Women still face huge barriers in the American church today. Here are seven biblical reasons we must empower female leaders.
My Southern Baptist parents taught me to open doors for women. But in the polite culture in which I grew up, I didn’t see too many pastors practicing that habit. Sure, they allowed women to teach children’s classes, take care of babies, have prayer meetings and cook fellowship meals. But women weren’t allowed near a pulpit unless they were singing a solo.
I never heard a woman preacher until I joined the charismatic movement in the 1970s. It took a while for me to get used to the idea, since the church I grew up in taught that women were most spiritual when they were silent. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized that most women in charismatic and Pentecostal circles struggle to fulfill their ministries. I began to see evidence of discrimination—and even abuse—everywhere:
• One woman started a drug-rehab ministry and led more than 80 people to the Lord. She met with them twice a week doing discipleship and teaching as well as hours of personal counseling. When she asked the senior pastor if he would designate her as a staff pastor, he met with his elders and then announced that she would be called “half-pastor”—simply because she was female.
• In many churches the wives of pastors are expected to work long hours alongside their husbands doing ministry work, yet they are not paid. They are viewed as lesser-important appendages.
• I have talked to countless women who were labeled “Jezebels” because they simply asked their pastors if they could teach a class or have a ministry opportunity.
• I have stacks of letters from women who suffered in abusive marriages. When they went to their pastors to get help, they were told the abuse would stop if they would become more submissive.
• A pastor reprimanded one woman who was leading a women’s retreat because she served communion to the ladies without a man present.
• Another woman was told that the ladies in her Bible study would be deceived if a man did not sit in the back of the room to “cover” the meeting.
All these examples point to a “good old boy” culture that still permeates our churches. Much of it is simply rooted in a false understanding of New Testament passages about women. In some cases, male leaders are uncomfortable around women, either because of insecurity or a misogynous spirit.
It’s way past time for Christian leaders to move from male dominance to gender partnership. Here are seven truths we must ponder as we make this shift:
1. God has always empowered His daughters. During Israel’s wilderness journey the five daughters of Zelophehad asked Moses if they could have an inheritance in the Promised Land. They made this bold request at a time when women had no civil rights and no hope for equality. Under the rules of the day, their family was denied land rights because all of Zelophehad’s children were female.
When Moses prayed about this dilemma, the Lord contradicted the male-dominant culture of the day. He said: “The daughters of Zelophehad speak what is right; you shall surely give them a possession of inheritance among their father’s brothers, and cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them” (Num. 27:7).
We rarely hear sermons about these daughters today, even though their names are listed in the Bible in five different places. Even in the old covenant period, God made it clear that His daughters were not to be relegated to second-class status. How much more are they to be considered “fellow heirs” (1 Pet. 3:7, NASB) under the new covenant!
Pastors today must learn the same lesson God taught Moses. In some churches women are offered nothing but limitations, discrimination and neglect. Yet God has placed in them a desire to possess spiritual territory. They want to partner with us in battle and share our victories. Will we open the door for them—or slam it in their faces?
2. Jesus included women on His team. Traditionally minded Christians believe Jesus recruited only men to be His disciples. I want to shake these folks and ask, “Do you actually read the Bible?” It’s true that all other rabbis in Israel in the first century ignored women and viewed them as the source of all the evil in the world. But Jesus was a very different rabbi!
Jewish leaders believed it was wrong to teach a woman from the Torah, but Jesus allowed Mary of Bethany to sit at His feet and learn from Him. Other rabbis would not stoop to associate with women in public, but Jesus allowed a sinful woman to anoint His head with her perfume. Rabbis would not get near bleeding women because they were ceremonially unclean, yet Jesus healed a woman who had bled for 12 years.
And in the time of Jesus, women were not allowed to testify in a court of law because they were considered ignorant and untrustworthy. Yet Jesus’ women followers were the first to testify of His resurrection on Easter morning. Jesus broke every religious rule in the book when He allowed Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and His other women followers to be a part of His entourage (see Luke 8:1-3).
It is true that only men were among the 12 disciples. Those original apostles were also exclusively Jewish, yet we have never suggested that only Jews could be church leaders today. Why then do we point to the gender of those 12 disciples and insist that women should be excluded from leadership positions?