Helping the Church Accept Women in Leadership

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The formation of the title for this workshop raises immediate questions. Do the churches need help? Do they want help? Assuming both questions receive affirmative answers, other questions remain: what kind of help will prove salutary and who is most likely to provide it? These questions underlie our task together, and while my remarks do not work with them directly in outline form, they do relate to the issues I will present.


An Historical Context for the role of Brethren in Christ Women in the Church

In the first century of the Brethren in Christ Church, the denomination was basically a “house-church” phenomenon. I use that term advisably because it describes many aspects of the church at that time. There is no evidence of women acting in leadership roles at any level of the church. Nor did they appear to have any leadership roles in corporate gatherings for worship or church council meetings. Given the worship style of the period, they apparently were given vocal privileges in testimony meetings and possibly in prayer. Their major functions were hospitality, Christian nurture in the family (especially of young children), and roles as wives of deacons or ministers. This involved assisting women at baptisms and communion services. Some accompanied their husbands in church visitation or counseling, especially if a woman was the subject of the contact.


Significant changes in women’s roles began about the point that the denomination entered its second century. They were natural results of new church structures and methods. Sunday schools, revival meetings, tent evangelism, home missions, foreign missions, church education institutions, and benevolent institutions provided new roles for women. Ladies entered significant new roles of ministry as teachers, missionaries, “evangelists,” authors, and social care personnel. Often these services were restricted to children and women, but that line was hard to draw and harder to observe. Especially in overseas settings women evangelized, pastored, and taught men as well as women and children, though the mission board made sure missionary men were soon in all administrative roles. In North America capable ladies were instructing men in college classes. Anna Engle, who rates as one of the better teachers I have had along my educational odyssey, was always sensitive about this fact. She was particularly concerned about this when older pastors of the denomination were students in her classes. I suspect Francis Davidson would not have agonized over such a situation in the way Anna Engle did.


We all know about the fiery speeches of Rhoda Lee at General Conferences in the 1890s, which moved the denomination to enter foreign mission work, although she was not an official member of Conference. There were ladies on the mission board in the second decade of the twentieth century, an experiment that ended after a few years. One wonders whether it ceased because board personnel were members of General Conference and women were not yet functioning in Conference membership roles. At any rate, I can remember the sense of amazement we all felt in the 1950s when congregations began electing women as delegates to General Conference. By the 1960s they were serving on General Conference boards, and now they participate in large numbers at all levels of church conferences. They increasingly serve on boards and committees, but not proportionate to their membership in the denomination. One factor in this imbalance is that most committees strive for a balance between ministers and non-ministers in their composition, and few women are currently in credentialed ministry in the church.


This quick sketch leaves out many details. My purpose in giving it is to remind ourselves that significant changes have occurred in the last century and that both the pace has quickened and the scope enlarged within the last three decades. For some, though probably not many, this means that it is already a non-issue. Women in leadership at all levels is an accomplished fact. Others rejoice in these developments but feel that much more must be done, since women are not proportionately represented in all roles of leadership and/or do not find every role yet available to them—pastoral ministry in general and bishopric in particular. The fact that some congregations and areas of the church are more reluctant to involve women in leadership is a source of concern to some people.


The historical overview leads to two issues: how to assess the extent of change, and how to evaluate methods for achieving further change. In regard to the first issue (the extent of involving women in church leadership), some say it’s already gone too far, others that it being satisfactory at present. In respect to the second issue (methods for involving women in leadership), a few feel the church has conformed to secular feminist pressure, others that remarkable change has occurred on its own without making it a particular issue, and some that we need definite commitments to achieve full participation of women in all aspects of church life.


We shall have occasion to refer back to this hasty sketch when other issues come under discussion throughout this session. For our history not only influences where we are at present but also has pointers, I believe, to guide our future in regard to this question.


I want now to address our common task as a church in regard to women in leadership. And I think it is best to approach it, as much as possible,, without a “we-they” attitude. Some people experience greater distress than others in discussing the issue, but we all do better if none of us assumes we have solved the matter and others have only to learn from us what to do.


What are the barriers to women in leadership that we wrestle with in one form or another? I see them as falling in three areas: first, biblical/theological questions, second, practical/ecclesiological questions, and third, women’s personal reflections in regard to changing roles. The rest of my presentation will be comments upon these issues, hopefully in such a way that it will stimulate your participation in the discussion that will follow.


Biblical/Theological Questions

We are a biblical people. That is not intended to be an exclusive claim, for all Christians make that claim. What we mean when we say this is that the Bible plays a more authoritative role with us, and similar groups, than it does for others. We tend not to weight tradition, reason, experience, and contemporary methods of interpretation of the Bible the way some other Christians do. Another way of putting that is to say that we believe the biblical word has a stronger gravitational pull upon our modern world than our world does upon the biblical one. By way of analogy the biblical world is the “sun” and our world is the planet “earth.” Both exert a gravitational pull upon the other, but the one is primary and the other secondary.


Historically, we have made heroic attempts to line up our practice with the biblical world. Our efforts in some respects have not been so extensive in recent decades. We have come to admit, what our forebears seem not always to have been conscious of, that the “earth” exerts some force of its own. Our current culture does pull the biblical message our way somewhat. But it has been a painful admission and a scary one. How much should the Bible be interpreted from our cultural perspectives? Isn’t there a danger that we could confuse the role of the “sun” and the “earth,” thus switching primary and secondary authorities? Haven’t we known some Christians who have done that, and the Bible then becomes a mere echo of their culture or their personal preference? These are healthy questions, reflecting a salutary fear.


When we approach the issue of women’s roles in the church as a biblical/theological question, several tensions are encountered. The Bible took shape in and was addressed to a patriarchal culture. At least western culture in our day is quite different from that context. If that were the only tension, we might resolve issues rather easily, but deeper tensions are also involved. Some statements about women’s roles in the home and in the church appear to have more universal application; that is, they are not directly tied to a biblical world culture. For example, many Christians have concluded that 1 Corinthians 11 does not require women to be veiled, even in public worship. Yet, they still insist that it does teach that women are subject to men at home and in the church. And Ephesians 5 is seen as enforcing this relationship in marriage. Where this conviction is deep-seated, a hermeneutic of cultural adaptation will not prove to be decisive.


The deepest issue of all is the unresolved tension within the biblical text itself. Of all the apostolic writers, Paul seems to have utilized women in ministry more than any other New Testament leader. His instruction concerning veiling in I Corinthians 11 acknowledges their right to participate actively in various roles in public worship. He insisted that in Christ there is “neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). Yet he penned two of the strongest prohibitions against women’s ministry in the church (I Cor. 14:34, 35; I Tim. 2:11-15). A lot of very unsatisfactory exegesis has occurred over the years in trying to resolve this biblical tension in favor of one side of the question or the other.


I am not going to pursue the textual questions themselves. I raise them only to make several observations. First, since we are so strongly committed to the biblical revelation, we will not feel good about any attempted resolution of the role of women in the church that seems to slight biblical authority. I think that means we will be cautious about using differences in culture as our primary way to resolve the tension in the bible itself on this issue. It is very tempting to use this hermeneutical principle, but I believe we hesitate to respond to it because we instinctively realize that other moral issues could then be undercut by the same hermeneutical tool.


Secondly, a biblical case can be made for different sides of this issue. Brotherhood means that we respect both the integrity of the people who hold the views and the cases they make for them. It is in everyone’s interest to keep the dialogue going. We should not push quickly for position statements and conference rulings. We are not involved in a contest of biblical interpretation in which only one party can be declared the winner. Increased roles of women in the church cannot be bought at the high price of diminished confidence in Scripture or the loss of respect for some in the church by others—and usually this means that the party that loses is suspicious of the one that wins.


I do not believe that this means that one blesses the status quo nor that we are resigned to a “no-win” impasse. What I am saying is that the resolution of interpretative tensions will not come easily nor soon. Love and patience are as important to biblical interpretation as are hermeneutical tools and a commitment to truth. We are committed to a group consensus about women in leadership. The end result is worth a difficult and prolonged effort. It might take us longer to get where some feel we should be, but I believe that when we get there more people will feel good about women’s roles in the church. And that will mean that women will experience more profitable ministry, with less resistance and greater support than some groups which have seemed to impose women in leadership by church rulings and dramatic test cases.


Practical/Ecclesiological Questions

In church matters, as in so many social institutions, the unwritten customs are as strong a factor as are written procedures. In our denomination most of the historic restrictions against women’s roles of leadership have been of the unwritten variety. There is very little in General Conference rulings or official procedures (Manual of Doctrine and Government and the Ministers’ Manual) that restricts women’s involvement, except for the frequent use of masculine pronouns. That, however, is a telling exception, for it indicates denominational assumptions. And such assumptions precluded women’s participation, even though no official action was taken to say they could not be involved in various levels of church life.


Another observation has relevance to this matter. Both periods of our history where dramatic changes in regard to women in leadership/ministry took place—and I speak in regard to 1885-1915 and 1960-1990–have occurred at times when roles for women were changing in the larger society in North America. It would be naïve to assume that this had no effect upon the church. Yet, I would strongly contend, especially in regard to the first of these periods, that the strong stimulus to involve women came from within the church. New ministry opportunities before the denomination called for their gifts.


Now, I think it is important to reflect upon these matters. Historically, a larger place for women in the church has been a matter of changing assumptions rather than challenging or changing official church statements. On one hand this is fortunate, for it has spared us the polarization that results from test cases and the processes of reversing official policy. On the other hand, unwritten assumptions are resilient things in the thought life of a group. They tend not to change just because a new practice has been introduced to the group behavior. Passive resistance can prove to be a formidable obstacle to a new role in the group life, such as women in new leadership functions.


If we are going to achieve the maximum level of women’s participation in the life of the church, then I think we must give our attention to the assumptions against such participation and address them in a manner which elicits positive responses. I anticipate our discussion time in our workshop in this regard, for we might probe this point for creative ideas.


I would only note three things that occur to me. One, a larger role for women in the larger society has created a climate to accept expanded roles for women in the church. Secondly, new roles of ministry in the church create leadership roles for women. To this point a large percentage of women in ministry, for example, have been employed as Christian education directors and ministers of counseling, roles that have only been staff options in the church in very recent decades. It is probably easier to involve women in leadership in newly created ministries than ones where a tradition of male leadership has been established.


Thirdly, and I think most importantly, women in leadership at all levels of the church have been their own best advertisement of their potential to serve Christ and the church. And this is more potent at changing assumptions than anything I know. We tend to be more pragmatic than our stated principles allow. When confronted by a good example that refutes our assumptions, we make allowances for exempt cases. When the cases multiply to general observations, we revise our assumptions. Finally, we feel constrained to revise the rational framework that justified the prior assumptions. But if one had confronted our rational framework at the beginning, our defense of it would likely have precluded an openness to consider the evidence of cases. Perhaps this has much to suggest to us in regard to the topic at hand.


There remains one particular issue in this regard that I think we must address. Women in credentialed ministry is one specific aspect of the larger question we are addressing. Since 1976, more than a dozen women have been credentialed for ministry in our church. And the number of candidates is increasing with the years, seminary students being one indication of the trend. Yet, the issue of women in the church reaches its most emotional resistance at this point. This is reflected not by General Conference action which calls to task the Board for Ministry and Doctrine for credentialling women, but in the difficulty to find congregations who will receive them into their employ. Given our polity of ministerial placement, where congregational preference is determinative, this will be a practical issue for some time.


Some patterns have emerged. Women are more readily accepted in multi-staff congregations than in one-pastor congregations. They have been recognized for ministry more readily in roles that seemed more “feminine” (i.e., directors of Christian education and counseling, especially for women and children). The process recently has taken an interesting turn. It seems women ministers get stronger affirmation if they first fill a staff role in the congregation and then move on to credentials. In other words, congregations are more influenced by the performance an individual demonstrates than by the title she bears.


I think there is material here for reflection, although I am not inclined to suggest hard conclusions. I would hazard sharing a hunch, however. I believe the acceptance of women in all kinds of church roles will be the climate that makes acceptance of women in credentialed ministry more favorable. To adopt a strategy that interchanges these factors, I feel, would be a fundamental error. To be more explicit, I believe to make women in credentialed ministry a focal point for effort will not achieve the goal desired for women in other roles in the life of the church. The placement of horse and cart in this process, I maintain, is crucial.


The Personal Reflections of Women About Leadership Roles in the Church

I would not presume to speak for most of the women in the church. I know what some of them say; I know less what many of them think and feel. It is in this area that gatherings like this one are important, for they provide forums for women to address the issues that concern them from their own perspectives. And I think it is a matter of plural reference (perspectives). There is no one woman’s position on this topic, just as there is probably no one male perspective on this or other issues.


There are two areas that I wish to comment on in this section of my paper. Both apply to the issue of women in credentialed ministry, but there are likely implications for other roles within the church as well.


The first is the issue of women with family responsibilities, especially where minor children are involved. Whether or not we wish to discuss this matter, the fact is that the conflict of ministry and family has been part of the debate on this topic for more than a century. Saying that this should be no more a problem for women in ministry than a problem for men is true in many respects, but it does not get rid of the problem. Apart from the issue of cultural expectations (which have justifiable if not absolute appeal), there are biblical and philosophical issues involved. The biblical world of family roles does not harmonize easily with current western expectations. And the philosophical question whether equal worth demands identical roles as a natural corollary has more than rhetorical merit.


At a time when the family is in real peril in our society, we can not afford to treat any family concern as a non-issue. Here women are as apt to be concerned as any person who is party to the discussion. They are likely to agonize over the tension between time spent with family and time given to ministry more than their male counterparts. Particularly is this true if ladies have not begun a family or have small children at the point that they consider a call to ministry. No two situations will be identical, and we must be discerning as a body as we help women decide their role with integrity so as to deal with dual demands.


The second issue is the expectation of women in ministry. Like all minority groups, ladies must exceed the performance level of male ministers in order to gain acceptance. There are two sides to this expectation formula. The people’s acceptance of women in ministry is tied to higher performance demands. Women who sense this might feel an inordinate pressure to please everyone and do everything. The other aspect is that the female candidate might impose unrealistic expectations upon herself in terms of being a successful minister. These pressures imposed from without and within can be counterproductive. Certainly they can diminish the joy of ministry. If we want to increase the extent of women in ministry, we must be aware of this problem. We will have to do a better job than I have done thus far in affirming women in ministry, as well as any who fill leadership roles hitherto filled only by men.



I am thankful for the opportunity that this conference provides us to discuss the questions related to women in leadership in the church. Women have served in leadership roles in the past, are doing so in expanding ways at present, and will do even more in the future. If our progress to this point has not been dramatic, it has at least been substantial. Significant questions still remain, largely over the rate of change and over the ultimate extent of women’s leadership roles in the church. We have the privilege to engage these issues together over these days. We also have the responsibility to sojourn with all people in the church. Our “herd” approach to questions might mean that we move more slowly than some others, but I think it has the advantages of avoiding many dangers and a greater acceptance of destination when we arrive. I find comfort in the way our heritage equips us to deal with this concern for women in leadership in the church.


Luke Keefer, Jr., is a member of the faculty at Ashland Theological Seminary and Chairman of the Board for Ministry and Doctrine of the Brethren in Christ Church.


Keefer, Luke L., Jr. (April 1990). Helping the Church to Accept Women in Leadership. Brethren In Christ HISTORY and LIFE XIII, no. 1, 73-83.


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