Women in the Church: Why I am an Egalitarian
Part 3: Spirit Gifting is the Starting Point
In my first post, I suggested that the inclusion of women in ministry and leadership enriches the church in various ways (and hinted that excluding them from these roles impoverishes the church). I shared about a number of gifted women with whom I have served, describing how their personalities, experiences, abilities, spiritual dispositions, and character traits contributed immensely to the effectiveness and the quality (i.e., ‘culture’ or ‘atmosphere’) of our church’s leadership teams and ministries. In response to God’s call, these women served God and God’s people faithfully and fruitfully by loving God and others and by exercising their Spirit-given gifts.
In this post, I want to suggest that the starting point for a theology of women in church ministry and leadership is Spirit-giftedness. Women whose lives and actions demonstrate Spirit-bestowed gifts in areas relevant to ministry and leadership should be actively welcomed and encouraged to serve in those capacities in the church. Indeed, Spirit-giftedness is the determinative qualifying criterion for all ministry and leadership in the church regardless of one’s gender. What I’m suggesting here is that we apply this criterion consistently for both men and women.
One concern that critics of this position typically raise is that, in their view, appealing to Spirit gifting seems to imply that one’s theology is based on ‘experience’ rather than the Bible. This is a valid and important concern. I place myself solidly in the evangelical tradition, which holds to the centrality of the Bible as the final authority for Christian belief and practice. So, I regard the criticisms of ‘experience-based’ theology as valid, but they are not applicable here.1
Appealing to Spirit gifting is not primarily an appeal to human experience, for at least three reasons. (For an in-depth treatment of these arguments, see my article published in Priscilla Papers linked here).
First, the Bible itself prioritizes Spirit gifting (e.g., Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 3; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4, 2 Tim. 1:6-7), so appealing to evidence of such gifting in the lives of potential ministers or leaders is biblical. As the New Testament scholar Gordon Fee has argued, the New Testament prioritizes Spirit-giftedness over concerns about organizational structure and authority in the church (i.e., “Who’s in charge and holds ‘office’?).2 Moreover, he points out that a reliance on Spirit gifting is more consistent with the New Covenant, in which God pours out his promised Spirit on all believers—sons and daughters, young and old, male and female (according to Joel 2:28–29 and Acts 2:17–18). The inbreaking of the new age of the Kingdom of God eclipses the exclusiveness of the Old Covenant along with its restrictions based upon race, gender, and social status (Gal. 3:28). Later in this series, I will address some of the common objections to the egalitarian position raised in light of complementarian readings of texts such as 1 Timothy 2. For now, let’s just note that the Bible’s primary emphasis lies on the Spirit’s gifting and empowerment for ministry effectiveness, not church structures, ‘offices,’ or a concern for order (these are of secondary importance).
Second, when I talk about Spirit-gifting, I am not referring primarily to a human experience, but to God the Holy Spirit’s sovereign call, God’s own Act. Of course, our experience is an important factor in discerning God’s act and call. But it is not thereby the foundation of our theology. God’s prior act and revelatory call are the foundation! This is a subtle distinction, but an important one. Let me provide an analogy. Christian faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord is not founded upon human knowledge, reason, wisdom, or will power. As Paul writes, “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Elsewhere, he writes, “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’” (Gal. 4:6). And elsewhere, Paul describes faith as a gift of God, not a human work such that anyone could boast (Eph. 2:8-9). Christian faith is founded upon God’s prior Act, Word, and Gift, which confront our whole existence; we begin to perceive, make sense of, and respond to God’s revelation with the aid of our knowledge, reason, wisdom, and will (all of which God is reorienting and renewing). In a similar way, Spirit-gifted women and men who sense God’s calling and demonstrate effectiveness in church ministry and leadership base their theology of ministry not on ‘human experience’ but on God’s prior Act, Word, and Gift. So, a theology of women in ministry is grounded not in experience, but in the sovereign calling of the Holy Spirit.
Third, a theology of ministry grounded in Spirit-gifting recognizes that Christian ministry is, properly speaking, not our own. Christian ministry is first and foremost Christ’s ministry, in which we are called to participate in and by the Holy Spirit. In contrast to the Old Testament, in which particular persons in a particular tribe (male Levites) were called to be priests, in the New Testament the word ‘priest’ is never applied to an individual Christian. When it refers to an individual in the NT, it always refers to Christ; when ‘priest’ refers to Christian believers, it always refers to all believers collectively. In the New Testament era, there is only one Priest and that’s Jesus! We become ‘priests’ only in a derivative sense, as those who participate by the Spirit in Jesus’ High Priesthood and in Jesus’ own ministry. By implication, we minister not on the basis of our own innate attributes, capacities, and endowments, or our own brilliance, ingenuity, strategic prowess, or creativity, but on the basis of our union with Christ in the Spirit.
Of course, the Spirit can and does make use of our natural capacities and learned skills, but these do not constitute the basis of the Spirit’s call. Nothing conditions grace! Generally speaking, we grasp that it is wrong to impose conditions on one’s eligibility for ministry based on innate human qualities or capacities. We rightfully cringe at the idea that one’s race, colour, inherited social status or class, nationality, intelligence, disease or health could disqualify one from Christian ministry. Is gender a unique category in this regard? Is gender the one innate quality that preconditions how God’s grace and call are allowed to operate?
I want to conclude by quoting a friend of mine, Corrie Gustafson, who is an ordained pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church. She recently blogged about why she preaches and her words bear powerful witness to God’s leading and call. She writes,
When I preach, I’m usually trembling inside. It’s a quaking of both holy fear and abiding joy. My sermons spring from the joy of what Christ has done for me and for us all. As a woman, I don’t preach just because I can, because I’m entitled, or because I think I’m great. I preach because God is great.
I preach because of God and for God.
I preach because the gospel heals and I want to spread that medicine.
I preach to worship God and so that others might worship God.
I preach to proclaim God’s matchless glory.
I preach as surrender to God.
Such God-centredness and Spirit-sensitivity should characterize all Christian ministry, regardless of who is being called to minister.
1 I reject the methodology of classical theological liberalism (in the tradition of Schleiermacher), which grounds theological reflection and formulation in some kind of human religious experience (universal ‘God-consciousness’ in Schleiermacher’s case).
2 See Gordon Fee, “The Priority of Spirit Gifting for Church Ministry,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 241–54.