It's a lie to say that women are not equipped to assume leadership roles in the church. Cultural norms as well as religious mind-sets have helped spread and given credence to this lie, but in spite of arguments to the contrary, it is not supported by scripture.
Too many years have passed for most of us to remember that Christian leaders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries aggressively opposed the effort to grant women the right to vote in the United States. In 1920, Roman Catholic bishops in Massachusetts ruled that women would be considered "fallen" if they entered the political arena. Other denominations passed rulings decrying the suffrage movement, predicting that if women began voting they would forsake their domestic duties and trigger the downfall of civilization.
Some preachers jumped on the anti-woman bandwagon and launched an effort to "re-masculinize" the church out of fear that women would somehow come to dominate it. One of them, Horace Bushnell, a Congregationalist, predicted in his book "Women's Suffrage" that if women started voting, their brains would swell, and they would eventually lose their femininity--and their morals.
For the most part, those who fight the idea of women's ordination today are still using the same cultural arguments and misinterpreted Bible passages that were used by medieval church patriarchs. Old lies don't die easily.
This was most obvious in June 2000, when the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation's largest Protestant denomination, passed a policy that states: "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture." One Baptist leader who opposed the measure, Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, told a reporter from The Orlando Sentinel that the 15-million-member SBC "has pulled up the drawbridge to the 21st century and locked its members into a 19th-century cultural castle."
We live in a culture in which qualified women serve as governors, senators, mayors, university deans, corporate presidents, ambassadors, and even military commanders. Women have achieved remarkable status in diverse fields, including space exploration, medicine, business, and athletics. Yet a majority of evangelical churches remain closed to the notion of a woman assuming the role of senior pastor. As a result, the world views the church as ignorant, insensitive, and irrelevant. Sadly, we deserve that label.
Did Jesus Believe Women Could Lead?
This strong bias against women in leadership is peculiar when we examine Jesus' own inclusive attitude toward the women who followed Him. Jesus affirmed the equality of women in the midst of a culture that denied them basic human rights. He called them to be His disciples during a time when religious leaders taught that it was disgraceful even to teach a woman.
We read in Luke 8:1-3 that the women who followed Jesus were a vital part of His traveling ministry team: "The twelve were with Him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities--Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance" (NKJV).
These women were not just stragglers who stayed at the back of Jesus' entourage watching Him from a distance. They were Jesus' disciples in the fullest sense, and we have every reason to believe that He commissioned them to minister in His name.
When the Holy Spirit came to fulfill this promise of empowerment for ministry, both men and women, including Jesus' own mother, received Him. This was noted by Peter, who then recited the verse from Joel's prophecy: "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" (Acts 2:17).
If Christ commissioned only men to the ministry of the gospel, why did He send the power for that mission upon both men and women?
The women in the upper room were not the only women Jesus commissioned. In the story of His visit with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7-42), we read that after Jesus revealed His true identity to her, the woman began telling others about Him (vv. 28-29). Here we see perhaps one of the clearest pictures in the Bible of Christ as an ordainer of women.
The gospel account tells us that after the woman's encounter with the Savior, "Many of the Samaritans of that city believed in Him because of [her] word" (v. 39). Why would the Messiah send this woman into her village to tell others about His power if He was opposed to the concept of women in ministry?
Interestingly, this was the first recorded instance in which Christ commissioned someone to evangelize beyond the narrow confines of the Orthodox Jewish community. To prophetically demonstrate that the gospel would ultimately spread to "Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8), He sent a woman evangelist to preach!
Yet, to whom did Jesus announce His resurrection on Easter morning? And whom did He commission to tell others that He had triumphed over the grave? Was it not His brave women disciples?
Because of cultural biases, Christ's male disciples did not believe the testimony of the women when they gave the astounding report about the open tomb. Yet Jesus appeared to the 12 and confirmed the witness of the women, and by doing so He intentionally refuted the idea that women could not offer faithful testimony. Indeed, He affirmed the ministry of the women and challenged His narrow-minded male followers to do the same.
When Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, "Go to My brethren and say to them, 'I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God'" (John 20:17), was He not affirming her as a witness of the gospel? Was He not commissioning her both to go and to speak for Him? Why then do we deny women the opportunity to carry this message?
It is tragic that eloquent women preachers in former centuries had to defend their skills and anointing to clergy. It is even more tragic that equally anointed women preachers today must continue to defend themselves. When are we going to stop quenching the Holy Spirit by denying our sisters their right to prophesy? To keep them silent is to tune out the voice of the Spirit. To reject their leadership is to reject the Lord.