Sunday, June 8, 2008

Not a "secondary issue"

Many of my gifted and well-meaning colleagues in the Southern Baptist world have devoted much time and energy toward calling a "truce" on the in-fighting regarding the contentious issue of women in ministry. The way my friends commonly arrive at a peaceful conclusion to this matter goes something like this:

Both the egalitarian and complementarian views of women in ministry can be argued reasonably from scripture, therefore it is unwise for us to be too dogmatic about one's conclusions. Instead, we must recognize women in ministry as a secondary (or even tertiary) issue and not use it as a theological "litmus test" for fellowship and cooperation.

While anyone who knows me can affirm that I am disinclined to contradict anything that brings peace, today I must respectfully disagree with my colleagues. The matter of women in ministry is not a "secondary issue." Indeed, it is my contention that the luxury of affirming women in ministry as a secondary issue is available only to those who are not of the "second sex." When you are a woman, the will of God for your place in the Kingdom of God is a primary issue--one that cannot be brushed aside simply to avoid conflict.

As I ponder deeply the matter of women in ministry, I am faced with the truth that my conclusions on the matter go straight to the heart of what I believe about God, God's world, and the good news of Jesus Christ. What was God's intention when he created the world and human beings within it? How did sin affect the relationships of the human beings whom God made? How does the good news of Jesus Christ affect male-female relations and what is God's intention as he "reconciles all things to himself"?

As much as we may wish not to fight about women in ministry any longer, I cannot see how one's answers to these basic questions can be viewed as matters of secondary concern.

In my opinion, the good news of the Kingdom of God testifies that human beings are the unique and beloved climax of God’s creative work. God formed human beings in the Triune image, as male and female, to reflect God’s relationality, love, creativity, spirituality, freedom, and intelligence. Spirit of God created in humans a capacity to know and respond to God’s loving initiative and to participate in the rule of God in the created order.

God's intention for humanity as male and female was for mutual, equal, and interdependent communion, but sin has marred God's original creation and perpetuated subordination and misogyny in human societies. Part of the renewal of all things in the Christ's new creation is that men and women are reconciled to one another in Christ. Through Holy Spirit's power, men and women are able to reclaim their loving, peaceful, and mutually submissive place together in the reign of God.

Do these sound like secondary issues for you? Are these affirmations unimportant to one's worldview and life ethic? I don't think so.

Before my graduation from Truett Theological Seminary, I was invited to attend an early meeting of the fledgling group, "Women of the Cloth." These ladies, young and old, black, brown, and white, were the aspiring women preachers and pastors of Truett, seeking out sorely needed fellowship and support within the seminary family. For these women, for me, and for all the other women set apart by God for service in the Kingdom, the freedom to function as the Spirit has gifted us is not a matter of secondary concern.

So, even though I don't like conflict, even though I'd prefer to hold hands and sing "Jesus Loves Me" with all my brothers and sisters in Christ, I am compelled now to "stir the pot" a bit. For the men in power--the pastors, administrators, and heads of associations--who are dancing around this matter, seeking to avoid angering either side by taking a "hard and fast" stance on women in ministry, I say to you: Pick a side. Either women are equal partners with you in God's Kingdom, equally equipped, and equally freed to serve, or they are not. You cannot have it both ways.

Although there is much more I could say, I must conclude with this. I have heard many a pastor say regarding women in ministry, "That's not a hill I am willing to die on." That's well and good, I'm sure. Certainly I understand that pastors must "pick their battles" in local church ministry. But, I must ask, if not this "hill," then which one? If not you, then who? If not now, when?

In every generation where liberation is needed, it is the responsibility of the elite and powerful to adopt the cause of the underprivileged and powerless. Today, in the Southern Baptist "Zion," women are not allowed on the hill. We can't even get close enough to smell it. So, in the end, if you won't die on this hill for us, then who will?


Tricia said...

I hear you on this. The issue of women in ministry is often a subset of issues related to the Bible and inerrancy. I saw it that way for a long time, and I think many others see it that way too. But the questions are more than just how do we deal with the Bible and specifically a few verses in Timothy. It is about the nature of women and the acknowledgment of the full humanity of women and the full image of God in women. Maybe for a man, these are secondary issues, but not for me. Who I am as a woman in relation to God and others is quite primary!

Recently I've taken a side on this and it meant leaving a Southern Baptist Church where I was an active member for the last six years. I was waiting for progress, expecting the local church to open up to include women fully. After all, my secular workplace has opened to women in a historically male profession. Then I realized that such progress in my (former) local church wasn't going to happen. I don't know if they get it from their interpretation of the Bible or read it into the Bible, but the underlying, unnamed assumption is that I am less of a human and less of a Christian because I am a woman. The full value and worth of every life, both male and female, should be a hill for any Christian to die on.

Gary Snowden said...


As always, I appreciate the passion with which you write and state your case so clearly. I concur fully with your position and would wish that others could realize that the body of Christ needs the full participation of all its members with the blessing on all who exercise their giftedness in ministry.

Joel said...

I too think this is an issue that needs to be thought through with humility. Frankly, I haven't taken a side because I am still researching the sides, hoping for a big obvious heaven-arrow to point me in the right direction (though I probably have rejected tenets of both). There are, however, those who have taken a side and are seriously pushing for it.

traveller said...

Emily, I cannot claim to understand how women feel about this subject but I am sympathetic and in agreement that this is not a secondary or tertiary issue, except for many men.

I do speak out on this whenever I can do so. I encourage women to minister with whatever gift the Spirit has given to them. I often have conversations with men to challenge their thinking about this issue because it is important.

Nevertheless, I would suggest it might be worth your while to give some thought to whether the right place to put your emphasis is the institutional church. I think there is a very high likelihood that the institutional church is disappearing....perhaps within your lifetime. I wonder whether instead of seeking the positions within the institutional church that are held by men today, it would be better, instead, to forge into the future today. Look into what will it mean to be a "minister" as the role of the institution diminishes. While I understand there is a principle in your thinking, I do see that outside of SBC life and the institutional expression of church there is a growing acceptance of women in whatever role their gifting leads them.

To me, this is not acceding to those who wish to keep women out of current positions in the institution but realizing the change that is happening in the church and leading into that future.

Steve said...

“Now, now, now, hu-u-unie, you KNOW that if Jesus had wanted women to be talkin’ in church about Him, He-da made sure women were the first ones to discover his empty tomb on Easter morning, or at LEAST sent an angel to talk to them. An –an-and, when He spoke to strangers, the WOMAN (at that well) stranger He spoke to would’ve been calling her friends to come see Him; and, of course, when confronted upon His being first taken to Temple, the woman who spoke to Mary & Joseph (strange order there) would’ve been the one to tell others the good news and not the man. Ya see?”

Natalie said...

Amen! Thanks for writing this.

Dave said...

I am southern baptist.
I'm not a member of the clergy.
My beliefs count for nothing.
I am male.

If you preach like you write, I have no problems with you being my pastor.

I guess that if you're pinning your hopes on preachers and denominational types, you're going to be disappointed. They are cowards.

Kerygma said...

One of our ministers is female. She preaches, teaches, counsels, does pastoral care, marries, buries, and invests her time and energy in other works of ministry. At no time do any of us feel led to diminish the exercise of her gifts by saying, "but she's a woman!" She's just Sara, and she's just fine

R. L. Vaughn said...

While you and I would disagree on egalitarian and complementarian views, I agree with you that this is not a secondary or tertiary issue. Some, like Joel, may not have "taken a side" because they are still studying it. Otherwise, folks need to get on "their side", wherever that is, and stand for what they believe. Thoughtful post.

Anonymous said...

I've had some journey through women in ministry and the SBC. I graduated from Southern back in the day when there was some hope for my leadership after graduation. Even then, it was clear that I was "different" from my peers, a minority, and paving the way in "a man's world" and "the good ol' boy network." (insert any other cliches here).

I had a meaningful and full 15+ years of ministry. BUT, there was always the "gender" thing hanging over my head.

My guiding scripture was Jesus' admonition to his disciples...go where I send you and, when you are not accepted, shake the dust off your feet and move on to the next place."

Finally, I ran out of places in the SBC that fit my calling and gifts.

ABClay said...


You said, "Part of the renewal of all things in the Christ's new creation is that men and women are reconciled to one another in Christ. Through Holy Spirit's power, men and women are able to reclaim their loving, peaceful, and mutually submissive place together in the reign of God."

Am I correct in assuming that the basis of your position on this issue is the "new creation" in Christ?

If so, I have a few questions. If men and women have returned to their pre-fall standings of equality, does it not stand that all things should also return to their pre-fall condition as well? If the "new creation" is now at hand, why is their still death and sin? Why does the lamb still fear the lion? I may agree with you that some day this will happen, but only when we are able to see in the mirror clearly.

I enjoyed reading your post.

Grace and Peace...


Brint said...


I am a Truett graduate myself and I am a father of two daughters and one son and the fortunate soulmate of a phenomenal Christian woman.

While not a "hot firebrand" for women in ministry, I have nevertheless advocated for and encouraged equality for women regarding ministry. As a Senior Pastor, I encouraged women to be deacons, to consider ministry, and preached regularly on the fact that God calls EVERYONE to radical discipleship and ministry.

In my previous ministry assignment, I tried to work with this issue when it came time to elect deacons but could never convince our women to be deacons officially. They were not prohibited but they simply would remove their names from the pool of candidates.

Because of this encouragement of women and other things, my ministry was brought to a close at that particular church. As I was leaving, I was pleased to hear the Chairmen of Deacons tell me how much he appreciated me taking on this and other issues during my tenure. One of my greatest victories from that difficult assignment came six months after I left when a strong and devout woman of the church was elected to the deacon body.

Since leaving that ministry setting, I have pondered my connection to Baptists in general. Right now, I am serving as a Staff Minister in a Methodist church and love what I am doing and the freedom I have to do it. I also like the fact that my ladies are already welcome to serve in the UMC setting and that there is a fairly strong UMC history of women in ministry.

While Methodism is not perfect (who are what is??), it has welcomed us and embraced us. While we are still considering God's Will for our lives and ministries, it seems that we are moving (perhaps being moved?)to a different part of God's "Great Big House with many, many rooms."

As I close, I appreciate your words and want to encourage you to fight on for the greater good of the Kingdom and the greater Calling of God.


Brint Hilliard

Anonymous said...

We can be 'equal' yet have distinct roles to play as God has directed. Clearly God has directed men and women to distinct roles with some overlapping responsibilities.
We don't have a 'woman problem' in the church(SBC) but we have 'men who won't do their God ordained leadership' that creates this vacumn that you see.
Having said that, wrong or right, I encourage you to pursue what you believe you should pursue and don't wait on others to do it for you(or even see it partially your way). Since when do denominationalists stick their necks out on anything? They're protectionists of a system and what you're proposing is 'not within the system'.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Thanks for your question.

Although you are correct in discerning that my view is based on the realization of a "new creation" in Christ, I need to clarify the details.

I do not suggest that, in your words, "men and women have returned to their pre-fall standings of equality," because, as you pointed out, we are not experiencing the total restoration of all things yet.

We are in the midst of an "already-not yet" tension, where the reign of God (new creation) has already been inaugurated in Christ, but not yet completely revealed, as it will be in the very end (when God brings the new heavens and new earth and Jesus reigns supreme over all).

So, what are we to do in the mean time? Although it is impossible to experience the complete "new creation" until God's reign is fully revealed, I believe the scripture teaches that we are to seek after the fullness of God's intent for creation wherever and whenever possible.

Therefore, understanding that it is not God's perfect will for human beings to be enslaved, God's people are to oppose slavery and seek liberation for the captives. Understanding that it is not God's perfect will for humans to live in extreme poverty, God's people are to seek economic justice and empowerment for the poor. And, understanding that it is not God's perfect will for women to be subordinate to men, God's people are to oppose misogyny and embody the mutual love, honor, and submission of the sexes.

For further thoughts on the restoration of all things in Christ, I would encourage you to read this recent post, which is a sermon to graduates, but contains a broad view of the Gospel's meaning for the whole world. Also, you can see this older post, which is an outline of the Gospel in my view. I hope this has helped to answer your question.

Grace and peace to you,


Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I appreciate your admonition to "go it alone." I assure you that I'm not waiting on anyone.

You should know that this post was written in response to a number of conversations with SBC brethren who are, either, "riding the fence" about women in ministry, or, endorsing women's full equality in ministry, yet continuing to avoid taking a stand for it. I am not basing my future on the decisions of the "establishment" to change. Yet, that does not mean I must remain silent in the mean time. Even as Jerusalem fell, Jeremiah still prophesied.

As you can imagine, I must disagree with your premise that we don't have a "woman problem" in the SBC. It is certain that 60% or more of churches are women and most volunteers (SS, VBS, etc) are women, but as far as women leaders are concerned (and I mean leaders with recognized authority), there is indeed a gaping hole. The recognition of women gifted for "public" roles such as administration, leadership, teaching, and preaching, is at a pitiful level, even among those Baptists who affirm women's equality in ministry.

As far as "men who won't do their God ordained leadership," I can't really comment. I don't see evidence of God's "ordained" purpose for men as church leaders. Instead, I think scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit gifts according to his pleasure, not being limited by gender (or class, culture, etc). Therefore, what qualifies a person for service as a leader is not gender, but the anointing of the Spirit and the evidence of the Spirit's fruit in his or her life.

Grace and peace to you,


Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Thank you for sharing some of your story and for your encouragement. Its good to hear from a fellow Truett grad.

My husband and I are uncertain of our future relationship to Southern Baptists as well. Thankfully, we do not feel constrained by denominational loyalty and we seek to follow the moving of the Spirit, wherever he may lead.

I'm glad to hear you are prospering in the UMC. Grace and peace to you and yours,


foxofbama said...

I see where Ethics Daily.compicked up your blog.
I got voted out of a Babdiss church in alabama partly because I got a little flamboyant in my dissent, and partly because I took on the childhood friend of a woman who is now on staff at Baylor but can't seem to proclaim her convictions about women in ministry where it matters in her home church.
So who is at fault there?
May make an interesting chapter or case study for your pursuits, to come to Bama to this place and ask some of the stay behinders how they got so reactive on these matters?

Tim Dahl said...

This is a great post.

How do you suggest we close the gender gap found in the pulpit?

With the decline of institutional churches, is there a suggestion for what the future might hold?

Is church planting a viable option?

Tim Dahl

Luke said...

hey lady! great post! i guess i was blown away that this is still an issue anywhere in God's creation. goes to show you that not all seminaries have the same issues. wow.

secondary issue no way! just didn't realize that this was still a hot topic else-wheres. thought we were at least to the LGBTQ place in the kingdom... rawk out!

UnderMidnight said...

I think that anytime someone tells another person that they are wrong for wanting to share the good news of Jesus, such as a female wanting to serve in the ministry, then that person desperately needs to pull their head out of their ass.
I think the SBC is just ate up with the HIA syndrome.

UnderMidnight said...

I like what traveller said.
I think the best thing that could happen to the church is if it could no longer own property. But since such an extreme will probably never happen...often, when an establishment continues to keeps its thumb on someone, that person walks away and carves their own path, makes their life it's own art without the stained glass dimness destroying its brilliance.

I do still have a use for institutional church because I believe it has become a mission field in itself and there is a lot of pain and darkness crying out for help there. But I think also that we need to get out of the building and into the world. We need to take Jesus to the streets and into the world. People are very burned out and tired of religion as it is today. But people are also empty and searching. How refreshing it would be for women to reach out into the world rather than a man in a cheap suit.
Grassroots and underground, united.