I stood in the Christian Life section of Barnes & Noble yesterday. As I scanned all the books written to disciple women, I was overwhelmed by one thing. The majority of these women had no formal theological education. When I began counting, the number was outstanding. This is the reality that many publishers and churches have created for women’s discipleship.
Both complementarians and egalitarians agree to these statements:
Men and women are made equally in God’s image and share equally in his image.
Men and women are invited equally to receive the revelation of God and to grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Men and women are equally capable of study, learning, and grasping theological truth.
Men and women equally need firm theological teaching grounded in Scripture and the orthodox confessions of the Church.
New Testament scholar and complementarian Douglas Moo once wrote:
Women, like men, are to use these gifts to minister to the body of Christ; their ministries are indispensable to the life and growth of the church. There are many examples in the New Testament of just such ministries on the part of gifted Christian women. To be true to the New Testament, then, the contemporary church needs to honor those varied ministries of women and to encourage women to pursue them.
Blogger and author Tim Challies wrote a blog post earlier this year called, “I’m Complementarian and I Read Books by Women.” In his piece, he makes the case for why complementarian men should encourage women to teach, write, and think theologically and why men should listen to and learn from these women.
The Gospel Coalition, a complementarian organization, has ten women on staff (a third of its staff). Eight of those women are program staff and several of them have seminary degrees.
I point to these examples to show that at the least we are vocalizing and at the most showing by example that we should do more to encourage and equip women called by God to serve in traditional gospel ministry within the church. But we still have a long way to go in changing the direction of women discipleship.
In Scripture, those whom God calls to be shepherds of his people are given two basic tasks: feed the sheep and protect the sheep. Feeding the sheep is a metaphor for feeding God’s people with his Word. Protecting the sheep is a metaphor for protecting God’s people from false teachers or false shepherds who want to feed the sheep a false word. Shepherding is really a ministry of the Word to the people of God. It is soul caring that is gospel-centered. Jesus asked Peter three times, Do you love me? Peter responded with a resounding, Yes! Jesus responded, Then feed my sheep (Cf. John 21: 20ff).
While the main role of a pastor is as shepherd (the Greek word for shepherd is translated as pastor), I believe all God-called ministers on church staffs are shepherds. Ministers are given the responsibility of shepherding a select group of sheep within the church. They are responsible for sheep within the church, and all shepherds on a church staff work together so that their shepherding is true and gospel-focused.
This understanding of the role of shepherding is not gender specific, in my opinion. Are not ministers to women shepherding the women? If they are in charge of teaching, providing biblical teaching or soul care to the sheep, then yes! Ministers to children and youth are also indeed shepherds of God’s sheep. God’s sheep are not only men. They are also women and children. If this is true, then are we adequately preparing our female shepherds, as we do our male shepherds, for the task at hand?
The lie about women
I grew up in small, Baptist churches where we did not have any women on the ministerial staff. My dad, who is a Southern Baptist pastor, was the only minister on staff at his first church and one of two at the second. And, the second staff minister at the second church was both the music minister and the youth minister! It wasn’t that he or the church leaders excluded women from serving as ministers (in fact, at our third church we had a female children’s minister on staff); the churches simply couldn’t sustain a staff larger than one or two people.
However, as I spent more time at larger evangelical churches in the South while in college and seminary, there was something being communicated non-verbally and indirectly that until recently I had not recognized its pervasive influence on the way I viewed my calling and ministry. It was this: That where men were not present the theological depth of Bible study and teaching and the lack of training of the teacher diminished. This observation led to a lie, that until a few years ago, I had believed. Simply put the lie is this—that women (or female sheep) do not matter as much as men (male sheep) when it comes to biblical and theological teaching. (This is not true at my current church. In fact, my church is a wonderful example of what to do when it comes to hiring, using, and teaching women in the church.)
As I look back, I see this more clearly. What I was being taught by example was that in settings of mixed gender audiences, whether it be in a Sunday morning or evening service, the teacher had a seminary degree; but when men (male sheep) left so did the male teacher or shepherd with the theological training.
Recently I stumbled across a church website that announced two new ministerial staff members of the youth ministry. One was male and the other was female. They were hired to do the exact same job as the other with the only difference being that the male staff member would minister to the males in the youth group and the female staff member would minister to the females in the youth group. The male staff member has an M.Div. from a seminary; the female staff member has no seminary degree (and perhaps no college degree as nothing was said about that either).
I also stumbled across a children’s ministry position at a church. Theological education was not a qualification required for this position.
What I commonly notice is that the male ministers on staff have theological education and the women do not. These women most often are hired as directors or ministers to children or women. When this happens, what does that communicate about what the ministerial staff believes about women or children? I think it concretely communicates that women’s (and children’s) study of Scripture matters less than men’s. It creates a hierarchy among the sheep.
However, I don’t think male pastors and elders actually believe this. As I said at the beginning, I believe most male pastors and elders believe that women are equally capable and able to study Scripture and should have the same opportunities of learning as men. I also believe that most pastors believe women should receive the same quality of teaching as men. (If not, then they should ask the women to leave when they preach and teach!) What I believe has happened, though, is that what we practice is not in line with our belief so that what is being communicated is something entirely different from what we actually believe.
Let me pause and say that I’m not arguing that people without theological training should not be lay teachers of Scripture. Let that never be the case! Many lay leaders are very capable and excellent gospel-centered teachers without the seminary education. What I am referencing here are those who are called to be Shepherds to the sheep or Ministers to the ministers. My question is this: If we require our male ministers on staff to have theological education but do not require our female ministers, what is that communicating about what we believe about female sheep?
Communicating what we believe
The implications of what I saw worked out in the church for me, someone called to ministry, was that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a Bible teacher and if I was to have any merit in my vocation or my seminary degree, men must be in the audience. As a result, I had a personal crisis: was I wrong in discerning my calling or was the church wrong in its view of women? Simply put, there was little to no vocational ministerial space for me in which to serve as a complementarian with theological training. And as a result, I began to perpetuate the lie that teaching women the Bible was not enough, not worthy enough, because women themselves were not as important as men. I was in effect allowing an incorrect view of my audience to determine the worth or value of my calling.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for women called to ministry within complementarianism is this very issue. Most ministry-minded women in evangelical circles I’ve met do not want to be senior pastors. But while complementarians have been really good at telling women what they cannot do, they have failed to put resources into what they can do (although this is changing in some places). The stumbling block for these women is that there are no (or few) offices open to them. Simply put, there are few jobs for them. Not only are there few ministry jobs, but when the church hires women who have no theological training, it can make seminary not even worth the cost for young women.
Let me pause here and say this is a crisis for women who are seminary-trained. If churches are willing to hire women with no theological training, perhaps because they can pay them less, then what incentive is there for women to go learn the Bible for three years?
If complementarians want to keep theologically trained women in their churches and want to strengthen the teaching in their churches to their female parishioners, then this issue must be addressed.
What should we do?
First, pastors, elders, deacons and other church leaders, please rethink how you are communicating non-verbally as well as verbally about the worth of women. You can say as much as you want that women matter but if you communicate non-verbally the opposite, people will believe your non-verbal communication over your verbal communication. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Ask yourself, If I truly believe that women matter and that God’s Word is equally for women, then why do I not require our female staff members to have theological training? Why do our women speakers and authors who are teaching our women the Bible have no theological training? Why do I hire women part-time or at a lower salary rate than my other ministers? Am I interested in who is teaching our women and who they are reading? If not, why? Am I adequately engaged with the teaching of our women? How can I encourage young women who feel called to traditional vocational ministry?
I like what New Testament scholar and complementarian Thomas Schreiner writes:
Sometimes complementarians have given the impression that women are unintelligent and that they lack any ability to teach. Such a view is clearly mistaken, for some women unquestionably have the spiritual gift of teaching.
The best thing pastors and churches—most especially complementarian pastors and churches—can do to combat this lie is to start hiring female staff members who have theological education. If we won’t hire a male staff member unless he has theological training but we will hire a woman whether or not she does, then we are communicating that it’s more important for men to be trained in Scripture than women. This is communicating that it matters what kind of biblical teaching men receive but not necessarily what our women receive or it communicates that theological training is only for one gender. If we truly believe that men and women are equally made in the image of God and that the Word of God and the knowledge of God is for both genders, then we need to back that up by who we hire and then expect the same qualifications of both our men and women applicants.
A shepherd has 200 sheep. But given the amount of time he is off finding the best grass and fighting off those who would destroy the sheep, he needs help. So he divides his sheep into two groups: males and females. He hires a male shepherd with training, knowledge, experience, and care to watch over the male sheep. Who does he hire to watch over his female sheep? An untrained shepherd who is not as able to accurately differentiate between sheep and wolves in sheep clothing? An untrained shepherd who is not able to accurately differentiate between grass and turf? An untrained shepherd who might be tricked by a false shepherd? Or a shepherd with the same qualifications as the other shepherd just hired? This main shepherd wants the absolute best help to care for his sheep because he does not want to lose any, not even one. What kind of shepherd are you?
Second, women called to ministry, please stop believing the lie, especially if you are a young women called to gospel ministry. To whom you teach Scripture does not determine the worth of your calling! Men, women, youth and children are all made in God’s image, and God desires all to know him. Therefore, if you truly believe women are made in God’s image and that God’s Word is equally for them as it is for men, then teach women with gladness and readiness. Study Scripture, go to seminary, become a good exegete, and teach women God’s Word. You do not need men in your audience to rationalize or qualify your calling or seminary training. The God who called you determines the value of your calling because it is his calling.
To whom you teach Scripture does not determine the worth of your calling.
My vision is this: That when men and women stop believing the lie and work to stop perpetuating the lie concerning women, then our churches become stronger. When what we say we believe matches what we show we believe, women become more doctrinally and theologically sound and less young women will be leaving, in some cases going to theological extremes, trying to find a place where they can serve. I believe that a church, with the means to do so, that either employs a theologically-trained woman to teach Scripture to the female parishioners or brings in authors and speakers with theological depth will find that the church will become theologically stronger and will grow and will thrive.
Note: I have had this blog post (in some form) in the queue for at least a year. I’ve revised it many times and have waited. Why? Because I want to be sure I’m articulating clearly and correctly what I want to say and because I like to pray and think about my posts for awhile before posting. (This is not a good way to build a blog following!) Still I may have failed, but I publish it now because there is a lot of discussion right now on the web regarding platform, women’s discipleship, and theological training of women. Read this, this, and this. I hope I can contribute to the conversation. Also realize I am speaking from my context: white, evangelical, Southern, female. What I say may not be true for other races, other places of the U.S., etc. I grew up in the SBC but am now in TEC. What I say is more applicable to the SBC and like-minded denominations than it is with my new denomination and church. I hope others from different contexts will share their perspective. Now that I’m almost done with my book (yay!), I may come back with some more posts. But for now, I’ll let this one sit with you and pray it starts some good conversations.
Yours in Christ,