Upside-Down Authority and Women in the Church

At the end of my last post I wondered why we humans turn God’s model of servant-leadership into dictatorship when we lead. This idea of “but a leader should be humble, at the bottom of the ladder” reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend one summer.

This was the summer that I began to question my denomination of origin — not with the goal of leaving (though I eventually did), but simply to answer my questions. My friend had plans to be a pastor someday, so I thought he would be a good person to help me understand my denomination. Regarding my questions about women being excluded from pastoral ministry, he said:

Well, being a pastor isn’t about being “in charge” — it’s about service, and pastors are supposed to be at the bottom of the ladder, leading out of humility. So all the women and feminists should stop feeling like they’re being denied some spotlight or authority — being a pastor isn’t about power, it’s about service. What’s the big deal about being excluded from that?”

There are two main problems with this statement.

1. Pretending pastors do not have authority in the church is unrealistic. 

Although my friend is correct in stating that the Jesus model for pastoring is one of servant-leadership and humility, that is rarely the reality today. Most pastors I know (with the exception of my dad and a few others) lead much more like presidents or CEOs than servants.

Even pastors who do lead with humility still wield a tremendous amount of influence. For children growing up in traditional churches, their shiny, white-robed pastors often mix with their image of Jesus and set the tone for those kids’ early faith. And most pastors generally get 20-60 minutes of uninterrupted speaking time from the pulpit each Sunday. So saying there is no authority or power to be had as a pastor is just plain unrealistic.

2. A lack of power or prestige does not make exclusion okay.

Even if pastoring was a low-influence sort of job in real life, does that make it any more just to exclude 50% of the population from it because of their anatomy? Yes, there are many other ways to serve God — but who are we to say that it’s impossible for God to call any woman to any of those ways, whether that be to preaching, legislating, or trash-collecting? I would much rather have a woman preacher who has a true and humble call to serve than a man preacher who seeks the influence that leading a church can give him. Which leads me to my next thought…

Doesn’t humility make a better pastoral baseline virtue than maleness?

I mean, really — if pastoring without a desire for power or control is *so important*, then isn’t it better to have humble servant-leaders for pastors no matter their sex than to be forced by gender exclusion to accept less-than-servanty pastors? Doesn’t excessive pride and desire for power corrupt the pastorate (and the church) more than having a vagina does?

I know I’m thinking practically here, with little biblical evidence. But I’m no Bible scholar, so I’ll let the real ones do that. My point here is simply to say that if it’s so easy for us humans to get God’s example wrong, then maybe we should be a little more careful before we start making rules about who’s allowed to do what.

What do you think? Should pastors focus more on humility? Do you think women can be called to pastoral ministry even if their church doesn’t allow it? Let me know in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Upside-Down Authority and Women in the Church

  1. Great post, Rebekah!!  (Are you warming up for our “interview” later?)  I think you hit the nail on the head with your two critiques of your friend’s statement.
    As you may or may not remember, I’ve done a fair amount of research regarding NT views of women–although there’s still WAY more out there than I’ve researched.  When it comes to biblical views of womanhood, it’s pretty clear that what’s written down in scripture is based heavily on the socio-cultural context of the biblical authors.  (As an aside, I just watched a mini-documentary last night that dealt with ordination of LGBT Christians, and one lady on the anti-LGBT side of the debate said that “The Bible clearly says that marriage is between one man and one woman.”  It’s an argument you hear all the time, and yet it’s BLATANTLY untrue.  The patriarchs of Israel were unabashedly polygamous and God was all for it at the time.  Not to mention the whole idea of women being property, it being okay for a man to sleep with his female slaves, and all that.)  I’m not trying to demean scripture here, but there’s just too much in there that I find ethically questionable (or worse) that I have no interest in holding to any level of biblical inerrancy.  We’ve had this discussion before, so I won’t get into my view of biblical inspiration, but I just wanted to make clear that while I’m interested in what the Bible has to say about issues like women’s ordination, I do not feel bound by what it says.
    For example, we were just reading “On the Holy Spirit” by the early church theologian Basil of Ceasarea (one of the Cappadocians, if you’ve heard of them–they’re a really big deal in Eastern theology and have had a huge impact on Christian Trinitarian theology).  One thing we talked about regarding this treatise is that Basil was so bound by Scripture that he couldn’t even go as far as to say that the Holy Spirit is God.  The reason?  Because the Bible never EXPLICITLY makes that claim, despite the many, many instances in which that is the implicit claim.  The closest Basil could come to that statement was that the Holy Spirit “is no stranger to the divinity of the Father and the Son.”  Lame!  Our professor reminded us that we HAVE to use other language besides biblical language in order to make any theological claims, because you can’t explain/demystify biblical language if it’s the only language you have.  I thought that was an interesting point, reminding us from a different angle than usual of why we shouldn’t remain totally bound by scripture alone.
    Anyway… that was a long introduction… sorry.  I think my main point from the above 2 paragraphs is that I admit that several passages, in the NT especially, forbid women taking official leadership roles in the church.  But that doesn’t stop me from believing women SHOULD be able to hold leadership roles in the church.  (Nevermind that there are also many counter-examples in scripture of women apostles/disciples and other ways of women contributing leadership in the early Christian movement.)  One result of scripture being so linked to its socio-cultural context is the fact that it contains a wide variety of perspectives on many different issues.  It’s hard to find ANY issue on which the Bible never at least partially contradicts itself.
    I also wanted to say that I’ve thought a lot about the type of argument your friend was making.  For a while, back in my more evangelical days, I found the humility argument somewhat persuasive.  Why should women have to be officially in charge, when instead they can serve “extra-humbly” behind the scenes?  This way, they’re the better servants because they don’t get any glory for their work.  (I still had female pride about it, obviously.)  But then again, such an attitude suits my personality.  I’m not loud or extroverted enough to want a spotlight, and I think I used this argument as somewhat of an excuse not to step out of my comfort zone and take on leadership that I’m called into.  I could tell myself I was fulfilling my “role” when really I was only doing the easy thing.  I think a lot of women who grow up in denominations that don’t ordain women easily fall into this same mental trap.  You’re taught to think that your role is a certain thing whether or not it’s actually a role suited to you.
    I really like how you said it, though.  Whether pastoring is a low-influence job or a high-influence job (and it’s clear that in almost every single instance it’s quite high-influence), maleness does not make one inherently better suited to it.  We each have different gifts and sometimes those fit with pastoral ministry and other times they don’t.  Our gender may have socialized us to some extent regarding our interests or skills, but even so there are plenty of women who DEFINITELY have the call and the gifts for pastoral ministry.  I also believe that there are plenty of LGBT Christians who definitely have the calls and gifts for pastoral ministry.  I’ve met tons of them in both categories.  I personally only can think of one woman seeking ordination whose denomination doesn’t allow it, but I can think of many LGBT people seeking ordination whose denomination doesn’t allow it.  In those cases, I believe those individuals should continue to follow the call of God into ordained ministry even if it means the painful decision to switch denominations.  (I’ve seen it done, multiple times.)  It’s sad and hard when one is faced with that decision, leaving one’s home church in order to fulfill God’s call, but the fact is that calls from God aren’t the kind of thing you can really escape.  They keep pulling at you no matter how long you try to ignore or run away from them.


    1. @CarissaLick Informative and thoughtful, as usual! Since you’re the one with the paper to write, perhaps I should be asking YOU if you’re warming up! =)
      I really like how you explained the way many women can be drawn into the “humble games” (yuk yuk yuk) as a way of practicing self-denying servanthood. I think this is definitely prevalent (and not just in evangelicalism!)  and, you’re right, I think personality and temperament has a lot to do with who goes along and who challenges.
      It’s always hard to try to discern the difference between “humility” (aka more humble games) and true servanthood, or between power (aka the bad, control-based kind) and Spirit-given authority. I think it gets so messy because ministerial humans may try to use power and influence to achieve what they believe are good ends, but it can go so badly so quickly because only God is incorruptible. It’s like the One Ring — ministers would seek to use it for good! But through them, it can wield great and terrible power.


  2. One of the things that most gets me, both with women’s and LGBTQ ordination, is the idea that scriptural authority is SO infallible that God is constrained by it.  That is, the Holy Spirit is unable to do something beyond or even contrary to Scripture.  If God is feeling that the right time for women’s ordination wasn’t the first century, fine (though I’m more inclined to say that that was PAUL’S opinion, rather than God’s).  But even if that WAS God’s opinion, why couldn’t the Holy Spirit move in a different way in our time and place.  That’s certainly the conclusion that most Christians have come to vis-a-vis slavery.  Why not these issues?  In my opinion, the Holy Spirit is yearning for the voices of those groups that have been silenced to speak God’s word from the pulpit, and thus has continued to call women and members of the LGBTQ community in ever greater numbers.  But that’s just my opinion.


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