Can Women Lead the Church?

Gender bias runs deep in the church and has historically prevented women from fulfilling their leadership call. It's time to dispel the myths about the role of women. Let's open our eyes to what the Bible really says.

When delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting gathered in 1929, leaders agreed to allow the president of the Women's Missionary Union (WMU) to address their group for the first time. But when she stood to speak, a number of male delegates got up from their chairs and stormed out of the room in protest. They caused such a commotion that the Baptists were forced to hammer out an odd compromise: They decided that the WMU president could only speak if she gave her report in a Sunday school room rather than in the main hall.

The reason for this uproar was that certain male clergy were afraid that by allowing a woman to speak from a pulpit, she would violate what they called "the dictum of St. Paul"--the apostle Paul's directive in 1 Timothy 2:12 in which he prohibits women from having "authority over a man (NASB)." It isn't clear why this poor WMU president did not exercise as much authority over her male audience when she spoke in a smaller room. In fact, what the Baptists did in this case was irrational. The same can be said for the completely illogical way the church today views the issue of women in spiritual authority.

Today, because so many conservative Christians have viewed 1 Timothy 2:12 ("I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man") as a uni versal injunction--to be applied to all churches at all times--we have cultivated a bizarre fear of strong women who preach or teach. This is a strange view indeed, for three reasons:

**First, we know from Scripture that women held the office of prophet under the Old Covenant, and that under the New Covenant the apostle Paul himself placed women in positions of authority in the early church, even at a time when females in secular society were barred from pursuing education or leadership roles.

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**Second, the Bible challenges men and women alike to be strong and courageous in their faith and in their response to the Great Commission. There is no reason to assume that Jesus only intended males to evangelize the world. Both men and women are called to "go" and to "teach." Timidity is never portrayed as a virtue in the Scriptures, for either gender.

**Third, the history of Christianity is full of examples of strong, godly women who achieved remarkable breakthroughs for the kingdom of God. To say that women should not display spiritual strength or do exploits in the name of Jesus is to discredit everything that Christian women have done throughout history to further the gospel.

If we want to stake a claim that women shouldn't lead the church, are we prepared to say that everything women have done to expand the kingdom of God was a mistake? Is the Salvation Army an illegitimate organization because a strong, vocal woman preacher was a driving force behind it? Do we really want to negate the countless missionary breakthroughs made in the 19th and 20th centuries in China and India, since so many women--such as Amy Carmichael, Bertha Smith or Marie Monsen--were responsible for the pioneering work there?

If we look at the history of revival movements, it is clear that whenever there has been a deepening of spiritual passion and holiness in the church, and a corresponding call to evangelism, women have responded to the call to ministry even when it was culturally unacceptable for them to do so. This was true during the Second Great Awakening in the United States, which unleashed an army of women to fund missionary movements and to lead the abolitionist cause. It was also obvious in the early days of the Pentecostal revival, which mobilized women preachers to blaze trails in foreign and domestic mission fields. These women, including healing evangelist Lilian Yeomans, Carrie Judd Montgomery, Minnie Draper, Ida Robinson, Aimee Semple McPherson and Florence Crawford, started churches that still flourish today.

These women were not looking for a spotlight or a pulpit, nor were they out to win an argument or to prove that women are better than men. They were prayer warriors who loved the Word of God and used it skillfully to combat the evils of their day. They were mothers of the faith who nurtured new converts with the milk of salvation and trained their disciples to pursue spiritual maturity.

Women who have given their lives to serve Jesus on the front lines deserve our respect. But in the American church, we typically have turned our backs on our sisters when they have dared to suggest that God has drafted them into His army. The strongest and most determined of these female warriors learned to endure the ridicule; but we will never know how many women gave up the fight and abandoned the call because the church required them to bury their spiritual gifts.

Adding insult to injury. Women in many denominations today have encountered rejection when they stepped out in public ministry. Jill Briscoe, a prominent evangelical author who pastors a church with her husband in Milwaukee, told Christianity Today in 1996 that she was silenced a few years ago when she began to teach the Bible to a group of 3,000 teen-agers at a youth conference.

"I introduced my subject and opened the Scriptures and read them and began to explain them," Briscoe said. "At that point a pastor stood up and told me, 'Stop! In the name of the Lord!' and said that I was out of order. He then rebuked my husband, saying that he should be ashamed to allow his wife to usurp his authority. He then took his young people out, and several other people followed."

In some charismatic and Pentecostal circles, the label "Jezebel" is often pinned on women who have teaching or leadership skills, or simply because they express their opinions to their pastors. The insulting implication is that any Christian woman who steps outside the lines of ecclesiastical propriety and presumes to speak for God or displays any level of courage is labeled rebellious or conniving.

Pinning the Jezebel label on a woman of God is a blatant attempt at character assassination. After all, Jezebel was the personification of evil. We read in 1 Kings 18-19 that she wielded tyrannical power over Israel through her spiritual ties to the cult of Baal. From her position as queen, sitting beside King Ahab, Jezebel was responsible for the murder of many of Israel's true prophets. Her strategy was to intimidate the righteous followers of God while promoting Baal worship--so that the sexual perversion associated with her brand of paganism would eventually control the entire country.

This queen was eventually overthrown, along with her wicked husband, but she is mentioned again in the New Testament as a metaphor for sexual immorality and occult deception. In the apostle John's message to the church in Thyatira (Rev. 2:20), he issues a warning from Christ about the "woman Jezebel" who "calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray, so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols."

Jezebel was most likely not this woman's real name. John used a form of code language in the book of Revelation to protect the vulnerable churches from persecution. He pinned the name Jezebel on this self-appointed female church leader in Thyatira because she was claiming to speak for God and yet was promoting sexual sin and idolatrous worship. She represents the ultimate false prophet, and it is insidious to compare her to godly Christian women who are teaching and preaching the truth of the gospel.

It is offensive to suggest that a woman who loves Jesus Christ, walks in personal holiness and upholds the Word of God with integrity is influenced by a "spirit of Jezebel"--just because she is female! Yet I have lost count of the number of women who have told me that they were accused of being a "Jezebel influence" because they functioned as a pastor, an evangelist or a even lay leader.

Silly superstitions. Five hundred years ago, Protestant reformer John Knox taught that God brings a curse on a nation if it is governed by a woman. Never mind the fact that most nations in that period were led by wicked kings who did not honor the law of God or abide by any rule of Christian integrity. Yet Knox believed the moral condition of a nation would slide abruptly into hell if a queen took the throne.

In a tract he wrote in 1558 titled "The First Blast Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women," the Scottish reformer wrote: "If women take upon them the office which God hath assigned to men, they shall not escape the divine malediction." Although he directed most of his attack on two Roman Catholic queens, Mary Tudor of England and Mary Guise of Scotland, and he referred to them both as "Jezebels," Knox made it clear that he believed that God always opposes women who hold positions of authority.

That same view still lingers in the modern church. In the early 1980s, when so many religious conservatives were active in the political arena in the United States, some of them opposed President Ronald Reagan's appointment of Judge Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. Their fund amentalist views of male headship in society did not allow for a woman to assume a top position in civil authority.

Justice O'Connor isn't the most conservative jurist on the high court, and I don't appreciate her position on abortion. But she did not lead our nation to ruin, any more than Margaret Thatcher's 11-year term as prime minister triggered the downfall of Great Britain. In fact, in the mid-1990s, some of the most vocal women elected to the U.S. Congress were Bible-believing, evangelical Christians who stood bravely against the status quo by challenging legalized abortion, the tobacco industry and foreign aid to countries that tolerate religious persecution.

In many churches in the United States, Christian men have developed a superstitious notion that if they listen to a woman preach, or if they attend a Sunday school class taught by a woman, or even if they allow a woman to provide any form of spiritual counseling to them directly, they are violating an unwritten law that forbids women from occupying a place of authority in their lives. They also fear that if they do this, they will come under some type of spell that leaves them deceived and spiritually weakened.

This is rooted in a fear that if a man submits to a woman even by listening to her counsel, his own maleness will be diminished. How foolish! If the Bible is our guide, and not cultural bias, then we need to consider the many times in Scripture when women influenced men or exercised godly authority over them.

Judges 4 tells us that at one time in history a woman held the highest position of spiritual authority in Israel. The Bible clearly states that God anointed Deborah as judge of Israel, gave her wisdom and prophetic counsel, and granted a 40-year period of peace as a result of her effective leadership (see Judg. 4:1-5). And the men who honored her authority were blessed.

We read in Judges 4:8 that Barak, Israel's chief military commander, refused to go into battle without Deborah after she unveiled the Lord's strategy to defeat the Canaanites. It was not an admission of fear on Barak's part when he asked Deborah to accompany him into the fray. He was not a "mama's boy" who felt unsure about his masculinity.

On the contrary, Barak recognized that Deborah was an anointed servant of God, and that the mantle of heaven's authority rested on her. Because she had the plan of victory, he wanted to stay close to her. He simply refused to fight without the Lord's prophet by his side.

In today's church, we need an army of Baraks who are so desperate to hear the word of the Lord that they are willing to humble themselves and receive it from whomever God chooses to speak through--even if that prophet is a woman. We as men need to swallow our male pride and our haughty "I know better than you, dear" attitudes. If we are truly walking in spiritual brokenness, we will not care whether the Holy Spirit speaks through a man, a woman, a child or a donkey. We will simply want God, and we will place no stock in the imperfect clay vessel God chooses.

Where are the Priscillas? In Acts 18:24-28, we read that a skilled preacher named Apollos, a zealous convert from Judaism, was teaching the message of Jesus in Ephesus. But because he had never been instructed properly about water baptism or the infilling of the Holy Spirit, Paul's co-workers, Priscilla and Aquilla, took him aside and "explained to him the way of God more accurately (v. 26)."

Was Apollos spiritually emasculated when he submitted to Priscilla's correction? Absolutely not. His ministry was strengthened because of the helpful input he received from this wise disciple, who most likely functioned in an apostolic role as a teacher and church planter. She is commended by Paul as one of his "fellow workers" in Romans 16:3. And in 1 Corinthians 16:16, the apostle urges his followers to submit to "everyone who helps in the work and labors." Since "everyone" in this passage obviously includes Priscilla as well as Junia, Phoebe and the other women who assisted Paul on his apostolic team, we can clearly see that he asked the early church to acknowledge the authority of the women who worked with him.

Apollos most likely felt indebted to Priscilla and her husband for their mentorship. She became a mother in the faith to him.What would have happened in the New Testament church if Apollos had been too proud to receive correction and theological instruction from her? It's possible that he would have fallen into serious error, thereby thwarting the work of God in Asia Minor and perhaps even derailing his ministry. What similar pitfalls could be avoided in our day if more men were willing to receive counsel, correction and insight from seasoned women ministers?

There are numerous other examples in the Scriptures of godly women who provided counsel, instruction or correction to men. Huldah the prophetess was sought out by King Josiah's top leaders for her advice about the spiritual condition of their nation (2 Kin. 22:14-20). When the elderly prophetess Anna recognized that the baby Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, she proclaimed his identity to his parents and to all who came into the temple. She was, in fact, one of the first people on planet Earth to publicly proclaim the gospel of the new covenant. And the apostle Paul mentions a total of seven women when listing his trusted co-laborers; these were women who functioned as either pastors, evangelists, deacons or apostles.

It seems odd indeed that Christian men would have difficulty accepting the authority of women when every man has had to submit to the instruction and discipline of his own mother. In the Christian family we expect a mother to exercise authority: She not only provides nurturing love and sustenance to her children, but she brings swift discipline when necessary, and her children benefit most when her instruction is rigorous. Don't we need the same qualities in our spiritual mothers? Shouldn't we expect them to rule with godly authority?

Most Christian men, whether they admit it or not, would not be where they are today had it not been for the Priscillas and other spiritual mothers who came alongside them at the right time and gave a timely word of encouragement or counsel. Because of insecurity, we think our masculinity is deficient if we admit we need the insights that these women provide. The church as a whole would be better off if we would ask God to shatter our male pride so we can make room for these women to function in their divine giftings.

Strength is her clothing. Nowhere in the Bible are women called to be weak. A careful study of women in Scripture reveals that the godly women who served His purpose in their generation displayed courage, endured hardship and exercised the kind of faith that overcomes impossible odds. Righteous women in the Bible did not sit in the back of the church with their mouths shut or wait until they got permission to challenge injustice.

The great women of the Bible were fearless. Remember the Jewish midwives, who put their own lives in jeopardy in Egypt to protect the infants who had been sentenced to death by Pharaoh. Remember Rahab, who disobeyed the authorities in Jericho because she knew God was with the Israelite spies. Her faith saved her household and placed her in the lineage of Christ. Remember Esther, who placed her own life on the line because she believed God could use her to turn the heart of a king and save thousands of lives.

If we examine the "model woman" described in Proverbs 31, it's obvious that she is not a mousy housewife or a timid wallflower. She did not allow patriarchal society to define her worth in terms of her sexuality, her appearance or her mundane domestic duties. We are told that she "girds herself with strength, and strengthens her arms" (v. 17, NKJV). This doesn't mean she was a female bodybuilder; the passage refers to her strength of character and her readiness for spiritual battle.

A major misconception in the church today is that women were created to be weak and shy, and that it is abnormal or even perverse for a woman to display qualities of strength. Rather than argue about whether women are weak, can't we acknowledge that we are all just clay vessels? Whether male or female, we are frail in our humanity and in our tendency to sin. None of us who aspire to the ministry can ever hope to see lives changed by Christ's presence if we rely on our own fleshly abilities. We are called to glory in our weakness so that He might be strong in us.

It's time for the weaker vessels to come forth. Christian women who have lived in the shadows of insignificance need to arise and put on strength. This is the hour that Joel foretold, a time for both the sons and the daughters to prophesy. Women of God, you can't be silent anymore! *

J. Lee Grady is the editor of Charisma magazine. His new book, Ten Lies the Church Tells Women, was released in October by Creation House.

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