I was asked recently about the role of women at my church. This is a topic I love to speak about and I am always excited to list off the many ways that women serve.
As an example, last Sunday we had women leading music, praying, reading the Bible, teaching kids’ church, and leading an easy English Bible study. Outside of Sunday ministry women serve as parish councillors, wardens, small group leaders and, in many other ways.
While I am thankful for each of the ways women serve, I made a mistake by answering the question about the role of women when I answered it in this way. This answer I gave was about what women do. However, if we really want a robust discussion about the role of women, we have to think more broadly than just the things that women do.
As a complementarian I am convinced that women are vital to the life of a church. The word complementary means “combining in such a way as to enhance or emphasize the qualities of each other or another”. Our practice of complementarian theology should reflect this. It’s not about what women or men do as autonomous individuals, it’s about how they work together in a way to benefit both of them. Of course, how we serve and what we do is one aspect of this. However, we shouldn’t limit the conversation about the role of women to only talk about what women do.
As an ordained woman in the Sydney Anglican Diocese this is something that I think we have sometimes gotten wrong in our discussions about the role of women in churches. Not only can we narrow our thinking about this to what women do, in some cases we’ve narrowed it down to just one thing women may or may not do.
“Yes, but do women preach in your church?” This was the follow up question that was asked as I talked about the role of women in my church. It often feels like the answer to this has become the test of whether a church values the contribution of women and of whether or not they believe women have an important role in church. It’s as if we believe that if one woman preaches from time to time, that church necessarily has a higher view of the role of women. This is far from the truth.
The role of women in the church is fundamentally the same as the role of men – they should be active members and contributors to the life of church, working together as image bearers. Yes, this means doing certain things. It also means women should be sought out as voices of wisdom to contribute to the decision making of the church. They should be asked to give feedback to preachers and other teachers, to disciple new leaders in the church, and to be safe places for the vulnerable among us. They should be trained and mentored into leadership positions and encouraged to start new ministries. They should feel freedom to imagine new ways they can serve.
Many years ago, I found myself in an unexpected position. I was attending an Anglican church at the time, though I do not think I would have called myself ‘Anglican’. I had been involved in many kinds of ministry as a lay person, and one day a member of the ministry team suggested I think about studying at Moore Theological College, and potentially going into vocational ministry. Having grown up in an egalitarian church, part of my decision making was to begin to understand this complementarian ministry I was seeing. To be honest, my initial response was what is the point? If women are not allowed to do everything men can do, why bother? This reaction was despite the numerous ways I was already serving. I was thinking about the role of women based on what they do (or in this case, do not do).
However, as I read and listened to what the Bible and others had to say on the role of women, I felt an incredible sense of freedom. My thinking about the role of women changed from a narrow view of what they can do, to a broad view of how men and women together can serve together as image bearers. This gave me freedom to imagine new ways to serve and contribute to ministry. I felt that I had value to add and a role to play.
One of my favourite images of the church in the Bible is of the body in 1 Corinthians 12. One of the reasons I like it so much is that even while it acknowledges we are different and there are different ways for us to contribute, it also makes clear that each of us, regardless of how we contribute, is an equal and valued part of the body of Christ.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:27-31
The danger of limiting of thinking about the role of women to a list of what they do or do not is that it can leave us feeling disenfranchised.
Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 1 Corinthians 12:15
In other words, if I can’t do this or that, what’s the point? This is not the way it should be. Complementarian theology is a beautiful picture of how men and women have been created to work together. Side by side, image bearers together, as the first man and woman were in the garden.
When I’m asked about the role of women in my church, this is the picture I want to come back to. This is what I want to be reflected in my church, and in yours.