THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN THE CHURCH
A PASTORAL PLEA
REV. DAVID JOHN SMITH
The role of women in the church has been debated within the Christian and Missionary Alliance for a few decades. It is not a new question, nor does there appear to be a clear, united resolution on the immediate horizon. In some discussions, there has been more heat than light. We are in a state of transition. Perhaps when the way ahead is more apparent, it will be clear to almost everyone as the obvious conclusion.
A LESSON FROM CHURCH HISTORY
This theological phenomenon is not new. As early as the fourth and fifth centuries, the Church debated its view of Christ. In that era, if you were a Christian, the hot issue was, "What do you think of Christ? Is he God? Is he man? To what degree is he either ? To what degree is he both?"
Obviously this is not, for most Christians today, a hot topic for debate or disagreement. The easy unanimous conclusion of all evangelical Christians is that Jesus Christ is uniquely 100% God and 100% man. In fact, for the average believer today, this theological issue is a non-issue.
But for over a hundred years, the nature of Christ was the hot button for Christians. It was debated. It was divisive. It was the flash point for declaring people orthodox or heretics. At the first General Council of the Church in 325 A.D., the Nicene Creed was articulated. Later at the Council in 381 A.D. one leader was declared a heretic because of his view of the nature of Christ. Seventy years later the Church finally came to a public agreement fully describing the two natures of Christ at the Council at Chalcedon in 451 A.D.. They had to then further clarify the biblical position in 681 A.D. at Constantinople.
My point is that it took the Church a couple of hundred years to sort out what they believed the Bible taught as true. Why, then, are we rushing to a final conclusion about a lesser issue of women in ministry?
COMPLEXITIES OF THE ISSUE
May I suggest three complexities of the role of women in the church.
1. We argue contrary opinions from the same texts.
What is absolutely remarkable to me is that godly women and men debate opposite viewpoints from the same biblical texts. They all hold to a high view of Scripture. They all subscribe to and uphold the Alliance Statement of Faith as well as the Apostles and Nicene Creeds which are included in our hymn book. Both the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Lausanne Covenant from the International Congress on World Evangelization (1974) contain unifying statements for which Christians agree. There is no shadow of turning away from authentic orthodoxy. However, there are strong contrary opinions of the role of women in the church.
My personal opinion is that we approach the same Scriptural texts with our own presuppositions. We read into the texts what we already believe. To us, it is so obvious. Why cannot other people see it as clearly as we do?
Or, we start with one or two favourite passages and then move to other more difficult passages. Others follow the reverse order and come to different conclusions. To be fair, I think we should wrestle with all the texts. There are verses which seem to emphasize a more egalitarian view, and there are other verses which seem to emphasize a more hierarchical view. If we genuinely hold to a high view of Scripture, then we must be honest in our commitment to deal with all the texts and not bury our heads in the sand with any of them.
2. We are too culturally enmeshed.
I am also convinced that we are too culturally enmeshed and unable to sort out all the implications of the theological tensions between hierarchical views which espouse no public church ministry of women, complementarian views which propose many ministry roles for women excluding primary church leadership roles, and egalitarian views which call for no limitations to women in church leadership roles. We approach the Scriptures with our own culturally tainted lens, our own presuppositions and perceptions. We are more conditioned by our secular culture and our Christian culture than we realize. Some are so involved in the details of the concern that they cannot reasonably look at the situation as a whole. We cant see the forest for the trees.
3. We are at an impasse.
I further wonder if either the hierarchical or egalitarian paradigms can be totally right, because some measure of truth appears in both and yet they are conflictual. I also doubt whether truth can be necessarily found in a more moderate view on the continuum because everyones "middle ground" is so different.
The contradictory hierarchical and egalitarian viewpoints are like two opposite ends of the spectrum with a large elastic band stretched between the two. When the elastic is pulled toward the right side, the left side feels the tension. When the elastic is pulled toward the left side, the right side then feels the pain and expresses it. A middle complementarian position may not be very effective either, because there seems to be little agreement to where the middle lies between the two opposing positions and no satisfactory resolution to be realized. The two ends are polarizing and the middle is interpreted differently. We are at an impasse.
A PASTORAL PLEA IN THE CONTEXT OF CHANGE
Some are emphasizing the reality that reality itself as we understand it is changing. We are leaving the modern era and entering a post-modern era. The paradigm is shifting globally. What has been is passing away and what will be has not yet fully emerged. What is clear is that we are in a transition, living as it were, within a parenthesis of history. It is not clear what we are becoming, but we are certainly not what we were.
I suggest that what will emerge is neither a hierarchical, complementarian or egalitarian position, but a new paradigm that will somehow look like all three and look like none -- just like the developing view of Christ centuries ago. The literature on the role of women is changing every year. A new paradigm for women in ministry is about to emerge.
I propose that what will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when a trustworthy explanation appears, we will follow it. Then it will be obvious and make sense, for we will see it as God sees it. It will fit.
GUIDELINES FOR A TRANSITIONAL PERIOD
In this in-between state, we ought to think doubly hard about holding on to past paradigms as well as embracing new ones. If you agree with my reasoning, then what I would like to propose are guidelines to keep us on track and guide us safely into the emerging future.
1. Maintain a high view of all Scriptures.
Since it is clear that we tend to emphasize certain Scripture texts to the neglect of others, we need to be honest with ourselves before God and embrace the entire Word of God. What Scripture says, God says, through human agents and without error.
2. Be flexible in peripheral doctrines and expressions.
In my view, the women in ministry issue is a peripheral doctrine. Recall in church history what weighty theological issues dominated the landscape. Remember the statements of faith that were articulated through the various church councils. The women in ministry issue is part of ecclesiology and only part. If you follow church history, the development of doctrinal debate into this century which has confronted us is ecclesiology and eschatology, the two final aspects of systematic theology after many prior issues have been already enunciated.
Our historical strength within the Alliance is to be flexible with peripheral doctrines, allowing liberty and latitude for disagreement as long as we can maintain our core values of deeper life in Christ and global evangelization. We adhere to creative ambiguity and live in the midst of unresolved theological tension while waiting for clearer light. Meanwhile, we give ourselves to the task of our calling.
Recall also that even the early New Testament churches had both a core of doctrinal truth as well as different expressions of church life and practice. The Corinthian, Roman and Ephesian churches were all very different in their local expressions of ecclesiology.
3. Function in ministry with the light you have, what you believe to be true, what God is saying to your church.
Preach on what you believe. Organize your church structures accordingly. Work it out in practical ways. What emerges in the future may be exactly what you are already practicing. No doubt it was this way for some Christians during the Christological debate.
Apply the practice of ecclesiology within your own local, regional, cultural context. No doubt you are already doing this. Allow for structural renewal within your own local church setting. Let the local church have input and freedom to develop what they perceive as Gods clear direction. Grant freedom to your leaders to be the hermeneutic community.
A good example of the hermeneutic community took place at General Assembly in 1994. We discussed whether or not water baptism was a requirement for church membership. Of course, there is no such thing as church membership in the Bible as we understand it and practice it today. But someone could have adeptly argued that because in Acts 19 some people were baptized a second time and thus they underlined the fact that their first baptism didnt count -- and just as in our situation infant baptism does not count for believer baptism -- therefore we could require people to be re-baptized as believers as a requirement for membership. This is how we contextualize truth. We consider our local and cultural situation, we look for truth within the Word of God, and we apply it into our context.
I suggest that we are already practicing a hermeneutic of contextualization. We only need to practice it more consciously. We do not relinquish our role to the "theologians." You and I as believers are all theologians. We either have good theology or bad theology. Let us aim for good theology! It may be helpful to set the commentaries aside, to open the Bible and ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate these texts and guide us within our own local church situations. I am not convinced that we need more research. I think we need more wisdom from heaven. Let us ask God.
4. Maintain a teachable spirit.
No Christian has his or her theology all worked out in every detail, for God the Holy Spirit is continually leading us into all truth. Be flexible as God restores biblical truth to his Church.
A teachable person has the heart of a learner. The more they know, the more they realize how much they do not know. They are open to ideas, suggestions, instructions, even criticisms. They keep on learning about God, the Word of God, the Christian life, how to be a better witness, etc. A person with a teachable spirit is always learning.
5. Let the few churches that are called by God to discern Gods mind speak for God.
My guess is that only about five percent of Alliance churches in Canada are called by God to seriously wrestle with this issue. I strongly doubt that we will be able to solve this issue through General Assembly committees or debate on Assembly floor. I would like to believe we could discern the mind of God in this manner. God certainly condescends to speak through our culturally conditioned parliamentary procedures. But will there be more heat than light?
If only approximately five percent of Alliance churches, between twenty and twenty-five churches, are authentically called by God to wrestle through the role of women in the church, then let them speak to us. Let us hear what God is saying to them on a local level as they struggle over the ancient biblical texts and endeavor to contextualize them within the emerging millennium. Let them share their grass root efforts to balance all of the texts within our cultural context in Canada. Perhaps this kind of movement of God is already and unofficially underfoot.
6. Wrestle honestly with all the questions.
Perhaps some of the questions they need to grapple with could include: How are women involved in ministry in the Bible? How did Jesus view and treat women? Does God the Holy Spirit give leadership or pastoral gifts to women? If so, how are they to be exercised? How has the Alliance incorporated women in ministry historically and currently? How have we been theologically and culturally shaped? Is there a significant part of the puzzle we are missing? What presuppositions are each of us bringing to the discussion? What are the implications of an exclusive, moderate, and inclusive views of women in ministry? What is the biblical understanding of ordination and how do we practice it within our Canadian context? How can we maintain the unity of the Spirit without abandoning our core values? How does God look upon this entire situation? How can we look at this issue from eternitys view?
7. Agree to follow the final decisions without grumbling or arguing (Philippians 2:14).
I recommend that these twenty or more churches that are called to hear from heaven and speak into this issue for us to gather together as leaders and hammer out their recommendations for presentation to General Assembly. Then let us be willing to submit to and follow these recommendations before we know what they are, even as we tell our congregations to do if they are to know Gods will. Perhaps Assemblys role would then be to incorporate any fine tuning, modifications, or corrections that may be needed.
I for one do not believe that the church I am serving in has been called by God to participate in the debate. I serve in an older, more established Alliance church. Women in ministry is not an issue, and nor do I plan to make it an issue. Actually, I do have opinions about the whole debate, but I also believe that it would be fundamentally wrong as a pastor to raise an issue to which we are not called to seriously address. The church I pastor could be among the ninety-five percent that follow the wishes of General Assembly. As a pastor I am willing to follow these directives and lead my church accordingly.
I am simply making a pastoral plea to other pastors and leaders to approach this theological issue of the role of women in the church with all of its implications with a spirit of humility and grace. Let us seek to maintain a willingness to grow together theologically as a denomination. May we centre our attention and agreement on the centrality of Christ, deeper life and global evangelization, and continue to work together in bringing back the King. I argue not for a position, but for a process.
June 13, 1998