Searching for Mordecai: Gender and the Pulpit, Part 1

Searching for Mordecai

This is a post about women and Church ministry. This is Part 1 in a series that I have prepared with tremendous research, and much prayer. This is my apologetic for my conviction that women can, should, and are desperately needed to fulfill every type of ministry role in the Church.

I was squinting in the bright, sand-reflected, sunlight of the desert outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. The smell of garbage, the trademark of the predominately-Christian slum-dwelling communities of those known as ‘the garbage people,’ met my nose as it had several times over the previous days spent on mission among the Coptic Christians of the outskirts of Cairo. In this unique moment, however, there was a more powerful sensation grabbing my attention. Children singing.

We were visiting one of many centers of the ministry Stephen’s Children. Stephen’s Children was founded by the modern Coptic Orthodox saint of Egypt, Mama Maggie. Stephen’s Children serves the Christian and Muslim children of these garbage communities. I recall feeling that the Spirit of God was alive in this place as we toured the facility. I was profoundly touched seeing boys and girls playing together, studying together, learning the Bible together, singing together. In a culture where girls are not generally encouraged to be educated or to pursue their dreams, I saw bright, smiling, clean, happy young women in the making. They were free, happy, whole, and they were learning. They were encouraged to be all they could be, to the glory of God. This ministry takes care of both boys and girls, but they have made a unique investment in the girls to ensure they are given the same opportunities as the boys. My eyes watered. How beautiful it was to see women being freed to serve God to the best of their ability, to see boys freed from dominance and aggression and relating warmly and respectfully with women. How beautiful it was to see people wanting to unlock the potential girls have for bettering their communities.[1] It was, for me, a powerful moment seeing God’s Spirit at work, healing and redeeming.

The girls gathered for the day camp, with an image of Jesus at the front and the words
The girls gathered for the day camp, with an image of Jesus at the front and the words “I can,” written into the metal that holds up the shelter.

The development of communities where boys and girls, men and women, live with freedom and mutual respect—resonates in deep places of my heart. My heart is drawn to the example of Mordecai, a man who encouraged his female cousin Esther to be strong and courageous to serve the people of God.[2] This has brought me time and time again to the Scriptures, to books, to long conversations with peers and mentors, asking many questions about gender and Christianity and the work of the Church. These questions are remarkably important to me. I believe they should be important to all of us. In fact, I think this is especially so in our time.

If one could see, in a singular spectacular vision, a portrait of the places where the Church is experiencing the most rapid growth and the largest numbers—one would see, mostly, a lot of women.

Scholars of global Christianity have time and time again pointed out the central role of women in the growth of the global Church. Many women missionaries from the West sparked the current growth of Christianity in the southern hemispheres – think of Amy Carmichael and the widowed Elisabeth Elliot as the icons of this reality. In cultures in which the subjugation and systemic oppression of women is often the norm, Christianity has offered a place of remarkable liberation for women. Many Protestant missionaries to Asia made the education of girls, despite much cultural pushback, an important part of their ministry.[3]

To be sure, many of today’s rapidly-growing Christian populations in the Southern hemisphere follow male-exclusive leadership models. Some have, however, developed different traditions. House churches in China (somewhat out of circumstantial necessity) feature many key women leaders who teach and preach and form the backbone of the Chinese Church.[4]  This Pew study revealed the striking statistic (one requiring greater analysis, however) that 75% of global Protestant leaders are in favor of female pastors. Regardless of official functions and offices, however, women have played central roles in the emerging global Church in evangelism, teaching, charismatic gifts, and various forms of leadership.

As Philip Jenkins writes, “In modern times, global Christianity is inconceivable except in terms of the role played by women, as spiritual leaders and prophets, as hymn writers and key converts.”[5]

The theology of the global church is new, diverse, and an environment in which many (but not quite all) bets are off. While many global Christians stick close to the core doctrines of the faith, and traditional ethical teachings (especially in terms of sexual activity), global believers are approaching many Christian issues with fresh questions and perspectives. The global Christian experience, being driven in many places by women, and which is sometimes closely tied to the promotion of women’s rights around the world, means that questions of gender and the Church is, in my mind, likely to become a crucial question of the global Church’s thinking. As a result, it will impact all of us. It will not be long until the global Church is setting the theological and cultural norms for Christianity as a whole (looking purely at numbers, this is already the case—the average Christian these days looks like the African, or Latin American, Pentecostal[6]). This is a topic on the table for all of us, and one we need to take seriously.

Credit: Adam Cohn on Flickr
Credit: Adam Cohn on Flickr

I know some of my thoughts here may raise accusations of emotional sensationalism. But I want to be honest about my motivations. While it may not translate to egalitarian models of church structure, I believe we are living in a remarkable time. I believe that God is doing remarkable work in the Church, all around the world, to build places of reconciliation between men and women. I believe God is bringing the Church back to greater commitment to the Bible’s clear message of men and women serving the work of the Gospel side-by-side, as partners equally filled with the power of the same Spirit, and shedding away the cultural bondage that has locked many Christians into a subjugation of women that looks more like the curse (Gen 2) than of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

I certainly think that the issue of identity-conflict (between genders, economic classes, nationalities, etc) is one of the most remarkable challenges facing our world, and that God is at work building a Church that stands as an example of a Kingdom of reconciliation. This is a Kingdom that stands as a stark, dangerous, counter-cultural alternative to the world. It is a Kingdom in which there is no longer rich or poor, white or black, Arab or Chinese, Eastern Orthodox or Pentecostal….

….Or male and female.

I believe that questions of gender should be a pressing concern for the Church, East and West.

But my interest also has more personal roots.

I grew up in a church context in which women-in-ministry was, at the very least, an open possibility; although a conservative Presbyterian church in a more liberal denomination, we had women elders and deacons. There were no women pastors while I was growing up, but there were no obvious rules against it that I knew of (one female pastor has been called since then, after the church transitioned to a more evangelical denomination). At the same time, one side of my family is well rooted in a Wesleyan heritage. Wesleyans have ordained women to ministry for over a century. I attended a Wesleyan undergraduate school and knew many women going into ministry.

My background has probably given me a predisposition toward being supportive of women in all forms of ministry. Though, other perspectives were part of my milieu as well. I grew up in a conservative, Southern, community and certainly knew many churches and Christian friends that emphasized male-only Church leadership. I identify with the Reformed tradition and many of our most vocal spokespeople (John Piper, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll), who have influenced me at various points in my upbringing and career, have been strong advocates for male-only Church leadership.

I’m not sure it was consciously a major question on my mind until adulthood.

As a young adult, I found that in most social settings it was very easy for me to form friendships with women. I have had many crucial male friendships, many of them life-long. But I often found women to be the most hard-working, interested in talking about ideas and culture and life, and committed to faith. This is not a fair stereotype by any means and I believe men and women are equally capable of being smart, committed, interesting, and faithful. But I was quickly marked with the sense that women have so much to offer to the world. But there has often been a disconnect. I have been pained to discover that culture continually teaches women that their bodies, not their minds or their hearts, is their most important feature. I have known many women uncertain about using their gifts. I believe that society has taught men to be insecure about the contributions of women. I have seen the same in the Church, and my heart has been pained seeing many women with remarkable gifts waiting to be unleashed, but they have often been (usually politely) put to the side, hidden, discouraged from operating in their gifts.

I have known women with what appear to me to be clear gifts of teaching, preaching, leadership, prophecy, and spiritual guidance. I have felt led by the Spirit to encourage women to pursue ministry, and I think have served to be a voice of calling. I have been burdened and saddened in my soul, hearing stories of women who felt called to minister but were discouraged, sometimes verbally abused, for it.

The Mordecai in me says “no.”

These spiritual experiences have indelibly shaped my approach to this conversation. I readily confess that my conclusions based on these experiences are easily beholden to mere emotion. Or, even if these experiences are truly of the Spirit, they could be interpreted various ways and do not require me to deny a so-called ‘traditional’ view. But I cannot be honest with myself and not take these things seriously as I approach the discussion. Yes, we want the Bible to be our final authority, and must be the authority by which we judge all things, including spiritual insights—but when we say this I think we mistake what kind of authority the Bible is. We need the Spirit to help us understand the Bible, and we need the Bible to help us rightly discern the Spirit. If we didn’t need the guidance of both we wouldn’t have received both. Our spiritual experiences and convictions should not be ignored (they will have an impact whether we realize it or not, anyhow) in our approach to the Bible. And after lots of serious study, I have concluded that Scripture does indeed teach that women can and should be involved in every form of Church ministry. Though this journey has not been without significant shattering of assumptions, stereotypes, and previous beliefs. I hope and pray that in this experience Scripture has thoroughly challenged and formed me above all else.

I decided a month or so ago that I wanted to write about my views on women in ministry. I wanted to finally sit down and organize/formalize my thoughts, and become more acquainted with the debates, research, and current temperature of the Church here, and around the world, on this issue. I am not having an intellectual crisis, I had decided several years ago that I believe all ministry positions are open to women. And readers should know that that is where I fall. This is not an analysis of the arguments, though I will engage with several arguments. This is my apologetic.

For years I have ignored my desire to engage in a project like this, because I did not think I could really add anything helpful that has not already been written by much smarter people. But I hope that this project will help bring some of what I have read and studied down to a lay level and that sharing my personal journey will help draw more people to think about this conversation in new ways.

But most fundamentally, I was convicted by this recent article in response to some comments Bill Hybels (of Willow Creek Church) made at the recent Global Leadership Summit:

“Dear men who affirm women in ministry, it’s time to step up your game, to do more than wear your badge and run the ball across the field. While I am glad for your affirmation for women in ministry, might you consider ending the silence and using your voice so we can co-labor in this great calling together?”[7]

On the one hand, I do worry about something like this sending the subliminal message to women that they need men to fight on their behalf—to that I say, indeed, that if God is calling you, you need wait for no one to approve you or stick up for you. God is with you. But, the blog had a point. If I am truly convicted that women are being equipped by the Spirit to serve the Church, I cannot be silent and fail lend my voice to encourage more openness to their development and contributions as ministers. I want to add my own to the much-too-hidden voices of the Mordecai’s in our world.

I do confess that I run the risk of still being male-centric while harping on this Mordecai-motif. But Mordecai is not the hero. That’s the point. The world I am dreaming about is one in which more men are willing to step into the background to let someone else, to let women, be the heroes they are just as God-equipped and God-called to be. But I also want to challenge any notion that the quest for more ‘encouragers,’ like Mordecai, is patronizing. That is certainly a risk. But men have already enjoyed the privilege of many mentors, parents, entire denominations willing to be ‘encouragers’ to them and women have not as much. Not receiving much affirmation, from individuals or from entire systems, is debilitating to anyone of either sex and fear and insecurity borne out of a lack of encouragement is not weakness, it is human. People inhabit the messages they receive about themselves. We are all plagued by the fear of Satan that tells us we cannot be what God wants us to be, that we are not worthy. Men have enjoyed a greater abundance of voices telling them otherwise (though I think many men are still, deep-down, very insecure). We need more people willing to be Mordecai’s to the potential Esther’s in our midst and combat the lies that plague all followers of Jesus and attempt to limit them. It is, in many ways, a spiritual battle.

But, all that said, Jesus Christ is the greatest Mordecai any person needs. And I hope and pray that more women will open their hearts to let Jesus be their Mordecai, to call and direct them into servant-leadership, and courageously go against the grain. Jesus is your final authority, your final judge, your encourager and the one who empowers you. Follow Him alone.

I also hope that people who ultimately disagree with me will be challenged as well. I have read Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox leaders who take very ‘traditional’ stances but who still agree that, especially in recent centuries, the Church has not encouraged women to engage in ministry in the ways that are Scripturally open to them (as their tradition has usually understood the Scriptures). For example, Eastern Orthodox churches rarely appoint female deacons anymore, but many Orthodox theologians agree that this is not right, and ignores the long tradition of female deacons in their history. We all need to do a lot of work on encouraging the women in our traditions and congregations.

Consider this: It may be that God does not call women to ordained ministry, or other comparable forms of teaching/leadership in the Church. But even if that is the case, we have a responsibility to nurture the calls and gifts that God is giving to the women around us in the Church, and we need to take great care that in our quest to be faithful to Scripture we have not hindered legitimate calls. I fear that too often that this has happened and that many churches are not allowing women to minister in ways that their tradition, in theory, should allow. Especially recently. The backlash against Egalitarianism has sometimes been so harsh, so reactionary, such a dramatic pendulum-swing, that it has contributed to an atmosphere of fear, trepidation, and suspicion about women using their gifts—gifts that should not be controversial even if questions of leadership roles are! It has become so bad that recent some Biblical translations have twisted words to hide away mentions of women ministering in the Church. It has become so bad that some teachers are grossly ignoring passages that very clearly allow women to minister in at least certain non-leadership roles. Even Wayne Grudem admits that many churches have not recognized “the valuable ministries of women in their church.”[8] Many teachers are so afraid of ‘feminism,’ that they have completely ignored the need to encourage women’s legitimate calls, or answer the legitimate problems women are facing in the Church. This operation from fear, rather than Spirit-filled courage and boldness, is debilitating.

If there is a chance, even just a slight chance, that many of us have systematically ignored, downplayed, and tried to minimize the gifts and empowerment given by the Spirit to half of the Church (even indirectly), we are guilty of a grave, grave, wrong. If we have told people who are called that they are not called, if the Spirit has been present and have said ‘it is not present,’ if we have discovered in someone a gift intended to benefit the whole Church but encouraged (directly or indirectly) that it be hidden away, if we have even accidentally created an atmosphere where any category of people are not free to explore and share their gifts, we have greatly hindered the Church. Paul is unequivocal that the gifts of the Spirit are for the benefit of the Church (I Cor. 12:7). If we are hindering anyone’s gifts from helping the Church, whether explicitly or passively, we are hurting the Church. This is nothing to trifle with.

The Church in the West is currently being required to rediscover itself and shift its posture from one of cultural dominance to a ‘missional’ angle. The global Church is facing conflict and persecution as never before in history. When the times are dire and the need is great, will we have the Esther’s we desperately need for such a time as this? God can raise up Esther’s without any Mordecai… but a few more Mordecai’s sure would help. In this century, the Church cannot afford to cut its legs out from under itself by minimizing and slowing down the development of spiritual gifts and hindering the operation of those gifts for the strength and encouragement of the Church. There is no time to lose. But whether people take part or not, Jesus is our Mordecai. That is the message that I want to proclaim loud and clear. Jesus is calling and empowering and equipping and pleading with men and women to take up their crosses, arm themselves with the armor of the Spirit, to serve the people of God with courage and boldness no matter what they may face and no matter what obstacles are before them. You are a child of the King of Jesus and He tells You, rise up and be the emptied-out, Spirit-filled, love-empowered people of God you are created to be. Human Mordecai’s may seem in short supply, especially if you are woman, but Mordecai has not disappeared and is not far off. Jesus is He.

I will divide my thoughts into a handful of blog posts over the next few weeks. I am still deciding for sure how they will be organized, but I plan to continue next with a discussion of presuppositions, and the criticism that ‘egalitarianism,’ represents Christians bowing to secular ideology. I will also make, in detail, a Biblical and exegetical argument for women in ministry. Near the end I will  talk about the matter of women in ministry in Church history, a part of the discussion that is especially important to me.

Join me for this journey.

“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man – there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.”

–Dorothy Day

Source: mulmatsherm on Flickr, https://flic.kr/p/7WYNxh
Source: mulmatsherm on Flickr, https://flic.kr/p/7WYNxh

[1] It is continually being shown that educated women are the key to successful community development. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/educating-girls-is-the-key-to-ending-poverty/

[2] This connection to Mordecai is somewhat indebted to a sermon, ‘God’s Secret Weapon: Women,’ I was listening to for research by Kris Vallotton. Vallotton has been a figure of some controversy and purportedly represents some questionable doctrine. But without endorsing his and his wife’s ministry I must give due credit to his mention of a ‘Mordecai season’ in their church, which he described as a season of seeing increased female leadership. I liked that concept and am running with it.

[3] See the articles by Alexander and Wood, and Yau, in Global Voices on Biblical Equality.

[4] Yau, in Global Voices on Biblical Equality.

[5] The Next Christendom

[6] see Jenkins

[7] http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/sexual-justice/dear-bill-hybels-and-other-men-who-affirm-women-in-ministry/_

[8] Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism, p. 252.

The resources consulted for this installment include:

                Beck, James R., Craig Blomberg, and Craig S. Keener. Two Views on Women in Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 2001.
                 Bessey, Sarah. Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revist the Bible’s View of Women.
                  Grudem, Wayne A. Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006.
                   Jenkins, Philip. The next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
                    Spencer, Aída Besanc̦on., William David Spencer, and Mimi Haddad. Global Voices on Biblical Equality: Women and Men Serving Together in the Church. Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock, 2008.
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3 thoughts on “Searching for Mordecai: Gender and the Pulpit, Part 1

  1. There are so many great points in this. I especially liked this one:

    ***”I have known many women uncertain about using their gifts. I believe that society has taught men to be insecure about the contributions of women. I have seen the same in the Church, and my heart has been pained seeing many women with remarkable gifts waiting to be unleashed, but they have often been (usually politely) put to the side, hidden, discouraged from operating in their gifts.”***

    So true. We have to stop. And I think what you are saying is really something the Lord can use to motivate people to think again their past assumptions. Thanks so much SKJ!

  2. I hadn’t considered Mordecai before as a role model for men supporting women in ministry. That’s actually a very great precedent set in Scripture! Thanks for your post. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your series.

  3. For example, Eastern Orthodox churches rarely appoint female deacons anymore

    The average Orthodox parish-church does not have deacons. They all seem to flock around the Cathedral, for some reason.

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