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Last Friday the Gender Parity Project released the results of its study of the role of women among evangelical non-profit organizations. Most of the men surveyed affirmed an egalitarian stance toward women in leadership positions, but the study also found that women have barely broken the 20 percent barrier in terms of board and paid leadership positions. Such findings should not surprise. Women play complicated roles in Evangelicalism, all worked out within the framework of Protestantism’s emphasis on maximizing lay participation.

When Origen wrote in the third century that apostolic authority sanctioned female ministers in the Church because of Phoebe, it is difficult to know precisely what he meant. Writing in the twelfth century, Peter Abelard thought Origen was referring to deaconesses, and he quoted a number of patristic sources to support their role among Greek-speaking churches. Keen on connecting this to his own time, he noted that “we now call these women abbesses, that is, mothers.”

Abelard wrote this almost a decade before the emergence of Hildegard of Bingen, one of the most powerful abbesses of the Middle Ages. The teaching of the “Sibyl of the Rhine,” as she was known, was embraced by Bernard of Clairvaux and his protégé Pope Eugene III. Hildegard was at the forefront of a women’s movement that formed the basis for the Beguines, Dominican penitent women, and anchorites in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was out of these lay movements that women exercised leadership roles as teachers and even doctors of the church.

When Protestantism largely rejected religious orders as a viable form of Christian life, it opened the door once again to the question of women teachers and preachers. Among evangelical Protestants, this combined with a penchant for revivalism and their desire to facilitate large-scale lay participation in the reform and renewal of the churches. John Wesley established lay preachers as a means to facilitate revival, eventually supporting women in those roles. By the mid-1800s the role of the female lay preacher allowed Phoebe Palmer to make her case that women should preach and teach, although she stopped short of calling for ordination. The role of the female evangelist was born.

The ordination of women in the Wesleyan tradition (Methodist, Holiness, and Pentecostal) was a doctrinal development within a distinctly Protestant orbit in which new forms of lay religiosity opened the door to the question of women ministers. This also had an impact on the role of women as leaders of social organizations given that within these same circles forms of ecclesial life like the Salvation Army combined denominationalism with non-profit organization. When the Gender Parity Project discovered that the Wesleyan branch of evangelicalism had more women leaders in its academic non-profits it should come as no surprise.

It is also not surprising, however, that there remains a debate about an evangelical subculture that does not live by its theological commitments to women ministers or that fails to provide an overt commitment to give women platforms for ministry. Even in Pentecostal bodies that do ordain women or those in which women ministers perform the sacraments and can pastor churches, such as the Assemblies of God, the Foursquare Church, and the Church of God, one can find cultural resistance to the idea of a woman occupying a leadership position.

This cultural resistance is reinforced, at times, by the strong complementarianism one finds in other parts of the evangelical world. Yet, even among complementarians, the situation is much more complicated than it seems on first glance. The Presbyterian Church in America, for example, allows for the commissioning of deaconesses. Although official PCA teaching makes a distinction between ordination and commissioning, in practice, the distinction breaks down. If one visits Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian in New York, one will find female deaconesses listed and performing the roles of servant ministry that the deacons perform.

There are also clear distinctions between women’s ordination in the church and women occupying leadership roles in society among many complementarians. For this reason, it was not surprising to see that evangelical men affirmed an egalitarian position on women leaders of non-profits.

On the whole, then, the fact that women occupy so few leadership positions among evangelical non-profits seems related more to the subculture of evangelicalism than to its theological commitments. In keeping with its commitment to maximize lay participation at all levels, evangelicals need to become much more conscious about providing platforms for women in leadership. If the Gender Parity Project has done nothing else, it has reminded evangelicals of the need to make good on that commitment.  

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