A Month of Reflection | 9 | The Role of Women in the Church

by Glenn on November 21, 2018

Not exactly a reflection on a book. I have read (once) and listened to (twice) Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, but I think I’ve spent an equal amount of time listening to Dr. Peterson talk via the abundance of videos available on YouTube and his podcast. Among his gifts is an ability to frame things well.

We live in an era of political correctness. Peterson traces this back to the 1970’s and “a marriage of post-modernism and Marxism.” Post-modernism tells us that there are any number of ways that a text can be read, which seems both self-evident and reasonable. We each approach things through our unique frame of reference. Marxism says that life is a power play between groups.

What political correctness has done is to say that the primary definition of a person has to do with their identity within a group and that history has been the story of  oppressor and oppressed groups. And so there is a politically correct view of history and culture as a male patriarchy. Men are oppressors and women have been and are oppressed. The end of all of this is that something needs to be done about it, that we need to throw off the oppressive male hierarchy. That is the general lay of the land as I understand it.

Dr. Peterson says a few things about this:

1. History and culture are more complicated than this. The relationship between men and women is more complicated than the blanket statement that half the species is oppressing the other half. While abuse can and must be acknowledged, we also have to see that there has been at least some cooperation between the sexes over time.

2. Men and women are different. Though as a species we are more alike than different, within the species there are differences.

The physical differences between men and women are the most obvious. I watched a little bit of the record-setting NFL game the other night between the Los Angeles Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs. There were no women playing. Are there women who want to? Are there any that could?

I think on some level there are some women who would be able to play competitively against the opposite sex. In elementary school, for example, girls are often developmentally beyond boys and could compete effectively. But somewhere along the line you look and it seems self-evident that women can’t compete with men physically. So while in some arenas there are some women who could compete with some men, the NFL is a different story.  The NFL has the fittest men, the most competitive men, the most skilled. How many women are there that could compete on that level? What I’ve observed is that in jobs that require a certain amount of physicality, for men and women to compete, the requirements for the job have to be adjusted for women. Not making a statement on whether that is good or bad. It just is.

3. When we criticize the institutions where men have climbed to the top and women haven’t, we need to talk about the differences between men and women, which include skills, interests, and competencies. For example, one of the things Peterson has observed as a clinical psychologist is that more men than women are willing and/or desire to compete and/or work for 60–70–80 hours a week. Women have, in general, paid more attention to child-rearing and family. He is quick to say that there are exceptions—some women are more competitive than some men, and some women not as interested in family (or are working in fields where there is enough income to hire out some familial responsibilities—housekeeper, nanny, etc.). But there are generalizations that can be made about the ability of some men who are dominant in their fields to give an extreme focus to their work.

I’ve also heard him note that some of the fields where women dominate—health care and teaching, for example—don’t allow for scaling up. For example, if your work is, say, nursing, there’s not an easy way to meet more patients and increase your income dramatically. There is, I imagine, an optimal number of students for a kindergarten classroom. And while acknowledging a diversity of opinions on the matter of what that optimal size is, I think it’s safe to say that there are diminishing returns on increasing the ratio between teachers and students. So that if one teacher can take on 20 or 30 kindergarten students effectively, it probably is not possible for that teacher to take on ten times as many students and remain effective. In some of the fields where men are dominant, the whole point is to figure out how to do more and make more with less.

4. Women working alongside men in the workplace is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of work. We don’t know how to do this well, yet, or even if we can (and should?) be doing it.

5. Feminists who want to overthrow the “male patriarchy” are doing the very thing they hate. The irony is that they don’t like the power games of men, but they are engaged in a power play of their own.

6. Equality of opportunity is a good goal. Equality of outcomes is a disaster.

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This was in the background as I listened a week ago to a discussion on women in ministry. I was part of the audio-visual team supporting the annual business meeting for a  church denomination. In my role, I got to listen in to an hour-long discussion related to women in ministry.

The governing documents for this particular denomination were not written with clarity in mind. But it comes down to this: In this particular denomination, only a “minister” may be the pastor of a church. A “minister” is categorized as either an “elder” or a “probationer” (someone who wants to be an elder). Here is how those terms are defined:

“Probationers are males who have been licensed to preach in accordance with the order and The Discipline of The ___________ Church, but who have not been ordained and who are engaged in preparation and service looking toward ordination.”

“Elders are males who have been advanced to the Order of Elder and have been ordained in accordance with The Discipline of The ___________ Church.”

The key phrase in each definition is “are males.”

Women are treated in a separate track. They may be “commissioned” as “special ministries personnel,” but not ordained as elders, therefore they cannot be pastors. The primary difference in requirements between eldership and commissioning are educational. The idea behind commissioning is that women may be involved in Christian ministry at some level—perhaps working with children or other women—but they can’t be in a role where they would have anything like authority over men. Note: Men may also be commissioned, but I don’t think I’ve heard of any who have done so.

Preaching by women seems especially controversial in this denomination. I know a church within this denomination where it wasn’t a particularly big deal if a woman spoke from time to time. (The pastor encouraged the voices of women.) There are other churches where a woman would never be allowed to speak. For the most part, the general assumption in this denomination is that men do the preaching.

There is a movement within the denomination to change this.

Two local churches wrote petitions to revise the governing documents to say, simply, “Probationers are males who have been licensed to preach . . .” and “Elders are males who have been advanced . . .”, eliminating gender from the language.

What seems obvious right from the start is that adopting these petitions wouldn’t mean that women will become pastors. They would have to jump through all the hoops in terms of education, doctrinal exams, support from a local church, etc. But it wouldn’t prevent them.

Both petitions used similar language in their rationale. To quote one:

“[T]he role of women in ministry has been affirmed since the earliest days of the Wesleyan movement.”

“[S]everal women preachers were fully licensed by John Wesley himself, the founder of the Wesleyan movement.”

“[H]umanity—both male and female—were created in God’s own image and were both given the task of stewarding God’s creation.”

“[T]hrough Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, but oneness in Him.”

“[T]he word ‘male’ was not present in our original [governing documents], only to be added later …”

These petitions were tabled to allow for a time of discussion. This is a complicated issue for this denomination to tackle and it was felt that talking (rather than debating) would be be a better starting place.  You have a diversity of viewpoints on the issue and it was better to hear where people are coming from.

Even if you had gathered something like a consensus (or enough votes to pass the petition), it’s a bit of a process making any changes to the governing documents for this particular denomination. That is, even if this denominational meeting had voted to make a change, there are three other groups of churches in other parts of the country whose denominational meetings would need to vote similarly, and then an overarching group would need to formally adopt the change. This is how organized religion works. It’s convoluted and perhaps a little frustrating to watch (maybe worse to participate in), but to quote a friend of mine: “If you don’t like organized religion, wait ’til you see disorganized religion.”

I can’t imagine this is the only denomination that is wrestling with this issue. And while it is an issue of Biblical interpretation, it is interesting that across the theological spectrum from Calvinist on one end to Wesleyan-Arminian on the other, there are churches that do and don’t ordain women. This particular denomination is in the Wesleyan camp and doesn’t ordain women, while The Salvation Army and the Nazarene Church (among others, I assume) do. Similarly, there are Calvinist churches that have an exclusively male hierarchy and others (some Presbyterians, I believe) where women may serve as equal partners. And then there are middling views, where women can be pastors in a church, but not the pastor of a church.

So rather than have what I imagine could have become a heated debate on the issue, the decision was made to allow people to talk and express their viewpoints and allow a committee to wrestle with the issue. This was really helpful I think for all sides of the debate.

Some observations from memory (hoping that at some point I can hear a recording of the discussion and hone in on particulars):

1. It’s not clear why the male-only policy is in place and no one can state why it is. It was added in 1981. One theory is that this particular denomination didn’t want to be like the denomination that they had separated from. That denomination was too liberal in their doctrine and, since they ordained women, this new denomination concluded the one flows from the other and, therefore, decided not to ordain women to avoid liberalism. I think some people do associate being too liberal with the ordination of women, but I think a simple survey of churches shows that some churches, like the before-mentioned Nazarene and Salvation Army, both ordain women and are pretty conservative in their doctrines.

2. It’s a divisive issue. One of the people who spoke was a woman who I think is in favor of ordaining women. But she told the story of how when a woman spoke at her particular church while the pastor was away, this was deeply upsetting to at least one couple who said they would be leaving to find a more traditional (i.e. only men preach) congregation. There are some pastors and/or congregations that might leave the denomination if this change were made. An unknown element of this debate is the concern about what if’s. What if we ordain women? What happens then? Some pastors may leave the denomination. Some churches may leave the denomination.

3. Reason is not always part of the debate. One man said that since Jesus only recruited men to begin his church (the twelve disciples), therefore we should only recruit men to lead the church. The obvious thing that comes to mind is that Jesus only recruited Jewish men to lead his church, so if we’re going to follow the line of thinking, this denomination should only be ordaining Jewish men to be elders. Part of this debate means that some approach the subject incoherently, so that as you try to get to the truth of the matter, you have to contend with ideology that is sometimes irrational. There is also a strand of “we’ve always done it this way.”

Another man said he spoke as the father of daughters, suggesting perhaps an extra authority. He said that if the triune God wanted things to be a certain way, the job of believers was to follow that way. He didn’t address the issue, though and I wondered if he thought doing so would have been to dignify what could not be debated because it was already settled by God. Does he hold assumptions that he is unwilling to look at or did he simply not want to take time to lay out how he has come to believe what he believes? His comments felt a little bullying. Things are the way they are. Don’t rock the boat.

4. The Bible is both clear and fuzzy on the matter. 1 Timothy 3:2 is the verse that most often gets cited in terms of church structure:

“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach …” [King James Version]

“Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher …” [Revised Standard Version]

“Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach …” [New International Version]

A few problems. One, the basic approach to Biblical interpretation means that you never make a doctrine out of one isolated verse, which it seems we are doing in this case. The New Testament has a view of men and women that at the very least is nuanced. Perhaps men and women have some roles to play, but in God’s view they are equal players. How that gets worked out in church governance is open to debate as evidenced by the fact that different denominations have different approaches. I think some intellectual humility serves well rather than saying “We’re right; they’re wrong.” How about something along the lines of “Reasonable people have come to different conclusions”?

Second, does the word “bishop” or “overseer” (however it is translated) actually indicate gender?

Third, translations make clear things that are not necessarily clear. In the Greek, the words for “husband of one wife” [King James Version], is literally, “a man of one woman” [Mounce Reverse-Interlinear New Testament] or
“of one wife a husband” [Young’s Literal Translation]. I’ve heard it translated as “a one-woman man.” Some scholars see in this a principle of faithfulness to one’s spouse rather than an identification of a gender.

5. Culture enters the picture and we don’t know what to say, think, or do about that. When should Christianity be counter-cultural and when are we seeing cultural effects that are results of Christianity for good or ill? What are good changes and what should we stand against?

One thing that seems to be going on in our culture is that it is becoming more egalitarian. Some see this as a good. In terms of the Church, I think some see it as part of a cultural slide. Ordaining women becomes a slippery slope to, say, ordaining someone who believes in same-sex marriage. Birth control and  feminine hygiene have changed the roles of women in the last century. Are these a net gain for women? Does the Bible support these changes? The joke (not so funny if you’re a woman) is that women should be “barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen.” Is that a Biblical idea?

Historically, some churches condoned slavery while others condemned it. Will we, in the future, look back on this cultural moment and wonder why some churches didn’t promote women? This denomination didn’t exist when there was slavery, but it is part of the evangelical movement that says social activism is part of what it means to be the Church.

6. A couple of people avoided weighing in on the issue by saying that the whole notion ordination needed to be examined. One person noted that the whole idea of ordination, at least how it is practiced in this denomination, is not Biblical. Another couldn’t vote on this petition because it didn’t go far enough to address other issues around ordination.

7. Some people didn’t speak. You can’t know what is going on in people’s hearts, but I later discovered that one person thought the discussion was irrelevant to what this individual considered weightier matters. If the issue was not settled in this person’s mind, the question certainly was “Why are we talking about this?” Were they annoyed by the temerity of it all?

Some people who didn’t speak were concerned about a distraction. This debate is going on in a smallish denomination that is fighting demographic changes (an aging population and/or a population that does not reflect the areas surrounding their churches) that threaten the future viability of many congregations. Recognizing that the size of the church does not necessarily indicate the health of a church, many of the congregations in this denomination are small and getting smaller. Some I think want that issue to be front and center rather than whether or not to ordain women.

8. It was a little funny for me to observe that a group of mostly men (ordained elders and probationers) were making decisions about the role of women. What does it communicate when a group of men say in actions if not words, “We men will decide if you women have a place at the table.”

A few commissioned women (or those in process) in the room did make some comments. One in particular was a woman who spoke in favor of ordaining women. She was commissioned for twenty years and is now retired. I can’t describe how profoundly moving her words were. She wasn’t emotional as she spoke, but there was a forcefulness to her words that was effecting.

For my part, I listened to the debate somewhat bemused. What’s the big deal? I grew up in The Salvation Army, which meant both of my parents were ordained, although they tended to follow some traditional roles. For example, my father did the preaching, although my mom was (and is) a very fine speaker. Listening to this discussion was fascinating, though. People who read the same Bible and are committed to the same doctrines have divergent views on women. I was deeply sympathetic to the petition, but I’m also wanting to understand this issue better.

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I thought about this discussion with Dr. Peterson in mind. Since he is most decidedly against equality of outcomes, he would not be in favor of a proposal that said we should have an equal number of men and women ministers. No one is proposing that. But to what extend should there be equality of opportunity in the Church? That is the question that some apparently don’t want to consider.

Peterson is a proud proponent of Western values. One of those values is the idea that the individual is sovereign. That a person has rights. I think some of this comes from the Bible, which affirms the idea of equality, that the king is no better than the pauper.

To what extent do the differences between men and women factor into this issue? Dr. Peterson has observed that in egalitarian societies, men and women choose different kinds of work. Is pastoral work an area where women should not or would not want to participate? Dr. Peterson says that in some of the hierarchies where men dominate, competence needs to be considered. Is pastoral work one of those areas where male competence exceeds that of women because of differences between the sexes?

I think most people in the room would listen with approval to many of the things Dr. Peterson says. When he speaks out against radical feminists or transgender activists who want to compel speech, they would applaud, especially as he affirms a biological foundation for sexual identity that conforms nicely with the Biblical idea that God made men and women.

The problem is that when it comes to the Church, the feminists are right. There is a male hierarchy that has power which it exerts over women. Women are not allowed to compete. As Peterson stands against group identity and speaks for the individual, I wonder what he would think about a denomination that does not treat people as individuals, but divides them into two groups and has one group tell the other how it may participate.