I grew up in an evangelical church quite typical for the Sixties. The pastor was male. Lay leaders were male. Ushers were male. Adult Sunday School teachers were male. Women were important in the church too, but in very defined roles. They taught children’s Sunday School. They worked in the nursery. The official role women were given was serving as a deaconess. They prepared and cleaned up the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. They visited the sick and arranged for meals. Some women did serve as teachers and church planters, but only in places like Africa and Asia.
This was the evangelical world I grew up in. I didn’t question it. This is just how it was. As I got older, I met other Christians from a variety of traditions. In those churches, women served in a wider range of ways; in fact, there was no distinction made. Women were able to fully serve the church as they were called and gifted. As I learned of this, and thought about it, this understanding simply made sense.
Looking at Scripture anew, examining and critiquing the styles of church of my earlier years, it became clear to me that women, just like men, are able to fully participate in the ministries of the church. This became the official stance of the Evangelical Covenant Church in 1976. It makes me very proud.
The 1970’s and into the next decade was a time when the issue of women in ministry was fiercely debated in denominations, seminaries and local congregations. Unchecked assumptions were being questioned. Scripture passages were being re-examined. By the mid 1980’s, many evangelical churches and seminaries found women to truly be called and gifted to serve the church. The church was changing. But it that was thirty or forty years ago.
The American evangelical church wrestled with the role of women in the church decades ago. It must continue to advocate for the full participation of women in all aspects of the life of the church today. In recent years, some notable pastors and groups have been teaching and modeling a more conservative view on women in ministry.
Pastors, seminarians and churches uncritically accept this more conservative viewpoint based on the reputation and ministry of these leaders. The views of these pastors are influencing current and future leaders of the church, and hinder the contribution of women to the work of the church. Lynne Hybels has recently written: “when women have half a chance, they change the world! I am convinced that women are the greatest untapped resource in local communities and in the church.” The ministry of women in the church must not be stifled. It is a right and just action.
Biblical convictions demand that we recognize and encourage the work of women in ministry. This means that advocacy for full participation of women in ministry in the church cannot cease. This task must continue in the local church, in seminaries, and at the denominational level:
- We must affirm the calling and giftedness of women.
- We must teach and advocate for a proper and clear interpretation of Scripture regarding women in ministry.
- Women preparing for ministry and already engaged in ministry must be given safe places to talk and share.
- We must work toward systemic changes: encouraging women to serve on local church boards, serving as pastors and senior pastors of congregations, given key appointments in denominations, and in seminaries.
Should women serve fully in the church was a question asked and wrestled through forty years ago. Because of new influences upon the American church, it is a question that needs to be wrestled through again. In my denomination the Evangelical Covenant Church, we must continue to ask: Where is it written? Seek the Lord’s direction, and encourage each other towards a fuller, more biblical view of women in ministry. And this is a question that pastors, churches, seminaries and other denominations must ask as well.