In recent days, a number of people have asked me where I stand in the issue of women preaching in church. This is a question that matters to me. It matters because I’m the senior minister of one of the most recognisable Anglican churches in the country. It matters because my church, St Barnabas Broadway, has a history of women in the pulpit. It matters because I hold brothers and sisters to be precious on both sides of this argument. It also matters to me because I’m convinced, for whatever reason, that God has gifted me as a trainer of preachers. I have a small group of capable men and women who gather with me on Friday afternoons to develop as public ministers of God’s word. My vision is to see Barneys as the most prolific producer of compelling proclaimers of the gospel in Australia. Among those being trained are women. And so it’s important for me to know: what kind of preaching ministry do I think I’m training them for?
Firstly, let me make it clear that this is not an exegetical study. I don’t want to use a blog to step into the current war of words about the meaning of the word ‘didasko’, or the more vigorous discussion about books and responses. This is much more a personal confession, in the Augustinian sense – a brief statement of what I believe and practice, so that those near me may know clearly where I stand.
Men and women
So, then, here is where we begin: with my conviction that men and women are different. Different not only in who they are (in general, and as ‘kinds’), but different in how they are called to love and serve. This view is usually known as ‘complementarianism’. In the Christian community, it is associated with conservative evangelical belief. However, it is worth noting that amongst the latest wave of secular feminism, there is a strong argument being made for the importance of difference. Earlier feminism made the claim that women can do everything men can do (which, in terms of capacity, is hard to dispute). Contemporary feminisms (there are a plurality) observe that this appears to have resulted in masculinity becoming the standard by which ‘successful’ femininity is judged. Eva Cox, a prominent Australian feminist (and no Christian!) has argued, rightly I think, that this has resulted in a subjugation of womanhood to culturally male values, and that we need a new set of measures of ‘success’ that allow for parenting decisions and different priorities. So, I believe that men and women are in some contexts called to different roles. This doesn’t include the workplace, or the sporting field, or even the military, in my view. However, it does include families (as husbands and wives), and churches. Please hear again that I do not believe that these roles are necessarily rooted in capacities – in technical language, gender is not merely an extension of biological sex.
My understanding of these different roles will strike some as hopelessly regressive (a new apartheid). Others will understandably see a dangerous, creeping liberalism. This I can live with. It has always been my policy to be one person, in private and public, and this includes contested beliefs. I have called my position ‘soft complementation’ because I feel no need to stake out the middle ground. It is always better to call oneself names (‘soft’) than call one’s brothers and sisters names (‘hard’). And, besides, I don’t for a moment believe that those more conservative than me are remotely hard. Many of them are profoundly gentle, sensitive and grieving about the hurt this debate has caused, and full of a deep love for God’s church. They should be honoured for defending what they believe to be biblical. So, let me first summarise my position, and then I will explain: I am convinced that God desires a public word ministry by women in the mixed assembly of the church that includes preaching under the authority of a male elder. (Now, may the fireworks begin!) Briefly broken into pieces, here are my assumptions:
- The New Testament reserves a particular role in the life of the church, that of elder, for certain men (elder is not a description of age, but of office).
- Part of the task of elders is to preserve the life and doctrine of the church through authoritative teaching.
- The church is called to submit to the elders set over them.
- Men and women alike are expected to exercise a ministry of the word to one another in the assembly, which includes (but is not limited to) activities such as praying and prophesying.
- This general ministry of the word is not authoritative and, when exercised in the public assembly, is to be tested by the elders.
- Eldership in the Anglican church is established by ordination to the presbyterate.
- There is no general agreement around what constitutes prophecy in my church tradition, which is evangelical and Reformed Anglican, according to the 39 Articles.
- In a community of grace, our bias should be towards loosening, not tightening, and so I am happy to presume that the ‘word ministries’, which include prophecy and praying, include something very much like preaching, until it is demonstrated otherwise.
- Therefore, women (and non-elder men) can and should preach in the mixed assembly.
- However, it is also true that authority is not only ex officio, but socially constructed.
- Therefore, non-elders (and that includes men and women alike) should preach less often than elders.
There is one more thing that may be worth saying here. I was trained under Phillip Jensen through Campus Bible Study at the University of New South Wales. I love him dearly, am thankful to God for his ministry, and continue to partner with Phillip from time to time in important initiatives, and seek his counsel on difficult issues. However, I am not Phillip, and his views are not my views. That is as it should be. My own reading of the Scriptures has led me a little away from what I was taught at CBS. This was allowed, by the way, and those who characterise CBS or St Matthias as a sausage-factory for hardliners are simply ignorant. However, we are all shaped by our heritage. What this means is that while I support preaching by women in the congregation as a matter of biblical conviction, I have not always found it an entirely comfortable experience. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that the place that trains the most women for preaching, and trains them the best, is CBS. But CBS does not train women to preach to mixed congregations. This means that women preaching before mixed congregations are unlikely to have the best training currently available. And, in turn, this means that, if you are a man, then you are less likely to hear a woman preach who has had the same investment in her preaching as most male preachers have experienced. Secondly, my considered position hasn’t entirely overridden my own story and consequent ingrained preference. And here is the most important sentence of this article: I choose to do what I think is right, not what I most enjoy or prefer. And that is what leadership is all about.