April 25, 2021 - Women In Leadership

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Today we’re going to take a look at women in leadership: Does the Bible permit women to be church leaders? Are we being disobedient to God’s word if we ordain women as deacons, elders, or pastors? Are we caving in to the culture if we do so? Are women inferior or incapable as leaders? If we are equal, then why can women not serve in all the ways that men serve? Are there not times when women would rather receive care, counseling, and instruction from women rather than from men? And if we let women lead and care for other women, why can they not serve as leaders over groups of men and women?

Let’s look at Galatians 3:28 on what it means to be in Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Greek [or any other kind of non-Jew], there is neither slave nor free [a huge contradiction of the status quo], there is neither male nor female [just as radical a claim], because you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Is Paul talking about some future pipe dream? No, he means right now, from the moment that he speaks. Right now, we are all one in Christ Jesus. Our oneness breaks down all barriers that would nullify that oneness.

What Paul says in this verse becomes the lens thru which we read the rest of what he says about Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. So whenever Paul says, “Slaves, obey your masters,” we must let Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is “neither slave nor free” control how we understand Paul’s bottom-line approach to slavery. Neither Jesus nor Paul advocated a Spartacus-style overthrow of slavery, nor did either of them command that slavery be abolished, but both of them planted the seeds that led to slavery’s collapse.

The same is true for women in leadership: we let “in Christ there is neither male nor female” control how we understand the rest of what Paul says on the subject. So when Paul tells the Corinthians, “Let women be silent in the churches” [or literally “the assemblies”], not only can we say that Paul is simply addressing issues of disorder in the church, but we can look at how Paul applies his advice in practice. We look for examples where Paul does let women speak and lead. The same is true when Paul tells Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.” In both cases, we need to remember Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is “neither male nor female,” plus we need to see how Paul puts it all together in practice (we’ll do that in a moment). The best solution to a puzzle is the one that uses all the pieces.

Let’s take a look at some women leaders that Paul endorses in Romans 16, his chapter full of unsung heroes of faith. Verses 1-2: “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a diakonos [servant/deacon/minister] of the church at Cenchreae [the port at Corinth], so that you may receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and may assist her in whatever matter she has need of you, for indeed she has been a prostatis [patron] of many, including me.”

Phoebe appears to have been the person who delivers Paul’s letter from Corinth to Rome. She is a leader of the church that meets in the town at the east end of today’s Corinth canal. She is called a diakonos, a word that basically means “servant,” but which also becomes the term “deacon,” not “deaconess;” it is also translated “minister” (a term that Paul calls himself). She is also called a prostatis, which means “one who stands out front.” It was a word for a Greek official who looks out for the legal rights of foreigners. Whatever she was, Phoebe was a leader.

Verse 3-5: “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own neck on behalf of my life, to whom not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks, and [greet] the church in their house.” [We’ll have more to say about Priscilla and Aquila in a moment.] Verse 6: “Greet Mary, who has worked hard among you.” Could this be Mary Magdalene, or a Mary that we do not know?

Verse 7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsfolk and fellow prisoners, who are prominent among the apostles, who were in Christ before me.” Who is this Junia, who is said to be “prominent among the apostles”? Some have claimed the name Junia is really a man’s name, Junias, but there is no evidence for such a man’s name in all of Greek literature. So Junia is a woman, as almost all of the early church writers recognized. St John Chrysostom, who did not believe in women as church leaders, said about Junia, “Oh! How great is the devotion of this woman, that she should even be counted worthy of the title of apostle!” There is some debate about the grammar here, as to whether she is actually one of the apostles, or is simply believed to be prominent among the apostles. I side with John Chrysostom, who believes she is one of them.

So how did this woman come to be recognized as an apostle? Here’s a clue: Junia was the Roman form of the name Joanna. Could this be the same Joanna we find in Luke 8:3, one of the women who followed Jesus (along with Mary Magdalene), and who provided for him financially? We are told that this Joanna was married to Herod’s financial manager, who seems to have gone by both the Arabian name Chuza and by the Roman name Andronicus. We find Joanna again as one of the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection in Luke 24:10. As Paul says, she was in Christ before Paul himself was. Joanna also-known-as Junia sounds abundantly qualified to be called an apostle!

Let’s go back to Priscilla and Aquila. For some reason, Priscilla keeps getting named before her husband. We are told that a unit of the church at Rome meets in their home. But when Claudius kicked all Jews out of Rome, they relocated with Paul at Ephesus. That’s where we find this husband-wife team in Acts 18:24-26:

“Now a certain Jew, an Alexandrian by birth, Apollos by name, a learned man, arrived in Ephesus, who was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been taught the way of the Lord, and, burning in spirit, he began speaking and teaching accurately the facts about Jesus, although knowing only the baptism of John. This man began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but having heard him, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.”

Both Priscilla and Aquila teach Apollos the Way of God more accurately. Both of them are teachers and church leaders. They both knew enough to correct an already learned man. Regardless of what Paul may have said to Timothy or the Corinthians about women as leaders, the apostle Paul sees no need to silence Priscilla or keep her from teaching a man.

A lot of folks say yes, women can and do perform possibly the majority of ministry or service in the church, but can they serve as leaders? We’ve seen several Biblical examples so far where they did so. Let’s take a look at a few more.

The best example would be Deborah, the Judge Judy of 1150 BC. Deborah calls the shots as a leader over Israel as both a prophet and a judge. People bring their legal disputes to be settled by her; they accept her authority as authority from God. She even commands Israel’s top general to go into battle. I can hardly think of a better example of a woman who was a leader of God’s people than Deborah.

Another example is Huldah, a prophetess to whom King Josiah sends to find out the word from God in 2 Kings 22:14-20. King Josiah didn’t send to Jeremiah or any other prophet to find out the word of God – he seeks out this woman.

We find another prophetess right after the birth of Jesus in Luke 2, a prophetess named Anna. She does not occupy a position of leadership that we know of, but she and Simeon both make the first announcement to everyone on the scene that this newborn child is God’s promised Messiah. And in Luke 21, we find that Philip has 4 daughters who are prophetesses.

Finally, we can’t overlook Mary Magdalene. She held no office of leadership, but who can miss the fact that God chose a woman like her to be the first to witness and proclaim the central event of our Christian Good News: Jesus’ resurrection? And it was women like Mary Magdalene and Joanna who financed Jesus and his disciples on their ministry tours.

So how do we explain Paul’s prohibitions on women teaching or having authority over men, or even speaking in church? As we have just seen, Paul’s track record proves to me that these statements are not intended to be total bans on women speaking or exercising leadership, nor are they intended to limit such ministry to being done only among women.

But think: what other religions in Paul’s day allowed women in leadership? Women could serve as priestesses of Isis and of other pagan goddesses. You also had the ultra-liberal Epicureans (who were quasi-atheists). But it was hard to find women in such leadership roles in Judaism. Paul no doubt had to rely on examples like Deborah to help persuade himself to allow women to serve in such roles at all, although I’m sure his chief guiding principle was his conviction that we are all one in Christ. And while Paul often found that women were the first to believe the Gospel, he also found them sometimes to be the first to be led astray, which may be why he advised Timothy to put only men in authority in his time and situation.

The fact that there is plenty of Biblical precedent for women in leadership, plus my belief that Paul’s statements to the Corinthians and to Timothy were not intended to be total bans, leads me to focus on those examples where Paul did deploy women in ministry in actual practice. We should not call women to share in leadership because we do not believe the Bible, but because we do believe the Bible, the whole Bible, including the parts where God does raise up women as leaders of God’s people.

The bottom-line issue underneath this question is whether women are truly equal in the sight of God, a question that goes beyond church leadership. It impacts our understanding of marriage and work. Are women second class? Must they take orders from men? Are women weaker or less competent than men? Can we categorize “men’s work” and “women’s work”?

Men and women both equally reflect the image of God. If God were a biological male human, then men would reflect God’s image more than women do. But no, God is not a biological male human, and both men and women reflect God’s image. Neither of us reflects God’s entire image, which is why a marriage requires both a man and a woman to be complete. Without the man or the woman, part of God’s image is missing.

We say that to be a man means to be strong, courageous, and a capable leader. But don’t we want to see those traits in women as well? Is God glorified by women who are weak, cowardly, and incompetent? I don’t think so! We say that to be a woman means being loving and nurturing. But does that mean we don’t want men who can be loving and nurturing? I think we want to see the same character virtues in both men and women, even if we wish to see them expressed in different ways.

Women don’t want weak men. And I don’t think men really want weak women, either. Neither does either of us want to see domineering men or women. It is not healthy for our children to grow up with fathers or mothers who are weak, domineering, or un-nurturing. We need to see strength, courage, and nurturing love from both genders.

So let’s apply this to the subject of marriage. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord.” But wait! What did Paul say in the verse right before this? “Submit yourselves to one another, out of reverence for Christ.” I see mutual submission as the controlling principle here. We see that as we go on to look at Paul’s command to husbands: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for her.” Who’s got the more difficult job here? I’d say the self-sacrificial love of Christ for us is the harder act to follow here. And if you think about that, what woman would not want to follow a guy who loves her self-sacrificially, as much as Christ loved the Church?

But men forfeit the right to lead if they think they can claim authority over their wives, but do not love their wives self-sacrificially like Christ loved the Church. And only in Christ will any of us have the power or inspiration to practice mutual submission to one another. Jesus is the one who turns King of the Hill upside down. Jesus teaches: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”

Submission, no matter who is submitting to whom, does not mean inferiority or inequality. The Bible teaches us that Christ submits himself to God the Father. But if we believe in one triune God, we believe that Christ is not inferior to God, but is of one divine substance with God. The two are equal, yet Christ voluntarily submits to his Father, to show us how it’s done. Mutual submission is simply following the example set by Christ himself.

Yes, to some extent, men and women tend to be wired differently. That’s why we need each other’s perspectives, in business, government, and in the Church. We need the full image of God reflected in the leadership of God’s church. Neither gender is wiser than the other.

Are women weaker than men? Not necessarily – I’d probably lose a race or an arm-wrestling match with a lot of women athletes. But as a group, women as athletes tend to be at a disadvantage against men, and should not be forced to compete against them. Why destroy women’s sports, by allowing contestants whose chromosomes proclaim that they are not women? When applying for jobs that require lifting a 200 pound man, however, the issue should not be gender, but who can lift the rescue victim; whether it’s a man or woman shouldn’t matter. In God’s word through our apostles, I see no warrant for classifying any job as “man’s work” or “women’s work,” with 2 exceptions: there is no real substitute for being a father or a mother.

When it comes to gender, God has made each of us as a unique combination of gifts, talents, and feelings, some of which may be influenced by our biological makeup or our experiences in life, but few of which are dictated by them. God gives us as individuals a lot of freedom to define what it means to be the man or woman we are. Not all girls want to play with dolls, not all boys want to play with trucks, and that’s OK. But ultimately, our chromosomes are the way God created us. Follow the science! Our chromosomes cannot be changed. Rather than reject God’s masterpiece the way that God created us, it is better for us to discover what God wants us to do with the bodies and personalities that God has given us.

When we’re talking about women in leadership, leadership is influence. You can and often will exercise influence, no matter whether or not you hold the title as a leader. Pastor John Maxwell said that as an incoming pastor of a church, he would never have as much influence as the leaders who were already there. He said his aim was to influence the influencers. And women have been doing that for ages, whether we call them leaders or not. Why not be willing to name them what they are as part of our leadership team? As we have seen today, there is plenty of Biblical precedent for doing so: from Deborah the prophet and judge of Israel, to Phoebe the leader of the church in suburban Corinth, to Priscilla, to Junia / Joanna, who was “prominent among the apostles.”

We’ve talked in these last 2 broadcasts about God’s blueprint for organizing God’s true church. But how should God’s church be financed? Does God need our money? Or is it our money at all? How much of the money in our pocket belongs to God as a part of our joyful obedience? How shall we channel our offerings to God? And how should those offerings be spent? Should we pay some of God’s servants, or should all of God’s work be done as offerings of our time and talent? We’ll talk about these questions next time on Biblical Words and World.