U.S. MBs discuss women in pastoral ministry

Jan 18, 2019 by and

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TEMPE, Ariz. — Enough U.S. Mennonite Brethren want to allow women as lead pastors that they’ve opened an official discussion about it.

Recognizing diversity of belief, they want to build unity and understanding, whether or not the policy changes someday.

Joanna Chapa of Rio Grande City, Texas, who serves in Peru with Multiply, the Mennonite Brethren mission agency, speaks during discussion time at the USMB study conference on "The Bible and Women in Pastoral Ministry." — Paul Schrag/MWR

Joanna Chapa of Rio Grande City, Texas, who serves in Peru with Multiply, the Mennonite Brethren mission agency, speaks during discussion time at the USMB study conference on “The Bible and Women in Pastoral Ministry.” — Paul Schrag/MWR

At the same time, there’s unease in certain quarters about not living up to the conference’s stated goals. Some congregations have become more restrictive, despite a 20-year-old resolution urging them to use women’s gifts in every role except lead pastor.

At a national study conference on “The Bible and Women in Pastoral Ministry” Jan. 14-16, more than 140 people sought to give the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches direction on these matters.

Egalitarians, who affirm women and men equally for all ministries, spoke of pain and frustration.

“If I stand before Jesus one day and learn I was wrong to serve in certain capacities, I think there will be space for me in the kingdom,” said Whitney Douglas, associate pastor of youth and outreach at Willow Avenue Mennonite Church in Clovis, Calif. “I could not ignore the Spirit’s prompting.”

Complementarians, who believe Scripture mandates different roles based on gender, defended the restriction as consistent with God’s design for human relationships and the church.

“There is only one thing left for a true complementation to compromise on, and that is the lead pastor role,” said Helene Wedel of Huron, S.D. “As a complementarian woman, that would be the threshold that I could not compromise.”

Gary Wall of Fresno, Calif., a member of the USMB Board of Faith and Life, said: “There are women in this room and many in our districts who joyfully live under the spiritual authority of husbands and male pastors.”

USMB women have served in associate or other pastoral roles since the 1980s. Today, congregational practices range from deciding that women can no longer serve on the leadership board to hiring a woman as de facto lead pastor without the title.

The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches opened the lead pastorate to women in 2006. It framed the decision as giving congregations the freedom to discern what helps or hinders the gospel in their context.

Meanwhile, the U.S. conference has lost women leaders who have joined Mennonite Church USA to find opportunities and affirmation as pastors.

“The last two or three years there have been increasing calls for change,” said Tim Sullivan of Wichita, Kan., who chairs the USMB Board of Faith and Life. “We needed to have a conversation.”

What comes next? “We are going to gather responses and pray and see if there is something we need to do,” he said. “We have been neutral about any expectation.”

Scholars’ summary

Three scholars summarized the biblical case for different views. James R. Beck, a professor of counseling at Denver Seminary said each has credibility.

“One side should not accuse the other of being wrong, or of heresy, or of taking us down a slippery slope,” he said. “Each side can build their case on the basis of Scripture.”

Examining 13 biblical questions, Beck said complementarians and egalitarians disagree on some things and agree on others.

Does Genesis 2 teach hierarchy? Adam was created first and gave Eve her name. Some believe this supports male authority.

Was Jesus egalitarian? Neither side would claim that he was; full equality is an approach to gender that did not exist in the ancient world.

Dan Doriani, a professor of theology at Covenant Seminary, made the complementarian case. He emphasized Jesus’ choice of 12 male apostles.

“If Jesus had wanted to choose women, he could have done so,” Doriani said. Jesus had lepers, prostitutes and tax collectors as friends. “We cannot dismiss his choice of male apostles as mere cultural accommodation.”

Doriani said the prohibition on women teaching men in 1 Tim. 2:12-13 is not local or temporary but grounded in creation, as it says, “for Adam was formed first.”

God has always restricted the use of gifts, Doriani said. No matter how qualified an Israelite might have been, he couldn’t be the king unless he was from the line of David nor a priest unless a descendant of Levi.

“I know this teaching is unpopular,” he said. “But so are a lot of things in Christianity. . . . [Limiting women] is against the tide of history. That’s interesting, but it is not determinative.”

Craig Keener, who teaches biblical studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, presented the egalitarian view. He said the Bible tells of many prophetesses, such as Miriam, Huldah and Deborah.

“Can women be apostles and prophets but not pastors and teachers?” he asked. Paul ranks apostles and prophets higher (1 Cor. 12:28). The apostle Junia (Rom. 16:7) was a woman.

Keener emphasized the context of biblical commands. He said the mandate in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-12 for women to be silent in church addressed a specific problem: Uneducated women were asking disruptive questions. The problem wasn’t that women were teaching but that they were learning too loudly, which is why they’re instructed to ask their husbands at home.

“We have explicit commands of Scripture, and we look for the principles and how they apply to our situations,” Keener said. “If we don’t take into account the ancient culture, we are effectively making our own culture the arbiter of the text.”

Michelle Lee-Barnewall, who teaches biblical studies at Biola University, offered an “alternative approach,” with a goal to make “complementarians better complementarians and egalitarians better egalitarians.”

“What if we approached this from the perspective of being one body in Christ rather than about rights and positions?” she asked. “I think the discussion has been focused too much on a power model rather than a relational model.”

MB history, context

Valerie Rempel, interim vice president, dean and J.B. Toews Chair of History and Theology at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, reviewed MB history. From the beginnings of missionary work in Oklahoma and India in the 1890s, “women had freedoms on the mission field that did not correspond to congregational life at home,” she said. Women were ordained as missionaries until 1957, when the conference decided they should rather be commissioned.

A 1987 decision affirmed women as elders and associate pastors. Since a 1999 resolution blessing women for all ministries except lead pastor, “congregations are pushing the boundaries in both directions,” she said — some more restrictive, others less.

Participants heard about MB practices in other countries from Doug Heidebrecht of Abbotsford, B.C., a member of the Canadian conference Faith and Life Team.

In the global MB family, with 470,000 members, women serve as pastors in 11 of 19 countries.

After the Canadian conference opened the lead pastorate to women, Heidebrecht said, few were appointed to that role.

Feeling displaced

After a day and a half of presentations by six scholars, Jessica Ice of Fresno wondered if the church had spent as much time “sitting with people in their pain” as “studying Scripture and forming arguments.” That eve­ning, an hour was devoted to women telling their experiences.

Kimberly Kliewer Becker, pastor of Immanuel Mennonite Church in Lauderdale, Minn., said she had found her voice as a preacher in MC USA.

“I’m in a Mennonite church, and I’m Mennonite Brethren and I feel displaced, not fully fitting there, not fully fitting here, and I think that’s a shame, because this is my people, and it shouldn’t be this way,” she said.

Joanna Chapa of Rio Grande City, Texas, who serves in Peru with Multiply, the MB mission agency, told of growing up in south Texas, where her grandmother told her she had MB in her blood, and going to Tabor College, where she learned that God validates her gifts.

“Serving in Peru, I’ve had opportunities to preach, and it’s been in these moments when I realized I come alive in ways I never thought I would,” she said. “I want to encourage you to continue to be a family that affirms your daughters and your wives to be women that God created them to be. Release them, empower them, learn from them.”

Dina Gonzalez-Pina of Hanford, Calif., said she and her husband had been pastoring an MB church for 15 years, helping people on the margins.

“The work of pastoral ministry is not easy, but I wouldn’t change it for anything else,” she said. “God has been real, he has been present, and I think we would miss out on his fullness if we ignore the call in half of his body.”

Differences and unity

A concluding time of discussion included advocacy for different points of view as well as pleas for unity.

Calling for equality of people but diversity of roles, Roy Burket of Huron, S.D., urged that “whatever we do, the word of God must not be maligned.”

Xavier Pina of Hanford, Calif., who chairs the Pacific District Conference Hispanic Council, said the council wanted to publicly declare its affirmation of women in pastoral leadership.

John Langer of Gettysburg, S.D., urged caution about change.

“We have a lot of people in our district who have said they are not going to stay if it goes to local choices,” he said.

But James Bergen of Fresno urged the Board of Faith and Life to “lead courageously and boldly and not be intimidated by phantom fears of what might happen.”

LouAnn Voth of Halstead, Kan., said restrictions in the church hurt women in their lives outside the church.

“I challenge you about saying we can be two people, having authority in the world but not in the church,” she said. “I don’t think God made us schizophrenic.”

Desirae Robinson of Yale, S.D., said that as a complementarian she felt freed, not restricted.

“What happens in our church does not have anything to do with my rights as a woman but everything to do with God’s glory,” she said.

Several called for unity, citing agreement on the gospel.

“On either side we are desiring to know Jesus Christ and be faithful to him in every way,” said Marci Bertalotto of Fresno, who upheld an egalitarian view: “This isn’t just girls crying about something, this is a sense of call about what God has asked them to do.”

Chris Douglas of Boise, Idaho, commended the respectful conversation.

“We probably will have to agree to disagree at some point,” he said, “but we can agree there are lost people who need to know Jesus Christ who won’t care whether we decide this one way or another.”

The desire for unity reflected the sentiment of an earlier presentation by Larry Martens of Clovis, Calif., a retired pastor and professor, on how the early church dealt with controversy.

Martens urged practicing both grace and truth, as the believers in Acts 15 did when discerning God’s intention for gentiles.

“An ongoing pastoral task for each generation,” he said, “is to engage in this kind of conversation about what holds us together and what are the issues where we have freedom and can bless one another as we live out the gospel.”


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