Today’s post is foundational. For anyone who has gone to Bible College or researched the topic of feminine leadership, this isn’t anything revolutionary. I am going to simply add my voice to the conversation in value and celebration of women who have stepped up to lead in the church. For anyone who hasn’t put a great deal of thought into the subject, this may be useful for building some of your confidence. I believe you girls are God-designed and incredibly valuable. The church needs you to be free to be you.
There was a time when women had heavy demands at home. My great-grandmother was a subsistence farmer’s wife in Kentucky. She had to wash clothes by hand, kill whatever animals her family was going to eat, tend a vegetable garden, can for the winter, sew clothes, and make anything they wanted to eat—scratch cooking: no frozen or pre-prepared shortcuts. This made any outside commitments somewhere between difficult and impossible. Practical inventions like the refrigerator, frozen prepared foods, decent grocery stores, dishwashers, and clothes washers have freed up an incredible amount of time around the house—hallelujah! For the first time in the history of mankind, girls are not consumed with the necessities of simple survival.
With all this new free time, the last few generations of women started looking for other ways to contribute to their communities. Women have become the backbone of the church, working hard behind the scenes. As female commitment levels and skill levels have risen, this service hasn’t always translated into visible leadership roles.
I love the church; make no mistake. I am not ranting and I’m not angry. I’m simply recognizing that in the same way we are on a spiritual journey individually; we are on a journey corporately. Jesus is continuing to refine us, and every generation is making progress! The way we express love and devotion to God corporately is very personally important to every individual. We get very comfortable with our preferences, so change can be slow.
Another example of this slow change is that American churches are still very racially segregated. According to research by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, only 8% of American churches have fewer than 80% of their dominant race. The demographic of our churches are frequently not representing the diverse communities we are part of.
Over the course of my relatively short lifetime, however, I have seen shifts in the contemporary church. An increasing number of churches value and celebrate feminine leadership more than they used to. Women carry important leadership roles in many churches. About ten percent of all the senior pastors of Protestant churches in America are women, some denominations with higher percentages and some with lower.
I have heard people say that God only raises up a woman when there is no man to do the job. Really, that statement is silly and insulting to women and to Jesus. It limits our all-powerful God down to a scenario where He can’t get his first preference–a man—but will settle for the chick. God put leadership gifts inside every effective female leader when they were born, specifically designing them to lead. Those leadership gifts are not just to lead in a secular environment, they are there for kingdom purposes.
The hesitancy in the church to cheer on our girls comes from a few key passages in the New Testament. In I Timothy 2:11-12, Paul told Timothy how women should act in church. Paul said that he did not permit women to teach or have authority over a man. The interpretation of this pair of verses laid a foundation for feminine roles in the church that has continued for thousands of years.
When we read the Bible, we are not actually reading the original words written by Paul. We read through several layers of interpretation. The first layer of interpretation is the translation from ancient Greek (a dead language) into English. There are small discrepancies between different translations based on what the Bible translators disagreed about. Some translations are very literal, and others try to convey the original thought in a modern context. The next layer we interpret through is our own personal brand of English. Words have different meanings and nuances to different people, and English is hardly an exact science. It’s continually changing. The last filter we read through is our cultural context. We read passages through the eyes of our experiences in the world today.
Some things have the same name but were very different two thousand years ago. If we don’t understand the context, some of the meaning is lost. This means that we have to be open to the very real possibility that we may not always get it right. This particular passage of Timothy is a very good example of where we need to dig a little deeper. To understand it fully, it’s useful to get some cultural backstory about women and religion.
Christianity began as a sect of Judaism, and many of its early traditions about worship were borrowed from Jewish worship. In Paul and Timothy’s day, church services were modeled after Jewish synagogue meetings. Women sat on the second floor balcony behind a screen, and the men were down on the main floor, leading the proceedings. In Jewish-style services, there was not one teacher who lectured while everyone else listened as is common today. A man would get up and read a scripture, then the gentlemen in the room would all comment and debate about the application or interpretation of that scripture. The word translated “teach” in I Timothy 2:11 literally meant “to converse” because this was the way teaching happened—interactively.
In Timothy’s church, the women were so interested in what was happening that they were jumping in on the discussion from their second floor window. Paul said that was a no-no, and there is an important reason why he said no. According to Jewish scholars, men and women were separated because it’s easier to focus on God when you aren’t distracted by the pretty ladies. By keeping the men and women separate, the Jews distanced themselves from the sexuality of Roman religious ceremonies.
When Romans would go to the temple of the goddess Aphrodite to worship, it certainly was nothing like the church services we attend today. Pilgrims would worship by having sex with a priestess in the temple. These women were “temple prostitutes” who had dedicated their lives to the service of the goddess. Temple festivals were giant orgies. Once the deed was done, the worship was finished.
This craziness was the cultural climate when Paul was writing to Timothy. Women’s roles in pagan religions were scandalous to say the least. Wives and mothers worked hard to distance themselves from the temple priestesses. They could not even hang out in public without bringing shame on their families. This is why Paul made such a strong stance for Christian women at the time. For women to just engage the conversation at church would have taken the fledgling church over the edge into disrepute. The more a woman appeared to lead, the more she was perceived like the temple priestesses.
The way people worship is deeply ritualistic and habitual. The churches in Thyatyra and Pergamum struggled to keep pagan influences out. These churches had been established in non-Jewish cities, and they had very strong roots in popular religions of the era. The Christian church had allowed some of the pagan worship expressions to creep into their services when John wrote his prophetic correction to them in the book of Revelations. This was exactly what Paul was guarding against in his warning to Timothy.
Today, chances are we deal with some fewer occasions of women in ministry gaining the reputation of prostitutes than in Paul’s day.
If you peek around the cultural context of the day, what Paul taught about women was a very different thing. Galatians 3:28 “For there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus put things back in order the way they were meant to be in the garden of Eden. Male and female were created as two halves of the same whole, interdependent.
Today, we don’t have to worry about looking like temple prostitutes when we lead. (In case you were worried.) If our cultural context permits women to serve in leadership roles, then by all means, let’s step into our God-designed place! God would not give us the talents, abilities, and grace to fill leadership roles if he had not intended us to fit there. In different communities, this is accepted differently. We cannot force our way into opportunities. Leadership is only leadership when people are willingly following. We earn followership and respect by rocking the responsibilities in our hand now.
Paul’s instruction toward women in leadership in Timothy is actually a great leadership principle when you drill down a little farther and don’t just get stuck there or ignore the verse. The word translated “authority” in I Timothy 2:11 has a larger definition than just that one word. This kind of authority is egocentric, domineering, and harsh. That word originally meant, “one who kills others or himself with his own hand.” Paul encouraged women not to try and fight for their right to lead with a harsh, domineering fist.
This is not about the rights of women all over the world. This is not about our opportunity to make a name for ourselves or to get ahead. Ministry is fundamentally the willingness to serve. If we have a grace to lead, it should be strong, invitational and inspirational rather than harsh and demanding. Simply put, if over half of the church female, and many have leadership gifts, there are significant numbers of God-designed leaders holding back. If we are not faithful with God has put in our hands and in our hearts, then the kingdom of God suffers.
The church needs girls who are passionate about Jesus and passionate about building his church to rise up and lead. I, for one, am cheering you on!