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The Flaw in Many Current Arguments for Women in Ministry

I’ve spent a long time trying to understand how and if women are different to men.

The conversation came up frequently as I discerned a call to ministry through my teen years and into university.

There seemed to be two answers.

The first said I couldn’t be a minister because I was a woman and would go something like this: “Men and women are equal but different, and so they have different roles to play in church.”

This is a position that assumes a complementarity between men and women, where men have a headship or hierarchical role.

Men have the leadership responsibilities in the different spheres of private and public life: They are the head of the family unit, church life and even – depending on your theology – the appropriate leaders in civic life.

The counter argument was a clever twist on the first: “Men and women are different but equal, and so we need them both to play their different roles in church leadership.”

It’s a comment I used a lot: “We need women, precisely because they bring different styles of leadership and different experiences of pastoral care.”

Both of these arguments share the same premise: There is a complementarity between men and women.

However, they come to different conclusions about whether this prohibits or necessitates women being in ministry.

Our key argument for Baptist women in ministry is this second position.

For my master’s dissertation, I examined every text between 1980 and 2015 written, commissioned or published by the Baptist Union of Great Britain or documents written by British Baptist authors who were arguing for women in ministry.

I discovered this argument for complementarity is based on our understanding of creation, arguing that men and women were created to be complementary partners; therefore, men need women in order to do their work in the world and would be (and have been) diminished without them.

Integral to our arguments for women in ministry is that men and women reflect the image of God together, rather than seeing it as they each reflect God.

We believe that as God created humanity in his image, “male and female,” our biology contains a God-given way of being.

This means human gender therefore reflects something of the divine, so it is an eternal reality and it isn’t limited to being something constructed by our society.

This leads to the idea that the distinctions between men and women, even though they can be hard to pin down and are not hierarchical, ought to be maintained in the church.

The next key argument for women in ministry found in our Baptist Union texts comes from this idea: We need to reclaim femininity as something positive.

Feminine styles of ministry are needed because a negative male, patriarchal structure has been seen to dominate in church and Baptist Union life, and women have been forced to conform their ministry into male styles of leadership.

What is meant by these styles varies author by author, but there seems to be a common idea about femininity being creative, relational and non-competitive.

For some authors this femininity is a stylistic thing, for others even spiritual gifts themselves are feminine, but the agreed outcome is that enabling women to partner in ministry with men leads to a change in culture that rescues us from sinful structures.

The goal is therefore to bring women who minister femininely in to partnership with men, thus reflecting a full image of God, which is how we were created.

Without women, and it is implied, women who minister “like women,” the church will only reflect half of the image of God.

Significantly, as the goal is to re-establish this divinely ordained complementary partnership, the hope expressed in these documents is that these men and women would minister together.

Some arguments even explicitly suggested husband-and-wife partnerships are the goal.

This means our case for women in ministry is still rooted in the “equal but different” language.

Arguing that women bring complementary gifts and styles to that of men continues to define women’s ministry in relation to men.

If women are constantly referred to as bringing collaboration for the good of a male-dominated church, this begs the question of whether women being collaborative has suited a patriarchal society and allowed men to stay in their positions of leadership.

We should be cautious that what is understood as masculine and feminine has been defined by that same patriarchal culture.

Thus, women are critiqued for ministering in ways that are not feminine, rather than the categories of what male and female leadership might look like being reconsidered.

Not all women are pastoral and collaborative, and many men are. This stereotyping also does not allow for the vast variety between women’s styles (and, indeed, male styles), as they get reduced in this way.

This is important because it can mean that men and women who are in power (often white, well educated, middle class, able bodied) can define the categories of masculinity and femininity for people for whom their ethnicity, for example, is more fundamental to their experience of being embodied or discriminated against.

Furthermore, this argument for women in ministry suggests that women are created and ordained in order to help men, rather than being a good thing in themselves.

If we argue as a Baptist Union that men and women are so fundamentally different in their ministerial styles and this is why we should ordain them, this gives credence to the churches who do not wish to settle on a woman because they feel they “really need a man.”

Women should be in ministry simply because God calls them to be there, just as not all men are called to ministry.

An understanding of women’s ordination that argues that we need women for the styles they bring is to assume that God calls us based on the competencies we have.

This is not how salvation or ordination works: God qualifies the called, not vice versa.

We have argued for women in ministry using the same theories people have argued against women in ministry, and this limits our conclusions. What we need to do is to reckon with the underlying presumption.

Our theology of what we were created to be is always going to be marred by the Fall, so instead we should look to how we are re-created.

As the church, we are called to be the body of Christ, in which there is “no male and female.” What happens if we start from there?

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2019 edition of Baptists Together, a publication of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission.

Beth Allison-Glenny

Beth Allison-Glenny is the Public Issues Enabler in the Baptist Union of Great Britain’s Faith and Society Team. She previously pastored John Bunyan Baptist Church in Oxford, United Kingdom.