Women in Ministry. Those words alone conjure up a flood of bad memories of conflict, division, arguments and emotion. I’m not sure any issue in my generation has brought such heated conflict and debate. No other issue feels as emotionally charged. In both denominations that I’ve served in, we have gone through the debates and conflicts and ended up changing policy to support women in ministry leadership. And it got messy along the way.
Why is this debate so heated and divisive? I would submit that unhealthy and unbiblical employee-centric church structures have made this situation far worse.
Our Current Situation
In most churches there is one “Senior” Pastor. He is the head honcho, the CEO of the church. He reports to a board of volunteers who meet monthly. He submits reports of his work, and they review his performance as an employee. They talk as though they are a team, but generally this is hard to accomplish due to the significant difference between board and Senior Pastor in professional training and hours worked.
Under this one Senior Pastor are numerous other employees, usually called “pastors”. These pastors are all staff members who oversee different ministries in the church, under the authority of the Senior Pastor.
In this structure the Senior Pastor is treated like the church celebrity and the only real minister. We often talk about a person “entering the ministry”, meaning an individual is becoming a paid professional pastor. Ministry is viewed as preaching, being in charge, and generally being the on-stage celebrity of the church.
This corporate structure does much damage in the church and makes questions of biblical leadership almost impossible to untangle. We wandered so far from the New Testament that it is rather difficult to apply its principles to our situation.
The Biblical Vision
In contrast, the New Testament models a very different leadership structure. In the New Testament there are only two offices: elder and deacon (I Timothy 3.1-13; Philippians 1.1). Pastor is not a biblical office, but is the function of the elders. It’s what elders do. They pastor. These elders are also called “overseers”. These three terms are used almost synonymously to refer to the same role (see Acts 20.1,28; I Pt 5.1-2). If there is a distinction, it would be that overseeing and pastoring are functions of the elders.
The New Testament does not put the pressure of leadership on one single pastor, but on a team of godly and qualified elders. There is always a plurality of elders. Together, this team shepherds and leads the local church. If you showed up in a first century church one day and asked “who is the pastor?”, they would point you to a team of elders.
Some of these elders focus their energy on preaching and teaching, while some are not gifted in that way (I Tim 5.17). These who labour in preaching and teaching seem to have been compensated for their work (I Tim 5.18), but there was no two-tiered structure in place. There is one team of elders who shepherd the church. Some are vocational. Some are not. Some preach. Some do not. But there is one team of elders who pastor the church.
The second office is that of Deacon. Deacons serve the church by ministering in certain assigned areas under the authority of the elders. They support the elders and are always mentioned alongside them (Phil 1.1; I Tim 3). While the elders are flock-focused shepherds who guide and oversee the whole church and primarily lead with their words (teaching, doctrine, prayer, discipline, vision). Deacons are ministry leaders who oversee a specific ministry within the church under the authority of the elders and primarily lead with their works (service, ministry, tasks). The office of deacon is open to both qualified men and women (I Tim 3.11; Rom 16.1). While many or most churches don’t have deacons, I would contend that most staff roles and significant lay leadership roles are deacon type work, whether we use the name or not.
Women in Ministry
In the New Testament we see women serving and ministering in the church in various ways. They serve as deacons in the local church (Rom 16.1). They can teach others informally (Acts 18.26). They can have significant roles in ministry and are considered labourers in the gospel (Phil 4.2-3). They pray and prophecy in the local church, as long as its done in a manner respectful of their husband (I Cor 11:5). They are part of the whole body serving and ministering to each other. But they are not called to serve as elders. Only godly and qualified men are called to serve as elders. A woman is not permitted “to teach or to exercise authority” since that is the role of the elder (I Tim 2.12).
In an employee-centric church structure our elders are reduced to a board, and so we often don’t have deacons or many meaningful roles except staff pastors. If you aren’t being paid, you aren’t in ministry. And really, the one “real pastor” is the one under the spotlights preaching. What this means is that in the employee-centric church women cannot fulfill any meaningful roles. Women cannot serve in ministry or use their gifts. This broken church structure forces us to either affirm women in roles that the New Testament would call elders, or to keep them out of basically all ministry altogether. I would contend that neither is biblical.
Where We Need to Go
One of the reasons this debate has become so heated is that our distorted views of ministry have overemphasized the Senior Pastor and underemphasized the vital ministry of the rest of the church. This unbiblical imbalance has led to an over-restriction of women in many churches, or an over-empowerment of women in others. The employee-centric church simply does not handle the question of gender well.
In order to be biblical and healthy in our structures we need the local church to be led by a team of godly and qualified elders, not a single superstar employee. Some elders will be vocational, some will volunteer. Some will be preachers, some will not. But in our churches we need to cultivate team eldership.
We also then need to empower men and women for ministry in the church. It is a false and broken view that sees ministry as the responsibility of the staff, and not of every Christian. Every Christian is a minister. Every Christian is called to use their spiritual gifts. Every Christian has responsibility to teach, to encourage, to exhort, to pray, to lead, to disciple and minister to each other. Egalitarians wrongly place women in the elder-preaching roles, removing biblical distinctions. Complementarians, reacting against this, often sideline women from any leadership or ministry roles, afraid of overstepping biblical boundaries. This is also wrong.
I envision church life where every Christian is in ministry, using their gifts to serve the body, men and women teaching, mentoring, discipling, evangelizing, and praying together. And I envision church life that is led by a godly, qualified team of male elders who give spiritual direction to the church. It’s time to leave the employee-centric church behind.
This post was originally published at groundedinthegospel.com