Friday, June 05, 2015

Ask the Pastor: Doesn’t the Bible say women shouldn’t be pastors?

Doesn’t the Bible say women shouldn’t be pastors?
This is a question that even when I was going through the ordination process,  I was pretty sure I’d get regularly. I was right. I've gotten this question in a variety of contexts. I've had friends from more conservative denominations ask me this. I frequently get asked some version of this after meeting someone who asks what I do for a living. This is actually one of the major theological sticking points that caused my husband and I to leave a church we loved some 7 or 8 years back when I was starting to feel called into church leadership. We just could not reconcile the fact that the church was saying ordination into pastoral ministry wasn't an option for me with the fact that I was being so clearly called into pastoral ministry. 
This question is not always worded quite this bluntly – although sometimes it is. Sometimes, when people ask what I do, the response to my answer is something like, “Well, isn’t that nice.” Sometimes, it’s more along the lines of, “Wow. I didn’t know women were allowed to do that.” Other people just stop talking to me.
There are two main elements to this argument that women shouldn’t be pastors. There is the idea that women shouldn’t work outside of the home at all (or at least not when they have children) and there is the idea that the Bible prohibits women in church leadership.
Some people think that my place (as a woman with children) is to be home with my children rather than in the church office (or any office at all). That’s a nice thought, but face it. . . very few families these days can afford to have a stay at home parent. We were able to pull it off for a few years when the kids were very young, but as they got older and started going off to school, it was an unnecessary sacrifice. For many people, it’s not a sacrifice (or is a smaller one than it was for us) to make taking care of their family and house a full time job and I commend those men and women. For some of us, staying home full time is a sacrifice of our sanity and well being. My family has been happier and more stable since I have once again had a working life outside the walls of my house.
Proverbs 31 – the infamous passage used as a battle cry for those in favor of the happy homemaker as a shining model of Biblical femininity – actually portrays a woman who is involved in commerce and management of the household (which would have included more than just the children – there would have been servants, etc). The passage in context, is also less of a guidebook for women who want to be “good” at being women and more of a “you go, girl!” hollered at a woman who is filling her calling with grace, dignity, and the respect of the community.
1 Corinthians 7:17–24 says that everyone should be allowed to live the call that God has placed on their life, regardless of where they are called out from. It is unloving and damaging to the Body of Christ to disallow someone to fully use their gifts in the world and in the church. Some of us ladies are just not equipped to stay at home, to work the nursery or to teach Sunday School (and I know plenty of men who are really great at home-making, working the nursery and teaching Sunday School.)
But what about, 1 Timothy 2:12? Great question! The epistles get a pretty bad reputation when it comes to thinking about the role of women in the church, but when you look at who some of the other leaders were in the churches and ministries Paul (the main epistle-writer) was involved with, you’ll find a list of pretty cool women. One thing we have to remember about the epistles is that they are letters. They have become important parts of our tradition and canon because they are very good letters that did and still do contain great wisdom and truth for the church. But they are still letters that were written to a specific church at a specific time. That doesn’t mean they aren’t relevant to the church today, but it does mean that we should consider the over-arching message of the Bible to honor and nurture all people in their roles in the Body as being more important than one small passage in a letter. What the writer in 1 Timothy is writing is not a law or mandate for all time. It’s a guideline he is giving a particular church. There are other epistle passages used in much the same way that should be read in the same way.
Someone who once asked me a form of this question, after having heard my scriptural basis for supporting women as pastors, asked me if I thought that men were just better equipped for being pastors because men and women are different. My answer was simple, “Of course not!” I’ll agree that there are broad generalizations about differences between men and women that tend to be true. But we can’t toss everyone into those roles and expect them to fit because that’s how it usually is. It’s not because we’re broken. It’s because we’re all different and unique.
Even beyond broad ideas of what men are good at and what women are good at, look at what the church is – it’s a big family. So even if we were to accept that women are better at nurturing, peacemaking, guiding, etc in the home. . . why would we think that they wouldn’t be just as good at it on a broader scale? The skills of motherhood are actually surprisingly transferable to a congregational context.  I am pretty sure I’m a totally different sort of pastor than the 100 years of men who came before me in my current context, but there’s nothing wrong with that. None of those men did things the same was as any of the others. Sometimes, it’s important to have someone totally different come in and shake things up a little bit.
We should also consider the context into which we’re preaching and caring for people. Broad numbers suggest that 60% or more of most congregations are women. And ¼ of those women (give or take) have been or are being abused in some form at the hands of a man. That means that in any congregation, about 10-15% of the congregation are people who are going to have a very hard time opening up to the pastoral care of a male pastor. For sure, there are plenty of people in the congregation who will probably not have an easy time opening up to a woman either. But the fact that a man would have trouble recognizing the authority of or opening up to the counseling of a woman is no worse than the fact that many women have trouble opening up to or trusting a man in authority. In other words, this becomes a wash, at best.
There are pros and cons to both women and men in leadership in the church. It has nothing to do with our biological genders and everything to do with the fact that we are human. As a well-behaved reformed pastor and theologian, I feel it’s my duty to remind all of us that we are a mess. None of us are perfect. But we are all chosen and loved. We are chosen and loved by an incredible God who gave us all gifts to be used in the church and in the world around us. Whoever we are.
For a great book on this, if you’re still not sure about that girl up in the pulpit, read How I Changed my Mind About Women in Leadership.
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