Men and Women in Ministry

December 4, 2016 sermon
By John Ulrich, Senior Pastor

1 Timothy 3:1-13

A couple of weeks ago, we began to talk about Church leadership and Church government. We looked at 1 Timothy 3:1-13. We saw that there are two main roles in church government:

  •  Deacon: The word “Deacon” means “servant” or “minister.” Deacons serve by heading up ministries – by working with many of the physical or mercy needs of the church.
  • Elder/Bishop/Pastor, which theologically are the same thing.

Elders are shepherds who lead the flock where it needs to go, who protect the flock from spiritual harm, and who feed the flock through teaching. An elder has to be apt to teach. An elder has to be able to protect the flock from false teaching and to positively present God’s truth to feed the flock.
We said Deacons lead by serving and elders serve by leading.

As we read that passage together, it kind of raised an issue for some of us. That issue is this: What about the role of women in leadership?

One of our ladies came to me after the sermon and said “I’ve never noticed that passage before – but as we read it – it kind of seemed like that role of Deacon could go either way – could be filled by a man or woman – but that with the role of elder – the assumption is that it is only for men. What does Scripture say about that? Where are we, as a church, going to land on that issue?”

Now that is a sensitive but important issue! It’s a tough one! Today that’s what we are going to talk about. We’re going to talk about gender and leadership in the church – specifically, those roles of Deacon and Elder and what Scripture says about who should fill them.

I want to frame our discussion with a couple of preliminary questions:

1. Why have this conversation at this time? Why even talk about this? I could get it wrong. I could unintentionally wound someone. I could stir up frustration. Why not wait until we’re more stable and ready for elders, which will be a long time from now? Why not just quietly do whatever we are going to do? Why talk about it? Believe you me – I’ve wrestled with that question. This is the most difficult sermon I have ever had to preach. I have lost more sleep over it. I have put more prayer into this sermon. My wife and our lead team can tell you that I have wrestled with this issue and this sermon more than with any other. So why talk about it? Because I believe in being as transparent as I can. That’s it. I don’t want us to be a church that hides. I don’t want our church – or our leaders – or me – to have hidden practices or hidden beliefs. I want us to be transparent with each other. I believe that we can have honest conversations about the harder issues of Scripture – and still love each other – and work together. That’s why we are having this conversation.

2. What kind of issue is this? Is this something we should fight about? Is it a hill to die on? What kind of issue is this? In theological terms, this is what we would call a secondary issue. I don’t mean that this issue is not important or that the people it affects are not important. I certainly don’t mean that! Rather, what I mean is this issue of gender and ministry roles is not a core tenet or essential of our faith. It’s not in the Apostle’s Creed. It’s not part of the gospel message of creation – fall – redemption – response. We started with the gospel because it is essential – it’s primary – we don’t budge on that. But theologically, this is secondary. It’s not something we have to divide over.

In Romans 14, Paul talks about how to handle secondary issues. He says is: Find out what you believe – Lean into your conviction – Serve together – And don’t spend all your time trying to straighten each other out.

I have served enthusiastically and joyfully in churches that ordain women – and in churches that don’t – without changing my conviction on the matter. I didn’t feel like it was a violation of my integrity to do so. I was clear with them about where I stood on the issue. Where I disagreed, I decided to see that as secondary. I didn’t feel like I need to voice my dissent at every possible moment. Nor did I feel like I needed to hide my beliefs. I just recognized that this was a secondary issue. I felt in both environments that this was a church I could serve in.

We have varying views on this issue on our lead team. We have intelligent, passionate Christ followers on our team who fall right where I fall on this issue. We have intelligent, passionate Christ followers who land on the other side. They are still on the team, because we want them there and they want to be there. We love each other. We want to do ministry together. We believe the mission that God has called us to is more important than where we land on this issue. I and our team see this as a secondary issue. Those are a couple of framing questions.

Here’s what I want to do today. Today will be a little bit less of a formal exposition of a passage and a little more of me sharing my journey and my heart with you. As we wrestle with this issue of gender and leadership roles in the church, I want to share:

  1. My journey of wrestling with this issue
  2. What our practice will be as a church
  3. Some clarifiers
  4. What I’m asking of you

We have people in this room at various stages of exploring this issue. For some of you, this is coming out of left field – you’re going “What? I didn’t even know this was a thing.” Others of you maybe have been thinking about the details of this issue for a while. I’m going to try to kind of hit the middle. We’ll take a semi in-depth look at this. So let me encourage you. You might want to jot down some of the Scriptures I mention so that you can read them for yourself. If you have any questions about specific passages or practices, by all means feel free to ask me later.

My wrestling with this issue

My wrestling with this issue is the sort of “back and forth” I’ve experienced as I’ve thought through it. Most of us just sort of think whatever we grew up with is the right way and the other side just seems kind of ridiculous. I’ve been in both contexts. I’ve taught classes on the theology of the church. I’ve had about three serious go’s at this issue. I want to share with you where my mind has gone.

On the one hand, this seems like a no-brainer. Why would there be any limits for women? Ladies, you are capable and intelligent. Every bit as capable and intelligent as we men are, if not more. I look at my wife – she’s brilliant! You don’t know this about Kelley, but she speaks six languages. She handles our finances. She does amazing work in the church. When she has worked outside the church or home, she’s done fantastic. She’s brilliant!

When you look at our society, women have taken on just about every role, and they have done it well. Biblically, women and men are equal in humanity, in essence and in divine image-bearing. Remember when we talked about the creation of Eve, we said she was Adam’s “opposite / according to” – his complementary equal.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” – Genesis 1:27

Both man and woman are made in the image of God. In fact, I think it’s not just man and woman as individual components that are the image of God – it’s also the way we relate together. Biblically we are equal. Women do incredible ministry in the church – in our church! Allison – Carol – Diane – Bonnie – Kelley – thank you for your service. So on the one hand, this seems to be a no-brainer. It’s like “Why would we have this conversation?”

The answer is because of Scripture. There are a number of Scripture passages like 1 Timothy 3 that seem to indicate that in the church there are some roles that are specifically given to men and not to women.

That weighs heavily on me. It’s the reason I can’t sleep. I have to take Scripture seriously. I have to. It’s what we’re building this thing on, and it’s what we want to build it on! I can’t just dismiss the parts that are confusing or unpopular as old-fashioned. I can’t just take the parts that I like and leave the rest behind. I can’t.

Because at my core, I believe, that this book it true – that it fits together – and that it’s good for us. I believe those things about Scripture even when I struggle to see them. So help me God, I do. By the way, I’m not saying that those who disagree with me don’t take this book seriously. Many of them do. I’m trying to let you know where I’m coming from. I can’t just dismiss Scripture. It has authority over me.

My job as your Pastor is to be a faithful expositor of this book. My job is to submit myself to this book and share it with you. Because without it, I have nothing to bring. What am I going to offer without this book? My opinion? Folksy wisdom? African stories? I’m sorry, that’s not enough. This is what I bring.

Scripture weighs heavily on me on this issue – because my dear sisters – I have no desire to see you hurt – or marginalized – or made to feel less-than. I hope you can see that in the way I treat my wife – and maybe in the way I treat you. But there are passages that seem to suggest that not all church roles are interchangeable.

What does Scripture actually say about the issue? Let’s start with the most comprehensive passage about ministry roles:

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.
In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything. A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus. – 1 Timothy 3:1-13 (New International Version 2011)

Let’s start our observations with the role of Deacon. Let me just cut to the chase – The passage opens the role of Deacon to both men and women. Please talk to me later if you have detailed questions. Let me simplify a lot of biblical argument. The reason I believe that is verse 11. Right in the middle of Paul’s instruction to Deacons, he says: In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

You could take that as a reference to the wives of Deacons. If you are reading translations like the New International Version 1984 or the English Standard Version, they have translated it that way because of the way Paul starts the verse “in the same way” – like he’s giving a new category. Because there is no parallel instruction given to the wives of elders, I take that to be a reference to female Deacons so I think Paul talking to women who were Deacons in the church at Ephesus where Timothy was. One other factor convinces me of that: Paul is talking about Phoebe – the woman who carried the letter of Romans to the Romans – and he introduces her in this way:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae – Romans 16:1

Here Paul uses the feminine version of the Greek word Diakonos or Deacon. It is possible to translate that “a servant of the church at Cenchrea,” because the Greek word means both Deacon and Servant. Because Paul connects her to a specific church – I take it just the way it is translated here – that Phoebe was a Deacon of the church at Cenchrea.

When I take these two passages together, I believe that women are invited fill the office of Deacon:
• To serve and head up teams like finance and missions

  • To lead ministries under the general oversight of the elders
  • To work with physical and mercy ministries.
    So the passage opens the role of Deacon to both men and women.

As I read it, the passage assigns the role of Elder to men. At least in this passage in Ephesus, the role of elder is given to men. Let me explain what I mean: If we look at versus 1-7 again, we can see that the assumption of the passage is that the elder or overseer will be a man. Paul says:

  • In verse 2 – Faithful to his wife
  • In verse 4 – He must manage his own household well and see that his children obey him
  •  In verse 6 – He must not be a recent convert

All the pronouns are masculine. There’s no mention of women as there is with the Deacons. This is even more pronounced in Greek. All the pronouns and adjectives have masculine endings. Where it says “faithful to his wife,” the Greek literally says he must be “a one woman man.” The assumption here is that the role of elder is going to be filled by a man.

As I wrestled with this, I thought “Fair enough – but assuming that this role will be filled by a man is not the same thing as saying it can’t be filled by a woman. Maybe there’s some wiggle room here – it’s just an assumption.”

The problem I ran into as I studied that is the preceding passage. At the end of chapter 2, Paul is talking directly about the role of women in the church. Here’s what he says:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet – 1 Timothy 2:12

By the way, Paul says some other stuff in that passage that, if you don’t understand it, sounds kind of wack-o. I don’t think it’s as bad as it seems. So if you read it and it freaks you out, come see me. Notice what he says again: “I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority.”

Paul is not talking about forbidding a woman from doing any teaching ever. In the book of Titus, Paul encourages women to teach other women. Paul did ministry with women who taught men in their home with their husband. Even the tense of the verb “to teach” here suggests that this is regular, standing, repetitive role as teacher rather than a one-off thing. It’s not any and all teaching. But he does say that the regular teaching role – at least at Ephesus where this is written to – is not for women.

Here’s why that’s important: You may remember that the main difference between a Deacon and an Elder in terms of qualifications is that teaching role: An Elder is to be a teacher.

When I put that all together, here’s what Paul seems to be saying to Timothy:

  • The role of Deacon – the role of serving and heading up individual ministries – was open for anyone who met the family and character requirements.
  • The role of Elder in Ephesus was assigned to men.

Folks, that is honestly my cleanest reading of this passage. I have to deal with that. Really we all do, if we’re going to base this church on Scripture. In my wrestling, I have to put this into my theology and ask myself how it fits with other Scripture passages and with the giftedness that I see in the godly women.

The first time I really encountered this passage I knew I was going to have to do that. I prayed a lot, and I read a lot of stuff:

  • I read commentaries to see if I was interpreting things correctly.
  • I read articles about the various issues around this.
  • I read books about the theology that underlies this.

Here are the arguments against male-only leadership that I thought carried the most weight. I’m going to give them to you briefly and where I landed on them just as a means of helping you think through this issue:

1. Some would say the instruction in 1 Timothy is about a local situation. In other words, there was something extraordinary going on in Ephesus that caused Paul to forbid female elders there. This view would say that Paul never meant for his instruction here to be generalized to other churches. So we don’t have to worry about this. So that’s one way of dealing with this. The struggle I have with that view is that Paul repeats these instructions when he writes to other churches. He repeats the male assumption language when he writes to Titus, who was serving in Crete. He repeats the prohibition against women teachers in 1 Corinthians 14. There he starts by saying “as in all the churches of the saints, this is our practice”. So I think this is more than just a local instruction.

2. Galatians 3:28 gives all roles to both genders. Galatians 3:28 is a wonderful passage about our adoption in Christ. It has some beautiful language about our inclusion into the body:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:28

Some would say: “See, there’s neither male nor female in Christ. So why would we have a gender-based division when it comes to the role of elder?” That’s a great question. If Galatians 3 was the only passage that addressed Gender, I would totally agree, and we wouldn’t have this sermon!

But the problem is that 1 Timothy 3 – the Elder passage – is specifically discussing the role and gender of elders, and it’s written after Galatians 3. So I think that:

  • Galatians 3 is discussing our status and essence and adoption in Christ
  • 1 Timothy 3 is discussing particular roles that the different genders play in Church government

3. Some would argue the trajectory of Scripture is to remove gendered roles. This is probably the most persuasive argument I have come across. It basically says: “Look, in Scripture there are some things that God tolerates and even legislates that aren’t the truest expression of his heart.” For example: slavery. The Bible gives rules for slavery and even tells slaves to obey their owners, but slavery isn’t really what God wants. He wants us to move away from that. You can see that in Scripture. The longer Scripture goes the more it encourages the undoing of slavery. The trajectory of Scripture is for no slavery. They would say “it’s that way with gender differences – the trajectory of Scripture is for more and more freedom for women and eventually for gender roles in the Church to be erased.”

That is a really strong argument. It’s the one that carried most weight with me. The part where I struggle is that the passages that seem most gender specific (and maybe limiting to women) are some of the latest ones in Scripture. 1 Timothy was one of the last things that Paul ever wrote, and he states things most strongly there. The reasons he gives for the differences in role don’t get back to culture or because we aren’t ready for it yet – they go back to things like creation order that don’t change. We don’t’ have time to get into the why of this today, but there seems to be something about this that is deeply significant and relates to the order God wants reflected in the church and to Christ.

What our practice will be as a church

There are other arguments for both sides that I don’t think are as persuasive. I’ve had about three serious runs at this issue – three times of seriously studying it. In the end, I can’t shake what this passage seems to be plainly saying about church leadership which, just to be clear, is:

  • Women in ministry – yes!
  • Women serving – yes!
  • Women leading in our church – yes!
  • Women as Deacons – yes!

But the role of Elder – just that one role of general oversight and regular teaching – is assigned to men.

Honestly church – having personally done my best to rightly interpret Scripture on this and having considered all the factors we know to consider as a lead team – we have agreed that this will be our practice at Perry Creek Church.

Some clarifications

1. I’m not saying that men and women are not equal. Men and women are fully equal in humanity, in ability, in spirituality, in giftedness. Absolutely Equal. Now, how can I say that? How can I say that I really believe we are equal in essence when Scripture tells one half of us not to exercise authority over the other half? I can say that because of Christ. He is the model. He was absolutely equal to the Father in every way – in essence and ability. He was all present. He was all knowing. He was all powerful. He was God – every bit as much as the Father was God. When he came to the earth, he was still God. But He gave up his right to exercise his divine attributes – and He took on a role of obedience – of yieldedness to his Father. It was a beautiful thing. In the end, every knee will bow before him because he did that. Christ is the model. So church – believe me when I say – this is not about equality – this is not about ability. This is about roles that God has given for us to fill and not fill.

2. I’m not saying women should never speak at Perry Creek Church. It is so encouraging to hear testimonies like Diane’s testimony today and Rachel’s testimony last week. We need to hear those stories. We have a lot to learn from them! God can move just as powerfully through them as he can through me on a Sunday Morning! I certainly don’t plan on any reduction in our ladies’ involvement here at Perry Creek Church. I want all of us to serve everywhere that God calls us to serve. What I said about gender roles today is what I believed when we first started this church. I don’t anticipate that changing, so I’m not against women speaking at Perry Creek Church.

3. Ladies, I’m not saying that if you served as an Elder in the past you were being disobedient or that God didn’t bless your eldership. I’ve served alongside some very, very godly women elders – some of whom are here today and even knew what I was going to talk about! Please don’t hear me say anything but “thank you.” The women I served with were not trying to be disobedient. Quite the contrary, they were acting in obedience by doing what their church asked them to do. Thank you for your service.

What do I want you to do with this sermon today?

1. I want you to think about this! Ladies and men! Examine Scripture – pray about it – see what you believe. Don’t let me do your thinking for you! Find out what you believe.

2. I would like for you to view this – as I have – as our team has – as a secondary issue. This isn’t something we have to divide over. I have good friends with different convictions on this and genuinely welcome people with differing convictions on this.

That’s what I want you to do. For some of you, you’ll study it out and agree with what I’ve said today. I would encourage you to remember that there are brothers and sisters in this church that don’t agree with what I’ve said. Others of you may study it out and firmly disagree with me. If that’s the case – I hope you’ll be generous with me – I hope you’ll see my heart in this matter. I hope that you will decide to stay and serve with us.