Shooting Ourselves in the Heart: The Impact of Gender-Specific Roles and Responsibilities in Faith Communities

April 27, 2022

Over the last four years, I have read numerous articles and large portions of books on this subject that have been written in the last 50 years. Those authors who state that the biblical texts support a traditional, patriarchal perspective are certainly on the decline, yet they still have a voice and an impact on more fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches and individuals. More popular in recent decades is a complementarian perspective, which claims that the biblical texts proclaim the equal value of women as compared to men but teaches that God’s plan for the genders involves a differentiation of roles and responsibilities. Quickly increasing in acceptance, even among many who used to hold to the patriarchal view, is the egalitarian perspective, which claims that the biblical texts teach the complete equality of women, not just in terms of value, but in terms of gifting, roles and responsibilities. These, admittedly, are basic and somewhat simplistic overviews. There is actually a continuum, from hard-lined patriarchal at one end of the spectrum all the way to uncompromising egalitarian on the other end. The dividing lines between these varying perspectives are often very fuzzy and grey.

From my study of both primary and secondary sources, I have a problem supporting any one of these perspectives (or their various iterations) based on the biblical texts. One might think that surely the biblical texts clearly teach one of these views. In fact, that is not the case. Instead there are passages in the biblical texts that support a patriarchal practice of gender roles, while there are other biblical texts that support a complementarian view and still other texts that can be used to support an egalitarian view. For example, Genesis 1 and 2 can be used to support a patriarchal or a complementarian or an egalitarian perspective depending on how one chooses to translate certain Hebrew words and how one interprets these passages as a whole. Is this account of creation literal/historical or is it mythological or a parable? Also, the Pentateuchal laws are mostly supportive of a patriarchal view of women’s value and roles. Passages from Paul’s letters (both the genuine Pauline letters and those generally considered pseudepigraphal), have been used to support all three views and everything in between. To appeal to the biblical texts to support one view over another invariably puts one in the position of having to explain away passages that clearly contradict whatever position one is trying to promote. I see this over and over again, often from Christians and biblical scholars who believe that the biblical texts are the inspired (and inerrant) word of God.

The reality is that the biblical texts taken as a whole do not give a unified view of women’s value, role and/or responsibilities. To quote Peter Enns (and with reference to many other scholars), the problem is that the biblical texts are “ancient, diverse and/or ambiguous” on many subjects, including women’s value, role and responsibility. That is simply the reality. This is not fake news. The biblical texts are the result of people of faith trying to figure out who God is and what his will is for their lives; people who lived at different times and in different cultures and wrote with varying, and sometimes, conflicting agendas. However, as Enns often points out, this is not a problem. In fact, accepting the ancient contexts that produced the diversity of perspectives and ambiguities, that are obvious even to the casual but careful reader, can actually lead us to a clearer picture of what the biblical texts are and what we need to do with them.

Recently, a respected church leader in a very conservative denomination stated, “The Bible never says men are to lead and women are to follow. Or that men were designed to lead women in the home or the church. Or that men should have authority over women. We were designed for MUTUALITY. Please re-examine.” I respect this sister greatly and I actually agree with the bolded sentence in this quote. However, I disagree completely with the previous sentences. There are, indeed, passages in the biblical texts, when read plainly and without bias, that teach that “men are to lead and women are to follow” and imply that “men were designed to lead women in the home or the church” and that “men have authority over women.” At the same time, I acknowledge that there are other passages that teach that men and women are equal in value, role and responsibility. The biblical texts have always been polyphonic and thus diverse and even, at times, contradictory.

So, what do we do with such diversity? I don’t think we can deny that the New Testament texts teach that men and women are equal in terms of their value before God. Even in a society that was highly patriarchal, Jesus and Paul, both, didn’t just stretch the gender boundaries, they crossed them, but only to some extent. There is no clear and undeniable and unified evidence either in the biblical texts, parabiblical texts or in the writings of the early church fathers that I’m convinced establish clearly that women were appointed to official leadership roles. However, that women had a huge impact on the early church, and on the world evangelistically, is undeniable. But culture played a significant role in what responsibilities women could assume in the early church. In our present western culture, I think women could and should have the opportunity to fulfill any roles and responsibilities in the church, in accordance with their individual gifts, experience, education, etc. Why not? We don’t live in a patriarchal culture, but one that is striving to be more egalitarian. Let’s embrace the egalitarianism of our culture and let it impact the church. Women need to step up and speak up. Men need to embrace and work together with women as equal partners in the gospel. I don’t want to restore the first century Greco-Roman society. I live in 21st century North American society.

However, let me be clear. I don’t desire and promote women’s equality in role and responsibility in the 21st century church because I can support it unequivocally from the biblical texts, but rather because I can’t. How we deal with this issue depends completely on the culture in which we live.

But I am convinced that of another reason why there is so much reluctance to see complete gender equality in terms of roles and responsibilities in Christian churches and homes. That is because we’ve made way too much out of these roles and responsibilities. We’ve elevated and given power to roles with a quite worldly, rather than spiritual, perspective. Biblically speaking the words we’ve made into leadership “titles” are very practical words that focus on the responsibilities (and abilities), not on the title and definitely not on some kind of “power over” authority. An “evangelist” is simply one who preaches the good news. An “elder” is an older person who by reason of maturity and experience is able to teach others while setting an example. A “shepherd” is just that; one who protects and strives to provide for the flock. A “minister” is a “deacon” and the Greek word “deacon” means a “servant.” A “minister” or “deacon” is one who serves, striving to meet the needs of others, whatever those needs may be. If we’d let go of the titles (and the authority we’ve implied goes with the title) and instead focused on the needs, we’d see that none of the abilities to help meet the needs is gender specific.

Quite frankly, not only has our worldly perspective on titles and authority severely limited women’s opportunities to serve our faith communities, this has also limited men’s opportunities to serve as well. Of course, we can all use our abilities and opportunities to meet the needs of others without any need for titles and regardless of our gender or the gender of those who have needs going unmet. I am convinced our faith communities will be much stronger, more unified, and far more impactful when we let go of authoritative laden titles and encourage one another, regardless of gender, to meet whatever needs lie before them and thus allow one another to fulfill responsibilities that fit with their individual abilities. The spiritual, emotional, and material needs in our world are so persistent, pervasive, and present that holding anyone back from doing what they are able to do is certainly like shooting ourselves, not in the foot, but in the heart!

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