By Carolyn Moore —
I’m beginning to think it was a sign from God.
Maybe that’s because it was in fact a sign. It was standing in front of The Holy House of Prayer of Jesus Christ, a little building with burglar bars on the windows situated deep in the heart of one of the most impoverished areas of Georgia. The lettered sign held a string of announcements about repenting and where you can find the church on the radio. The last line on the marquee, placed like a proverb across the bottom, read, “God have [sic] never called a woman to preach. Never will.”
That sign was the kind of thing that ought to have downright agitated me. As a woman in ministry, I’m acutely aware that a remarkable amount of prejudice still exists around the issue of female leadership in the church. I don’t hear it in every conversation, of course, but I have had enough experiences to know it is very real.
That’s why that beat-up banner in front of The Holy House of Prayer not only caught my attention the day I saw it, but in some odd way validated my feelings. It exposed my reality in such stark relief. The fact is, people unfairly, maybe even unknowingly, discriminate against women who lead. It is not just my imagination. What people like me experience is real, and that sign exposed the problem royally.
Sadly, it also exposed my own angry heart. That church, with burglar bars on the building, stood in the poorest part of town. Rampant crime. Deep poverty, serious drug issues. But because bitterness had taken root in my spirit from years of experiencing inequity, I’d been too eager to prove a point that day. I took a picture of the sign and neglected to say so much as a prayer over the community.
Shame on me.
Let me back up a bit and tell you a little more of my story. I graduated from seminary and moved with my family to Athens, Georgia, in the late 1990s to serve as an associate pastor in a large downtown church. A historic vaudeville theater stood just across the street from that church, and it seemed like a great place for contemporary worship, so I was charged with starting that service on behalf of the church. Who doesn’t want to lead worship in a cool venue like that? I was smitten by the challenge.
The theater was beautiful. The people were treasures. The experience was miserable. I felt a little like the people who tried to put Humpty Dumpty back together. All the slick marketing and all the creative worship planning and all the sweat-producing sermon prep couldn’t build a congregation.
Even though that first dip into starting something new was a mostly miserable experience, I caught the bug from it. When I was offered a chance to start a church from scratch, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I’d been itching to start another new thing for a while, but the regional church development officer of my denomination told me straight up that it had not been proven that women could plant churches. My hopes might have died there, if not for another denominational leader who found out about my interest. She asked if I’d be willing to plant a new church in Evans, Georgia.
I moved to Evans with my husband and daughter in 2003. We were what you’d call in church-planting circles a “parachute drop,” which means we’d been dropped into a community with no team or resources beyond a starting budget and timeline. We had to be fully self-supporting within eighteen months. No one believes the parachute model is a sane idea anymore, but back then, it was how many new churches got started.
What we have built under the power of the Holy Spirit is a very sweet missional community that serves our little corner of the world well. Because it is who I’m wired to attract, many of the folks who attend Mosaic have fallen through the cracks of more traditional congregations. In fact, many are first-generation followers of Jesus. Some have come to us from prison, jail, or addiction. Half the women in our church (literally half) are single, many of them with multiple dependent children in their care. We are also home to young families struggling to make ends meet and single adults with addiction issues. We have a former felon on staff, and the current chair of our vision team is a recovering addict (and both are doing fabulous jobs as leaders).
To mission-minded ears, our demographics make us sound glamorous, but I need to be transparent here. These weren’t the people I set out to attract. I am as competitive as the next person, and I wanted my church to look like all the other seeker-friendly church plants my colleagues were planting in that season when it was the “thing” to do. What I mean to say is, I wanted my church to be big. I figured if I could do the things they did and I could – then I’d get the results they got. Never mind my gender. In fact, I was doggedly determined not to let my gender interfere with our ministry. I would serve Jesus and let him take care of our reputation. And Jesus, for his part, would give us big crowds with lots of people getting saved every week. That was the plan. Or, at least, that was my plan.
I didn’t understand how an inspiring vision plainly articulated would not yield the same results for me as it did for my male colleagues who were also starting churches. I did not take into account how hard it would be for a female pastor to attract leader-quality adults into our ministry. For that matter, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to attract people period. Nearly twenty years in, our weekly attendance still runs around 200, far less than what I set out to build. Statistically, this is a pretty strong attendance figure for a female church planter, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
In the absence of rapidly growing attendance, Mosaic grew deep in mission. We now worship in a warehouse that hosts both our church and a nonprofit we developed to house our local ministries. Our mission on the church side is to help broken people become whole, so we focus heavily on small-group discipleship, healing prayer, and recovery. Our nonprofit side is dedicated to building lives and breaking cycles. We host a thriving food pantry that serves veterans and low-and no-income adults with disabilities; a full-time, professional therapeutic ministry for children with special needs; and a volunteer-led weekly recovery ministry. GED tutoring and mentoring for low-income women help us to cultivate a culture of empowerment. All of this helps us guard against navel-gazing. Serving is in our DNA.
New piece of the puzzle. I can’t count the number of times in more than two decades of ministry that a newcomer to our church has come to me asking to talk about my place as a woman pastor. Based on what I know about them, I can almost always predict what’s coming. They’ll spend the first few minutes telling me how much they love the church. They’ll compliment my preaching. Then, they get to their point. “I have no problem with women pastors,” they’ll say, “and I think you’re awesome. But my mother/coworker/last pastor/book I read/thing I’ve always believed since childhood has me thinking about it, and I guess I just need to know how it all works for you, you know – with what’s in the Bible and all. Can you explain the part about women pastors to me?”
Nine times out of ten, they don’t actually know what’s in the Bible. They haven’t done any real research on their own. They just know what they’ve heard, and until now, they’ve had no reason to question it. But here we are, and now my job is to help them think through something they desperately want to be true, even if they can’t shake the funny feeling that something is wrong.
I’ve had enough of these conversations to know there is an inner hesitancy to accept the place of women in leadership, especially spiritual leadership. In my conversations with women pastors and leaders around the country, I’ve collected dozens of stories just like mine.
Literally half the Christians in the world – comprised of Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Church, Southern Baptists, and several Reformed movements – do not accept women in church leadership. Or, to spin it differently, almost all Christians have a strong memory of male church leadership while few have a strong memory of female church leadership.
What You Believe Matters. Most folks center the debate about women in church leadership around two New Testament passages written by Paul to the early church:
• “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” (1 Corinthians 14:34-36).
• “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12).
Far better academics than I have written extensively on these passages, so I won’t spend time here exegeting them, but there are common exegetical choices and decisions interpreters make. These passages must be taken within the context of the overall message of the Bible. They must be read through the lens of Deborah’s story (Judges 4-5) and through the lens of Mary’s charge (John 20:18); through the lens of Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female”) and the stories of Phoebe, Priscilla, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and the great host of women who co-labored in the gospel with Paul (Romans 16). God has not called all women into vocational, pastoral leadership (nor has he called all men into ministry leadership), but he has surely called us all to serve the kingdom in the ways we are gifted. That women were mentioned at all in the Bible is a testament to their dynamic contribution to the early church and gospel story.
The problem is that we begin these conversations about women in spiritual leadership in the wrong place. Rather than starting with Paul’s epistles, we should begin in Genesis 1 and 2, in the opening pages of the story of God, because where we begin makes all the difference. The argument for female leadership within the church begins in the garden of Eden. The core theological question is this: Is the tendency to resist women leaders a fact of God’s original, intended design or a fact of the fall? John Piper, a noted Baptist pastor and theologian, argues for God’s design and intention for men and women and makes it clear that this created design is not just a matter for the home. “We are persuaded that the Bible teaches that only men should be pastors and elders … it is unbiblical, we believe, and therefore detrimental, for women to assume this role.” Complementarian arguments like this affirm a distinction between men and women and deny the full and equal partnership of men and women in leadership, asserting that from the beginning, women were designed to play the role of “helper” (Genesis 2:18), with the role of leadership reserved for men alone.
An egalitarian view, on the other hand, argues that while the fall is responsible for setting man and woman against each other in an antagonistic relationship, God’s intended purpose at creation was for man and woman to fight the battle of evil together as equal partners.
Egalitarians and others who promote the full inclusion of women in church leadership read Paul’s comments about women through the lens of the creation story – a narrative that didn’t create hierarchies but gave us clues to the fulfillment of God’s created purposes:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.’ So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27 NLT).
The first creation story in Genesis describes the work of man and woman together. The clear hierarchy established in both creation stories of Genesis is the hierarchy of humans over animals, not male over female. Men and women are cut from the same cloth, as it were; their creation story is not a text of hierarchy or value but of unity and interrelatedness.
The created goodness of men and women is not found in the roles they play but in their very existence, and it is the combination of the two sexes – male and female – that reflects the image of God. Moreover, their relationship reflects an ontological equality as well as a functional equality. To say this simply, men and women are both created in the image of God, and both are given the task of stewarding creation.
The fall, when humanity sins in Genesis 3, turns this partnership of equals into an antagonistic relationship. Adam will fight against the ground, even as he works it for his existence. Eve will no longer have a partnership with Adam; he will rule over her. Genesis 3 describes what happens when the Enemy of God and humanity attempts and succeeds at distorting the created design. This narrative is descriptive, not prescriptive, and that makes all the difference. We were meant to fight in partnership together against evil, but in his attempt to throw us off our game, the Enemy of God divided us so he could conquer us, and we’ve been trying to recover that unity and partnership between the sexes ever since.
The first-century church proved that when men and women work together to build the kingdom of God, operating in freedom and in the power and giftedness of the Holy Spirit, the effects of the fall can be reversed, and the glories of the gospel will be exposed. I believe that can happen again.
Carolyn Moore is the founding pastor of Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia. She has an MDiv and Doctor of Ministry from Asbury Theological Seminary with a focus on church planting. She co-hosts a podcast and writes on the topics of holiness, healing, supernatural ministry, and Wesleyan theology at artofholiness.com. She is the chairperson of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. This essay is an adapted excerpt from her book When Women Lead (Zondervan). Reprinted by permission. Photo: The Rev. Dr. Carolyn Moore speaking at the New Room Conference in 2021. Photo by Abigail Bobo, courtesy of New Room.