Theoretically, allowing God to call people into the ministry He chooses without seeking to promote one’s own place or position will lead to the same results, whether one is a complementarian or an egalitarian or something in between. However, in practice, expectations matter. Examples matter. It is all too easy to conform to externalities, regardless of whether these externalities limit the possibilities for women’s ministry or encourage stretching the boundaries of tradition.
No one can deny that women have been vitally involved in leadership among God’s people and in the church over the years, beginning with Miriam and Deborah in scripture and continuing with others.
In the history of the church, one simply cannot deny that women have carried the lion’s share of the ministry and leadership on many mission fields, producing healthy national, regional, and local churches. This ministry on the mission field often required women missionaries to teach and disciple national leaders who were men.
Some complementarians explain these awkward facts by claiming the sometimes God will use women in leadership in situations where the church is weak, but that his ideal is that leadership should be carried by men. Therefore, they argue for maintaining limitations on the leadership of women in the church in spite of the numerous examples of God using women in ways that obviously exceed these limitations.
Let us assume for sake of argument here that these complementarians are correct, and that God has only used women in leadership and teaching positions under in circumstances where the church is not healthy or weak. If this is so, then would it not be improper to institute church regulations that prevented God from calling women to lead a weak or unhealthy church?
My own experience, however, stands against this claim. I’ve had the blessed experience of knowing some excellent leaders, both men and women. My own assessment of the various leaders I have served with at the denominational level, for example, is that the best board chairman that I served with was a woman. She did an excellent job of leading the board to listen to the Spirit of God and obey. It was a privilege to learn from her and see God glorified through her leadership. There was no shortage of gifted male leaders available on this board; and there were still other gifted men who could have served on this board. And yet God called this woman to lead. I could not say otherwise without denying God the glory He deserves from what He accomplished through this woman’s leadership.
And that’s just the point. When the church is operating as it should, God raises up leaders who are not self-serving but rather God-serving. They are not advancing a feminist or patriarchal agenda. They are faithfully serving as empowered by His Spirit, and it brings glory to God in magnificent ways that are a blessing to all involved. How can it be justified to set up barriers to what God has chosen to do, both in the history preserved for us in scripture and in the history of the church since? How could it be right to set up structures that would exclude the possibility of what God has already done?
Lastly, the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. I’ve been in ministry long enough to know that there is an overall serious shortage of leadership in the church. Leadership can be lacking because the wrong people are placed in positions of responsibility to which they are not called by God. However, when God calls, I’m delighted to serve alongside his chosen leaders no matter their gender. We need more leaders, and I’d guess that about half of them will be women!
My own wife, Susan, for example, is a gifted and excellent leader. She has been a leader all her life, in all sorts of situations, with all sorts of people. My profile is similar. For my whole life, I’ve naturally migrated into leadership in groups that I work with. I don’t think it has simply been a prideful thing of wanting to be the leader for either of us, generally speaking. (I should confess that I am sure, for my part, that it has sometimes been a matter of human striving or pride, more so when I was younger and (hopefully) less so as I have grown in Christ’s likeness. I don’t know any people with leadership gifts for whom this has never been an issue.)
Yet while both of us are accustomed to leadership, we are quite different in our natural and spiritual gifts for leadership. I am a starter and problem-solver who thinks strategically and likes to develop other leaders. Got a crisis? Call me; I thrive on them. I grow bored when leadership becomes more administrative, managing the details of a large organization. Susan is one who values having a plan and making it work, and is very gifted at making sure that all the details are planned and organized just as they should be. Which of us should be in charge of the checkbook in our home? Which of us would make the best COO? We’re both quite capable of doing a fine job, but it would be a fool who chose me over her for that sort of responsibility.
God handed out the gifts, and it is up to us to use them appropriately. It’s not a matter of me being a man and her being a woman! In fact, if I am to be a good leader, it is incumbent upon me to recognize her gifts and make space for them to flourish. God will be glorified in that. God would not be glorified by me insisting that I take roles in our relationship for which God did not suit me and for which he has created in her amazing gifts and talents.
(I do not mean to imply that God never chooses to stretch people by calling them into particular responsibilities of leadership for which others might seem more qualified. He seems to do this regularly. And then there is the small detail that God sees things that we don’t see; and Goliath falls to David, the son of Jesse that Samuel least expected to anoint as king. And even that is to say nothing of the times that God seems to choose leaders so as to leave no possibility of anyone mistaking that success came from anyone other than God; Jacob or Gideon come to mind. Dwight Moody positively reveled in the fact that people saw him and the ministry God was doing around him in this way.)
Another matter of practical experience is that there is a need for female leadership in every church, even those who sincerely believe that the place of women in leadership should be very limited. The practical issue is that we can expect roughly fifty percent of the church’s members to be women. These women need leadership and teaching and shepherding that is not best done by men. How will that be facilitated in the church if there are no women acting as elders?
There will be women with leadership abilities and gifts in the church. There should be a legitimate way for these gifts to be employed in service to God and his church. The alternative is that women with leadership gifts will grow frustrated with the lack of outlet for the gifts God has given them. The “natural” result of this is that there grows to be informal, unofficial, and sometimes unhealthy mechanisms for leadership and influence to be exercised by women. When these mechanisms are forced “underground”, everything about developing these gifts and talents is vastly complicated and subject to distortion and abuse. That seems a poor way to organize!