Gifts without limits

Ability and calling, not gender, make a pastor

Sep 25, 2017 by

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There’s room for everyone on the spectrum of Mennonite beliefs about women in ministry. On the traditional side are conservative and plain groups who agree the pulpit is for men only. In the middle are U.S. Mennonite Brethren, who approve women for all roles except lead pastor. On the liberal end are Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Church Canada and Canadian Mennonite Brethren, who do not limit women’s leadership.

This diversity offers a chance to show forbearance and grow in our understanding of each other’s views. To take a position on women in ministry is not to disparage the faith or beliefs of another. As Rom. 14:5 says, each should be fully convinced in one’s own mind.

This summer, Conservative Mennonite Conference sought to clarify its position — and to free women from constraints not found in Scripture — when it held seminars and a panel discussion on women in ministry at its annual conference in Kidron, Ohio. CMC does not ordain women as pastors. It upholds complementarianism, the belief that women and men equally bear the image of God but differ in the ways they can serve the church.

Roger Hazen, a CMC pastor from Vassar, Mich., defended the position that “women are not to teach doctrine to men nor exercise authority over them.” This principle, he said, is unambiguous in the New Testament and also is based on the order of creation established in Genesis. “Gender roles were established by God before the fall, not after,” according to a report on the panel in the CMC magazine Beacon.

Yet there’s a strong case that the opposite is true: It was after the fall, not before, that God told Eve her husband would rule over her. This imbalance of power was the result of sin, not of God’s created intent. Before the fall, God said the woman would be Adam’s helper, but a helper need not be subordinate or restricted.

As we study the Bible and listen to each other, the experiences of women who are called to pastoral ministry merit special attention. So do the testimonies of those who have seen female pastors demonstrate every gift of spiritual leadership. Each time a woman steps to the pulpit, the stereotype that power is masculine fades just a bit.

For female pastors and those blessed by their ministry, these scriptures ring true: “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10, New American Standard Bible) and “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).

In light of these teachings, what should a woman who possesses the gifts of a pastor do with her abilities? The answer seems clear: Use them for the common good. But only as long as she doesn’t actually become a pastor? Would God grant a gift and then restrict its use?

These questions lead to another that applies to each of us: How do we know what God’s call is? In a recent blog on mennoworld.org, Brad Roth, a pastor from Moundridge, Kan., who is writing MWR’s Bible column, suggests we have a flawed understanding of what it means to be called. Rather than thinking of God’s call as a mysterious inner feeling, we need to put more weight on the church’s outer calling: encouraging each other to use our abilities and looking for ways to serve that are right in front of us.

It’s refreshingly simple: The gift itself is the call. If the gift is God’s yes, the church should not say no.


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  • Dayna Olson-Getty

    Dear Paul,

    Thank-you for your advocacy for women in ministry and for a faithful interpretation of gender in Genesis.

    It’s important to alert your readers to the reality that serving in pastoral ministry within MCUSA is not nearly as uncomplicated for women as it may sound. While our MCUSA confession of faith and polity manual do support the unqualified full inclusion of women in the church, many MCUSA congregations and some MCUSA conferences continue to uphold policies and practices that significantly curtail the possibilities for women in church leadership.

    Even for women who are fully affirmed by their congregation, as I have been, significant gender-based limitations may remain on the conference level. My conference, Virginia Mennonite Conference, remains divided over whether women should be allowed to serve in leadership positions. This is reflected in the current VMC leadership manual, reaffirmed in 2015, which states, in part, “…the question is still open whether the headship-of-man principle, as taught in I Corinthians 11, implies that roles, which involve authority and responsibility over men, are unsuited to women.” Our VMC leaders go on to warn that “those calling for change [to practices of male headship]…should…cultivate the humility that acknowledges how little we know about whether and how we can overcome the traditional patriarchal (or even matriarchal) social patterns.”

    These convictions of male supremacy are born out in practice – some delegates and leaders in our conference respond with deep discomfort and defensiveness to women pastors who speak and act with the same authority routinely granted to male pastors. Meanwhile, many of the most influential leadership positions in our conference appear to not actually be open to women who have the education, vision, and experience to bring about significant change.

    Women pastors in conferences like mine frequently find themselves in an impossible double-bind – we are called to provide leadership on behalf of our congregations, who have called and blessed us with the responsibility to bring our full selves, including our most creative and intelligent ideas, our probing questions and critiques, and our scripture-and-prayer-formed visions for the future of God’s people, into communal discernment. Yet exercising those same gifts as a woman in a conference setting often results in serious negative consequences, both personally and to the well-being of our congregations. And the biases, obstacles, and consequences faced by women of color, single women, and LGBTQ women are exponentially greater than those faced by married, white, straight women like me.

    The tragedy of this situation is that some of our very best leaders are excluded from the positions where they could most benefit the larger church. And even more grievous is that this system positions men and women as embattled opponents, rather than as beloved co-laborers and faithful companions in the work of the gospel. These policies and practices shape a culture of ministry that positions us to battle with each other for a piece of a limited leadership pie, rather than to partner as fellow recipients of the lavish out-pouring of God’s empowering Spirit.

    I continue to wait in hope for the day when, across MCUSA, we live out God’s beautiful dream of partnership and companionship in ministry, made fruitful though the joyful embrace of God’s good gifts in the bodies and lives of a diversity of people called, blessed, and empowered by the Spirit.

    Blessings in Christ,

    Dayna Olson-Getty

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