How I Changed My Mind about Women’s Roles in the Church, Part 2

Related tangent: divorced pastors -Sam B. Sears

Previous article: "Go Home?"

      Last month I began to address this topic by addressing John MacArthur’s attitude when he commented on Beth more. This month, I want to begin sharing my journey and struggle on the issue. To do so I must go on a slight tangent, but it’s related to one of the key passages on the issue.

              My first church was a Southern Baptist church in Kentucky. I still have my baptismal certificate from that church on the wall, as well as my ministerial license from the same congregation. We thought we were progressive for letting a woman say the occasional closing prayer on a Sunday night. We were the model of traditional. I was expected to wear a full suit to fill in for the senior pastor, even it was 100 degrees on a Wednesday night, and I just got done with high school football practice an hour before service. Looks mattered, and all doctrinal matters had a checklist and were already solved. There wasn’t much from discussion, or room to disagree.

               The role of women was clear in that church. They could sing, they could teach women and children in Sunday school. While there was great respect for motherhood and that aspect was talked up, there was no role in teaching, and if I am, to be honest, a bit of a sit-down, and shut up attitude. The Kentucky Baptist convention had split off from the Southern Baptist Convention to allow the possibility of women serving in some leadership roles and they were bad-mouthed from time to time. The same could be said about the role of anyone who was divorced, or other churches who allowed divorced pastors, preachers or deacons. Despite being young, I was deeply involved, and was the youngest member ever elected to represent the church at assembly of area Baptist churches, and the instruction I received there had an impact early in my ministry.

              As a young Christian I wasn’t spiritually satisfied with only a few spiritual meals from the pastor, I wanted to dig in, and with friends from different denominations, as well as atheists, I wanted to verify things that I heard were true, just like the Bereans in Acts 17. The deeper I dig into the word, the more questions I had, and the clearer it was that I was a teacher. I left the church and briefly took a youth leader job at another church, and eventually wound up as assistant pastor at a Non-Denominational church. I was never a denominational loyalist. I wanted to learn the truth as the bible revealed and was leery of looking through it through the denominational lens, especially as my young zeal encountered politics and corruption.

              At New Hope Community Church, we joked that we were “bapticostal” the teachers largely from the Baptist tradition, while the musical folks were largely from the Pentecostal tradition. There was one exception. When I arrived, before I took his spot, the first assistant pastor, was a very country Assemblies of God preacher. While the sr. Pastor never allowed it there, other places the assistant went, and preached revivals or filled in, allowed women preachers, and his wife even helped him preach from time to time. Their style was not my own, they were very much preachers, not teachers, with an emphasis on exhorting and emotion, as opposed to conveying information and making applications. Despite our differences, they provided my first real exposure to some of the defenses for women in ministry, at the time I was unconvinced that a woman could fill the role of senior or even associate pastor.

              I had known a female youth pastor, and accepted it with no issues, but a teacher for the whole congregation? I looked at those Timothy and Titus passages and just couldn’t get around them. My Sr. Pastor, and mentor, told me a story where someone mentioned their aunt was a female pastor, he responded “no such thing.” It was a joking matter to him, and a very settled issue. So was the issue of divorced ministers. It was somewhat lighter there, with the remarriage being the focus of the issue, not divorce itself.

              Tragedy stuck. My first marriage was already troubled. We had gone to counseling, and I had always been willing to do so. It became clear that the quiet church girl I thought I married wasn’t at all who I thought. We married young and shortly before 21, her priorities changed. After just 2 brief years, my first wife ran off, with another man in mind, and she did eventually marry him. Before leaving she told me she was sick of me, sick of church, and God. My mom got diagnosed with cancer the week after she cleared most of our stuff out of my trailer on our family farm. While New Hope supported me through it, I was expected to remain unmarried and celibate if I was to serve as their assistant pastor. The Baptist world wouldn’t take me back, and I was even publicly snubbed and bad-mouthed at my old church. I found myself looking at 1 Timothy again.

              1 Timothy 3:2 became a closed door, a wall, a bludgeon to wound me. It stated, “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,” That husband of one of wife line, had already been pointed out so many times. I had heard it over and over, “He would be a good deacon if not for…” and with the increasing divorce rates, that one item often became the primary qualifier for someone serving in leadership. Not their bible knowledge, not what ways they were currently serving, not their skills, but if they had never been married before. There were a few workarounds, a Sunday School Director that wasn’t a deacon, people getting different titles for the same volunteer roles etc. but overall a divorced man was a second-class Christian man.

              As I was dealing with the devastation of my own divorce, I went to scripture. It was my worst fear, as, after marriage, trouble started quickly, and many saw the divorce coming. I had time dread it and see “the writing on the wall” before it happened. Looking back, I can say that God got me through my biggest fear, and my faith in Him has only increased. I’m blessed to be with Heather and have two wonderful children. It was a rocky time that really did change my trajectory in life, for the better. During the events though, one of the issues I wrestled with, was wither I could or would continue in ministry, any kind of ministry, and what scripture said. I had stayed local instead of going away to college to be mentored by pastors and to preach in local churches, it was very important to me, but I was determined that if God really wanted me to step aside from that role, I would. I had no right to decide how God would use me, that was up to him if need be, I’d serve him in some other way. I would serve him however he wanted me to, and under his guidelines.

              Looking at 1 Timothy in context revealed some important things to me. Culturally women at that time did not have the right to divorce. Largely men worked, and their wives depended on them for income while they stayed home and took care of the children. There was not the financial freedom necessary for them to easily survive on their own. I wasn’t the one who chose the divorce. I had fought against it and had participated in counseling. Would I really be held guilty for someone else’s decision? Did Paul have in mind that the divorcee would be impacted, or the one who did the divorcing?  

              The qualification was listed among others. Is any one person above reproach? Or is that hyperbole? What about Pastors with no kids? Or no wife? You can’t have a household in order if you don’t have a household, and yet most felt that was fine. Paul didn’t have children, and he was certainly challenged both from outside and even within the church, was he not eligible to be a Pastor?

              The phrase itself, “husband of one wife,” is literally translated “one-woman man.” Commentators have argued over Paul’s intention. Some suggesting it was dealing with polygamy, but that had largely died out, and wouldn’t see another surge until Islam was born. Usually, when the Greek words are paired it refers to a husband and wife couple, but the phrase with a numerical indicator actually likely refers to faithfulness, probably even more so than the gender. As someone once told me when I was younger, “if one woman isn’t enough for you, two won’t be either.” The idea was most likely, someone who should be a Pastor, shouldn’t have wandering eyes and a lust problem, but should be faithful.

        These qualifications weren’t likely a lifetime ban, also a reflection of current character. After all, Paul one was a denier of Christ and a hostile persecutor of the church. God can and does change people, Paul wrote:   "As such were some of you…” (1 Corinthians 6:11) after a long description of sins in 1 Corinthians because he knew Christ made us “New Creatures.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) “for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) appearance might be bad, but God routinely picked those who were traditionally unqualified in the Old Testament, those that committed sexual sins, liars, even murderers.  I couldn't help but reflect how God looked at the heart of imperfect people and seemed to value that over a rigid checklist, and yet we as the modern church had turned around and made a rigid checklist for a whole lifetime instead of examining the current heart?  

              Are these checklists like Matthew 23, where Jesus accuses Pharisees of ignoring the “Weightier parts of the law.” (Matthew 23:23) He declared, “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24)  It seems Jesus wasn’t teaching us to over-focus on strict rules for rules sakes, he surely wasn’t advocating anarchy either, but it seems using 1 Timothy as a bludgeon in the way it was used against me, looks at the words in an overliteral sense, and misses the point. It becomes a checklist, instead of a head and heart check to examine where someone is before they serve.

              An important rule about interpreting scripture is to allow other scripture to bring clarity to a difficult passage. I spoke of how brief my marriage was. 1 Corinthians 7:10-15 says,

“But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.”

           Since my first wife let me know she was “sick of God” this was an important verse to me. Given that I waited until she had been with another man, and Jesus clearly allows for divorce in the case of adultery (literally pornea, which also would include withholding of sex according to the cultural context of the time) In Matthew 19, I felt that was not “under bondage.” It would also be inappropriate for a church to place me in some form of bondage if God had not.   Paul was writing to Timothy and the parallel to Titus, whom he would have taught and all who would have known about these teachings. Not verse should be interpreted without referring to its context. With those verses in mind seems Paul’s weren’t as absolute at first glance after all, and it would be wrong to take them as such and so I continued in ministry.

              The importance of not seeing 1 Timothy 3:2 as a bludgeon against me and making sure I understood it’s cultural and biblical context would come up again in Seminary. There a professor challenged me on my traditional thinking. If I had misunderstood the passage in one area before, maybe I had again? What roles did women have in the early church? What was recorded in the bible but often glossed over? We will cover that next month.