Just How Ought We Hold This Stuff?

nJZkmRWLast week I was talking with someone about their theology of “women in leadership,” and it was clear that she and I disagreed on the topic.

To be specific, whereas my understanding of the Scriptures compels me to the position that women and men are to share leadership, power and authority in God’s Kingdom in equal measure, this woman’s perspective was that women must not teach or have authority in the presence of men.

And as we talked more about it, it became clear that this woman’s posture was that she could hold her conviction and yet still fully participate in a gender-equal ministry context.

“How could that be?” I asked her.

Her answer?

“It’s like a tertiary issue.”

A tertiary issue?!?

Sadly, I didn’t have time to dig deeper into her taxonomy for how she ranks Biblical issues and theologies. Evidently, she has a developed grid, if she can rank something as “tertiary” instead of “primary,” “secondary,” or, what, “quadiary?!?”

In her Junia Project post from last week, Gail Wallace captures a bit of this sentiment:

“Some frame the debate about women sharing authority in the church and home as a “secondary” or “women’s” issue. Women advocating for shared leadership may be accused of wanting to be like men, of being selfish, or of fighting for their rights when there are more important things for the church to address.  But it’s a mistake to assume that this is a minor issue or something that only impacts women.” (emphasis mine)


And in the rest of Gail’s piece, she shares three reasons why this is true, from the writings of Dallas Willard. I highly recommend the whole post.

Here’s what this has me musing about this morning:

I think it’s time for the “women in leadership” or “women in ministry” labels to go.

For two reasons.

One, as Willard rightly notes, the conversation has to do with men and women alike. If women cannot lead, or do ministry, in the presence of men, then the implication is that it’s all for men to do. And the converse is also true. So, both genders are impacted by the question of what the Bible has to say about gender roles in the church.

Secondly, we need a new vocabulary because the “women in leadership” label is inaccurate. After all, almost no one fully restricts women from “leadership” or “ministry.” Even in the most conservative complementation churches, women are exercising leadership in plenty of capacities and contexts, from coordinating the weddings to directing the children’s ministry to running the office. Instead, the precise issue is more like “authoritative leadership in the presence of men.” In other words, opponents of “women in leadership” are really talking about a narrow slice of the leadership function of the church.

So, perhaps it’s time we reframed this conversation?

In about a month, I’m going to be teaching on this topic. The leadership team who is bringing me has asked me to speak about “women in leadership.” So let me test drive a new way to describe or label the conversation. What if I started the talk like this:

“Tonight we’re not going to examine ‘women in leadership.’ That’s too narrow of a topic. Instead, we’re going to look at what the Bible has to say about how power works in the community of faith with regard to gender.”

I think that language is broader. And more accurate.

Let me close with a nod to Willard, again from Gail’s post:

“So the issue of women in leadership is not a minor or marginal one. It profoundly affects the sense of identity and worth on both sides of the gender line; and, if wrongly grasped, it restricts the resources for blessing, through the church, upon an appallingly needy world.”

Tertiary? No.

Secondary? No.

Central and primary? Yes.

2 responses to “Just How Ought We Hold This Stuff?”

  1. gailwallace55 says :

    Yes! I agree wholeheartedly that “women in ministry” and “women in leadership” are labels that are not serving us well these days. Power in the community of faith is a much better descriptor and gets to the heart of the issue. I have been using something like the “shared authority of men and women in the community of faith” and trying that out. Power and authority are really the underlying issues. Let us know how it goes!

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