As many of us are aware of, on June 14th of this year, a motion was passed by a 2/3 vote to include in Article III of its constitution a sixth criteria that distinctly defines a church’s cooperation with the largest protestant denomination in the U.S. The additional criteria clarifies the affirmation, appointment or employment of “only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.”1 Six weeks prior to that date, I was sitting across from a few women pastors affiliated with this denomination, exchanging stories of profound grief and pain in their personal and professional experiences. These women spoke of how this impending decision on gender leadership would dismantle so many years of progress and empowerment women leaders have persevered for. They shared countless stories of having to contend with, due solely to their gender, the accusation and suspicion it breeds in some, including within fellow pastors and congregants. These leaders shared how their own pastoral leadership did not just include being in positions where they had to make difficult decisions but having to make decision after decision to sustain and prove their positions.
If “loneliness is the penalty of leadership,”2 then female leadership is the loneliest experience of indictment in the church. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness has been more correctly identified as social disconnection that takes both a physical and emotional toll on us.3 If that’s the case, then specifically with women leaders in the church, loneliness is further experienced as social isolation that has taken a professional and vocational toll on the church. While there are a growing number of resources and articles regarding women in church leadership, my hope in this piece is to name two pivotal ties that the debate on women in church leadership are usually anchored around but not so often explicitly named. I also will contrast this with two pivotal ties that advancement in women leadership outside the church walls have made and are worth paying attention to in our current conversations around gender and leadership in Christian community. If 'loneliness is the penalty of leadership,' then female leadership is the loneliest experience of indictment in the church, frequently experienced as social isolation that has taken a professional and vocational toll on the church. Click To Tweet
Historically and culturally, the debate on women leadership in the church has almost nothing to do with a person’s calling, skillsets and expertise, or spiritual and missional maturity. In fact, many studies and surveys have shown that most people in the pews feel comfortable with “seeing women take on more prominent positions in the church.”4 Professor of Old Testament at Biola University, Carmen Joy Imes, a member of the advisory council for the Bible Literacy Conference, and board member of the Institute for Biblical Research, recently reflected as also a member of a church whose view of women pastoral leadership is limited,
As a woman trained in Biblical Studies with a lifetime of experience in ministry, I carry with me a longing for the full inclusion of women in every aspect of the church. For me, it’s not a matter of equal rights but of faithfully responding to the call of God and the empowerment of the Spirit. No one has a right to the pulpit. Only those called by God and equipped to rightly handle the Word of God should be entrusted with the ministry of preaching. Those of us who sense this calling from God but are prevented from responding carry ongoing grief.5
Nijay Gupta, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, writes in his seminal book Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church, regarding the Apostle Paul’s own view of women in leadership,
But Paul’s view of participation in the unique and singular sonship of Christ did lead him to think afresh about how we value persons on the basis of certain factors like sex, ethnicity, and legal status. The ways of marginalizing one another are obliterated by the work of Christ.6 Historically and culturally, the debate on women leadership in the church has almost nothing to do with a person’s calling, skillsets and expertise, or spiritual and missional maturity. Click To Tweet
If we can get to a point to see that most of the conversation around gender and leadership is actually outside of calling, expertise, and maturity, then we can take a closer look at the anchoring points around the topic of women in church leadership. When we are able to make an honest assessment of teasing out the roles of calling, skillset and expertise, and spiritual and missional maturity, we can safely find that this debate is oriented chiefly around two key aspects: biblical inerrancy and theological liberalism. Gender concerns in church leadership comes down to how a current and historical set of authority’s view of, interpretation of, and response to both the beliefs that
- The Bible is without error or fault in all its teaching,7 and that
- Christian liberalism8 is a “slippery slope.”
I often wonder how much more productive and profound our brave conversations around gender and leadership in the church might be if those of us at decision-making tables are clear about our own perspectives and perceptions, where we feel more certain about and why, and where there are places of uncertainty and why, around the inerrancy of the Bible and our response to a growing liberal theology. I wonder what might happen to the debate on “Can women lead in the church?” when we are able to collectively name what should anchor this question while we clearly expose what is contributing to our answers – especially when these contributions are valued over the more suitable leadership categories of calling, gifting, and models for leadership in the church. If we can see that most of the conversation around gender and leadership is actually outside of calling, expertise, and maturity, then we can take a closer look at the anchoring points around women in church leadership. Click To Tweet
We may also learn what can be generated in our church communities when we begin to consider leadership around the categories of calling, gifting and models for leadership. The fact of the matter is that when we consider what the advancement and support of women in leadership outside the church looks like, we find two heavy-weights: advancement in women leadership in the world is often tied to
- The advancement of civil rights, and
- Improved practices of shared leadership.
When we look at the intentional historical and cultural impact of both the women’s rights and civil rights movements in the U.S., we can’t help but find intentional cross-sections of moments in time when one made a path for the other and vice versa. While the 19th amendment of the 1920s was a landmark leadership dispersement for granting women the right to vote, the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s picked up from that work to expand and enforce the leadership dispersement to forbid discrimination on the basis of sex and race not just in voting, or in the political system, but also in the realm of vocation. Gender-based rights in leadership positions have always been tightly shared with race-based rights in leadership positions.
In the business world, the rise of women in leadership has been closely linked to distributed leadership, or shared leadership. Nora Hamzeh, head of school at the University of Bath and a leading voice in business management, writes in “Female Leaders and Distributed Leadership: What Can Women Bring to the Table?”
Research findings point to a new phase in leadership practice that highlights women’s participation as contributing to trusting and safe environments that nurture collaboration creating new cultures that allow for deep learning. These findings strongly are connected with distributed leadership…that highlights distributed leadership as a collaborate activity.9
MIT Sloan professor, Deborah Ancona, defines distributed leadership, or nimble leadership, as “collaborative, autonomous practices managed by a network of formal and informal leaders across an organization.”10 Distributed leadership in business management is becoming the growing antidote to our emerging culture’s great resignation; it not only helps to give permission to contribute the best expertise, knowledge, skills and ideas, but it fuels commitment through innovation and collaboration by shifting leadership questions from “Who’s to blame for this failure?” to “What did we learn, and how can we improve?”11
Outside the church walls, women leadership has contributed significantly to increasing the diversity of voices at the leadership table as women’s leadership rights are so closely knit to race-based leadership rights. Women leadership has also contributed significantly to how leadership is enacted organizationally and communally through more collaboration and shared leadership. I wonder what our churches would look like in our local contexts when we help to support and advance women leadership within our church walls? What generous gifts of diversity of voices, making safe spaces for contribution, and increasing intentional collaboration would arise from including women in church leadership? Outside the church walls, women leadership has contributed significantly to increasing the diversity of voices at the leadership table as women’s leadership rights are so closely knit to race-based leadership rights. Click To Tweet
As I started with the news announcement of the SBC’s Conventional decision, I’ll end with a response to that report made in the The Washington Post by a secular academic, as it captures well how the world outside the church walls are looking in. Frances Kneupper, professor of medieval Europe at the University of Mississippi, leaves us with
What generous gifts of diversity of voices, making safe spaces for contribution, and increasing intentional collaboration would arise from including women in church leadership? Click To Tweet
Our moment in 2023 is not that different…[from women leaders] to gain spiritual influence in the late 14th century. Once again, authority is shifting and spiritual women are challenging the status quo. And once again, the male hierarchy of a major religious order is falling back on the same Bible verses to suppress this challenge. A similar unwillingness to share power seems to lie behind this decision. But the events of the late Middle Ages and Protestant Reformation provide a warning to the SBC. If the Convention – one of the most powerful forces in American religion – refuse to open its pulpits to women, the SBC may splinter, dramatically reducing its influence.12
Eun Strawser is the co-vocational lead pastor of Ma Ke Alo o (which means “Presence” in Hawaiian), with missional communities multiplying in Honolulu, HI, in addition to being a community physician and an executive leader at the V3 Movement. She is also the author of Centering Discipleship: A Pathway for Multiplying Spectators into Mature Disciples (IVP, 2023). Prior to transitioning to Hawaii, she served as adjunct professor of medicine at the Philadelphia College of Medicine and African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (after finishing her Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Dar es Salaam). She and Steve have three seriously amazing children.
1 Barkley, Scott. “Southern Baptists pass first approval of constitutional amendment over women pastors” Baptist Press, June 14, 2023, https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/southern-baptists-pass-first-approval-of-constitutional-amendment-over-women-pastors/.
2 Shackleton, Ernest, South: The last Antarctic expedition of Shackleton and the Endurance, Lyons Press, June 17, 2008, Ch 8.
3 Brown, Brené, Interviewer. Murphy, Vivek, Interviewee. “Loneliness and Connection.” Unlocking Us with Brené Brown, April 21, 2020, https://brenebrown.com/podcast/dr-vivek-murthy-and-brene-on-loneliness-and-connection/.
4 Burge, Ryan P. “Researcher: Most Evangelicals Support Women in Church Leadership” Christianity Today, June 30, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/june-web-only/research-evangelicals-women-leaders-complementarian-preach.html.
5 Imes, Carmen Joy. “Being God’s Image as a Woman in the Academy and the Church” InterVarsity Press. March 20, 2023. https://www.ivpress.com/pages/content/being-gods-image-woman-in-the-academy-and-the-church.
6 Gupta, Nijay. Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church, Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP Academic, March 14, 2023.
7 Vanhoozer, Kevin J. “The Inerrancy of Scripture” C.S. Lewis Institute, March 1, 2010, https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/resources/the-inerrancy-of-scripture/.
8 Deyoung, Kevin. “The Seven Characteristics of Liberal Theology” The Gospel Coalition, September 26, 2017 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/seven-characteristics-of-liberal-theology/.
9 Hamzeh, N. (2023). “Female Leaders and Distributed Leadership: What Can Women Bring to the Table?” Open Journal of Leadership, 12, 15-28. https://doi.org/10.4236/ojl.2023.121002.
10 Somers, Meredith. “Why Distributed Leadership is the Future of Management” MIT Sloan School of Management, April 19, 2022, https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/why-distributed-leadership-future-management.
12 Kneupper, Frances, “The Southern Baptist Convention’s Case Against Female Pastors is Centuries Old” The Washington Post, June 22, 2023 https://www.washingtonpost.com/made-by-history/2023/06/22/southern-baptist-convention-female-pastors/.