How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership compiled by Alan Johnson

I’ve been asked what I’ve been reading to change my mind about the place of women in the church and home? The Bible. Obviously. And quite a few blogs. Recently, I discovered this book, published last year. How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership compiled by Alan Johnson. It is filled with personal stories of change. Evangelical leaders share how they were converted away from practicing gender hierarchy to practicing true gender equality in their marriages and churches. Johnson starts his book with this powerful observation from RT France:

France writes that he knows many evangelicals like himself who have changed their minds about women in leadership and pastoral ministries from a more restrictive view to an inclusive view, but he has never met an evangelical who has changed their mind in the opposite direction. (Alan Johnson quotes from RT France, A Test-Case for Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 10.)

At the knee of my mother…

…was where many of the contributors learned of Jesus’ love. Mothers, who were not allowed to preach in church, preached at home. The most poignant story comes from Tony Campolo.

As I was growing up, she [his mother] often talked about how she, as a teenage girl, had thought about running away from home and joining a small evangelical group headquartered in Zarephath, New Jersey, called the Pillar of Fire Mission. She told me that she did not do so because she was needed to take care of several younger bothers and sisters, who were struggling to survive in the care of her widowed mother.

One day I asked my mother what was so special about the Pillar of Fire Mission and she told me, “They let women be preachers.” Then it dawned on me: my mother not only had the gift of preaching, but also a sense of calling. Evil was the ecclesiastical ruling that kept her from living out that calling, and poorer was the church that was deprived of her extraordinary gifts. (Tony Campolo, p. 66)

John Ortberg reflects on his mother’s leadership qualities that had to be masked by the ideology that the husband was the leader of the marriage. “But although her husband was in charge in theory, it was clear to everyone who knew them that she was by far the more powerful personality. She submitted him right into the ground. ” (John Ortberg, p. 183)

Not just mothers influenced the writers. The stories are filled with the names of influential women, unable to fill the role of preacher or minister, yet teaching and leading in “unofficial” capacity. This cognitive dissonance of refusal to recognize the women’s obvious ministerial gifting  sparked many to re-think their traditional hierarchical interpretations. This re-thinking brought conviction that change needed to happen. Stuart Briscoe says this:

Then one day I read again the parable of the man who before going away gave his servants gifts and promised on his return to hear an account of their stewardship. He was less than pleased by the one who misunderstood his master and buried his gift. I took to heart yet again the compelling truth that gifts are not imparted to be buried. But then like a thunderclap the thought occurred to me: “What does the Master think of those who bury the gifts of others?” And I knew that I, as a husband, father and pastor, could do precisely that with the gifts of thousands of women. There and then I asked the Lord, “Whatever else you can accuse me of, please deliver me from ever being guilty of burying the gifts of those over whom I legitimately exercise some degree of spiritual oversight.” And that was the tipping point for me. (Stuart Briscoe, p. 62-63)

The inconsistencies are absurd.

Another common theme throughout the stories is the silly games churches would play to use the gifts of capable and remarkable women, yet still hold on to the “biblical” rule of women not teaching men.

Olive Liefeld , the widow of Pete Fleming who was martyred in Ecuador with Jim Elliot, has amusing/annoying stories to tell of being asked to speak from behind a screen so the men of the congregation could hear her story, yet not be “under” her teaching. Once she had to be interviewed by a man, so she would not be speaking on her own initiative. Yet, her “interview” was followed by a video presentation of Elizabeth Elliot presenting the gospel to thousands at a conference!

John Ortberg describes the human tendency toward consistency. His change occurred when he recognized the dissonance between his patriarchal teaching and his experiences of growing and benefiting from gifted women teachers. He described a female seminary graduate who loved to teach the Bible and evangelize, but was discouraged from acting on that “calling.” Instead, she was pushed overseas.

They would not allow her to do that for white American males in the States, but she could do it for nonwhite males in Third World countries. (John Ortberg, p. 190)

…women can prophesy, but not have the office of prophet. Or, women can teach, but not authoritatively. Or, women can teach and preach, but only with the permission of or under the authority of her husband, or of men in general. These explanations strike me as contrived and desperate attempts to save the system and to preserve the benefits of male privilege that are built upon it. Its no wonder that hierarchicalists cannot agree among themselves on just what a woman may do and under what circumstances…the only thing that hierarchicalists agree on is that it is the men who get to tell women what they can do. (Stanley N. Gundry, p. 100-101)

Remaining true to Scripture

All the contributors believe the Bible is the infallible, inerrant, authoritative Word of God. Every one of them came to the conclusion that to understand the general theme of the gospel, and the witness of the life of Jesus and Paul, they would have to set aside their limited understanding of the four or five problem passages for the greater whole.

First, as I studied Scripture, I found that in addition to the few restrictive passages about women in leadership, there were many places in Scripture that honored and affirmed women. Genesis is clear that men and women together reflect the image of God. God is even described in feminine imagery…I was captured by the thrilling biblical reality that men and women are joint-heirs in Christ and that Paul declared, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. This spiritual panorama from creation to a new creation expanded my perspective on God’s purposes and desires for both men and women. This was exciting and it made biblical sense. (Bob Fryling, p. 84)

I had come to believe that though it was important to understand isolated texts on their own terms, it was nevertheless futile to believe that the debate between egalitarians and traditional hierarchicalists could ever be settled by debating the exegesis and interpretation of individual text in isolation. For me, the more significant question had become: How is the grand sweep of biblical or redemptive history to be understood? What is redemptive history all about, and how do the relevant texts fit into that? (Stanley N. Gundry, p. 98-99)

In other words, when the big picture of redemptive history is kept in mind, the New Testament is seen as a huge leap forward toward full restoration of what was lost or distorted in the fall. When I came to understand Scripture in this manner, the problem passages that had troubled me and that are so often used by hierarchicalists to justify the submission of women are understood as ad hoc accommodations to the fallen patriarchal culture. And the many scriptural examples of women doing what allegedly they are not supposed to do can be given their full evidential weight of how God, as an “equal opportunity employer,” really values women. (Stanley N. Gundry, p.103)

Alice Mathews details her struggle justifying the subordination of women with the greater themes of Scripture against the “clear” problem passages. It was when she discovered the Southern defense of slavery that she experienced her “Aha!”

But then, that snowy afternoon in 1970 it hit me with the force of a revelation that the female subordination texts and the slave subordination texts were in the same hermeneutical boat. The texts were sometimes in the same book of the Bible or even the same chapter. In both cases you could maintain an egalitarian position only by going to the spirit of the Bible, the general direction of the Bible, the doctrine of the image of God in the Bible, the majestic assertion of the Bible that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”(Alice Mathews, p.201)

The writers do give individual interpretations of the problem passages. They don’t all agree with each other, and they view that as precisely the point of holding to loose interpretations. They are HARD passages, that when are strictly followed, contradict the larger, broader themes of freedom, priesthood of all believers, and co-heirs of the gifts of God.

…all we can do is…to submit to the Word of God as we understand it while remaining open to improvement of our interpretation later on. Moreover, while we opt for this or that interpretation among the alternatives, we can recognize that our interpretation might not interpret every single verse and answer every single question better than every one of those alternatives do. Nonetheless, our responsibility is to select among the alternatives the interpretation that we believe does the best job of explaining all of Scripture… (John G. Stackhouse Jr, p. 249)

The heart of the matter

There is some exegesis, but the majority of the book is personality. Individual angst. One of the more poignant stories is from Bill and Lynne Hybel. Bill relates the path that led him to include women in the leadership of Willow Creek all the while Lynne was drowning in the traditional roles a pastor’s wife finds herself playing. She writes:

…I increasingly found myself hating life. And I really didn’t know why. I concluded I was just a selfish, demanding person who was not willing to do what God had asked me to do…The more unhappy I became, the more guilty I felt and the more I confessed my sin. (Lynne Hybel, p. 110)

She describes her discovery of deep-seated beliefs in the supportive role of women, and her journey to break the constricting patterns she’d developed.

“I thought that denying my gifts and passions was part of what it meant to ‘die to self,’ as Scripture asks us to do. I didn’t realize there is a difference between dying to self-will and to sin, and dying to the self that God created and called me to be.” (p. 111)

She talks about learning to use her gifts of encouragement and global compassion. But the beauty of the story is Bill’s confession for his part in her frustration and despair. He talks of the time starting Willow Creek.

…I was insanely busy… Anytime Lynne asked me to do even a small thing to help her, I felt burdened and impatient. The fact that I was earning an income to support our family, while her efforts at home as well as in ministry were always unpaid, contributed to devaluing her work. And, of course, because of my visible ministry, I was applauded and honored. Lynne heard again and again how powerfully God was using me. “Its a good think Bill has you serving him behind the scenes,” was a comment that repeatedly made her ask, What’s wrong with me? Why am I not content?

The reality is that it’s easy to talk about this [gender equality], but when it comes to execution and implementation, usually the guy just gets his way and the woman’s ministry gets squished. (Bill Hybels, p. 113-114)

A change of heart is only the start.

Since a new understanding of gender roles is where I currently am, I was challenged by the practical advice the writers gave to those seeking to add women to the church’s ministry roster.  For those of us raised on “the proper place of women” is it easy to fall back into subordinate patterns that restrict and deny the truth of Galatians 3:28. Yes, it is the responsibility of pastors and Biblical scholars to get to the heart of the matter, but it is also up to women to not allow their spiritual gifts to be buried. To have the courage to act, as opposed to a spirit of fear. To have the humility to say no to things God has not given to us, and yes to things He has allowed. To have the patience to wait for change. And the endurance of conviction.

It has given me much to think on. I hope you read  it too!

16 thoughts on “How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership compiled by Alan Johnson

  1. In all the comments no one ever mentions the “problem” passages of Paul and Peter. Unless you are intellectually dishonest, Paul makes clear in Timothy 2 and 3 that only men are allowed to be elders and deacons. in 1 Timothy 2;11-12 Paul states “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissivesness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” Does this sound like Paul wants women in leadership positions in the church? Both Paul and Peter make clear that men are to be the spiritual leaders in their family. How can that be possible if the wife is an elder or priest? To ensure that he is not misunderstood, Paul again details the importance of male leadership in the church is his letter to Titus. These verses are clear and concise. To discuss life before the fall has nothing to do with everyday church leadership. Galatians 3:28 has nothing to do with church leadership but everything to do with the equality of men and women before the cross. Twisting amd misinterpreting scripture is deadly business and fraught with self-deception and error. When the plain sense of the scripture makes common sense don’t look for another sense.


    1. Igor, I admit I struggle with your words “Clear and plainly.” I don’t believe scripture plainly teaches that men are to be spiritual leaders. In fact, I don’t believe it says that anywhere in any reading.

      Romans 16 calls Phoebe a deacon of the church of Cenchrea. It seems evident that women filled this role.

      1 Timothy 5 lists male elders and women elders.

      There are many explanations to the Timothy passage asking for quiet women. Even though Paul forbids women exercising authority over men, he nowhere tells men to exercize authority over women. I would argue this authority has no place in Jesus’ family. Wade Burleson writes about Jon Zen’s book that explains the culture of Ephesus and how it informs our understanding of Paul’s words to Timothy:

      All believers are priests: 1 Peter 2:5-9.
      I sincerely hope you are searching for the truth to the gender topic, and not just out to retain man’s place of power in the church.


  2. Hi EC, I see that many of my friends have given you links. If you’re interested here’s another one. This links to articles about women in the Early Church. It includes articles about women who were leaders in New Testament churches. (Some of the older articles are more relevant.)

    In my discussions with other people, the problem doesn’t seem to be finding scriptures about women who were called pastors and elders. You won’t find men called pastors or elders in the NT either, except for the Apostle John.

    The biggest stumbling block to seeing that women were (and can be) church leaders is our present church culture, which has almost no bearing on New Testament church culture. New Testament leaders didn’t preach from pulpits in special sanctuaries. Church leaders were not regarded as priestly mediators or professional clergy. Communion was a fellowship meal and not a sacerdotal religious ritual. And women did lead churches, which, at that time, were almost all house churches. Several women ministers and leaders are even mentioned by name in the New Testament.

    As Charis has stated, “The truth is so veiled by translations and tradition!”

    I wish you well and pray for God’s blessing as you search this issue.


  3. Elaine
    The Christian church began with the resurrection, and Jesus’ first order after He rose was to women: “Go and tell my disciples (a gathering of people who included men, or if he meant specifically the 12 a gathering of men) I am alive”. In other words, Jesus ordered women to teach men in a meeting of believers.

    Not so long after that, the believers were gathered – and the Holy Spirit came on men and women, and all began to speak. Women were once again speaking in a meeting of believers. Were God against it? No, they spoke under His influence (His Spirit). There were certainly women speaking and probably children too, to justify the passage Peter chose to quote.

    Two members of the trinity obviously let women speak where believers were gathered, including men.

    One of the prime passages for restricting women comes from 1 Cor 14, but it also say in the same passage that all have (a speaking) contribution to bring to the meeting of believers, all those contributions should honor God, all could prophesy (in the meeting of believers, that is still the context). From that, we could see that nobody takes that scripture “on face value.” We somehow have to reconcile the “all” context with the women-silencing one.

    Some do it by simply ignoring a part of it – I never heard of any “women should remain silent” fan explaining :26 and :31. But those who believe that :26 and :31 mean what it say do not ignore the part they struggle with – they work on looking for explanations.


  4. I believe that the context of Galatians 3:28 fits PERFECTLY with the gender equality point of view. The Jews saw the Gentiles as inferior, not as their equals, and did not see them as fit to be in the church unless they submitted to their law and rules. Same with men and women – it’s no secret that the Jews treated women as subordinates. Some questions I had to ask myself: How does being spiritually one “IN Christ Jesus” mesh with a system of spiritual hierarchy based on these physical differences? If there really is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free (spiritually speaking) in Christ’s church, does a hermeneutic based on emphasizing the roles of people based on their physical or social characteristics really hold up?
    And, of course, the comments above are excellent.


  5. EC,

    Regarding Galatians 3:28, reading chapter 3 and 4 together in context may help you. Verse 28 negates categories used to distinguish humanity among the Jews. It is not about their salvation, it is about the inheritance that follows salvation (vs.27). The Old Testament contains no prejudice against women regarding salvation. Salvation was never an issue, but inheritance was.

    “So that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” Gal. 4:4-7

    The heart of Paul’s argument in Galatians is not limited to the progression of salvation-history that is somehow disconnected from how the Galatians are to live together. Rather that they should live in the freedom of Christ, not for the purpose of self-indulgence, but in order to fulfill the law through love for one another (Gal. 5:13-14). He concludes by a calling to live by the Spirit, be led by, and demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit (16, 18, 22-23). Paul’s overarching concern is that the promise of God’s Spirit requires consistency between the gospel message and how it is reflected in concrete relationships between Jews/Gentiles/slaves/free/men/women in Christ. He is arguing for the full inclusion of all within the people of God. Perversion of the gospel of Christ was reflected in actions inconsistent with the truth of the gospel, such as Peter’s refusal to eat with Gentiles.

    Paul explicitly states that the negation of Jew and Gentile in Christ means that the distinction between circumcision and un-circumcision “counts for nothing” (Gal. 5:6; 6:15; 1 Cor. 7:19). Differences remain, but they do not count within the body of Christ. What really matters is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6), a “new creation” (v.15), and “obeying the commandments of God” (1 Cor. 7:19).

    In 1Cor. 7, Paul writes regarding relationships between men and women, by appealing to the examples of circumcision and slavery as support for his argument that believers should remain in their present state. Paul’s rule is now applied to both Jews and Gentiles: “Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision” (1 Cor. 7:18). Paul does not seek to erase differences between people, but instead to emphasize that these differences are irrelevant and do not count within the body of Christ.

    Also consider Phoebe without the male-only presuppositions.
    “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:1-2).

    Paul highly commended and respected Phoebe. He called her a “sister,” “deacon,” and “benefactor” to the church at Cenchreae as well as a sister and benefactor to Paul. The notable thing about diakonos or “deacon” being used to describe Phoebe is that it is the masculine form of the word used to describe a woman. It is the SAME word Paul uses when he calls Timothy and Titus “servants” or “deacons” of their respective churches. Another thing that makes this phrase odd is that Phoebe is called the “deacon of the church of Cenchreae.” This is the ONLY place in the New Testament where ‘diakonos’ is followed by the name of a specific congregation. This is the ONLY place linking a specific person’s ministry with a specific church.

    Phoebe is a deacon when one does not come to these verses with the presupposition that she cannot be a deacon because she is female.

    It may help to discuss specifics. When you say, “I just can’t pick and choose what directives from the Bible I want to try to explain away,” which verses do you mean?


  6. “It is not however dealing to the structure that is explicitly called out for the church hierarchy.”

    EC, Personally I don’t see a church hierarchy from Scriptures. The only place one could infer levels of importance is from the five-fold ministries of Apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher. But they are more of a team with different ministries carrying wider levels of responsibilities rather than a hierarchy. In a hierarchy the levels are a ladder and one has to go through each rung to reach the top. And the top gives direction to each rung below it. In Christ, Apostles do not direct prophets, prophets do not direct evangelists, evangelists do not direct pastors, pastors do not direct teachers. Instead, all get their direction from God and the Holy Spirit AND they are to work together to accomplish the work of God of equipping the body of believers.

    All of the five-fold ministries have men and women named as such except pastor/shepherd. No men or women are named as such. However, it is likely that those who had Christian meetings in their homes (both men and women) were shepherding them. There is a valid line of reasoning that since God does not make acceptions to His guidelines, if He puts women into the most authoritative or responsible sort of leadership, then He has given them permission to function in leadership of lessor responsibility.

    In the OT both Prophets and The Judge of the Nation were the most responsible positions of leadership. And we have Deborah who was both Judge of the Nation and the leading Prophet of the era. We also have Miriam who along with her brothers led Israel as a nation. The High Priest was next in line but his leadership was restricted to temple business. In the NT the five-fold ministries are all more guiding types of leadership and we have women who functioned in all of them. Junia was an apostle of high praise. Anna was a prophet who dwelt in the temple serving God and who prayed over the infant baby Jesus when he was brought. Anna also was an evangelist who told everyone she could of the good new of the Messiah. The woman at the well also stirred up a whole town of Samaritans because of her conversation with Jesus. We are not certain of the extent of Phoebe’s ministries was but she ministered at a church in Cenchrea, and was a prostatis (form of proistemi) or leader there. She also was entrusted with carrying and delivering Paul’s most theologically heavy letter to the Romans. This meant she likely had to know Paul’s thinking quite well in order to teach them from the letter. Prisca was a teacher along with her husband, Aquilla, and may have been more prominent than him.

    One needs to read the Scriptures as a whole and make sure that one’s personal interpretations of sections of Scripture does not contradict the context surrounding them as well as the larger context of the rest of Scripture.


  7. Been there! The truth is so veiled by translations and tradition!

    1 Timothy 3:2, 1 Tim 3:12, and Titus 1:6 use the expression translated as “husband of one wife” . People assume the expression “husband of one wife” means women are excluded deacons, elders, bishops are unqualified unless they are MALE.

    However, God’s Word does not contradict itself. Paul- under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit- would not contradict himself. Therefore “husband of one wife” cannot mean the exclusion of women from the role in question. If it did, Paul would be contradicting himself by appointing and commending Deacon Phoebe. Despite the obscuring of her deacon identity by English translations, she is commended by Paul in Romans 16:1 using the exact same “diakonon”[deacon] word he used in Rom 15:8 for Christ, Romans 15:25 for himself, and 1 Thes 3:2 for Timothy. (see link)

    I remember when I was struggling with the same question you are. To uncover the truth about Phoebe, I spent about three hours looking at the Greek word for “deacon”, painstakingly comparing one single Greek letter at a time to see if the Greek was the same for Phoebe as it was for a male….

    Turns out Katharine Bushnell already did a lot of this kind of word study homework. You might have a look at her material. In this lesson, she unveils Phoebe’s leadership role:


  8. I am struggling with this issue of women in leadership in the church. I did appreciate the quotes here. However I didn’t find any of it relevant to what scripture says. The only verse sited is from Galatians 3:28 about how we are all equal in Christ. If you read this verse in context it is referring to our salvation in Christ. At the foot of the cross we all are equal. God doesn’t turn away anyone because they are slaves or women or anything else. All can come and all are heirs with Christ. That is what this verse is dealing with as I read it. It is not however dealing to the structure that is explicitly called out for the church hierarchy. The rest of the revelations that people had in this article are based on thoughts and feelings they had and not scripture. The bottom line is that I don’t like the fact that the Bible appears to offer some offices of the church to men that He doesn’t offer to women. I don’t like it, I don’t think it’s fair, and I don’t understand it. However, my view on it doesn’t matter. I don’t like the fact that the Bible tells me that no matter how hard I try and work to please God, outside of Christ, that it will never be good enough and He looks at them as He would at filthy rags. Is 64:6 but it doesn’t matter that I don’t like it. It doesn’t matter that I don’t think it’s fair or that it depresses me or makes me feel bad. It doesn’t even matter that I don’t want to hold other people back by telling them that the Bible says this. The only thing that matters is that God said it through the Bible. He said it not once but in three different portions of scripture. The only counter from scripture I have read from these writers point to Galatians 3:28 and maybe 1 Peter 2:4-10 about that we are all “a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” This also is a loose argument for the offices of the church specifically.
    To be clear I see no where in the Bible where women are restricted from using spiritual gifts, it’s just not in the capacity restricted in these scriptures that they are limited. I keep going back to the realization that one’s ability to speak or lead or teach does not override God’s directives. I just can’t pick and choose what directives from the Bible I want to try to explain away, especially when they come out and say something and in several different places.
    Here is my problem; I want to find a way to see that women can hold the office of elder and pastor, and teach in the church. I want to see that there is no restriction. I have been looking all over, I’ve spent days studying the Bible, reading views of writers that feel the 3 scriptures in question are not really saying what they seem to be saying, that women can’t hold all the same offices as a man can in the church, but I am not seeing it. Can someone help me please? I am really wrestling with this. Please show me from the Bible, in context, that God is OK with women being pastors and elders and teachers of men in the church. Help!


  9. Those are some wonderful quotes in that book. The part about burying other people’s talents– riveting.

    Kbonikowsky, my huband’s the same way. He was so happy when we learned we could be equal partners and all the pressure to have to be the leader was off. He married me because I’m strong. How can my strength complement his if I’m constantly squashing it in the name of “biblical roles”?


    1. For the most part nothing has changed. He told me when we got married that he wanted a woman to walk beside him not behind him. I get in front a lot, but he’s doesn’t mind too much. 🙂


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