I've been a church kid since the day I was born, deeply steeped in the culture of this community of people who follow Jesus. My belt is well-notched with church services, church camps, pathfinder retreats, week-of-prayer alter calls, Bible studies, church volunteer roles, and years of Christian education.
As I reflect on all those years and all the associated people who have shaped my life, I am surprised at one thing. As a Christian who grew up in the Adventist church, my life has been shaped, more than anything else, by women.
It is a surprise, I think, because of how often the language, policy, and even doctrine of the Adventist church (and larger evangelical community) downplay the contributions of women.
Outsiders tend to think of Christianity as a tribe that marginalizes women. They are not wrong. While there are local congregations, even denominations, where women are invited to use their gifts and even participate at all levels of leadership, the sad truth is that in many places—from local churches to denominational headquarters—the opposite is true.
There are yet many churches teaching that women best occupy their God-given role when they raise children, tend the home, and quietly submit to the wisdom of their husbands (and, of course, their male pastors). Even today.
There are arguments some will make against women in leadership. They will quote the Apostle Paul's words, "I forbid a woman to teach a man," as if that statement has no precipitating context and is the end of the conversation.
Careful and thoughtful study of the Bible finds women in the strangest corners. Women were judges, military leaders, and prophets. They were ministry partners for the Apostle Paul and leaders of home churches. This article is not the place for deep dives into theology, 1st-century culture, and hermeneutics. That has been done well in other places. So, here I will just make this observation.
For every man in a pulpit who has impacted me, there were ten women who taught, encouraged, corrected, or comforted me. I have had no lack of male leaders in my church experience, but it has been women leaders who have been the most willing to challenge me, call me to be a better version of myself, and who offered me the most care and support when I was in hard or painful places. Some of these women were in positions of leadership. Some were teachers, professors, even pastors. But most of them were women without a title, women who just did what Jesus put on their heart, serving with their gifts around the edges of public, recognized ministry.
As I think back over my own experience in churches for decades, and what I know of church history, and even what I see in the New Testament, I suspect this has always been the case.
And still, there are Christians fighting over this. Well, truth be told, not everyone is fighting it. Unable to be their full selves, some women have left. More and more families are refusing to raise their children in an environment where women are officially treated as second-class citizens. I understand why and feel the same way.
I am profoundly sorry for the way the church—and men in the church—have limited the participation, ownership, and growth of women. This is not what I see in the life of Jesus. He went out of his way to speak with women. He taught women in the same way he taught men—even though that was against the common rabbinical practice of the time.
How could things be different for us, I wonder? When women cannot bring their full selves into the church community, there are serious consequences, both for them and for the church.
I imagine that the crisis around child abuse in the church would not have dragged on like it has if more women were in leadership. I wonder if, in fact, it would ever have become a crisis to begin with.
I imagine if women were equally a part of leadership in the church, there would be a more robust and engaged conversation around issues of women's health, child flourishing, and how to compassionately understand and deal with abortion. It is self-evidently silly that church policy and doctrine on these matters have been developed without women seated at the table.
I suspect that the church might be more invested in local mission and service rather than the adventure missions so many youth groups embark on. Why? Perhaps I am wrong, but it just seems so masculine to raise a ton of money then fly a group of teenagers across the world to build a school house out of concrete blocks. The whole process seems to reverberate with colonialism, imperialism, and patriarchal thinking.
I imagine that the conversation about the nature of God and our response to God would be broader and richer if women were more welcome in the discussion, invited to bring their expertise and study of scripture to the table.
Perhaps the church, as an organization, would do a better job listening and responding to victims of violence, sexual violence, and abuse.
If my suspicions are correct, even in the smallest measure, it means the church is missing out on incredible and healing opportunities—and the communities we serve are worse because of it. It's time for a change.
When we see shining mega-churches in successful suburban neighborhoods and celebrity pastors with personal product lines, it is hard to remember the origins of the Christian church. The early church—what we call the infancy of Christianity in the generations before 300 AD—was predominantly a community of the underclasses. It was composed of women, slaves, and children, nearly all of them poor. These people, who had little voice in their world, saw hope in a Savior who was excluded by the religious institution and executed by the occupying military authority.
Christians may argue about the role of women in scripture and the church for another hundred years, yet, here is the truth. From the first witnesses of Jesus' empty tomb (it was two women) until today, the work of the Christian church has been largely carried on by women. Even the Adventist church, unable to come to resolution on the question of women in ministry, was founded by a woman!
Today, the majority of long-term volunteers in the church and its community ministries are women. The majority of faithful attendees are women. Perhaps that suggests some spiritual deficiency in men, or more likely, a struggle the church has in reaching men—but that is a conversation for another day.
I am a pastor. A male pastor. I have been a part of the problem, sometimes intentionally, more and more, by accident. For that, I am sorry. We deny the truth, and I believe, undercut God's work among us when we leave women out of the central conversations of leadership and theology.
We hurt them, denying them the ability to bring their full God-given selves to the table. We hurt our children, passing on mental pictures of women limited in their capacity because of their gender. We hurt the communities we serve as we find ourselves unable to bring whole solutions that reflect the best thinking and spiritual reflection of everyone, not just men. Even worse, we have painted a picture for any woman looking in from the outside that God is not interested in who she is or in her full range of experiences and talents.
We have told women they are meant to be in second place, that their voices do not matter. This may be yet true for some churches, but it is not true of the God we profess to serve.
On that watershed day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit inaugurated the church. Preaching to the crowds, Peter quoted the prophet Joel, declaring that in this new community of the church an ancient prophecy was coming true:
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”
This is God’s dream and desire for the church. Your sons and your daughters. It is long past time for us to embrace what the Spirit of God has already been doing.
Marc Alan Schelske writes about life at the intersection of grace and growth at MarcAlanSchelske.com (this is an expanded and updated version of an article that originally appeared there). He is the teaching elder at Bridge City Community Church in Milwaukie, Oregon, where he has served for nearly 20 years. He's the author of Discovering Your Authentic Core Values, and the upcoming book The Wisdom of Your Heart. Marc is a husband, dad of two, speaker, writer, hobbyist theologian, recovering fundamentalist who drinks tea and rides a motorcycle. You can follow him on Twitter at @Schelske.
Image Credit: Iakov Filimonov (JackF)
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