Especially over the past year or two, I believe we’ve moved in a healthy direction. We’ve started to see more clearly the giftedness of our sisters in Christ, how much we should be honoring their service to the church, and how valuable their contribution is. Not everyone has moved in this direction, but thankfully many of us have, myself included.
The SBC is complementarian in its viewpoint. That’s not in dispute. Our confession of faith says that the role of pastor (elder) is limited to men. Men and women are of equal worth, value, intelligence, competence, ability AND God intends for men and women to function in different, but complementary roles within the home and family.
But over the past week or two, a heated discussion has arisen in response to the fact that a small number of SBC churches were having women preach during their Mother’s Day services. The question has frequently been summarized as “can women preach?” or “should women preach on Sunday morning to the church?” Some have strongly advocated that the only valid complementarian position on that question is “no” and that any deviation from that position is compromising Scripture.
Look, I realize we want to be able to give clear, strong answers to biblical questions. But sometimes in our quest for clarity and planting our biblical flag, we give simplistic answers to complex questions – and in doing so end up creating confusion and division in our wake.
The complexity of this question – what roles may a woman perform biblically within a church setting – is difficult to exhaust for several reasons. Let me address three factors that, I believe, should make us hesitant to make the kind of sweeping prescriptive declarations we’ve seen recently.
1. The vast chasm between the gathered church’s worship in the New Testament versus typical evangelical practice.
Our services do not look like what we read about in the New Testament. Sure, there are some similarities, but there are also major differences. I see indications that venue, seating arrangement, prophesy, length, level of participation were all considerably different than our typical 1-1.5 hour stadium-seating model with very little congregational participation. This should make us hesitant to draw 1:1 correspondence between the way we do church and the way a church service was practiced in the New Testament.
I specifically mention this because of the inclusion of prophecy in New Testament worship. Women did prophesy in the church service in New Testament times. If your view of Christian worship prohibits women from speaking (1) to the entire gathering (2) in a meaningful way (that includes exhortation and imperative verb form), then you should certainly stop pretending that your view matches the New Testament.
2. The important next question: Well then what can she do?
Within the complementarian framework, I see vastly different possible views on how women should biblically participate. I tried to imagine and describe a possible spectrum below. I’m sure some might order them differently or make adjustments, but I hope this will be sufficient to illustrate my point.
1. Women should not speak at all (awful and unbiblical, but we should admit does exist)
2. Women can read Scripture
3. Women can lead in public prayer (plus #2)
4. Women can give testimony (plus #2-3)
5. Women can give exhortation (or basically do anything except preach “the sermon”)
6. It’s ok for a woman to occasionally preach “the sermon”
I know there are SBC churches all along this spectrum. Our confessional document does not draw boundary markers between any of these viewpoints. And we should not try and draw parameters more narrow than the BF&M on this.
I see a glaring omission from the vocal opponents of women preaching. Where is their “yes”? What are women allowed to do, in their view, and why do they choose to draw their line at that specific place? If they believe women can lead in public prayer, are they actively pursuing that on a regular basis in their local church? (Instead, what I believe happens in many complementarian churches is they never make a firm commitment anywhere on this scale and thus are overall very hesitant for women to play any meaningful role. At least define the boundaries and then set women free to fully operate within those boundaries.)
We’ve heard from our complementarian sisters over the past year or two that they don’t have a problem with pastoral offices and some pastoral functions being limited to men. But what they also want from us is an even louder “Yes!” in other areas of ministry where we believe they can serve.
3. Does the answer change when the setting changes?
Another problem with laying down the prescriptive commands we’ve seen is that they ignore the fact that the answer changes depending on the setting. Should women preach? “No!” They say. Well, what about in a women’s conference? “Oh, yeah, well it’s ok to preach there – to other women… sure.” Well, what about on the mission field, like Lottie Moon and many others have? “Well, I don’t really like it, but I guess if there’s no men around…” Not exactly the kind of thundering pronouncement we started off with, right?
Examples could be multiplied. Are we JUST talking about Sunday morning worship? Sunday night? Wednesday night? In-home small group teaching? Are they prohibited from teaching and preaching or only preaching? What defines that difference? (Search in vain for a biblical line of distinction, mind you). Does the number of people in attendance matter? The length of the speech? At a conference (not a church) where men are present? Certain topics are allowed and others off-limits?
Here’s my point.
This is a big, complex question. And it deserves better than the simplistic treatment it’s received recently. As Southern Baptists we are going to come up with different answers to a lot of these questions. The bigger question for us is will the fundamentalist spirit win, with some of our leaders drawing ever-narrowing circles of cooperation, or will we put down the divisiveness for unity and cooperation?