A Question of Women
Pastors / Elders / Leaders in the Alliance
My beloved denomination encounters a serious question of women in ministry which will not be answered any time soon but will surely be discussed in the coming years. The discussion has and will cause pain. Unlike facile disagreements like food preferences, the disagreement about women in ministry has deep parallels with the Worship Wars as:
- Proponents of either side seek to stand on the tripartite foundation of Scripture, History, and the Holy Spirit and genuinely believe they are orthodox in their beliefs
- People will suffer real pain as churches change and folks no longer feel welcomed or feel incapable of worshipping together with those with whom they disagree
- Genuine Jesus-lovers will feel like their gifts are unwelcomed and will not understand (and be deeply pained) when others react viscerally to their attempts to follow what they understand to be God’s will for their lives.
Acknowledging the pain of the discussion itself is critical because our heart’s desire ought to be for unity in the Spirit and an outpouring of mutual love for each other as the Spirit fills us. We ought to feel the pain our brothers and sisters experience as this discussion proceeds because we love them.
So, before I proceed with my own beliefs, an invocation:
Lord I know whatever I say here will pain someone. I do not know the right answer; I only know that I long for your truth, whatever that might be. I know that the desire for your truth pleases you, even when I am left in darkness. Above all, I desire you. Fill me with your words and your presence as I write. Fill the reader with your love and joy. Let them know that they are loved by you, dear Lord.
I pray for those I hurt, that they would forgive me.
I pray that I would be gentle and kind, for those qualities come from your Spirit.
Above all, I pray for your name to be known among the nations. Yours is the name above all names, and to you belongs all the glory due your name.
Where we Are
Yes, we have a written policy that seems to imply that all pastors are elders, all elders are men, and therefore all pastors must be men. But, here are some facts:
- Some churches in the Alliance have female staff pastors
- Many churches in the Alliance have pastors who are not elders
- The Alliance “ordains” women: we call it consecration, but c’mon people, it is the same process. Be honest.
- Some Districts have consecrated women serving on the LOCC and/or DEXCOM, which are functionally the Elder/Governing Boards of our Districts. We also have women serving on the national governing board.
- Female missionaries regularly preach from pulpits across the US. We call it “sharing,” but c’mon people, they are often expositing a text from Scripture and sharing biblical truths. Be honest. Some non-missionary women preach as well.
- Historically, the Alliance has had female lead pastors, associate pastors, district superintendents. International Alliance movements have had female presidents. Our female missionaries have led churches, taught pastors, and exercised authority over churches across the globe.
- We have many women called to teach, proclaim the gospel, and lead. They merely want to live our their calling without disrupting the Alliance mission or cause a row. They are generally not seeking attention beyond attention for the name of Christ.
So before moving to the Bible and the Holy Spirit, we acknowledge that the Alliance history is mixed, polity is confused, and no pathway forward will please everyone.
The Question of Tiers
The first and most important question — perhaps the only real question we have to answer — is how important it is that the Alliance as a whole defines how a woman can or cannot be called “pastor” or do pastoral-like functions in the local church? How important is it that a national body defines the definition of roles for the local church?
The first response, heard from both sides, is that it is incredibly important. Complementarians will liken women pastors to the end of the Alliance, arguing that women becoming pastors leads to (and is a fruit of) theological liberalism. Egalitarians argue that women are being restrained in ministry and are unable to use the spiritual gifts given by God. Both sides have arguments in response to the other. The argument is passionate, with both sides considering this a work of utmost importance.
Take as step back and ask: how important is it really?
As much as the Alliance thinks of itself (and calls itself) a denomination, it is first and foremost a movement of workers called to expand the kingdom of God through the Spirit-empowered work He gives. It is not, as the Baptists are (for example), a union of churches which later discovered the call of missions. The Alliance already allows women to vote on decisions of national importance as official workers. Official workers, regardless of sex, can participate in all our public meetings and vote on every level of leadership. Official workers can be everything but a Pastor, and even then there is squishiness in our somewhat ambiguous national polity. Unlike the Baptists or most other complementarian church movements, the Alliance defines ordination/consecration through a fairly rigorous vetting process wherein all workers receive the same foundational testing and instruction. As one SBC professor described to me, the “ordination process is breakfast at Waffle House with the elders.” There is no official vetting process with the Bapists — it is all up to the local church. The Alliance is all about vetting/testing/training. From the perspective of function in the constituted authority of the Alliance movement, roles/titles have no real distinctive qualities.
Functionally, the titles given by a local church do not matter when it comes to participation in the constituted authority of the national Alliance. The question of function would kick the question down to districts or local churches, but what about the question of theology?
The most pressing issue, then, is figuring out which matters of disagreement in the church require national unity, and which matters do not. These have typically been divided into three tiers: the first tier is what is necessary unto salvation (what marks a Christian / Christian church); the second tier is what marks denominational divisions (distinctives of various Christian movements of such importance that people cannot work together well because of them); the third tier is local distinctions of great importance but which do not divide a denomination.
For example, the substitutionary atoning death of Jesus is tier one; believer’s baptism is tier 2; the number and years of service for elders are tier 3.
Now, disagreements rage over where things belong in the various tiers. Importantly, the Alliance has a history of pushing things which are tier 2 in most denominations down into tier 3 and even some tier 1 issues to tier 2. While some churches in the Alliance are distinctly reformed, for example, others are completely Arminian. Here is a much larger list summarized by Paul King from his historical research in the Alliance:
1st Tier: Essentials/Non-negotiables: “Unity in things essential” (2 Thess 2:15; 1 Cor 15:1–4)
· Belief in the three persons of the Trinity
· Divinity and humanity of Christ — Incarnation and Virgin Birth
· Divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit
· God as Creator and the nature of creation
· Saving Work and Substitutionary Atoning Death of Christ
· Physical Resurrection of Christ and Ascension
· Scripture is verbally inspired and inerrant as originally given
· Man’s original creation in the image of God
· The fall of man through sin and sinful nature
· Lostness of man and need of salvation/new birth through Christ’s atonement
· The state of the lost and believers.
· Salvation by grace through faith has been provided through Jesus Christ for all men
· Imminent, physical and personal, visible Second Coming of Christ
2nd Tier: Alliance Distinctives
· Christocentric Fourfold Gospel (“the rallying point” — A.B. Simpson)
· Continuism — Christ the same in all ages (Heb 13:8), gifts of the Spirit continue
· Theological Foundations: Covenant Theology and Higher Life
· Jesus Christ as Savior — The Gospel of Full Salvation
· Believer’s baptism by immersion — 2nd tier practice with 3rd tier liberty
· Jesus Christ as Sanctifier — the sanctifying baptism in the Spirit and progressive work
· Jesus Christ as Healer — of the whole person
· Jesus Christ as Coming King — premillennial with 3rd tier liberty
3rd Tier: Non-essentials, Open Questions
“Liberty in things non-essential; Love in all things” (Rom 14; Col 3:14–15)
· Church government (polity, ordination, roles of women in ministry)
· Worship practices (hymns vs modern, Sabbath,foot-washing, musical instruments), Fasting, Communion, Dedication of children
· End-times (tribulation, rapture, interpretation of Daniel and Revelation, etc.)
· Expressions or views of sanctification
· Varying views of creation (but not Darwinian evolution)
· Practices of tongues (but not tongues as THE evidence or anti-tongues)
· Calvinism and Arminianism
· Water baptism (2nd tier with 3rd tier liberty. Universal practice became baptism of believers by immersion, but not required for membership)
· Views on Israel (such as Zionism and the Anglo-Israel theory) — but not the replacement theory — that the church replaced Israel, or unorthodox British-Israelism
· Various views on tongues permitted except: 1) insistence on tongues as the initial evidence of the baptism in the Spirit and 2) tongues are not for the church today.
· Regarding dos & don’ts: “operation of a principle rather than application of a rule.”
Note that many Alliance Tier 3 issues are often times Tier 2 issues or, in some cases, even Tier 1 in other denominations. Note also that some of these matters have changed tiers over time.
There is no Book of Common Prayer in the Alliance, that’s for sure!
Why was this so? A laser-like focus on mission which began with our founder has permeated the generations. Consider the pragmatic mission-oriented interaction Simpson had with a pastor wondering about the role of women:
In 1893, for instance, following a “great convention” in Atlanta, Georgia, in which women had spoken with blessing, one of the leading pastors of the city, supported by the ministerial association, tried to set “the community right on the subject of women speaking in public.”
After chiding the pastor for forgetting “all the glorious results of that great convention, in the single fact that it had run across one of his ecclesiastical convictions,” Simpson went on to describe the public ministry of women as
…. a little side issue of a purely speculative character, which God has already settled, not only in His word, but in His providence, by the seal which He is placing in this very day, in every part of the world, upon the public work of consecrated Christian women. Dear brother, let the Lord manage the women. He can do it better than you, and you turn your batteries against the common enemy
The Alliance, much to the chagrin of many theologians in the Alliance, has never been a deeply theological movement. It has significant theologies (see the Fourfold Gospel), but is not a movement founded upon fixed set of theological convictions. The Alliance does not have a catechism.
So Which Tier?
Is the idea of a woman preaching / pastoring a Tier 1, Tier 2, or Tier 3 issue?
Al Mohler, oft quoted by complementarians in the Alliance, seems to make it a Tier 1 issue. His answer to a recent interview regarding his candidacy for President of the SBC, suggests that any church that has a woman preach or pastor doesn’t really believe the Bible.
We believe the Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God. Now there are some who would claim to be egalitarians and to affirm inerrancy. I’m not saying that it is impossible, I am, however, saying that Southern Baptists believe that it is implausible and that egalitarianism reveals a hermeneutic that undermines the authority of Scripture.
Mohler is explicit:
when you look at passages such as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, what one must do with Scripture in order to get to putting a woman in the pulpit is what the vast majority of Southern Baptists recognize as illegitimate and pointing to larger problems in the entire theological pattern.
“Implausible.” “Undermines.” “Illegitimate.” “Problems.” These are not indicative of Tier 2 problems: I am certain Mohler would have far more fellowship with Presbyterian pastors than female pastors, no matter how many anabaptists were killed by early reformers.
Mohler and many other complementarians make a significant logical fallacy here: they make a slippery slope argument about hermeneutics, suggesting that people who allow women to preach really don’t know how to read the bible or don’t care to read the bible right.
But complementarians themselves could be credibly accused of the same hermeneutics! As Denny Burk, complementarian extraordinaire, uses the “diatribe” discourse analysis to understand 1 Corinthians 6, Beth Allison Barr uses that same analysis on 1 Corinthians 14 to understand Paul’s identification of an historical diatribe regarding the role of women. As Mary Mohler, Dr. Mohler’s wife, says that women do not need to wear head coverings because of cultural contexts, so commentators see 1 Timothy 2 through the lens of misleading noisy widows, apparently a cultural problem there.
The fact is that there are more conservative views than Dr. Mohler’s (and most mainstream complementarians) which complementarians totally discount while urging to be heard. There are churches which require headcoverings and arguments to be made that women should not speak at all in church (a point Dr. Barr makes in her book). Verily, complementarians are often credibly be accused of using squishy hermeneutics that lead to liberalism.
A tier 1 understanding of female preaching (like Mohler) would rip the Alliance asunder. It may well rip the SBC asunder as Saddleback Church just ordained three women. Mohler is accusing Rick Warren of “Implausible.” “Undermines.” “Illegitimate.” “Problems.” This is serious stuff. I cannot, myself, fathom how reading the bible with an egalitarian understanding destroys our love for Scripture, belief in inerrancy, or faith in the trinity. A female preaching in and of itself does not ruin the gospel and is likely to be much less harmful than the gospel of a great many popular male preachers (See Osteen, Joel). Cleary the roles of women is a Tier 2 or Tier 3 issue.
But which one?
A Tier 3 Hybrid Proposal
The Alliance has already announced that is is not touching the question of female lead pastors or female elders, so I will not deal with the question either. My constituted authority has decided the question is limited in scope, which makes the following discussion more narrow in scope as well.
The fundamental questions at play are titles, roles, and ministries. Can a women preach under the authority of the elders in a church? Can a woman bear the title pastor?
First, be it known that titles (as we use them) are mostly human fabrications designed for hiring purposes and tax benefits. They have become so culturally ensconced that they bear weight far beyond whatever Scripture holds. The “pastor’s parking” spot didn’t exist in Scripture, and not one person is called by his or her title. There is no “Pastor Peter” or “Pastor Timothy.” There was no ministerial housing allowance, and early pastors were not much concerned for being hired interdenominatonally. The very argument about titles shows a great concern for structures which have almost nothing to do with mission.
Second, wherein titles do matter, there is a critical question: either pastor/shepherd/bishop/overseer/elder are all the same, or they are not. If all pastors are elders, then the Alliance has a looooooong way to go to reconcile current practice (especially in large churches with 20+ pastors) with that lexical understanding. If not all pastors are elders, then we have already moved the title of “pastor” to mean something else from the biblical linkage of elder/bishop/overseer etc. We are using language that is much more flexible than lexical unity would ever allow. Additionally, we run into times in the NT when women are clearly called ministers, thanked for their ministries, and perhaps even called an Apostle.
Here’s my secret: I don’t think that I am smart enough to decide the manifold questions about how local churches must be structured, when, exactly, women can teach, and what titles they can bear. But I don’t think any one person is supposed to be! Authority in the local church seems to come through the constituted local congregation expressing its authority in and through the Elders as led by the Holy Spirit. Dictating the function, titles, and roles of women in the local congregation at the national level is essentially a usurpation of the authority of the local Elder board.
My proposal would be as follows:
- All individuals can proceed through ordination to receive the title “Official Worker” or (my preference) “Official Minister.” Such title releases workers to pursue the mission of Jesus in the Alliance movement across the globe under the guidance of the appropriate local authorities.
- In the case of ministry in the local church context, the local Elder Boards are charged with designing the nomenclatures, roles, and titles given to Official Ministers (or Worker… if we must…).
- The titles beginning with Pastor or Minister must employ Official Ministers (or…siiiiigh… Worker).
- The principle function of the LOCC / DEXCOM / DS with respect to such nomenclature and roles will be ensuring that any who teach/preach/lead/shepherd/oversee/etc. do so in accordance with sound doctrine as expressed in the Alliance Statement of Faith.
- The Alliance should develop a uniform standard of Elder leadership, including training materials and standards for personal qualification.
- The Alliance should consider removing the requirement of voting for Eldership (sorry… had to get that one in there. I mean, if we are being really biblical there are no elections in the bible other than the one we received in Christ (oops I Calvin’d. Sorry))
Interestingly, this would put the Alliance right in line with where the SBC is today with regards to local Elder authority while having stronger requirements for official workers than the SBC ever has or will.
The Summary — Ben’s Best Shot
- All ordained people are Official Ministers. Official Ministers can serve in every which way except: Elders are men(not under discussion). The Lead Pastor is an Elder (ergo, a man) (not under discussion).
- Local Alliance churches are free to decide if all Elders are Pastors (or not), if women can bear the title Pastor, how women can serve in their local congregation, and how local congregations select their Elders.
- Official Ministers can serve at every other level of denominational leadership under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in accordance with the decision-making processes of the constituted authorities.
That’s how I would do it.
Am I wrong? Probably.
But to God be glory above all, and let his Spirit lead us wherever which way He desires!