By Steve Edgington
A dozen years ago the elders of Anaheim (California) First Christian Church invited the chairperson of the missions committee, a woman, to join with the elders, whenever they met together, as part of the church’s leadership council. She accepted, and served in this leadership capacity alongside the elders and the senior minister. Several years later another very capable woman became missions committee chairperson and, in turn, served on the leadership council.
Whether this place on the leadership council for a woman is viewed as radical (“You’ve wrongly made a woman an elder in everything but name”) or timid (“If a woman is really functioning as an elder, why don’t you call her what she is, an elder?”), it unfolded in the life of the church in a very practical way, and certainly not without biblical scrutiny.
This account of the path followed by our congregation is not set forth as “the way every church should go”; rather, it is simply shared for what it is, the story of how our leadership and congregation navigated through a changing church situation and the question of women in leadership.
Anaheim First Christian Church grew along with the city of Anaheim in the 1960s and 1970s as Midwesterners transplanted themselves into Southern California. The church ministered as a participant in the civic life of the community with chamber of commerce, Rotary club, and even city council connections.
However, by the 1980s it was clear that the city and the neighborhood were changing. Although the church was located in the shadow of Disneyland, much of the immediate neighborhood had become poor, Latino, and largely Spanish speaking.
If the church was to be the church in that neighborhood and community, a commitment had to be made to stay in that place and engage with the changed community as effectively as the church had previously engaged transplanted Midwesterners, and Rotarians.
An important piece of rethinking the identity and presence of the church in the changing community, while reaffirming the constant overall purpose and mission of the church, was rethinking leadership. Elders and deacons of the church had been solid citizens, good men, and faithful Christians, but they were less likely to be “apt to teach” or to have a well developed vision for leading the church effectively to be the church in the changing community.
A very deliberate transformation was made in the thinking of the congregation about leadership. Instead of thinking about elders and deacons as “positions” or “offices,” we began to see elders, deacons, and leaders generally as members of the congregation who were already functioning as servant-leaders committed to the church, its mission, and its ministries.
Accordingly, when the church approached elder selection time in the annual cycle, the congregation was asked in a survey which individuals in the church they would seek out for spiritual guidance. The responses overall were rather telling, but perhaps the most thought-provoking responses were those that named some mature Christian women. So the question was raised: “Could women be elders?”
We embarked on a thorough study of the Bible to seek an answer to that question. The progression of our inquiry is summarized very briefly in the box on this page.
At this point, it would be well to factor in two other developments at Anaheim First Christian Church. One factor was a commitment by the leadership council to purposefully remain in the changing community and work at being the church in that neighborhood and community. We knew this would certainly require the church to change in ways that would not be comfortable to many and that might even be unacceptable to some. One example of such change was moving the congregation from a mentality of preserving the buildings from wear and tear from neighborhood children, youth, and adults to using the buildings for outreach and ministry to the neighborhood. Another example was launching a Spanish-language ministry of the church.
A second factor was a transformation in thinking about the decision-making process among the elders.1 Instead of making decisions by “roll-call” style votes, in which it might be reported that the elders approved a particular proposal or decision by an 8-3 or 6-5 vote, the elders embraced a process of making decisions by consensus, suggested by texts in Acts describing decisions made by the early church (Acts 6:5, “This proposal pleased the whole group”; see also Acts 15:22). Thereafter, decisions were reached by consensus sought through discussion and prayer.2 If there was no consensus, the matter would be put aside awaiting movement toward a consensus.
As applied to the question of whether women could be elders, there was not a consensus that biblical inquiry clearly supported the naming of a woman as an elder. There was consensus that biblical inquiry clearly supported the fact that women were active in the ministry and leadership of the early church.
Other factors were also considered. Given the range of transformation in which the congregation was then engaged on a path to be the church more effectively in the neighborhood/community, the elders did not press the issue of female elders toward an affirmative consensus. It was anticipated that a decision to name female elders would require a lengthy and intensive effort from the leadership council to engage the congregation in this study and that the issue would become all-consuming. It was a greater imperative to have the church focused and consumed by the task of learning how to be the church in the neighborhood.
Moreover, although some of the very capable women of the church were not convinced that Scripture prohibited their functioning as elders, they were not pressing for, or insisting upon, being named as elders. However, they were certainly eager to serve and intent upon using their considerable gifts in support of the church and its mission.
Leading in Service
The final piece in the decision to invite a woman to join the leadership council was the calculation that the missions committee would need to be closely involved, strategically and financially, in the initiation of the Spanish-language ministry and other neighborhood outreach initiatives. To invite the chairperson of the missions committee, who was one of the mature Christian women so very respected in the congregation, to be an integral part of setting direction, developing strategy, and implementing plans seemed good to us all. It was accepted as a reasonable and practical step to help move the church toward the vision set forth.3
After several years of service on the leadership council, this woman leader moved out of state. Her successor as missions ministry team4 leader was also a gifted and mature Christian woman. She served with the leadership council for six years. Currently, the missions ministry team leader is male and an elder. There are, at the moment, no women on the leadership council.
Over the last 15 years women in our congregation have led worship, led ministry teams of the church (including missions ministry, adult Christian education ministry, children’s ministry, ministry to women, health ministry, prayer ministry, and others), taught Sunday school—including at times classes of adult men and women—baptized persons they have helped lead to Christ, officiated at funerals, regularly presented Communion and offering meditations in Sunday worship and, on a few occasions, preached.
Men are also actively involved in a similarly wide array of leadership functions. Our congregation is stronger than it would be otherwise because of the servant-leadership offered to God by both men and women.
1 By this time the elders and staff members meeting together as a leadership team were called the leadership council.
2 It was also decided that the elders should meet for the sole purpose of spending large blocks of time praying together for the congregation, dedicating just as many meetings for this purpose as they did for regular meetings that focused on mission, purpose, vision, strategies, personnel, ministry teams, policies, and pastoral care.
3 The decision also seemed like an incremental step consistent with some existing practices of the church. For instance, the church’s management council included a member of the congregation at-large who, by custom, had been a woman. The management council’s role was to manage the resources of the church in support of the direction set by the leadership council.
4 In keeping with the transformation in thinking about church leadership that emphasized the function of leading in ministry rather than leadership as office or position, the language of “ministry teams” and “ministry team leader” supplanted the language of “board of deacons” and “committee”—such as the “missions committee.”
Investigating the Bible
The conventional view of biblical teaching was well known and widespread by members and leaders at Anaheim First Christian Church. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 appeared to prohibit women from speaking and teaching in church. Moreover, 1 Timothy 3:1-12 appeared to give gender-exclusive instruction about elders and deacons.
Yet, these texts had also been interpreted as targeted instructions aimed at specific congregational concerns in Corinth and Ephesus rather than as universal, comprehensive prohibitions of women speaking, teaching, and leading in the church. For example, the 1 Timothy texts are specific responses to the overall concern of this letter, to stop the damage to the church being done by false teachers. These false teachers were apparently teaching that the resurrection of believers had already taken place and that women should reject marriage, childbearing, and other family roles in order to demonstrate their advanced spirituality. Therefore, the main conduits of influence used by false teachers to expand their own power in the church were certain prominent women who were particularly susceptible to this false teaching.
In this passage and elsewhere Paul consistently emphasizes the Christian lifestyle of quietness or peaceable living (hesychia, hesychios, hesychazo are the noun, adjective, and verb forms). The particular women who were disrupting the church as tools of the false teachers are admonished to learn in a “quiet” (hesychia) manner.
Though translators have here rendered this as “be silent,” the same word when used in 1 Timothy 2:2, 1 Thessalonians 4:11, and 2 Thessalonians 3:12—in texts addressed to men or both male and female Christians—is translated “quiet” or “peaceable” rather than “be silent.”
And what of the declaration of Galatians 3:28? How should this text be reconciled with the “be silent” texts if they were indeed meant as a universal instruction to church women in all times and places? Did Paul mean to propose a double track for women? That there is neither “male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” with the exception that women can’t speak in church, teach, or be elders? Would the same double track apply to “Greeks” and “slaves” who had become Christians?
Furthermore, other New Testament texts describe Christian women prophesying, teaching, praying, and leading in the church as a common, not unexpected occurrence (Acts 2:17, 18; Acts 21:8, 9; Romans 16:1-4, 7; 1 Corinthians 11:5; Philippians 4:2, 3; Colossians 4:15).
Obviously, the above paragraphs are not an exhaustive or conclusive treatment of the issue of the role of women in the church. That kind of extensive analysis and presentation of all the pertinent biblical texts could not be accomplished in such a brief format as this. What these paragraphs are meant to convey is the nature of the biblical inquiry and its dimensions and challenges as it seeks to make sense of different kinds of biblical texts that speak to the question of women and leadership in the church.
Steve Edgington, vice president of academic affairs at Hope International University, is an elder with Anaheim First Christian Church.