Viral tweets highlight the question: should women be pastors?

(COMMENTARY) Should women be pastors or preachers in U.S. Protestant churches?

This issue erupted in recent days among U.S. evangelicals (more on this in a moment). In the interest of full disclosure, my (Protestant) personal opinion on this is yes, and in fact his own local congregation has its first female pastor. But as usual my “Religion Q & A” column intends to provide a non-partisan journalistic survey.

Let’s first note that Catholic and Orthodox tradition bars any realistic prospect of female priests, even as increasing numbers of U.S. Protestant women become ministers. The Association of Theological Schools reports women are 30 percent of the students (mostly Protestants) in member seminaries preparing for the M.Div. professional clergy degree.

With “mainline” Protestants, the Congregationalist ancestors of today’s United Church of Christ ordained America’s first female, Antoinette Brown, in 1853, though she later went Unitarian and few other women followed till the 20th Century. Women achieved full clergy status in e.g. predecessor bodies of the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1956 and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1970, and in the Episcopal Church in 1977 (following non-canonical protest ordinations in 1974).

Among “evangelical” Protestants, from the late 19th Century some denominations appointed women to such leadership roles as preacher, evangelist, missionary, or deacon, and in certain instances to clergy status. But most congregations barred women pastors, either de facto or de jure.

Lately, a vigorous evangelical movement has formalized the belief that limiting pastors, preachers, and lay officers to males is God’s mandate in the Bible. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW, see organized in 1987. Its founding “Danvers Statement” defined Protestant “complementarianism,” meaning the two genders have distinct roles that complement each other, over against “egalitarians.”

This document teaches that gender distinctions are part of God’s “created order.” A husband’s “headship” in the home is complemented by a wife’s “willing, joyful submission.” Also, “some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men,” citing two complex New Testament passages, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

The chief drafter was John Piper, longtime pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and chancellor of a related college and seminary. Piper himself goes further, emphasizing child-rearing and homemaking over secular jobs for married women, opposing women serving in combat, and arguing that all-male faculties are most appropriate for seminaries.

In addition to Piper, Council officials include Daniel Akin and Albert Mohler, presidents of two seminaries in America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention. (Despite its name, the SBC exists nationwide). In 2000, the SBC added two complementarian tenets to its official statement of faith, that a husband “has the God-given responsibility” to lead his family and a wife “is to submit herself graciously,” and that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

Then in 2005 the influential Gospel Coalition was founded by New York City Pastor Timothy Keller and New Testament scholar D.A. Carson to rally evangelicals who support aspects of “the Reformed tradition.” Other leaders include Akin, Mohler, Piper, and Wheaton College (IL) President Philip Ryken.

The coalition’s doctrinal statement, like those earlier texts, states that a husband exercises “headship” in the home with “the wife submitting,” and that “the distinctive leadership within the church given to qualified men is grounded in creation, fall, and redemption, and must not be sidelined by appeals to cultural developments.”

That sets up the current brouhaha. In March, North Carolina Pastor J.D. Greear, who is up for re-election as SBC president in June, issued a position paper on women. Though complementarian, Greear said women can offer “general teaching” in worship services or classes that include both genders, but  not in “elder-like ways” that carry official doctrinal authority.

Greear cited as an example of proper public ministry the career of Beth Moore, a lifelong SBC member and popular conference speaker. On April 27, Moore tweeted that she’d be speaking during worship at an unnamed church on Mother’s Day, but “let’s please don’t tell anyone this.”

Then came a May 7 column by Owen Strachan of the SBC seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, a former president of CBMW. He said Moore and Greear oppose “divine design” by contending that women can preach and “instruct the gathered church” at worship. Echoing papal pronouncements, Strachan noted that Jesus Christ appointed only male apostles. The resulting firestorm sent Moore hundreds of tweets and thousands of “likes.”

Moore’s tweets responded that “there are countless conservative Complementarians I very much respect and deeply love though I may not fully understand their interpretations of certain Scriptures.” She said 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 should be interpreted alongside everything the New Testament teaches on women. She also charged that “sexism & misogyny” are “rampant in segments of the SBC,” and the dispute is “not over Scripture” but sin,  arrogance, and “covering abuses & misuses of power.”

Complementarians rely especially on this from 1 Timothy 2: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve;  and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor …” (ESV translation).

Yet a significant body of evangelical scholarship defends female pastors and preachers. For instance, Christians for Biblical Equality, founded simultaneously with CBMW, posts 18 articles with egalitarian explanations of  1 Timothy 2 here.   To over-simply, egalitarians say this epistle addressed  ill-educated women in Ephesus who sinned in ignorance and spread heresy, or that the problem was certain women’s “domineering” attitudes. Since  “woman” and “man” can equally be translated “wife” and “husband,” some think the epistle worried about marriages, not church offices. Further, there’s no one-woman rule in Protestantism because clergy and laity share collective authority.

(In the current #MeToo discussion, critics of complementarianism also contend that subordination of females in church or home fosters physical and sexual abuse, an important accusation the Gospel Coalition denies.)