A seasoned pastor offered an honest comment as I opened a workshop on the topic of developing a written church Position Statement regarding women in ministry: “This is the burning issue in my church. My congregation and the leadership divide almost evenly on their view of women in ministry. Whichever position we might take, we likely would lose the other half. It is hard to see how that could be striving to keep unity.”
Not a Debate on the Biblical Role for Women
This article is not a debate on the different positions of the role of women in ministry. It is, rather, an appeal to consider developing a written Position Statement for your particular ministry. Without question, among biblically sound, good and godly people, there are significant differences of interpretation of Scripture—even among those with a very high view of Scripture—regarding this topic. Our hope is that leadership in individual churches considers this issue with passion, wrapped in kindness and humility. As you read this discussion, think about your church, your leadership, and your people. This attitude was reflected in the recent statement published by Irving Bible Church, of Irving, Texas, when, at the conclusion of their research they wrote, “We realized that instead of presuming to determine what is ‘right’ for all times and places, we were called to define ‘what seems to be good to us and the Holy Spirit’ for IBC in the spirit of Acts 15:28.”
Why Even Try?
With these challenges, why would an XP even broach such a volatile subject? Why, when pressing issues like budgets and bills demand attention as well? Why add more pressure to the constant challenges of ongoing ministry? Why risk when there seems to be little reward for the effort? Several reasons surface and need prayerful consideration by you and your leadership.
First, we live in changing times. Women’s issues are continually changing, especially with regard to leadership in the church. Your position as XP usually involves hiring staff and writing job descriptions. You will need to answer the logical question, “What roles are open to women? And why?” More and more evangelical seminaries are training women to serve in local churches. Presently, women comprise 30-50% of student bodies in most evangelical seminaries. These women have God-given gifts and desire to serve the church.
Integrity and Authenticity Demand It
Secondly, your future church members will demand it. Post-modern young adults are baffled by this discussion (especially the young men). The biblical discussion that speaks to limiting the role of women in leadership is not mirrored in society, nor has it been in their lifetime. They are asking “Why?” We need an answer that is authentic and congruent with what we say we believe. This generation values authenticity and they critically examine every area that falls short with the frustrated conclusion, “Just forget it.”
Questions Encountered in Unexpected Places
Additionally, you will likely encounter this issue in unexpected places. At a recent new member’s class in my church, during the section on Church Government and Elders, this issue was raised. In the material the new members received, we list our current Elders and their bios along with their pictures. A woman near the back of class raised her hand and commented, “I don’t see a woman’s picture; why not? Do you not have women Elders?” Without a written Policy Statement, my answer in the negative was likely seen as inadequate. Had I had a written policy to give her reflecting the careful and full consideration of our leadership, she might have appreciated the complexity and integrity with which our Elders arrived at their conclusions.
A Case Study: Bent Tree Bible Fellowship
The challenge this church faced began in the summer of 1993 when a recent Dallas Theological Seminary graduate, JoAnn Hummel, joined the staff as Pastor at Bent Tree Bible Fellowship. This title was “traditionally male,” as were several of her areas of responsibility—especially the oversight of Adult Education.
Almost immediately, questions arose. “What can she do? What can’t she do?” From a theological perspective, there was unity among the Elders, although Senior Pastor Pete Briscoe held the egalitarian position. The majority of the active Elder board was primarily complementarian. One difficult issue raised in their discussion was particularly perplexing: “If she is a “Pastor,” should she be ordained?”
As she began to successfully lead and teach women, JoAnn’s strong gifts became evident to the entire church. The impetus for Bent Tree’s first Position Statement was the question: “What do you do with women who have strong teaching or leading gifts?” As a church in the “Bible Church” tradition, Bent Tree focused on the question, “What does Scripture say?”
The Elders met for two years, searching for a Position Statement that would bring unity on the issue. They discussed, prayed and researched the controversial verses that speak of limiting the role of women in church leadership as well as others. Bent Tree concluded by stating that, “A woman could teach if partnered with a man.” This provided, in their understanding, a “male covering” for women teachers. Sunday morning classes could be “team taught” by men and women. JoAnn could teach, with a male co-leader, the classes that she administrated. This position brought some clarity, but only for a season. Then new questions arose in the practical application of the new position. “What happens when the “male” co-leader is out of town? Who takes his place? Does anyone need to take his place? Would an Elder need to be there? When a woman is teaching, where does that man sit or stand? Does he have to be up front with her?”
The difficulties of implementing the Position Statement grew burdensome and impractical for the growing church. Meanwhile, the Women’s Ministry under JoAnn’s leadership and teaching grew strong. WILD (Women in Leadership Development) became an immensely popular summer enrichment program for women. Seminary-type topics were offered to emerging leaders, taught by JoAnn and other gifted women teachers. Male leaders in the church heard about the training and wanted to participate. This request collided with the Position Statement regarding women teachers.
WILD transitioned to Weekends in Leadership Development and was held during the year for all adults in all ministries. Then, as geography was perceived as a strong factor in developing community, in 2003-04 the church began transitioning as a congregation from a program-based model to a community-based model of ministry. JoAnn was asked to lead one of the three key ministry areas that provided support for the community model.
Still uncomfortable with some aspects of the previous policy, a new discussion concerning the biblical role for women developed:
- Can women lead groups in the community?
- Can they mentor men?
- What about the women on staff and trained lay leaders?
To address these questions, the Elders revisited the previous Position Statement. Following eighteen months of diligent prayer, readings, outside advisors, and much discussion, the Elders published a revised Position Statement at the end of 2005. This new statement was thoughtfully and carefully communicated to the entire church. The Elders first spoke with the Executive Team, who in turn communicated to the Pastoral staff, then to all staff, to key leaders, to the church and to the church website. Response was overwhelmingly positive, proved to be a non-issue and provided clarity going forward.
A Process that Provides Clarity
For the purpose of this article, Bent Tree’s process and the clarity it provided for that congregation is our main point. The benefits of a written affirmation from the church leadership lend clarity in a challenging and confusing discussion. It also validates the value and contribution that women make in the life of a congregation. The willingness of the Elders to wrestle with the biblical text and seek to separate enduring, normative principles from cultural and temporary issues demonstrates strong leadership. This kind of leadership anticipates the needs of the flock and loves them enough to invest the time and energy required. Their commitment to maintaining unity as a priority for all decision making guarded the flock though the process.
A clear statement of the church’s value of its women, who commonly comprise about 60% of a congregation, acknowledges and affirms the giftedness and value of the contribution of its women. Even a statement recognizing the differing views, while choosing not to take a specific position, acknowledges the difficulty and complexity of this issue. In some situations, choosing not to take a position may better provide for unity of the body.
Trumped By the Urgent
Though this issue is important, it does not present itself as urgent. Everyday you are faced with the urgent in the church: the water main bursts, the computers crash, someone breaks into the worship center and steals equipment. In the face of the urgent, many times the long-term important issues, even the spiritually critical discussions, are trumped by the urgent.
We propose a Statement on Women in Ministry is one of those important issues that will be pushed aside by the urgent unless it is seen as invaluable to your church becoming all God desires. It will seem that there is always something more urgent than this but you can lead the charge to make it happen. You would be wise to be thinking about it now, before it becomes an urgent issue.
Questions to Consider
- How did the events and underlying issues impact the discussions of the Elders at Bent Tree Bible Fellowship? Are you facing any of the same issues in your ministry situation?
- Considering the process of communication by Bent Tree. How might that have affected the understanding and acceptance of the decision?
- In your position as XP or SP regarding this issue:
- What are your unique risks?
- What are your responsibilities?
- What are your concerns?
- What potential benefits/rewards might you anticipate?
- Beck, James R. and Craig Blomberg, eds. Two Views on Women in Ministry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001.
- Belleville, Linda. Women Leaders and the Church, Three Crucial Questions. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000.
- Grentz, Stanley and Denise Muir Kjesbo. Women in the Church, A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995.
- Sumner, Sarah. Men and Women in the Church. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
- Webb, William. Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
- Winston, George and Dora. Recovering Biblical Ministry by Women: An Evangelical Response to Traditionalism and Feminism. Xulon Press, 2003.