By Heath Tibbetts
Editor’s note: In the ongoing conversation in the Southern Baptist Convention about the role of women in churches, our perception is that many people are using similar language and Scripture passages, but reaching different conclusions. Here is how one Illinois pastor is dealing with the issue in his church.
My young daughter was heartbroken. Her dream to do something “big for God” seemed impossible once she learned that being a pastor was off the table for women. Her struggle with this fueled a question I had long asked as a young minister: “What can ministry look like for women?”
We should always be clear where Scripture is clear, and Paul’s first letter to Timothy helps clarify many points on church leadership. For this discussion, I’ll focus on two of them. First, there are two main offices within the church: pastor and deacon. Second, those roles are to be filled by godly men.
1 Timothy 2:11-12 gives additional instructions regarding women in worship. They should learn “quietly with all submissiveness” and “not…teach or exercise authority over a man.” Paul’s words are challenging not in content, but in light of our culture that deems such statements as archaic sexism. But in the Jewish culture of Timothy’s day, this was a revolution! Women, previously segregated from men, could now be present in a worship service to learn alongside their brothers, sons, and husbands. Jesus himself drew a large crowd of female disciples who discovered a rabbi that treated them like people!
Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2 should be seen in light of the upcoming qualification laid out in chapter 3. The authority that was being reserved for the teaching pastor in the church should not be presumed by a woman within that church body. Paul is introducing the issue and then the standard. He isn’t making a statement of female ministry ability, but of God-established authority.
Can women serve in ministry?
For years I applied the qualifications of pastor to all ministry positions in church. Godly men I respected encouraged me to do so, explaining the church needed to model the spiritual leadership of the home. While I believe the role of lead/teaching pastor and deacon do serve that purpose, I continued to wrestle with other positions in the church.
My breakthrough came when I realized my definition of ministry was incomplete. Jesus called us all into a “royal priesthood…that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). In this perfect description of ministry, I notice no limitations of ministry or gender. Norman Geisler points out that the spiritual gifts fueling our ministry efforts are not segregated by gender. Women are just as likely to receive gifts of teaching and prophecy as men are.
Ministry opportunities for women are most often limited by a poor definition of what ministry is. Can women serve as pastors or deacons? No. Can women serve in ministry? Absolutely!
As the teacher of our co-ed Young Adults class, I’m allowing everyone in the class, regardless of gender, opportunities to teach all or part of a lesson with or for me. Five years ago, I would have never offered a woman this type of role. But 1 Timothy is about women trying to wrestle away authority that is not theirs. These women at our church are operating under my authority and instruction, so that our church won’t continue to struggle with inexperienced teachers.
Women serve on our administration and leadership teams. My wife has spent four years completely rebuilding our youth ministry, leading a team of men and women to serve and mentor our students into genuine disciples of Christ. My once heartbroken daughter is a valuable member of our worship team. She and her younger sister are both active in sharing their faith, recently leading one of their cousins to Jesus. That’s the power of women in ministry!
My relationships with women didn’t cause me to grow soft on God’s Word, but to take a second look at what it says. Sometimes a fresh look leads me to deeper resolve. Other times, I realize I’ve limited myself and others through an incomplete understanding.
I’m not asking you to endorse or adopt anything I’ve said, but to consider these questions: 1. Is your church properly defining ministry, and 2. Does the ministry leadership of your church reflect the makeup of your church?
Heath Tibbetts is pastor of First Baptist Church, Machesney Park.
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