates this fact.

His example reveals contradictory findings by those with similar commitments to biblical authority on a denominational level. These differing conclusions are exhibited by position papers drawn up by the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the Evangelical Covenant Church in the mid-80's. The study initiated by the CRC resulted in a report stating that men should exercise primary leadership and direction-setting in the home, church and society in general based upon a "creational norm" recognized in both the Old and New Testament. Their ruling was that women should not be ordained as elders, ministers or evangelists, though it would be permissible to allow them to serve as deacons.

The Board of the Ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church, however, initiated a similar study, which produced a verdict opposite to that of the Christian Reformed Church. In looking at such things as the book of Genesis, Jesus' actions, the role of women in the early church, Pauline teachings, biblical concepts of authority, and the theology of the priesthood of the believer, they concluded that there is a "legitimate and theological basis for women in ordained ministry".8

Why the current state of affairs?

How have we arrived at this confusing place? Let's look at some factors that have contributed to the current state of affairs within the Church regarding our understanding of the role of women and their qualifications for leadership and ministry.

Historically - loss of truth to the church

By the close of the first century, Christianity had spanned three generations. We can see through a study of the later epistles and the book of Revelation that secular thinking and false teaching were already making inroads into the Church. To get an idea of just how things may have changed by the end of the first century, take a look at the Methodism of today contrasted with the Methodism that existed at the beginning of the twentieth century. There is a noticeable difference!

The deterioration of the spiritual Church, which had been birthed in revelation and supernatural power, actually began by the second century. This deterioration was significant, however, after the Roman Emperor Constantine's Edict of Toleration was issued in A.D.313. At that time, an end was put to the persecution that had so marked the period from A.D.100 onward. Seventy years later, the emperor Theodosius took things a step further and established Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. All Roman subjects were forced to accept Christianity in order to maintain citizenship, hold office or conduct business.9 As one Church history text states, "The ceasing of persecution was a blessing, but the establishment of Christianity as the state religion became a curse."10 Another notes that it was at this point that the military spirit of Imperial Rome entered the Church, causing it to "nose dive into a millennium of dead works, formalism, and slavery to man-made religion."11 Pagan customs and symbolism began to infiltrate the Church. The old heathen feasts became church festivals. The worship of the images of saints and martyrs began to appear in churches. The adoration and worship of the Virgin Mary was substituted for worship of Venus, Diana and the other goddesses. The "elder" evolved from a preacher into a priest.12 Spirituality died and selfish ambition took its place. It has been noted that candles, incense, garland, holy days, and elaborate priestly robes were also brought into the Church at this time.13

After about A.D. 500 the deterioration accelerated as the Church entered that period of its history that we call "the Dark Ages". One Church historian declares that at this point, the result was no longer Christianity, but "a more or less corrupt hierarchy controlling the nations of Europe, making the Church mainly a political machine."14 One result of the development of this hierarchical institution and ecclesiastical structure was the gradual obstruction of women from leadership and official ministry within the Church.15 During this time, many of the truths that had been foundational to the life and practice of the early Church were lost.

God began a restoration of these lost truths to the Church when He brought a revelation of justification by faith, the authority of Scripture, and the priesthood of the believer to Martin Luther's heart. The result was the Protestant Reformation. However, as Susan Hyatt points out, "How to interject the biblical principle of the priesthood of all believers into a society and ecclesiastical system that rejected the principle of biblical equality of women was problematic."16 The Reformation did not change Church practice to any great degree, but it was a start! What the Lord began through the Reformation, He has continued in the centuries that followed. He has gradually brought an unveiling and restoration of many lost truths back to the Church. These include an understanding of holiness, divine healing, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and the gifts of the Spirit. It also includes a restored revelation of the spiritual and functional equality of women within the Body of Christ. As we shall see later, the first century Church operated out of this revelation. Women participated in leadership as part of early church practice. God has been in a process of restoring this truth to the Church since the time of the Reformation and the process continues today.

The myth of certainty

Another reason the confusion surrounding women's roles in the Church exists is because a great deal of tradition, inference and conjecture has been taught in the Church as cold, hard fact. J.I. Packer, a well-respected evangelical theologian, has concluded that the Scriptures only establish three things with certainty regarding women: (1) men and women are equal before God; (2) man is the "head of the woman" (or at least of his wife), though what this actually means is unclear and (3) Christian spouses are to model the redeeming love/responsive love relationship of Christ and His Church. Other things beyond these, he says, are a matter of "rival possibilities".17 Robert Johnston quotes Packer as saying, "It is the way of Evangelicals to expect absolute certainty from Scripture on everything and to admire firm stances on secondary and disputed matters as signs of moral courage. But in some areas, such expectations are not warranted by the evidence, and such stances reveal only a mind insufficiently trained to distinguish certainties from uncertain possibilities."18

This brings to mind something my doctor once told me when he couldn't find an explanation for some curious neurological symptoms I had been experiencing. After lengthy testing, he finally arrived at the diagnosis of a fairly common disorder. I questioned him, though, because I could tell he was not completely satisfied. "Excuse me, Doctor," I said, "but it sounds to me like you have arrived at this diagnosis because you don't know what else to make of it!" His response to me was to reveal that we often think of medicine as an exact science. "But, it's not," he said and concluded with a big grin, "More often than not, we doctors are flying by the seat of our pants." How true this can be in the realm of theology as well!

The myth of objective exegesis

Exegesis is the art of interpretation of the Scriptures. It is helpful to realize that there is no such thing as "objective exegesis". It is a myth! Because (like medicine) biblical interpretation is not an exact science, the facts available will often suggest, at least on the surface, different possibilities. There can actually be a great deal of subjective reasoning involved. Whether we like it or not, our understanding of the Scriptures is influenced and affected by our theological perspective, training and experience. It is also influenced by the problem of sin that hinders our objectivity, receptivity to new perspectives, and willingness to allow God to change our mindsets. As one theologian has put it, "All interpretation is socially located, individually skewed, and ecclesiastically and theologically conditioned."19 While evangelicals, in particular, like to hide behind a facade of impartiality, it is important that we recognize the difficulty in any of us being completely objective!

We can quite easily approach biblical texts with some sort of preconception in mind, reading into the Scriptures from our mindsets and biases. This is one reason why each of us is admonished to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is ..." (Romans 12:2). We need God's thinking on the matter and that can only come as we invite Him to renew our minds and submit ourselves to that process.

The effects

The effects of embracing a theology that subtly devalues women and questions their calling as legitimate members of the Body of Christ has been devastating. The more oppressive teachings and attitudes regarding the place of women in the Church have greatly wounded many women filling our church pews and chairs. Several of the speakers at the 1984 Evangelical Colloquium on Women and the Bible spoke at length about the grieving, anguish and agony which they had personally experienced. The message these women have received is that they are not fully human, inferior to their brothers, flawed, disqualified by Eve's sin, and deluded or disobedient because they think they have a call of God on their lives.20 Patricia Gundry in her book, Neither Slave Nor Free, talked about the feelings of isolation, hurt, fear and anger, and about the self-doubts and the desperation of women who are searching for answers.21

Moving towards healing and restoration

Although we do not want to downplay the reality of the pain and anguish women have experienced in feeling like second class citizens in the Body of Christ, it is important to identify our real enemy. People are not the enemy! The Bible identifies Satan as the one who comes to kill, steal and destroy (John 10:10). In a nutshell, he wants to neutralize us, whether it be through lies and deception, or through unforgiveness and bitterness. Whatever hook he can find to trip us up and render the Body of Christ less effective, he will exploit it.

In Ephesians 6:12, the apostle Paul reminds us that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against a hidden hierarchy of evil. As we recognize that our battle is a spiritual one, we can be set free from the victim mentality to become overcomers through Christ who strengthens us and gives us His authority. We do not have authority over people, to change their thinking, their attitudes or their hearts, but we do have authority over the kingdom of darkness. We further have authority over our own hearts and the choices we face on a daily basis. We can choose to walk in forgiveness and let go of the victim mentality. We can pray and stand in the gap for the Church and church leaders. We can share what we have to offer with joy and confidence, secure in the knowledge of where we stand with God. We can become agents of change, ministers of reconciliation, women who foster unity and bring blessing to the Body of Christ. We can find that fulfillment which has eluded so many of us in the past.

As Bishop Barbara Amos has declared, "There are people hurting and dying out there, and God has called me to help them. So I'm going to fulfill my ministry, and then people can evaluate it and call it whatever they like." Rather than focusing on any alienation or rejection she might have experienced, Bishop Amos is using her influence to educate and bring change in the Body of Christ.22

Summary

A great deal of confusion has surrounded the gender issue in the Church. In recent years the chaos has intensified as the feminist movement came on the scene and as the Church world experienced a dramatic increase in the number of women seeking to be involved in ministry. Even among evangelicals with identical commitments to biblical authority, bewilderment has been characteristic as one group after another has reached conflicting conclusions. One reason for this is the fact that biblical interpretation is not an exact science. There are many variables, and often we try to arrive at simplistic conclusions without taking into account all of the factors. Another reason we find such a wide array of positions regarding certain Scriptures is the fact that objective exegesis is a myth. Despite our assertions to the contrary, our training, experience, theological perspectives, mindsets and sin influence the process of biblical interpretation to some degree.

Satan is the author of confusion. He is also the author of deception and misunderstanding which drains life from the Body of Christ and robs us of the talents, abilities and spiritual gifts that women have to offer. In the midst of all this, God is continuing to bring a restoration of the truth that He set in motion with the Protestant Reformation. Developments over the past twenty to thirty years have exposed an underlying mindset that has pervaded the Church world and brought it out in plain sight where we are forced to examine it. God can only bring revelation where we see our need, confess our sin and seek His cleansing.

Biblical interpretation has never taken place in a vacuum. For this reason, there is a very real need to submit our hearts and minds to God, and allow our thinking to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). As we move ahead and onward, we must also allow God the opportunity to transform our hearts. We must allow Him to help us learn to use spiritual weapons for what is really a spiritual battle, recognizing that we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against a hidden hierarchy of evil.

It is time for God's women to come under His covering, under the shadow of His wings, to find healing from their hurts. It is time for God's women to release any anger or bitterness from the misunderstandings, accusation, isolation, rejection, alienation and ungodly control that they may have experienced in the past. It is a new day! As we step out from under the shadow and captivity of these things, we can become the women of God and the spiritual force He has created us to be. We can become modern day Esthers, world changers, who fulfill the purpose and destiny that the Lord has designed for each one of us.

top

Chapter 1 notes

  1. Richard N. Longenecker, "Authority, Hierarchy and Leadership Patterns in the Bible" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 84.
  2. David M. Scholer, "1 Timothy 2:9-15 and the Place of Women in the Church's Ministry", Ibid., p. 216-217.
  3. Christianity Today (April 21, 1989), p.43
  4. "Pentecostals Urged to End Bias Against Women Ministers", Charisma & Christian Life (December 1996), p. 16.
  5. Atlanta Journal & Constitution (August 1989).
  6. Christianity Today (January 13, 1989).
  7. Randall Parr, "The Woman Question", Ministries Today (Sept/Oct 1995), p. 45-50.
    1. "Pentecostals Urged to End Bias Against Women Ministers", Charisma &Christian Life (December 1996), p. 16.
    2. Valerie G. Lowe, "The Lady is a Warrior", Charisma & Christian Life (March 1997), p. 26-32.
    3. Barbara Amos, "The Woman Question", Ministries Today (May/June 1997), p. 44-47.
    4. Cindy Jacobs, "Women of God Arise", Charisma & Christian Life (May 1998), p. 76-78.
    5. Larry Keefauver, "Empower the Women"; Cindy Jacobs, "Women on the Frontlines of Ministry", Ministries Today (May/June 1998), p. 9; 28-33.
    6. Fuchsia Pickett, "Male and Female Created to Co-Labor with God", Spirit Led Woman (June/July 1999).
  8. Robert K. Johnston, "Biblical Authority and Interpretation: The Test Case of Women's Role in the Church and Home Updated" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 33-34
  9. Bill Hamon, The Eternal Church (Christian International, 1981), p. 89.
  10. Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, original copyright 1918, current 1970), p. 62.
  11. Bill Hamon, The Eternal Church, (Christian International, 1981), p. 89-90.
  12. Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, original copyright 1918, current 1970), p. 62
  13. Bill Hamon, The Eternal Church (Christian International, 1981), p. 93.
  14. Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, original copyright 1918, current 1970), p. 63.
  15. Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1987), p. 122, 133, 136.
  16. Susan C. Hyatt, In the Spirit We're Equal (Hyatt Press, Dallas, 1998) p. 65-66.
  17. Robert K. Johnston, "Biblical Authority and Interpretation: The Test Case of Women's Role in the Church and the Home Updated" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 39.
  18. Robert K. Johnston, "Biblical Authority and Interpretation: The Test Case of Women's Role in the Church and the Home Updated" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 39.
  19. David M. Scholer, "1 Timothy 2:9-15 and the Place of Women in the Church's Ministry", Ibid., p. 215.
  20. Patricia Gundry, "Why We're Here" and Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, "Response", Ibid., p. 10-21, 22-27.
  21. Patricia Gundry, Neither Slave Nor Free (Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1987), p. 1-7.
  22. Valerie G. Lowe, "The Lady is a Warrior", Charisma & Christian Life (March 1997), p. 26-32.

top