Pursuing Partnership Part 14A: What Does the Bible Say? Taking Another Look

By Heather Althoff, ThM (Dallas Seminary), LifeWay Church – Missions Pastor

This article is part of the series Pursuing Partnership: Men and Women in Ministry.

Part 14A: What Does the Bible Say? Taking Another Look

[Note from Wendy Wilson, (Missio Nexus Mission Advisor for Development of Women, Women’s Development Track Exec Dir). Two subjects that have the most traction currently among our members in their quest to steward well the gifts of their women are 1) women in leadership, and 2) theology of women. So we are embarking on this series of articles, among other efforts, to help address those requests. Our purpose here is to create fruitful conversation among those who love God and His Word, and to resource our members as they seek God’s heart in their understanding and practice. Our hope is to stimulate a deeper dive in grace, and even respectful disagreement, on this important area of faith and practice. May the Bride of Christ be radiant!]

What does the Bible Actually Say? The Topic of Women in Leadership Deserves a Second Look.

“The Bible is not up for interpretation!” These words were leveled at me by one of the members of my own church in the midst of a divisive season in our church’s life: our leaders had decided to evaluate a number of issues related to women in leadership.

In my shock, I processed her words. Did she truly believe the Bible could be understood without interpreting it in any way? I glanced at the biblical interpretation textbooks on my shelf, remnants of a curriculum from a fairly conservative seminary education. I wasn’t going crazy. Even those venerable professors had believed that Scripture could only be understood through proper interpretation.

Throughout our church’s process, I continued to hear statements about how clear the Bible was about women in leadership. Some claimed the Bible clearly taught that men were the spiritual heads of the church and the home. Others claimed the Bible clearly taught that women should not have authority over any man. Some went so far as to claim that the Bible clearly taught that women were more prone to deceit than men. The odd thing for our church was that I, as a woman, had been on staff in a pastoral leadership role for more than 10 years. I had worked closely with many of these people without any apparent issues as I led small groups, trained leaders, wrote discipleship curriculum, and periodically preached on Sunday mornings. Many people had been comfortable with my position and work, all the while believing the Bible taught that my gender disqualified me from senior leadership.

The fact was that many of our people, including our leaders, had never thought through the implications and applications of their beliefs. Like most of us, they had simply been comfortable with the traditions and explanations they had grown up with. By the end of the process, even our most mature leaders on both sides of the issue had to admit that they had not fully realized the complexity of the issues surrounding women in leadership, nor had they realized the complexity of the Bible passages they traditionally drew upon.

While the traditional biblical passages excluding women from positions of authority and leadership can seem clear on the surface, many people do not realize that they are full of difficult exegetical and interpretive issues. These issues are further complicated by cultural and societal perspectives that have confined the very questions we ask and possible answers we consider. Each of us are products of our interpretive traditions, and often times don’t fully understand the implications of our traditions until we begin to explore others.

There is no doubt that the issue of women in leadership can strike a powerful and divisive chord these days. Wrapped up in the questions are the giftings, callings, and identities of both men and women. Additionally, our divisive social and political climate alternatively engenders fear of capitulating to society and fear of missing a collective injustice. Mirroring society, the conversation on this issue has at times devolved into rancor instead of substantive, nuanced discussion.

We need to remember amidst the fear and bitterness of this conversation that we have a unifying starting point that we can return to: the God-breathed words of Scripture. While it has often been used as a weapon instead of the starting point for constructive conversation, evangelicals can all affirm that the message of the Bible is our source of wisdom, truth, and good news. If we are willing to approach it humbly and with an intent to obey, we can feel free to look at it with fresh eyes and fresh questions. The Bible is big enough and strong enough to handle it. The question is, are we?

Are we who have felt dismissed and demeaned willing to ask God if he truly does have limits on the roles we are allowed to play? Are we who have always held power willing to re-examine who might have access to it? Are we who have taught certain applications willing to change?  If God, through his holy Word calls us to change, then yes; we have to. There is no doubt that paradigm shifts are difficult and costly, but in order to approach Scripture honestly and humbly, we must at least be open to the questions.

Over the next several weeks I hope to introduce you to the interpretive questions surrounding some of the most hotly contested passages concerning women in leadership. I do this not to convince you of a particular view (that would be a lost cause in such a small space anyway), but to encourage you to humbly explore why others who love the Bible, respect the Bible, and study the Bible might disagree with you. I do this to introduce you to biblical, faith-filled conversations that you simply might not be aware of. Hopefully, you will find yourself looking forward to a deeper dive.

Next week we’ll begin by looking at four reasons why it is important to explore the current conversations around the Bible’s teaching about women and leadership. I’m trusting God to lead us into meaningful conversations that deepen our love for Christ and one another.

For discussion: How aware are you of your own interpretive tradition, on the issue of women in particular? What issues might deserve more attention in your own pursuit?

This article is submitted by Wendy Wilson of Missio Nexus and of Women’s Development Track.  Women’s Development Track is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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