Witness

What A Church Plant Teaches Us About Women in Ministry

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Two years ago the Church of England voted to allow women to be bishops in the Anglican Communion. Allowing women to hold the highest office in the church was a momentous move for this historic church tradition. I remember the words spoken in the commentary (such as this article here) surrounding this event. Women were now “equal to men.” This was “one more step in accepting that women are really and truly equal (to men) in spiritual authority, as well as leadership in society.” People praised the breaking through of “the stained-glass ceiling,” one more step in the ascendency up the ladder of church authority. Women finally had access into the full authority of ministry in the Anglican church.

Another momentous event (admittedly on a different scale) involving women in ministry took place about ten years ago in the life of our small church plant – Life on the Vine Christian community – in the Chicago suburbs. We were discerning together the question of whether women could be ordained pastors in our church. A conversation had emerged at our home gatherings. People were noticing that women challenge us in ways differently than men. Women ask different questions than men. We need those questions. Women push us to engage various places of hurt in our context. Women bring a dynamic needed in reconciliation, in a preaching voice, in a presence to the daily struggles we are all engaging. We needed their gifts if we would engage our neighborhoods. As a result, Life on the Vine spent several months praying, pouring over Scripture and the ordaining/consecrating of women as pastors/leaders in ministry alongside men. In quite a different context, a small church plant versus a large church structure, we viewed the recognition of women in ministry as essential to being open to the Spirit moving us as people further into God’s Mission.

Small church plants view women in ministry as essential to being open to the Spirit moving people Click To Tweet

It is interesting to note the differences between the established church versus the new church plant in recognizing women in ministry. Comparing the two shows just how important women in ministry is to church planting.

Office versus Gifts

First notice that, when including women into the ministry of the church, the established church emphasizes the inclusion of women into an office – a official position in a denomination – whereas a church plant emphasizes the empowerment of women’s spiritual gifts. Within the Anglican Communion, people applauded women being admitted into the office of bishop. At Life on the Vine we celebrated the gifts of women exercised in the power of the Spirit. Office, the recognition of the gift in a position, will follow. For sure, The Anglican communion recognized the gift as part of ordination, but the emphasis in the church plant was on the gifts as the center of authority already functioning. I think this emphasis is telling.

I have long suspected in Christendom that the established church becomes dependent on the office as the means of exercising authority. Parishioners are trained early (in catechesis) to give authority to the professional clergy. This is not a bad thing. But over time, as we regularly defer to the authority of the clergy, the gifts of the Spirit seem to wane in the background. For church plants, however, as we seek to engage the world outside of Christianity, people outside the church do not come with an inbred respect for the authority of office. There is even some cynicism of clergy authority. Instead authority and power will be recognized among the people in the gifts being exercised in the Spirit. Here is where the authority of the King shall break in and start something new.

In post Christendom cultures therefore, where we plant churches in mission, it makes sense the gifts of the Spirit will be the foundation of such a church. And we dare not exclude half the people (women) from exercising all of their gifts. As the apostle Peter preached at the inauguration of the church at Pentecost, “God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy … even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy (Acts 2:16-18). Every new church plant in essence is a repeat of Pentecost, and so we will naturally recognize women alongside men in ministry.

Hierarchy versus Pneumatacracy 

Second, notice how the established church (and this goes for evangelical as well as high church traditions) emphasizes how women have moved up and been admitted into the hierarchy of church leadership. They can become bishops! In the church plant however, it is almost as if women undercut hierarchies in leadership. The established church lauds that the ‘glass ceiling’ being busted. Women can now ascend higher into leadership. The church plant seems to be unaware of a ceiling. Leadership tends to be men and women in mutual submission to each other. In the established church, hierarchy is left untouched, whereas in the church plant hierarchy is obliterated. With Life on the Vine, we invite women not to become part of the heretofore male dominated hierarchy but to be part of a pneumatacracy where the gifts are recognized at the grass-roots level and men and women serve as gifted pastors alongside one another.

I have discovered that, in a church plant, women change the entire culture of leadership. They do not merely enter a patriarchy changing it only to include them. Women in essence overthrow the hierarchy, pushing the authority into the relational levels of every day life. In a hierarchy, authority is already recognized (via the structure) and centralized in a pyramid structure where the buck stops at the top with (usually) one man. But in, what I will call, a pneumatacracy (authority centered in the gifts) authority is pushed down (recognized among the grass roots movements of the Spirit) and out (further into everyday life in the neighborhoods). In my experience, women in leadership upset the hierarchical patterns of male leadership. Leadership moves from top down to bottom up, from coercion based to relational based.

Jesus said about the Kingdom he was inaugurating, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” Mark 10:42-43). Jesus is inaugurating a mission that reshapes the nature of authority in the church. And this new authority, empowered by Christ through His gifts (Eph 4:7) is the means by which the church shall engage the world. Christ’s Kingdom is fermented on the ground.

For any church plant therefore, to reach the neighborhoods, we need to rid ourselves of hierarchies and disperse authority and power into the neighborhoods. I have found that women do well with dispersing authority relationally into the relational spaces of the Kingdom.  I am not suggesting that welcoming women into ministry alone will make this happen, but it is, in my opinion, a prerequisite. More than ever, as we plant more churches in the post Christian cultures of the West, we must ordain women alongside men as missionary leaders for the challenges we face.

‘Equality’ versus Mutuality

Finally, notice the number of times the Anglican church described the inclusion of women in ministry through the term ‘equality.’ Women were now recognized as equal to men. I think this is important. But sometimes the term ‘equality’ can be a term that describes our relationship one to another in a way that discounts our differences. In the cause of inclusivity, we are tempted to diminish the differences between men and women. This allows us to invite women into authority structures that have been largely shaped by men for hundreds of years without any change. In the name of equality, we men end up inviting women into leadership on our terms as laid down by men. And the very problems inherent in patriarchy are never addressed.

In the name of equality, men end up inviting women into leadership on terms laid down by men Click To Tweet

As many recent gynocentric feminists have taught us, a male logic of organizations based on ‘equality’ often subsumes females.  They get melded in to a male centric logic and the unique contribution of women gets lost to the church. The church plant however faces new decisions every day that require a complex relational discernment. We need engaged leadership with people, not merely a tactical leadership that gets things done. In many cultures, women are the ones who challenge men in this regard. And so the church plant needs women and men to labor in mutuality in ways that do not diminish the differences but rather glory in them.

At Life on the Vine, we sought an inclusivity that enhanced the difference between men and women as we now worked together in mutuality.  What happened was a church that made decisions in ways that honored the strengths of both women and men. We led differently, we were more responsive as a leadership. We preached differently with wider vision. We cared for people and pastored more deeply. In post Christendom, where we meet situations we have never encountered we need such a leadership. Especially in these times, we need women to be women and men to be men in mutual leadership together.

Paul famously asks women who prophesy among men (I’m convinced this is the same dynamic as preaching) in 1 Corinthians 11:10 to wear a head-covering as an authority unto her (my translation). The woman in leadership was to not disregard that she was a woman, but instead wear the sign of her womanhood while she was preaching. In the same way, woman must not disregard their femininity in leadership. For when women are ordained as women, they disrupt the hierarchies of men. Women’s ordination in essence turns ordination on its head returning it to the vocation of servanthood. And in church plants this is absolutely essential.

Summary

“Women in ordained ministry” has been an issue in the church for hundreds of years (I argue since Constantine). I argue that every time the church gets established in a culture, it allows men to take over. And every time the Spirit breaks forth in renewal of the church, women again move front and center to leadership in the church and mission. Have you ever noticed how many more women there are than men in international missions efforts? Perhaps it is today, as North America and Europe become the globe’s newest mission fields, that the church is forced to recognize women as leaders and pastors again in the full authority of the Spirit. And this will happen as we plant churches in Mission. For here we learn that the gifts of the Spirit must take supremacy in the organization of the church’s life. We learn that hierarchies must be abandoned in ministry engagement. For when hierarchies (and patriarchies) are disrupted, pathways open to engage neighborhoods. We learn that male dominated structures of leadership do not function well in the church dispersed into the neighborhoods. Perhaps here, as church planters reseed the West with new missional engagements, we supersede the ideological divide, and invite women alongside men to fulfill the Great Commission.

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