By Dr. Van Neste
I saw the recent Cardinal & Cream column “Gender Equality in Church Leadership” and thought it deserved a response. The author, Byron Elam, shared thoughts from his own experience and argued that churches should allow women to serve as pastors. In fact he charged that the idea that women should not serve as pastors is a “stubbornly held” and “antiquated notion.” According to Elam there is “no way to reasonably explain” that men and women are equal if women are not allowed to serve as pastors.
In light of such charges, it would be worthwhile to consider why this “antiquated notion” has been the consensus view of the Church throughout its history. Why do people in such an enlightened day as ours still hold on to such an idea? To hear some people talk about it, this must be due to a desire to hold women back. However, across the history of the church people have simply understood this to be the clear teaching of Scripture.
Elam’s argument is based on personal experience and emotional appeal with a glancing reference to Scripture. Experience and emotion have their place, but for the people of God priority must be given to revelation. What has God directly said in His word?
On some topics we do not find much in the way of direct statements in Scripture. However, that is not the case on this topic. The most direct statement in the Bible on this point is found in 1 Timothy 2:12 which reads, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (ESV). Churches and denominations (like the Southern Baptist Convention) which hold to the belief that only men should serve as pastors are simply seeking to be faithful to this direct statement of Scripture. Of course in more recent years people have sought to explain this verse in a different way. Some point to the fact that Paul says “I do not permit” and suggest this was simply an opinion of Paul’s- not a binding command. This fails to comprehend how Paul writes, however. He clearly writes self-consciously as an apostle with all the authority that entails. He gives commands which he expects to be obeyed (for example, 1 Cor 4:18-21; 5:3; 7:25; 2 Thess 3:10) and tells Christians to stay away from professed believers who ignore his words (2 Thess 3:6). Nothing in the context suggests Paul has shifted here to merely stating his own opinion.
The context does show that Paul has in view the gathered church and in that context prohibits women from teaching Scripture to men or exercising authority over men. Teaching and authority to lead are basic aspects of serving as a pastor so that role is clearly excluded. In the very next paragraph Paul moves on to a discussion of who then should serve as pastors (3:1-7). Paul is not here addressing the teaching of other subjects or of leadership in business, academia or politics.
Some have also argued that this prohibition was simply rooted in the culture of the time and is, therefore, not binding today. However, Paul does not leave us wondering about the ground for this statement. He roots it in Creation and the Fall. It is difficult to think of any basis which would be more universal than these two as they affect every culture and era. Some are confused about Paul’s argumentation based on the order of creation and who was deceived in the Fall. Space prohibits delving into this further (as I do in my classes), but the fact that Paul- under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit- says this prohibition is rooted in Creation and the Fall is clear. Even if you say you don’t understand the argumentation, our lack of understanding does not mute a biblical command.
We could point to other texts, but 1 Timothy 2:12 is the key one. Of course, Jesus did appear first to a group of women, and this should remind us of the valuable role women play as witnesses to the gospel. But all of the Twelve apostles, the ones given authority to lead and provide teaching, were men. Paul reminds Timothy how he learned the Scriptures from his childhood from his faithful mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:15). We must affirm the important and valuable role women have in the Kingdom. If such affirmation of the value of women seems contradictory to limiting the pastoral role to men, then perhaps what needs adjusting is our senses rather than Scripture.
My wife is very effective in communicating the gospel in various realms of daily life. This summer she and two of my sons went to South Africa with a group from our church. My wife had the opportunity to share the gospel while sitting in peoples’ homes, praying for their needs and pressing the claims of Christ. Not having the role of pastor in no way impeded this gospel work.
My chief concern here is that we be careful to obey Scripture, even when – perhaps especially when- it cuts across our sensibilities or our cultural expectations. We must resist the typical urge to stand over Scripture, applauding it when it lives up to our expectations and chiding and correcting it when it falls short. Whether intended or not, this is the sort of pride which receives the divine stiff arm (James 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5). Rather, in full awareness of our fallenness (in our reason as well as in our wills), we must stand under Scripture ready to receive what God says and to conform ourselves to His word, rather than seeking to conform His word to us.