Friday, April 22, 2016

Why Can't Women Lead in Church?

I received this question a few weeks ago, and I have spent that time considering the best way to respond to it. It’s very difficult to know where to start, because it is definitely a loaded topic. No matter what I say, someone is going to take offense. Still, it is discussed in the Bible, and one of the major purposes of this ministry is to show there is no reason to shy away from the difficult questions. If I could ask one thing, it would be that you listen to the recording rather than just merely reading the article. That gives me my best chance to get my attitude across, and not just my ideas.

So, here we go. The question I was asked was, “Why does the New Testament say women cannot be leaders? When I read About Deborah in Judges, a woman leader and an excellent, Godly one at that, I question why she was permitted to lead but we are taught that women are supposed to be the support rather than leaders.” It’s certainly a good question, no matter how nervous I might be about wading into it, and I do at least believe there is an answer. It might just not be the one everyone wants to hear.

The New Testament on Female Church Leaders

First of all, some background. As the questioner says, the New Testament does indeed talk about women not being allowed to be in authority over the church. The relevant passages are I Corinthians 14:34, 35, and I Timothy 2:11–15. I highly recommend you read them for context. Of course, to get the full context you would have to go to the passages around those verses. Paul was the author of both of these letters, and he wrote them to specific audiences. The churches in Corinth and Ephesus (where Timothy was when Paul wrote his first letter to him) must have been having trouble in this respect, which is what caused the apostle to bring up the topic in the first place.

That context is important, but it is not everything. I have heard people say that Paul’s forbidding women preachers was specific to just those two early churches, not a general command to all churches for all time. However, that misses the point contained right in the verses themselves. Paul explains the reason why women should not be in authority, and does so in reference to things that do not change with time. In I Corinthians, it was the law, which means the unchanging will of God. And in I Timothy, he gives two reasons. First, Adam was created before Eve, meaning that male leadership is an extension of God’s creative order. Second, when humanity fell in the Garden of Eden, it was Eve who sinned first (Genesis 3). And importantly for Paul, she sinned because she was deceived.

I’ll be honest, this confuses me. I think Adam’s failure was worse, since he sinned with his eyes wide open. And of course, it was Adam’s sin rather than Eve’s alone which led to humanity’s loss of innocence. But I think it must come down to Paul’s point about the created order. We are all descended from both Adam and Eve, but in general men reflect the former and women the latter. As a result, Paul appears to be saying that women are more likely to be deceived than men, and if that happens to them while in a position of leadership, they will be prone to leading the whole church astray, as well. Considering how much of I Timothy is written with the conflict against false teaching in mind, this seems like a natural assumption.

Now clearly, this is not an absolute. We are all capable of being deceived, and many men are. Also, many women are excellent champions of the truth. But I do not think Paul is talking about certainty for all women. He was describing a natural propensity. Added to God’s expressed will of male leadership (more on that later), it is enough of a reason to forbid women from having the type of authority Paul describes.

Deborah’s Leadership

With all that in mind, though, we still need to consider the story of Deborah found in Judges 4. This chapter tells us that Deborah was a judge in Israel. Ancient Israelite judges were more than the legal scholars we have today. On top of making decisions, they also had a position of executive and military leadership over the nation. And on top of that, Deborah was a prophetess, meaning that she spoke for God. Clearly she was a very important person, and a credit to the abilities of women.

What I’m about to say takes nothing away from Deborah. She stands just as tall as any other hero of the Bible. But the truth is, she can be thought of as the exception that proves the rule. The implication is that a woman had to lead Israel because all the men failed to do so. That desperate situation, rather than an egalitarian principle, is what Judges 4 illustrates. Deborah even says as much in verse 9. She called a man named Barak to be the military commander of Israel’s army, but he refused to do so unless Deborah went with him. He did not want to be the one responsible. Deborah agreed, but told Barak he would not have the glory of the victory. Instead, a woman would. And in fact, it was two women, both Deborah, and Jael, who killed the leader of Israel’s enemies when the army failed to capture him. So the point was not what women can do, but what men wouldn’t.

One last thing does need to be mentioned about Deborah. She was a judge and a prophetess, but she was not a priest. She could not be. That position in Ancient Israel, like the office of minister in the Christian Church, was restricted to men. Whether we like it or not, God has at no time given that type of spiritual authority to a woman.

Equality vs. Sameness

It has taken me a while to get here, but I am finally able to turn to what I mostly wanted to say in writing this article. It is also something I touched on briefly in my provocatively-titled “What Should Women Want?”  and in “Can We Justify Ourselves?” If anyone has a problem with the biblical commandment that allows only men to be ministers, then they need to be able to explain why.

That might seem to have an obvious answer, but it isn’t good enough. It does not actually explain anything to say “Women can do anything men can do!” That is clearly untrue. There are natural differences between men and women, both physical and cognitive. Childbirth is the most obvious of these, and there shouldn’t really be a need to go further. We have different roles.

And that is the point. People try to make gender issues a matter of equality, but they often do so in a very imprecise way. Equality is a matter of value. For men and women to be equal, they would have to be worth the same thing. Obviously, that is precisely what they are. We share humanity, meaning no one has a right to oppress another. Man or woman, black or white, Jew or Gentile, we are all created equal. As 17th Century English political philosopher John Locke wrote in his Second Treatise of Government,

there [is] nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another.

This definition of equality can be understood to flow from the biblical record of creation and salvation. Genesis 1:27 says that both men and women are one creature to God, made by Him to be His image. And Galatians 3:26–28 tells us that all people who are in Christ, both men and women, are equally the children of God. He loves us all the same. Equality is a natural right that comes from the Lord.

But those seeking to make women ministers are not fighting for equality. That is the source of confusion. Equality can and should always be sought. They have moved past it, however, and are now seeking sameness, which is a very different thing. There is no natural right to sameness. In fact, to suggest we can or should all be the same is to go against nature. A world without variety would be one without growth. There needs to be an accounting for suitability.

Like the Body

That might still be a bit confusing, but the best explanation of it is one that does not deal with gender specifically. In I Corinthians 12:12–27, Paul is discussing the various abilities of those within the church. The members were divided because some of them had “better” gifts than others. Those with the best gifts lorded it over the rest, and those who saw themselves as lesser were resentful.

Paul wanted to show them that this attitude was completely wrong. The church is like a body. Every member has its own part to play, and every part is necessary to all the others. It wouldn’t work if it were just all one big eyeball, or if it were made up of a thousand hands. Each part, then, is equal. They all have the same value. But they are not all the same. They need to be different in order for the whole to be healthy.

It is the same between men and women. We are equal. The church needs us both. But that does not mean we can, much less that we should, play all the same parts. There are a variety of roles, some more suitable to us than others. To refuse to see that is nothing more than arrogance. It ignores God, and is driven by nothing more than envy. Why then would He bless it?


So why can’t women lead in church? Because God says so. That is not good enough for a lot of people, and it is not enough to start in a number of contexts. But here it should be. If you are a Christian, you should be faithful to God’s word. If you aren’t, you shouldn’t care how we do things. There is a New Testament commandment against female leadership in the Church. It follows from Old Testament law, from the falleness of Eve, and from God’s created order. Altogether, it is an expression of His will. It might not fit into our current cultural understanding, but it is still the truth. Accepting it and finding your value where it truly lies is the best way to be fulfilled.

I know that in writing this I am basically asking for hate mail. I get that. This is definitely an emotional topic. It would be going too far to say I welcome it, but I do welcome dialogue. I want to be able to have a conversation about these things. That’s why I’m here. If you disagree with me, feel free to let me know. I don’t want to be wrong. But please, keep what I have said here in mind. You need to be able to respond to the principles I have discussed, not just say you are unhappy with them. As the saying goes, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” I know that isn’t nice. It still happens to be true. And I believe the best way to be happy in life is to start with a knowledge of the truth. At least then, you know where you stand. 

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