I grew up in a form of Christian life that had women pastors, evangelists, church planters and, of course, missionaries.
The only thing women could not do in church life was, apparently, serve as denominational executives. I don’t think there was any rule against it; it just didn’t happen – except in those few denominations founded by women.
Both my birth mother and stepmother were licensed ministers of the gospel. I don’t recall whether either was ordained.
Neither served as lead pastor, although both worked alongside my father, functionally serving as co-pastors of our churches.
This was a very conservative form of Christian life; we were fundamentalists in doctrine if not in mentality.
We called ourselves “evangelicals” and described our form of Christian life as “full gospel,” but we interpreted the Bible as literally as possible (although inconsistently so).
However, when it came to those New Testament passages about women being silent in the churches and being submissive to their husbands, our leaders tended to interpret them as culturally conditioned.
After all, there were counterbalancing aspects of the New Testament in which women taught men.
I do not remember very much teaching about this matter; it was simply taken for granted that God had gifted women with ministerial callings and skills, and it was not our place, as men, to question God’s gifts or callings.
Later, as I left that form of Christian life (Pentecostalism) and entered a new one (Baptist), I encountered strong opinions against women serving as church leaders – except “on the mission field.”
This transition was before the explosion of modern or contemporary so-called “complementarianism,” before the rise of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
My early close encounters with Baptists were with two European-based, relatively small Baptist groups.
I attended a seminary founded by German Baptists (North American Baptist Convention) and then taught at a college and seminary founded by Swedish Baptists (Baptist General Conference).
My first Baptist church membership and ordination, however, was within the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. (the old Northern Baptist Convention), which had come to accept women at all levels of leadership – both within the churches and in the denomination.
One thing stood out clearly: Even among these non-fundamentalist Baptists who resisted ordination of women and women pastors, there was profound respect for women missionaries who, on the “mission fields” of Africa and Asia especially, performed all the functions of pastors.
They preached, taught, baptized, officiated, counseled and even had authority over male missionaries who arrived at their “mission stations” later than they.
As I looked deeper into these seeming inconsistencies, I noticed that even in the U.S., women had occasionally served as church planters and pastors among them – mostly in the distant past when they were immigrant churches.
During my seminary days, and later as “complementarianism” began to gain steam among American evangelicals, I had several fairly heated conversations with evangelical Christians who told me in no uncertain terms that women’s ordination and church leadership was a sign of a “liberalizing tendency” and needed to be resisted and even rolled back.
I pointed out that my grandparents on both sides belonged to very evangelical denominations, untouched by liberal theology, which had women pastors.
My maternal grandparents were Evangelical Free and I know that, at least once, their church was pastored by a woman.
My paternal grandparents were Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and that denomination (which denies it is a “denomination”) has always, so far as I know, had women pastors.
Many churches in the Pietist and Wesleyan-Holiness traditions had women pastors and leaders without ever being touched by liberal theology.
Because I have come into a religious context historically dominated by Southern Baptists and since the rise of “complementarianism” among evangelicals, I have been asked occasionally, “When did you become ‘liberal’ and accept women pastors?”
I laugh – and then explain about my grandparents’ churches and the churches I grew up in.
The reason I get asked this occasionally is because during the past 20 years I have been a member of three Baptist churches (in succession) pastored by women.
I believe God led us to those churches, and I have experienced those pastors as called by God and gifted by God for ministry on a par with any man.
So, of course, complementarians ask me “What about” this verse and that verse? We all know what they are.
Then, I ask them a series of questions:
- Do you permit women to pray in church without their heads covered?
- Do you permit women in your church to cut their hair?
- Do you permit men in your church to have long hair?
- Do you permit women in your church to wear jewelry and makeup?
- Does your church sing hymns written by women? (That one requires pointing out that singing hymns written by women is permitting women to teach in the church – including the men who sing the songs!)
- Does your church support women missionaries in Africa and Asia and Latin America who do all the work there you only allow men to do here – in the U.S.?
- Who does most of the real work in your church? (Knowing it’s probably women).
Having women ministers is not evidence of a “liberal trend,” and Christians who reject women ministers are usually quite inconsistent in practice.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.