Yesterday, a decision rang forth from the isle of Great Britain, specifically from the Church of England. As announced on their own website:
“The General Synod of the Church of England has today given its final approval for women to become bishops in the Church of England.”
The past 2 years goes something like this for the Church of England:
- November 2012 – the vote to not allow women to function in the role of bishop.
- November 2013 – the vote overwhelmingly in favor of female bishops.
- July 2014 – final approval for women to become bishops.
To be honest, this issue no longer reigns as the supreme issue of today. I believe that now belongs to the discussion around same-sex marriage, at least in the United States. Yet, there is still much theological and practical discussion surrounding women in leadership.
I’m one who hasn’t shied away from laying out many biblical and theological points in favor of women appointed to church leadership. In the end, as N.T. Wright initially challenged the Church of England after the 2012 vote to not allow women bishops, the ultimate argument is centered in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Wright penned a short article for the Fulcrum, an online Anglican base for theology and news, back in November 2012 in which he put forth this argument:
All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead…Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.
That is it, full stop! The resurrection changes everything. Everything!
When Christ stepped out of the grave on that first Easter morning, something happened. New creation broke into life here and now. It obliterated every social structure. It doesn’t mean that we no longer have Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slave and free, rich and poor, etc. It simply means those parameters have no consequence whatsoever on the calling and gifting of God. None whatsoever!
This is why we must note what I’ve termed “paradigm-shaping passages,” biblical texts like Gal 3:26-29, Gal 6:15 and 2 Cor 5:16-17. These passages emerge as thesis-like statements, helping us more clearly understand what God is up to in the cosmos. It’s like Acts 1:8 becomes a kind of thesis for the whole book of Acts. Thus, these passages about new creation order under Christ become very significant in understanding, again, not only the roles of women, but the whole social order.
It’s not that there weren’t “hints” prior to Christ’s resurrection (just like healing was available before the Christ-event). But the act, and fact, of our Lord’s resurrection set history on a trajectory towards a renewal of all things, including the established social order. We now have sons and daughters, men and women who will prophesy – see Acts 2:17-18.
It is interesting to consider the varying women we are told of in Scripture that had crucial leading ministries:
- Miriam was a prophetess (Ex 15:20-21).
- Deborah was the leader of Israel and a prophetess (Judg 4-5, specifically 4:4).
- Huldah was a prophetess, who prophesied with strong authority (2 Kgs 22:14-20).
- Mary was chosen by God as a young woman (a despised reality in that culture) to bring his Son into the world. We see her prophetic song in Luke 1:46-55.
- Anna was a prophetess (Luke 2:36-38).
- Mary Magdalene and other women who were the first to see the resurrected Christ. Thus, they were, in a sense, the first apostles (‘sent ones’).
- Priscilla had a lead teaching role (Acts 18:24-28; 2 Tim 4:19). It is interesting to note that, in the six times the couple is mentioned together, four of the times Priscilla is mentioned first. This probably points to her stronger measure of gifting.
- Phoebe had some significant ministry, probably greater than children’s ministry (Rom 16:1)
- Euodia & Syntyche were described by Paul as having “labored side by side” with him (Phil 4:2-3)
- Junia, whom, along with her husband, Andronicus, had an apostolic ministry (Rom 16:7). Check out Scot McKnight’s book, Junia Is Not Alone.
This is a list of significant apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, teaching and shepherding ministry. I can imagine a Priscilla or Junia-like woman being quite offensive within many circles today. Oh, we’d probably allow them to “speak” in church, to be servant-leading deacons, etc. But the leadership stops at some point, especially at that most sacred of spots, the pastor-elder.
And, you know, we actually do not find any woman specifically mentioned as an elder (or overseer) in Scripture. It is true. And the complementarian arguments remind us that 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 specifically state that an elder/overseer must be “the husband of one wife.” Seems pretty clear we’re talking about men and men alone for this role. Actually, there’s plenty of discussion around what is meant by this statement in the original context – is it a general statement about faithfulness to one’s spouse or does the wording specify this is to be a male-only role? That argument might go on and on for years and decades to come.
But I keep coming back to the paradigm-shaping reality of the new creation made available in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Again, the entire social construct has been obliterated. No one would ever think of arguing that only Jews can be in leadership, but not Gentiles (Jesus did only choose Jews as his 12 apostles, right?). No one would every argue only free people can be in leadership, but never slaves (How could a slave control the environment they had been born or sold in to?). If no calling or gifting of God is ethnic or socio-politically determined, then why do we caveat these as being gender determined? Something seems off-base as we look into the face of the resurrected Christ.
This doesn’t mean we are irresponsible and begin throwing women into pastoral leadership roles left and right. We’d desire the same discerning wisdom as when we appoint men to such a role. And, most times, I think it a healthy thing when married couples are appointed into leadership, as both female and male bring unique understandings to the call of ministry, though do know I am not negating the calling of single women and men.
Now, from a practical standpoint, coming from the Bible belt, the southern American United States, it is interesting to consider the practical outworking of submitting to a woman pastor or bishop (for leadership does call for us to humbly and healthily submit to the authority granted). But I’m convinced I, and most, are dealing with culturally-conditioned factors rather than Spirit-empowered truth. For example, imagine a group of white folk in the south submitting to the leadership of an African-American in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It would have been challenging, and that would an understatement!
Can I, a male, submit to a woman pastor?
Some of you are wiggle-worming at the thought of it.
Yet, I really believe that we can healthily submit to a woman who has a shepherding and teaching ministry, who is herself also walking in faithful and mutual submission to other church leaders around her.
Will there be other practical questions? Sure. There always are, especially when our paradigm is being shaken from the solid ground we once thought we stood upon. I remember the first time the Spirit came upon me in a significant manner and I launched into a river of tongues that I’d never spoken before. Oh, yes, this western-trained mind desired to understand it all, this uttering of “mysteries in the Spirit” (as Paul calls it in 1 Cor 14:2). And, you know, I’ve come to understand a bit more about the practice of tongues after some 17 years. I suspect we will learn much about women in leadership as we begin to trust the resurrected Christ who is the great shepherd and overseer.
The Church of England was not the first to vote in favor of such a decision, and it won’t be the last. Something tells me my grandchildren will not flinch when they are grown and encounter women pastors (or bishops). Much will have worked itself out over the next 40 to 50 years. This is not about being swayed by the spirit of the present day. This is about Jesus Christ walking out of the grave to launch his new creation project, which says that, in Christ, he is making all things new. And this includes the empowering of women for apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherding and teaching ministries.