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When I was growing up in the church, I thought that women shouldn’t be pastors. I didn’t see a lot of examples of female pastors in the churches I attended growing up, and I thought the Bible was pretty clear on this matter. For example, in Paul’s letter to Timothy, he writes: A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet (1 Timothy 2:11-12).

Over the years, however, I have changed my mind on this issue. I now attend a church that fully supports and celebrates the ordination of women, and this issue is pretty important to me. However, there is still a lot of disagreement about this issue among Christian churches, so I thought it might be helpful to share some of my thoughts about this issue.

I think the primary theological reason why some Christians believe women shouldn’t be pastors or have leadership roles over men involves passages like the one I wrote to open the blog. Even though Paul does affirm the helpful role of women in the early church, and there are examples throughout the Bible of women serving in leadership positions, there does seem to be a hierarchy in Paul’s writings on gender. This hierarchy shows up both in the relationship between men and women, as well as the roles of women in the church.

I’m not surprised by this. Paul lived in a culture that was patriarchal, so that was part of the lens with which Paul viewed the world. Women didn’t tend to be as well-educated as men in that culture, so some of his comments make more sense with the cultural context in mind. The question for Christians is this: How do we interpret these passages in light of the cultural context today? Were Paul’s instructions (e.g., I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet) something that we should apply directly in our cultural context, or should they shift and change as the opportunities for women have expanded in our society today?

There isn’t an easy answer to this question. It’s difficult to be fully objective when forming our opinion—there are a lot of underlying motivations that muddy the waters. For example, just in my own heart, I can identify the following motivations:

  • I have a professional identity as a counseling psychologist that strongly values social justice issues, including those related to gender. I struggled to square these values with some of the values of my Christian faith growing up, and part of my process over the last several years has been trying to bring these two parts of my identity into greater alignment.
  • I worry that if I admit that some of Paul’s writings were influenced by him living in a patriarchal society, it will diminish the value or importance of the Bible. If I admit that some of Paul’s writings aren’t valid for today, what does that mean for the rest of the Scripture? Am I treading down a slippery slope?
  • I’m dating a woman who started a ministry helping the church support families who are adoptive and foster parents. Some Christians, including her church family, support her role as a female leader, but others have been less supportive. The limitations that some Christians place on her as a female leader makes me angry.
  • I’m a man, so I experience quite a bit of privilege related to my gender. Even though I don’t like to admit it, there’s a part of me that enjoys this privilege and wants to keep things the way they are.

Maybe you connect with these underlying motivations, or perhaps you can identify others. None of us see controversial issues like gender roles clearly. We each see the world through our own lens, clouded by our own set of cultural identities and experiences.

When I am struggling to interpret a controversial passage of the Bible and figure out its meaning in our current cultural context, one thing that has been helpful for me is to think about how the underlying values and teachings of Jesus apply to the situation. For example, Jesus taught that the greatest commandment was to love God and love others. What position on the role of women in church is most consistent with a stance of love? Also, Jesus strongly valued justice, prioritizing the needs of the marginalized and the oppressed. What position on the role of women in church is most consistent with a stance of justice?

For me, I have come to believe that it is important to value and support all the gifts and callings of women in the church, including leadership and teachings gifts. In order to do so, I have had to loosen my grip on interpreting some of Paul’s teachings about women in the church literally. I have felt okay doing that, because of the differences in cultural contexts, as well as my reflections on what position is more consistent with the underlying values and teachings of Jesus.

Discussion: What about you? How do you see the role of women in the church? Are there any limitations? How do you interpret the Bible passages that seem to limit the role of women in church? How do your own cultural identities and experiences impact your view?

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