Kelly Ladd Bishop

Exploring issues of faith, culture, and spirituality with a focus on women in the church and world

Even if it’s Allowed, is it Necessary to Have Women in Church Leadership?

Even if it’s Allowed, is it Necessary to Have Women in Church Leadership?

Several years ago I sat down with a prominent male pastor in my community, who also happened to be a former seminary professor of mine. I wanted to get his opinion on the influx of church planters in our area who came to bring their complementarian (patriarchal) theology along with the gospel. The majority of these churches, pastors, and church planting groups believe that patriarchal gender roles are inextricably tied to the gospel. If you don’t believe that only men should be pastors, if you don’t believe that men are the head of the household, if you don’t believe that women were created to marry and care for children and the home, then you aren’t really a Bible believing Christian.

The pastor I met with had women pastors on his staff, and supported the equality of women in church leadership. But he made it clear that even though the Bible doesn’t prohibit the leadership of women, it also doesn’t mandate it. In other words, it’s fine to not have women pastors, even if you believe women can be pastors.

I read the same argument this week in a post someone sent to me. The author, a Baptist male pastor with an MDiv and a PhD from a Baptist seminary, made a good scriptural case that the Bible does not prohibit women from pastoral ministry. He then went on to say that, even though the Bible does not prohibit women from ordination, it also doesn’t “prescribe” the practice of ordaining women for churches in general. In other words, “women can be pastors, but you don’t need to have women pastors in your churches.”

Because of this view, the pastor I met with felt that there was no real reason to argue the case for women in ministry. He viewed it as a secondary matter of disagreement, and didn’t see a lot of reason to be concerned with complementarian theology, even though he believes it’s not correct. He also said that the best thing women pastors can do is just be good at what they do. He believes complementarian churches will have an increasingly difficult time convincing people of their gender theology.

I’ve heard this view point from a number of male pastors. They believe that if women are good pastors, they will be called to good jobs, and the fruit will be evident. It’s tempting to believe this, because it sounds logical. The problem is that, for many women, no matter how good they are, they won’t be called to good jobs. They won’t be called because the churches haven’t been taught biblical theology that supports women as pastors. They won’t be called because, “we support women in minsitry, but we just prefer a man.” They won’t be called for dozens of reasons that have nothing to do with their ability, gifting, or calling.

And in the end, it’s hard for me to not see this reasoning as an excuse for male pastors to just keep doing what they’ve always done.

Recently, in a response to John MacArthur’s comments regarding Beth Moore, historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez pointed out that MacArthur’s comments are a result of decades of practicing theology in his own white patriarchal Christian culture. Du Mez sums up this culture as follows:

While specific manifestations may vary (clean-shaven vs. neatly-trimmed beards, hunting vs. rock climbing, fine Scotch vs. craft brews), some things remain consistent. White (Christian) patriarchy always entails men patting each other’s backs, sharing stages, endorsing each other’s teachings, blurbing each other’s books, and calling one another “brother in Christ.”

We live and function in the cultures we create, whether we are aware of it or not. The result of certain spaces being dominated by certain groups of people means the culture of those spaces becomes the culture of those people. This happens in pastoral circles all the time. Groups of male pastors meet together weekly for prayer. Male pastors invite each other to preach at their churches. Male pastors endorse each other’s books, and share links to each other’s articles online. Male pastors listen to the arguments and theology of other male pastors. At worst, it’s a narcissistic echo chamber. At best it’s a group of well meaning men with huge blind spots.

In professional circles I’ve heard people say, “I hire people I want to work with.” One leadership guru noted that he hires people he would “like to have a beer with.” In general there’s nothing wrong with hiring people that you see being a good fit personally and socially, as well as professionally. It makes sense. But what happens when your profession is dominated by men who only “like to have a beer” with other men? It becomes impossible for women to find a seat at the table.

Having first hand experience with the difficulty of finding a seat at the table of male pastors, I believe that it is important to teach our churches theology that affirms women in all areas of ministry. And I believe that it is important to push back against complementarian theology that limits the roles of women in the church and world. It’s not enough to simply say, “The Bible doesn’t prohibit women in leadership,” and then continue to allow ministry circles to be dominated by men. If we do, then there will never be a place for women.

Having women at the table is important! One might say that the Bible doesn’t “prescribe” women pastors for all churches, but the Bible does call us to radical equality and freedom, which requires stretching beyond our comfortable cultures, moving outside of our echo chambers, and listening to the voices of others. When our ministry tables are missing women, they are missing the perspectives, experiences, and insights of half the world! So I agree that the Bible doesn’t prohibit women from church leadership. But I also believe that it is necessary to make space for women in church leadership. Otherwise, “it’s not necessary” just becomes an excuse to keep having a beer with your bro-friends and patting each other on the back, because it’s comfortable, and because you can.

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2 thoughts on “Even if it’s Allowed, is it Necessary to Have Women in Church Leadership?

  1. I agree with your assessment and would lean even more heavily into it by acknowledging with your pastor/professor friend that we are all obligated to recognize those whom God sends.

    Interestingly, Jesus sent Mary with the gospel, and the men in the room opted not to accept her message. They didn’t have to, I am sure they rationalized to themselves, they could go see for themselves, which is what they did do. Or, Jesus could have simply shown up Himself with His own news, which is actually what He did do as well.

    But the point is, Jesus sent Mary and the men opted to not accept her message.

    There is no excuse for that, today. Today, every believer has the Spirit of Christ, so when we reject the ones Jesus sends, and find some scriptural excuse to rationalize that choice, we do wrong.

    By the way, the Bible does not prohibit nor endorse ordination, either. That is an entirely man-made construct to exert human control over who is recognized as having authority to teach and lead.

    And, while I’m at it, if the stage were entirely women, would there not be a huge and cry about role models for the boys? Who would the men be able to relate to? How would a man feel in a completely female-run church?

    I rest my case

  2. I agree with you Joanne. And great point on the role models. People get uncomfortable if there are all women on a stage, or too many women up front, but no one thinks twice when we only hear the voices of men every single week. No one would ever question a pastoral staff of all men, even in a church that claimed to be egalitarian.

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