Women in Ministry Not a 'Secondary Issue'


Many of my gifted and well-meaning colleagues in the Southern Baptist world have devoted much time and energy toward calling a "truce" on the in-fighting regarding the contentious issue of women in ministry. The way my friends commonly arrive at a peaceful conclusion to this matter goes something like this:

"Both the egalitarian and complementarian views of women in ministry can be argued reasonably from scripture, therefore it is unwise for us to be too dogmatic about one's conclusions. Instead, we must recognize women in ministry as a secondary (or even tertiary) issue and not use it as a theological "litmus test" for fellowship and cooperation."

While anyone who knows me can affirm that I am disinclined to contradict anything that brings peace, today I must respectfully disagree with my colleagues. The matter of women in ministry is not a "secondary issue." Indeed, it is my contention that the luxury of affirming women in ministry as a secondary issue is available only to those who are not of the "second sex." When you are a woman, the will of God for your place in the Kingdom of God is a primary issue--one that cannot be brushed aside simply to avoid conflict.

As I ponder deeply the matter of women in ministry, I am faced with the truth that my conclusions on the matter go straight to the heart of what I believe about God, God's world, and the good news of Jesus Christ. What was God's intention when he created the world and human beings within it? How did sin affect the relationships of the human beings whom God made? How does the good news of Jesus Christ affect male-female relations and what is God's intention as he "reconciles all things to himself"?

As much as we may wish not to fight about women in ministry any longer, I cannot see how one's answers to these basic questions can be viewed as matters of secondary concern.

In my opinion, the good news of the Kingdom of God testifies that human beings are the unique and beloved climax of God's creative work. God formed human beings in the Triune image, as male and female, to reflect God's relationality, love, creativity, spirituality, freedom and intelligence. Spirit of God created in humans a capacity to know and respond to God's loving initiative and to participate in the rule of God in the created order.

God's intention for humanity as male and female was for mutual, equal and interdependent communion, but sin has marred God's original creation and perpetuated subordination and misogyny in human societies. Part of the renewal of all things in the Christ's new creation is that men and women are reconciled to one another in Christ. Through Holy Spirit's power, men and women are able to reclaim their loving, peaceful and mutually submissive place together in the reign of God.

Do these sound like secondary issues for you? Are these affirmations unimportant to one's worldview and life ethic? I don't think so.

Before my graduation from Truett Theological Seminary, I was invited to attend an early meeting of the fledgling group, "Women of the Cloth." These ladies, young and old, black, brown and white, were the aspiring women preachers and pastors of Truett, seeking out sorely needed fellowship and support within the seminary family. For these women, for me, and for all the other women set apart by God for service in the Kingdom, the freedom to function as the Spirit has gifted us is not a matter of secondary concern.

So, even though I don't like conflict, even though I'd prefer to hold hands and sing "Jesus Loves Me" with all my brothers and sisters in Christ, I am compelled now to "stir the pot" a bit. For the men in power--the pastors, administrators, and heads of associations--who are dancing around this matter, seeking to avoid angering either side by taking a "hard and fast" stance on women in ministry, I say to you: Pick a side. Either women are equal partners with you in God's Kingdom, equally equipped and equally freed to serve, or they are not. You cannot have it both ways.

Although there is much more I could say, I must conclude with this. I have heard many a pastor say regarding women in ministry, "That's not a hill I am willing to die on." That's well and good, I'm sure. Certainly I understand that pastors must "pick their battles" in local church ministry. But, I must ask, if not this "hill," then which one? If not you, then who? If not now, when?

In every generation where liberation is needed, it is the responsibility of the elite and powerful to adopt the cause of the underprivileged and powerless. Today, in the Southern Baptist "Zion," women are not allowed on the hill. We can't even get close enough to smell it. So, in the end, if you won't die on this hill for us, then who will?

Emily Hunter McGowin is a graduate of Truett Theological Seminary and member of Liberty Heights Church in Liberty Township, Ohio. This column appeared on her blog.

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