What we talk about when we talk about women in church: part four

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(Read parts one: "Does danger lurk in a woman near you?", two: "What is a biblical woman?" and three: "Do you know the women of the Bible?")

This is not a trick question.

But it presupposes another one.

QUESTION #1: Should every woman lead?

It's been a long five years of studying God's intentions for his daughters and releasing those thoughts out into the world through the book Reclaiming Eve. Through this process, and after poring over Scripture and hearing hundreds of insights from others who are studying it and living the gospel and seeking the truth, I have become convinced of this:

Every girl and woman was created to lead. I believe there truly are no exceptions. 

Here's why: God's unsullied plan, his #1 creative idea, was to create two human beings made in his image (Genesis 1:27-28). In the Creation narrative, this stunning act is followed by marching orders for the two beings made to reflect God, to remind us of him. 

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.

I believe we do injustice to the biblical text when we don't acknowledge the agency—the ability to act on behalf of another—God granted these two image-bearers:

  1. In the Ancient Near East, the only beings considered to be made in the image of deity were kings who ruled. In a stunning act of authority and relationship, God asserts his creative power in making two beings to represent him and his interests, than gives them the authority to do so. (Can you imagine the appeal of such an intimate, generous God?)
  2. But the wow factor doesn't end there. God would bless the pair with fruitfulness, and in an act of a personal nature, he would share this with them directly. "God blessed them and said to them..." He would multiply their numbers, he would grant them authority to creatively rule over and steward his awesome creation. Male and female.

A popular commentary on Genesis says, "In the economy of the family (and the church) . . . The woman is to respond, receive, be acted upon, bear, nurture, follow" (Boice, Genesis, Volume 1). It also says, "the man is to lead, protect, care for, cherish, act upon, and initiate."

But the receiving/acting upon language referring to the female  is impossible to find in the Genesis Creation account. Likewise, by saying a woman should "follow" it seems to preclude her leading at all.

Yet through and through, God weaves a story of mutuality, of giving and receiving, of partnering, shared leadership and strength in Genesis 1 and 2. Both humans are given agency to act on behalf of God's interests.

And the only thing that interrupts this wonderful state of affairs and freedom to serve?

Sin. (See Genesis 3.)

The Fall brought a sad prediction: Adam would rule over Eve. But as Christians who believe in God's original intentions, I stand with those who believe that Jesus' life, death and Resurrection turn our relationships right side up, setting things right again. As Scot McKnight has written in the book The Blue Parakeet, "The implications of the Fall are being undone for those who are in Christ." We are, quite literally—new creations in Christ—and we should live and lead like it.

QUESTION #2: Isn't a leadership gift only given to some individuals?

This is a common assumption, and some might even call it biblical. In Romans 12:8, Paul is writing about the many members of the body being given spiritual gifts, and in a passing mention he says, "if it [your gift] is to lead, do it diligently . . ." (NIV 2011). The Greek word used here, proistemi, and it means this in Strong's:

("diligent to take the lead") underlines the effectiveness of influencing people by having a respected reputation, i.e. one built on a solid "track-record. This happens by setting the example of excellence by living in faith (cf. Ro 12:3,8).

So certain people may be especially qualified and gifted to influence people through their faith and reputation. But every person with a spiritual gift (and there is no exhaustive list of these gifts in the Bible) also leads simply by being God's image-bearer and faithfully offering their gift: through service, encouragement, shepherding, pastoring, teaching, administrating, offering mercy, etc. (Partial gifts lists: Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, Ephesians 4:11-13)

Dr. Halee Gray Scott offers insight into the limits we tend to place on leadership by quoting several leadership gurus in her book Dare Mighty Things: Mapping the Challenges of Leadership for Christian Women. She notes on page 40 that Western white male leadership gurus often have the loudest voices. But as Scott asserts, when we add women and minorities into the leadership conversation, we might arrive at a more robust definition. Through her research, the author found that "influence" was the common denominator, or "the ability to have an effect on another person's character, behavior or actions." Think on that for a moment—simply affecting someone else in a variety of ways means leading them.

I submit to you the question becomes not "Does everyone lead?" but "In what ways am I leading today?" or "Am I leading well?"

Question #3: How should a woman lead?

The answer is simple.

1. A woman should lead just as a man should lead—by following Jesus first.

The Christian life is patterned after the God-man who emptied himself  (Philippians 2:1-11), taking on the form of a servant, a doulos—literally—a slave. We follow in his footsteps and lead by laying down our lives for his sake. We are called to lead from a posture of gratitude and humility.

2. A woman should lead through her unique personality, experiences and gifting.

Rather than being concerned that she speak more softly or more loudly, that she be authoritative or meek, that she appear this way or that way, a woman should lead as the unique person God created her to be, maximizing the spiritual gifts she has been given for the sake of the Body of Christ. She should seek to do so alongside her brothers and sisters, lifting them up as she leads, neither self-consciously or unconsciously, but as a fellow-follower of Jesus.

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:10)

Women, worry less about your hair and your makeup, the perfect dress or the perfect way to approach the pastor about using your gifts. Concern yourself, instead, with the Kingdom: seek first to offer up your gift and yourself, with the full backing of a heavenly Father who has created you for this. If you are rejected, keep looking for your spot to serve until you find a way to contribute, remembering your approval comes from God.

3. A woman should lead freely.

Throughout Church history, women like Phoebe and Priscilla and Deborah and Clare of Assisi, Henrietta Mears,  Kay Warren and Lynne Hybels, have found their way, though sometimes faltering, into the leadership God intended for them.

Women have led, though they haven't always led freely because of restrictions imposed on them. Not long ago I asked my husband, "Do you wish that I had never gone to seminary, that God had never given me the gifts of teaching and leadership?" In my mind, our lives would be infinitely less complicated and lonely, since many have openly shared with us they don't believe women should teach in church. To which my wise, faithful husband replied: "Not even for one minute!"

Our gifts are given at the pleasure of a generous Creator, and we deny his good work when we don't use and cultivate them freely.

In my personal journey, this meant going to seminary, serving as an interim pastor, leading a Bible study for women recovering from chemical addiction, writing a book, and serving as a part-time chaplain outside the Church. Sadly, many women with strong leadership gifts are primarily desired for positions outside of the Church.

And yet. I am encouraged that today many evangelicals are finding support in Scripture for women to lead as they are gifted and called, as we trace God's plans for his daughters all the way back to Genesis where God creates two leaders to rule together over his very good Creation.

It is easy to come to another conclusion, of course—and many churches have done just that. They do it by elevating a few select passages of Scripture that seemed to preclude women teaching or leading—and because of this, entire generations of women have often been left on the sidelines instead of the frontlines.

But the question remains: was the life, death and Resurrection of Christ powerful enough to reverse the effects of the Fall? Are we to live up to the effects of sin? Or subvert them? As we reclaim Adam and Eve, we empower men and women to discover God's first intentions, as Mimi Haddad recently wrote about in the post Different but Equal: Giving Words Their True Meaning.

Quoting Dr. Roger Nicole, a former president and founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society, she points out that he notes the main stream of the Scripture supports, rather than excludes, women in positions of leadership beside men. Nicole said:

I believe that most, if not all of the restrictions on women in society have no basis in Scripture; and that those maintained in the church are based on an inadequate interpretation of a few restrictive passages which put them in contradiction with the manifest special concern and love of God for women articulated from Genesis to Revelation. I do believe that in the eschaton all the redeemed will endorse biblical equality, since all of them will together constitute the bride of Christ.

Though all-male or all-female teams can function and accomplish tasks, I don't believe they function with the strength God built into the original team he created: a man and a woman placed in a garden, and commissioned to rule together over God's "very good" Creation. For this reason, I'm always eager to partner with both men and women, using their combined strength, giftedness and unique experiences to advance God's interests of love and justice.

There are enough hindrances to the gospel of Jesus being spread in word and deed around the world; let's not passively accept the notion that women are not leaders, but actively seek to restore God's image-bearers as full partners, ready  and equipped to build God's Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven.

For the reasons listed above, I conclude: every woman was built to lead and influence, and she should do so freely for the Kingdom's sake.

Suggested posts: When I Opposed Women in Ministry by Suzanne Burden Lean In: Women, Work and the Church by Carolyn Custis James The Consensus and Context of 1 Timothy 2:12 by Marg Mowczko (a scholarly, detailed look at this passage) Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb by Gail Wallace (an accessible look at this passage)

Take the message to your church: order the Reclaiming Eve Small Group DVD today to lead an eight-week Bible study in your group or congregation. 

On #ReclaimingEve: “Reclaiming Eve offers an insightful walk from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane. Sprinkled with personal stories from three authors of varying ages, women at every stage of life will gain valuable perspective and practical ways to reclaim their identity in Christ. Whether you’re looking for a book to read individually or one you can discuss with a group, Reclaiming Eve stirs up great food for reflection and discussion.” —Marian V. Liautaud, editor of Today’s Christian Woman and author of The War on Women: The World’s Worst Holocaust, and How Christians Are Saving One Girl at a Time

What we talk about when we talk about women in church: part three

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We hear sermons about the 12 disciples quite regularly. In my experience, Paul, too, seems to surface often during the Sunday morning sermon, instructing churches in the way of the gospel. Abraham was called to father a nation, Moses was called to deliver that nation, David was called—despite his sin—to lead that nation, paving the way for the eventual life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.

This is our story, the story of our Redemption. But in truth, it's not the whole story. Vital characters are often missing. If one were to sit in our church services on Sunday morning, one might conclude that women are at best of marginal value in the Kingdom of God.

And sisters and brothers, this ought not so to be. 

So I was at Walmart the other day, looking for a magazine to buy, when I stumbled across this.

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And I visibly winced. Rolled my eyes. I may even have uttered a loud sigh.

I'm not proud of my reaction (my husband came over to see what was the matter), but I admit that everything inside me said: Welcome to a piece that will probably trivialize the women of the Bible, avoiding hard parts of their stories, sexualizing them and making them incidental, holding up the "best" version of womanhood as one where a woman shrinks and settles for a cultural notion of 'biblical womanhood.'"

Either I have a colorful imagination or I've experienced places where women are viewed as less than. OK, both things are true.

But when I opened the pages of this American Bible Society publication, I was surprised and a bit transfixed.

While not diminishing the patriarchal culture the women of the Bible inhabited, Extraordinary Women of the Bible: Heroines and the Lessons They Can Still Teach Us highlights the ways in which biblical women broke the mold. I'm sure I would have written the stories a bit differently, especially the story of Eve (highlighting Christ's redemptive work), but I've not found a resource that introduces female characters in a short, honest and uplifting way. You could read much of it to an eight-year-old or have them read it themselves (being aware of some of the difficult situations and wrong choices that are made in the section on Four Women Who Embraced Evil, which is wonderfully instructive in its own way.) Pictures of culturally and ethnically diverse women fill its pages.

And so it is that brief stories of Hagar, and Rachel and Deborah and Jael, Huldah, Athaliah and Dorcas and more spring to life, often forgotten in our teachings and our sermons, but remembered by a God who calls things as not as though they were.

Let them not remain hidden in a magazine in Walmart, but preached on, studied as the great spiritual biographies they are, uncovered through focused energy and scholarship and the simple effort of making room for the women of the Bible.

And may this truth be known far and wide, speaking gospel liberating truth into places and spaces that dehumanize women: selling them, subordinating them, and abusing them as they see fit. Jesus has already set women free. And the stories of Bible women can illustrate the ways of this new Kingdom, shattering the shackles that bind.

Great places to start:

  • Watch these two-minute video shorts on how the women of the New Testament who were set free through the gospel. Then share them on your social networks.
  • This just in: the Reclaiming Eve DVD Discussion Guide is now available here and here. Order it now for your book club or fall Bible study (it includes a deeper Bible study for groups) and encourage women in your life to be set free through the power of the gospel.

Who is your favorite woman of the Bible? And why?

On #ReclaimingEve: “Reclaiming Eve offers an insightful walk from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane. Sprinkled with personal stories from three authors of varying ages, women at every stage of life will gain valuable perspective and practical ways to reclaim their identity in Christ. Whether you’re looking for a book to read individually or one you can discuss with a group, Reclaiming Eve stirs up great food for reflection and discussion.” —Marian V. Liautaud, editor of Today’s Christian Woman and author of The War on Women: The World’s Worst Holocaust, and How Christians Are Saving One Girl at a Time