Changing a Church Culture about Women in Ministry

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 10.18.31 AMBy Debbie Fulthorp:

Dr. Debbie Fulthorp has been an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God for over fourteen years. Debbie has ministered in over twenty-seven countries. She received her DMin from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. She is wife to Brian, mom to Mercy and Samuel, ages nine and six.

I overheard an amazing conversation on my way back from lunch at a conference I recently attended. A university student casually mentioned the history of strong women leaders in the early church, using Priscilla as an example, to his friend. He then passionately contended for women as equal partners in church leadership. I quickly realized that I knew the student who was advocating for female pastors and teachers.

Two years ago, I was invited to teach a session about women in ministry to a group of bright, young students. One young man was quiet and seemed unresponsive to my words. During the class, he mentioned his conservative upbringing, which excluded women from ministry. I left not knowing his response to my session.

At the time, I wondered how, or if, those few hours of teaching would actually change his perspective. Now, he was attending a church leadership conference and proactively advocating for the Spirit-empowered ministry of men and women.

Our words as egalitarian leaders and teachers can have great impact on the hearts and minds of other Christians. We must be wise and intentional in our teaching and advocacy for women as equal ministry partners to men. Here is a list of simple steps egalitarian leaders can take to guide people toward a better theology on women in ministry.

1. Start with the Heart

Including women in all levels of church leadership is a controversial move and a difficult topic to tackle. It should be approached as such. Crucial Conversations, a book on beginning difficult conversations, refers to this pivotal principle: “Start[ing] with heart… means starting with our own selves.”[1]

What were/are your own biases toward including women in all levels of ministry? Share your story, both the good and the bad, with the person, congregation, class, or group you’re speaking to. Attach personal weight to having women leaders in the church/community.

2. Set a Firm Theological Foundation: Understanding the Trinity

Within the last twenty to thirty years, a new debate over Trinitarian doctrine has emerged. This directly impacts how a church understands and models leadership, both in marriage and in the structure of the church.

If a church adheres to a complementarian or hierarchical understanding of gender, their theology on the Trinity is more likely to fall under the category of “subordinationist.” This perspective on the trinity (ESS or ERAS) subordinates God the Son to God the Father. It is important to clarify that both Scripture and church history affirm mutuality or “equivalency” among the godhead.[2]

3. Tackle the Controversial Passages

Passages such as Ephesians 2:20, 1 Corinthians 14:34, and 1 Timothy 2:12 are consistently misunderstood and misused to exclude and marginalize women. Historical and cultural context clues are of utmost importance in properly interpreting Scripture.

We should remind our classes, friends, coworkers, and congregations that they interpret the Bible through a Western, 21st century lens. But ancient texts cannot be understood correctly without considering their original context.

These controversial passages concerning the role and gifts of women are difficult to interpret, even for biblical scholars. When Christians take the time to research the historical-cultural-grammatical background and details of the texts, we are challenged with fresh insight and revelation from the Holy Spirit.[3]

4. Discuss Bible Translations

Inevitably, in engaging controversial scriptures, Christians will note differences in their Bible translations. Questions will likely arise as to why some words are included, others footnoted, and still others completely omitted. Be honest and thorough in explaining the process of Bible translation.

The Bible is God’s divinely-breathed word, but it was handwritten by thirty-nine human authors over a spanof 1,500 years. Emphasizing divine collaboration through human personality provides a more practical approach to understanding differences in translations of passages concerning women in leadership.[4]

5. Utilize Biblical Stories of Women

From the Old to the New Testament, stories of women leading the way abound. Teach about and celebrate women leaders like Esther, Deborah, Mary, and Priscilla. Build upon previous knowledge of Bible women, and step out with more obscure examples of female leadership like Sheerah, the female builder/architect,[5] the daughters of Zelophehad,[6] or Junia, the female apostle.[7] It’s important to point out that the inclusion of women in leadership among God’s people is not a new concept, it’s a biblical one.

6. Share Historical and Contemporary Stories of Women in Ministry

From historical figures such as St. Teresa of Avila, Pandita Ramabai, Susana Wesley, Jennie Seymour, and Catherine Booth to contemporary influencers such as Brenda Salter McNeil, Anne Graham Lotz, Gail Song Bantum, and Christine Caine, God chose/chooses diverse women with diverse gifts to lead the way.

7. Trust the Holy Spirit’s Work

Carve out time to spend in prayer, discussion, and thought for those listening. You’ll have given them much to consider on the topic of including women in all levels of church ministry. Ultimately, trust the Holy Spirit to do the work. What might take one person years or a lifetime to accomplish, the Holy Spirit can accomplish in a short amount of time. Plant the seeds as you’re called and watch the Spirit work.

“The harvest is plentiful, the workers are few… Pray for laborers.”

Jesus’ words in Luke 10:2 to his disciples are a stark reminder that the church remains ineffective and dysfunctional when it fails to use the gifts of both men and women. When the church has a healthy theological understanding of women’s gifts and leadership, dysfunction ceases and ministry thrives.

Notes

[1] Kerry Patterson et al., Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2012), 33.
[2] For a thorough and objective book on this subject, Millard Erickson, Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? an Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2009).
[3] One book that does a thorough job on these scriptures is Deborah Gill and Barbara Cavaness-Parks,God’s Women Then and Now, 3rd ed. (Springfield, MO: Grace and Truth, 2015).
[4] Another good book on Bible translation and study, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 4 ed. (MI: Zondervan, 2014).
[5] 1 Chronicles 7:24
[6] Numbers 26:33, 27:2, 36:1; Joshua 17:3
[7] Romans 16:7

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.