Saddleback Church, best known for its previous leadership under pastor and bestselling author Rick Warren, was recently removed from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) for hiring a female teaching pastor last year.
Last year, Stacie Wood was hired as a teaching pastor in tandem with her husband, Andy Wood, who was chosen as the lead pastor to replace Rick Warren.
The SBC also removed four other churches with female pastors, citing the churches as “no longer in friendly cooperation” with the Convention.
The noteworthy news has brought the issue of women in leadership—and especially women in ministry leadership—to the forefront of evangelical minds.
Should women lead in ministry? Should women preach? Can a woman be a pastor?
Church staff across the US may be asking themselves these questions.
In light of these discussions, we spoke with two women leaders at Denison Ministries in a recent episode of The Denison Forum Podcast.
“You’re going to have a really hard time being taken seriously.”
Alex Kondratev is the Chief Content Officer at Denison Ministries. A child of the Bible belt in Georgia, she grew up in a Methodist church with a female lead pastor. Kondratev was a capable public speaker in her youth group, and her male youth pastor encouraged her gifting, saying she should become a pastor.
However, in her later teen years, Kondratev began attending a Southern Baptist church, which typically reserves leadership roles for men. Though that’s where she learned about Christ, her calling to leadership became muddled by the denomination’s stance on women in ministry.
Steph Thurling is the Executive Director of Christian Parenting, and her story is similar to Kondratev’s.
Thurling grew up in Minnesota as a Lutheran, a denomination that supports women in leadership (Ed. note: within its ELCA synod). In high school, she felt a clear call from God to ministry. She attended Pepperdine, which also had women in leadership positions.
In her words, “It never occurred to me that [being a female ministry leader] wouldn’t be an option for me until I started talking with women who were working in ministry. I will never forget one of them. I was talking about what I was going to do after college, and she just looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to have a really hard time being taken seriously. So go to seminary, get your degree, so you at least have that.’ So I did. I went to Fuller Seminary and there are women everywhere there. So it still was like: I don’t understand what everyone’s talking about. Then I got to applying for jobs, and I was shocked to see so many job descriptions with the pronoun he. It was very clear from the beginning: I am not allowed to apply to these churches.”
Kondratev and Thurling share more of their stories in our “Women in ministry and leadership” podcast episode, but three insights stand out.
“Helper” doesn’t mean inferior
Could a longtime, erroneous assumption about a particular Bible verse have contributed to women being relegated to second-class status, especially in the church?
Kondratev said, “Growing up in the Bible Belt [as a woman], you hear that you’re the helpmeet. You’re secondary. . . . I heard this a lot. And you go back and forth because, as any good Christian, you think, ‘Well, I just want to be what God wants me to be.’ So if it’s secondary, then I’ll try to work my way into that. But you just don’t feel that in your heart. You’re like: I don’t feel like I am secondary.”
When God created Eve, he said he would “make [Adam] a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). A cursory read of that sentence may result in a connotation that the helper is a subservient role to the one being helped.
However, Dr. Jim Denison points out that the Hebrew word for “helper” in that instance, ezer, means a superior who chooses to help an inferior. God uses the same term throughout the Old Testament, e.g., Psalm 121:2: “My help comes from the Lᴏʀᴅ, who made heaven and earth.”
And, although it’s the Greek parakletos in the New Testament, God calls the Holy Spirit “the Helper” in John 14:26; 15:26; and 16:7.
(With regard to New Testament passages about women in ministry, see Dr. Jim Denison’s in-depth biblical commentary, “Should women be pastors? Or church leaders, deacons, or teachers?”)
The church suffers when women aren’t enabled to lead
Kondratev states that “if we are not encouraging women to envision themselves as leaders,” the church will suffer. She worries about girls who doubt their calling from God, or who even doubt their ability to tell others about Jesus.
And she mentions that women who aren’t enabled for leadership in ministry will often find other places, typically in secular roles, to fulfill that calling that takes their full potential and talents into account.
The church needs humility in addressing the issue of women in ministry
Whether a church is for or against women in ministry leadership positions, Kondratev encourages every church to ask themselves, “What are you saying about women?”
How are you valuing their voices in equal measure? How are you enabling women in leadership, even if they aren’t allowed the title of pastor?
For much more on these issues, listen to Kondratev and Thurling’s insights in our “Women in ministry and leadership” podcast episode.
As more churches will likely debate this issue internally in the coming months, let’s ask the right questions—and let’s ensure that women have a voice in those discussions.