One of the assumptions that a lot of people make about church life is that the church is a place where men – men exclusively - are supposed to be in charge. This is a common assumption, but in many religious communities it isn’t talked about a lot. It is just understood.
In the church I grew up in, all of the deacons were men. All of the ushers were men. Members were sometimes asked on the spot to give a prayer, often the closing prayer, and it was almost always a man – although in the Sunday evening service it might very occasionally be a woman.
We had a song leader, and it was always a man. We once had a woman as choir director, and everybody liked her, but once the church started having a paid Minister of Music, it was always a man.
And the pastor, of course, was always a man. We never had a woman as a guest preacher, either, although we did have a woman missionary speak on occasion. (And it would have been called speaking, not preaching.) If a woman wanted to go into ministry, it seemed like becoming a missionary was the only option.
We did not take this as far as some churches. We at times had a woman as a paid youth director. Women could give announcements and otherwise speak in worship, they could give testimonies and lead mission studies at church. And surprisingly, my mother was once made the chair of the pulpit committee. This didn’t seem like the kind of thing our church would do, but they did it and I don’t remember any flak about it.
None of these gender roles were ever talked about, as far as I can remember. You just kind of observed this and took it in, maybe even subconsciously.
The role of women in the church may not seem like much of an issue to you. It may feel like it is something that was settled, in this church anyway, a long time ago. This church has had and does have an ordained woman on the pastoral staff. We have female clergy on our regional and national staffs. While there are plenty of ABC churches out there that are unlikely to call a women pastor, it is a settled issue in our denomination. At both the regional level and national level we rotate the office of president between a clergy man, a clergy woman, a lay man, and a lay woman. Helen Barrett Montgomery was elected president of what was then the Northern Baptist Convention in 1921 – the first woman to head a major U.S. denomination. And a New York Times article stated that 51% of seminary students are now women.
In our church, women serve equally as leaders. We may take all of this for granted, but it is not this way everywhere. I did not grow up with this inclusive model of leadership, and I know that many of you did not either. There are folks out there who have no idea that there is such a thing as a female pastor.
My favorite story in this regard is that one of Zoe’s classmates learned that both of her parents were pastors. After hearing this news, this young woman had a confused look on her face and then asked, “Do you have two dads?” This really happened.
Susan and I attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, which was a relatively progressive place in the mid 1980’s. There were some women on the faculty, and I heard some excellent women preachers in chapel. The seminary was generally supportive of women in ministry.
Molly Marshall was on the theology faculty. (She is now the president of Central Seminary in Kansas City, and you may remember that she has preached here in our church.) Molly used to tell the story of the time when she was a Ph.D. student serving as pastor at a little country church in Kentucky. One day the kids in the nursery were playing church. One of the boys wanted to be the preacher. But the girls told him, “You can’t be the preacher! Only girls can be preachers!” Girl preachers were all that they knew.
The issue of the role of women in the church cannot be completely separated from the role of women in the larger culture. Dan Kimball wrote about his initial observation about women in the church. He did not grow up in the church and it never occurred to him to think about the roles of men and women in the church. But when started looking for a church to attend, he noticed, from an outsider perspective, that most churches were very male dominated. He remembered the odd feeling when he realized there were no female ushers. He had been to plays and movie theaters where there were both male and female ushers, and he found this puzzling. He wrote,
Quite honestly, the all-male ushers in this one church looked and acted like intense Secret Service agents. They wore dark ties and suits and were even signaling each other across the room with hand signals. Then I noticed that the bulletin listed only men as the pastors and elders. I didn’t even know what an elder was, but I couldn’t help noticing that no women were listed…With women serving in so many ways in society, as professionals and business owners and leaders in their fields and elected officials, how does it come across when women are not allowed to serve in the church?
During worship, most everything was handled by men. A man gave the announcements. A man led the singing. There were women in the choir, and there was a female backup singer, but they played supporting roles to the male leader. A man preached. Men took the offering and served communion…
I sat there reflecting on how I had just come back from living in England, where Margaret Thatcher was prime minister… I had a female doctor. I had several professors at Colorado State University who were females and great teachers… But I didn’t see any female names in that church bulletin. I remember thinking it odd. Women could be recognized as wonderful leaders and teachers outside the church, but I didn’t see them recognized that way in the church…
Here, we have both men and women involved in leading each service. Both men and women serve as worship leaders. Both men and women can serve on all the various boards and committees. And when it comes to taking the offering or serving communion on a given Sunday, we try to have some kind of gender balance.
You might think that this is no big deal if on a given Sunday all of the ushers happen to be men. And in the big picture of things this may not matter so much, but the message we send - to visitors especially - does make a difference. I’ve been to too many churches where such responsibility is an exclusively male domain, and we don’t want to give that message about our church – especially when so many of the churches of that ilk are Baptist.
Well, you might be thinking, this is all well and good, but shouldn’t we look to see what the Bible says about all of this? Good question! I thought you’d never ask.
Those who would hold to an exclusively male clergy and the ideal of male leadership can certainly find support in the scriptures. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution several years ago saying that men and women are equal before God but have different roles, and that women are barred from ordained ministry because Eve was first in the Edenic fall. Seriously. Because Eve sinned before Adam in Genesis chapter 3, women today cannot serve as pastors.
This was the argument, although it seems to me you could make a lot stronger case from other places in scripture.
Some will argue that because Jesus had 12 male disciples, leaders in churches today must be male. You have probably heard that. But this kind of logical argument does not stand up. One could just as easily argue that all of the disciples were Jews, and so leaders in churches today must be Jews.
We don’t know why all of the 12 were men, but Jesus was surely influenced by the culture of his day and by what was possible given the culture. But even then, we read in the gospels that there were many women among his followers and among his traveling company, and that there were women of means who helped to finance the whole enterprise.
A typical scripture used to argue against women in church leadership is 1Timothy 2:12, which reads, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” It sounds pretty harsh. And it doesn’t at all sound like the scripture we read this morning from Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
The passage in 1 Timothy reflects what is called a Domestic Code. You can also find this in places like Ephesians chapter 5. Such codes were very common in that day, and there are places in the New Testament where such accommodation to the culture is apparent. The church might challenge the culture, but in order to survive, the church could only challenge the culture so much.
And so 1 Timothy and other books give rules for the home. The husband is in charge, the kids are to keep in line, and so forth. To be fair, this is often presented with a lot more love and reciprocity than you can find in similar non-Christian codes, especially in Ephesians. In 1 Timothy, you will also find rules about who counts as a “valid” widow, which was a kind of official category. It tells you at what age widows should go ahead and remarry and at what age they stay widows and receive church support. It also says that slaves should honor their masters and be especially respectful to masters who are Christians.
Now, if a person wants to say that the “women be silent” part is binding today, it seems that they have to take it all as being for today. And if you really believe it, then it means women really have to be silent – no singing, no reading, no playing the piano. And they need to remember their head coverings.
Well, that’s one side of scripture. But there is another side. There is Phoebe, listed as a deacon in Romans 16. There are female leaders mentioned including Junias, Euodia, and Syntyche. There are Philip’s four daughters, who prophesied – or preached. They were not silent. Women such as Mary Magdalene and the sisters Mary and Martha play prominent roles in Jesus’ ministry. There is the Samaritan woman at the well, who goes as an evangelist to her village. And we have the women who were witnesses to resurrection and the first to share the Good News that Jesus was risen from the dead. If not for women sharing the Good News, there would be no Christian faith.
Reading through the Book of Acts, it is clear that women played a prominent role in the early church, with women like Lydia leading house churches. And teh Day of Pentecost is seen as a fulfillment of the prophet Joel's vision: "I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy..."
Galatians was among the first New Testament books written. It is a circular letter to various churches in Galatia, today a part of Turkey. And the Apostle Paul, thought by some to be anti-women, wrote these words: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This is an amazing statement, and in that culture a radical, stunning statement. Women held leadership positions in the early church, far beyond what was the norm in that society. It was almost scandalous. For some, apparently, it was scandalous.
There is always a balance between freedom and order, and while in Galatians the focus is on God’s intention in creation and on our oneness in Christ – on freedom - more practical considerations dominate in some of the later writings, and because it was causing disorder and controversy, in places like 1 Timothy Paul asks the women to dial it back, as it were. We need to keep in mind what the culture was like. Just 100 years ago, women could not vote in this country. This was 2000 years ago.
If we are going to focus on scripture, though, maybe it is best to look at Jesus. The British writer Dorothy Sayers, writing in the middle of the 20th century, reflects on Jesus’ relationship to women:
Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man… A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.You may hear talk about men’s and women’s roles and responsibilities. I think it would be better to talk about the roles and responsibilities of Christians. We are all one in Christ Jesus. God gives all of us gifts for ministry of various sorts, and let’s face it: we need all of the gifts of all God’s children.
Back at Southern Seminary, after Susan and I had graduated, a new board hired a new president and instituted new policies. The new administration sought to put a stop to this growing trend of women going into ministry. Around that time, the seminary had its annual sermon contest. Students submitted a sermon, without putting their names on the sermon. Each sermon was identified only by a number, so the judges did not know who had submitted each entry. The top three winning students would preach their sermons in chapel services.
When the judges made their selections, imagine the surprise when it was discovered that the three winning preachers were all women.
We can’t afford to turn away the gifts that God has given us. In the Church, the differences that may separate us do not matter. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Amen.