Should women be leading churches?
Regular contributor James Knight shares his thoughts about women in church leadership, but suggests that God may have a pragmatic view.
In the UK, most Christians I know (myself included) support women in leadership, and by extension, women preaching. However, I do have quite a few Christian friends who don’t support women in leadership, and they attend churches that do not permit women to deliver sermons. They tend to base this on their interpretation of St. Paul’s teaching on the subject (notably, 1 Timothy 2:12 - “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man” and 1 Corinthians 14:34 - “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.”). But most Christians take those verses to be contextual admonitions directed at particular church cultures of the time, not blanket prohibitions of women’s roles in leadership to be religiously adhered to in perpetuity.
Certainly, the spirit of the Bible, and other verses, seem to indicate the acknowledgment and encouragement of the role of women in leadership. St. Paul, in Romans 16, speaks of Phoebe as a “deacon of the church”; Luke, in Acts 18:26, acknowledges Priscilla as a teacher; and in Acts 21, we learn that “Philip the evangelist had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.” Moreover, great Old Testament women - like Rebecca, Leah, Deborah, Rahab, Esther, to name but a few - were given great authority and responsibility in furthering the Biblical story and enhancing God’s Kingdom.
Consequently, I think the correct Biblical interpretation is that it’s not just fine, but beneficial, to have women in leadership. But that said, those who disagree with me on this are probably just as confident that their interpretation is correct. And it has to be said, given debates like this one are long-standing, and given that the Biblical texts are too low-resolution for any of us to be certain what God wants for His church regarding women in leadership, there is no external metric to which we can assent to find out which group of Christians have got this one right.
With this in mind, I have a possibly novel idea that’s a bit off the wall, but is probably worth a moment’s consideration. Maybe we can’t know which option is right, but maybe God wants us to make a choice, and maybe God doesn’t mind all that much what we choose about women in leadership (as long as we are kind and conduct ourselves with goodness) because our subjective preference in this matter is a dignity He has bestowed upon us. In other words, as long as churches stick to the fundamental Christian tenets, maybe it’s fine to celebrate the diversity of church styles and denominations consistent with individual consumer preferences.
The church is broad and diverse; some people like to be monks, some like to be nuns, some people are Christian missionaries, some are business pioneers, some people prefer dancing in Pentecostal churches, some prefer quiet contemplative church services, and so on. Maybe it’s possible that that’s how God feels about our preference for leadership; for those men and women who prefer to be led by men, God is fine with a church that sets itself up with only male leaders; and for the rest, who value women in leadership, there are many churches for them too.
Don’t get me wrong, if we had access to God’s perfect knowledge, and knew all the facts ourselves, there may be a definitive set of right answers about women in leadership that would make everything clear with that degree of hindsight. But given that we are imperfect humans, trying to do our best with limited information and our best efforts at scriptural interpretations, it may well be that God is perfectly fine with our a la carte model of individual preferences, where male leadership churches are fine for people who prefer that, and mixed leadership churches are fine for everyone else.
Photo by Rosie Sun on Unsplash
James Knight is a local government officer based in Norwich, and is a regular columnist for Christian community websites Network Norfolk and Network Ipswich. He also blogs regularly as ‘The Philosophical Muser’, and contributes articles to UK think tanks The Adam Smith Institute and The Institute of Economic Affairs, as well as the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC).
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