The case for women in Church leadership

What Scriptural context might mean for today’s churches.

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Jin Yoon, The Horizon

She, too, can teach and preach.

Riley Potter, Staff Writer

I grew up sheltered from the belief that women couldn’t lead in churches. My grandma was ordained by Presybterian Church USA in the nineties and served as the interim head pastor at a church in Pennsylvania before I was born. Growing up, I was surrounded by strong women and never once was I told to quiet down or shrink myself to make space for a man. Sure, my family and I talked about the fact that there are some places where women couldn’t lead in churches, but that reality seemed far-off and almost fictional to me. 

It wasn’t until I got to Westmont that I learned that some churches in the city of Santa Barbara don’t allow women to lead from the pulpit and that many Westmont students ascribe to those beliefs, or at least grew up in spaces that upheld such doctrines.

For those of us who view Scripture as authoritative and feel uncomfortable with simply throwing out passages we don’t love, certain texts in the Epistles come up that seem to instantly problematize women in positions of ecclesiastical leadership .

The two most (in)famous ones are 1 Corinthians 14:35-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. With a surface level read, it seems that the issue is fairly cut and dry. Paul says it himself, “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” and “for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Timothy 2:12, 1 Corinthians 14:35). Well, that was easy. Problem solved, yay!

However, as Dr. Holly Beers notes, relying solely on these two passages dismisses the broader framework Scripture presents. A careful reading of the New Testament portrays women and their role in Jesus’ life and ministry in a much different light.

Whether it is Mary and the other women who financially support Jesus and his disciples (Luke 8:1-3), the fact that women are the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection in all four gospels (Matt 28: 1-10, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 14:1-12, John 20:1-18), or the assertion that both women and men were filled with the Holy Spirit during Pentecost (Acts 2), the Bible’s testimony concerning women challenges the aforementioned, one-dimensional reading.   

Dr. Beers argues that we must read the rest of the New Testament through the lens of Acts chapter two, where women and men are both clearly anointed with the Spirit and called to testify the Good News of Christ to all nations.

In this vein, women in positions of leadership crop up all throughout the remainder of the New Testament. Lydia is trusted with a small, but growing church in Philippi (Acts 16:13-15), Priscilla is a co-worker and teacher of men like Apollos (Rom 16:3, Acts 18:2, 26, 1 Cor 16:19), Junia is named as an apostle to the apostles (Romans 16:7), Phoebe is called a deacon and benefactor (Romans 16:1-2), and Euodia and Syntyche — after whom Beers’ cats are named — are called Paul’s co-laborers in the work of the Gospel (Phil 4:2-3). 

That’s quite a striking array of women, and it doesn’t even include all the ladies mentioned in our Scriptures. It’s inspiring to imagine the countless others who worked tirelessly in the name of God, ministering to the poor and the sick and the hurt, and leading with the tenacity and fervor that stemmed from their love of Christ.

It is crucial to remember that these works were all penned in a context where women were not held in high regard; their inclusion in these texts is striking and assuredly not an accident. There’s no way the writers could make this stuff up, and the audaciousness of their presence is a further testament to the historicity of our holy texts. If we choose to ignore these passages where women so clearly lead, we are not holding true to our assertion that Scripture is authoritative. 

Now, equipped with this context and evidence, we can revisit those texts cited to prohibit women leading in the church. Dr. Beers posits that, rather than viewing these passages as the rule, it would be more helpful — and, honestly, more faithful to their original renderings — to regard them as exceptions to the rule. She suggests that by framing these texts as addressing “contextually specific issues,” we are freed from the assumption that women cannot lead in the same capacity that men can. 

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Opinions expressed in letters and other editorials, unless otherwise stated, are those of the writers and not of The Horizon staff or the college collectively.

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