Evergreen has women elders, and the journey there was very much a part of our early story together as a community. As we sat last night during a wonderful elder meeting, laughing, talking about hard situations we're currently navigating, dreaming about the future, realizing we need more people on the team with us very, very soon, this story came to mind.
For what it's worth and if it's helpful, here's something I wrote up a while ago about my journey and current understanding in this area. I want to see women in leadership in the Church. I think it's a vital outworking of the Gospel, and a cultural/contextual imperative in our time.
I was raised with and even planted our church community, Evergreen, with a complementarian view of women in ministry. Though if I were honest, I'd have to say I was prepared to do whatever I could to get around that. Originally, I saw a male "elder" board for our community that handled the “shepherding” and a co-ed "leadership team" that really handled the details of administration and ministry.
But a funny thing happened. I changed. I went back to Scripture, re-examined not only what it said, but what it said against the backdrop of the culture at the time it was said, and I came out different than when I started.
The process started for me when I heard the thesis of a book by William Webb called Slaves, Women and Homosexuals described. In short, the book said that when we compare Scripture against what we know of the cultures in which it was written, OT and NT, it is always progressive in light of those cultures on the issues of slavery and women. That is, Scripture consistently calls the culture to raise the status of women and slaves. But more than just that, Scripture is progressive when compared to itself, in the sense that within the pages of Scripture itself, there’s movement, a progression from where, for example, Moses spoke about women to where the NT does. And Webb postulates that within Scripture we can see pictured an ultimate ethic of freedom and equality- as embodied in verses like Gal 3:28. (On a side note- Webb doesn’t see that progression on the issue of homosexuality. In fact, Scripture seems to be both more restrictive than the culture in which it was written (at least the NT) and static in its censure of same sex sexuality.
So hearing that planted some seeds in me. Fast forward a bit to 2004 when we planted our church community. Even though I was still in that complementarian camp, in the process of planting a church community designed to make sense to and be a home for the unchurched and the formerly churched, I discovered that this is a HUGE issue not only for the people we had built our community for, but even those we had built it with. This issue was heavy on their thinking.
So- when I combined what my community felt/believed with what I was also thinking and feeling, I knew I had to start a "process" where we would work through this again. If we arrived at the complementarian view,fine. At least we did our homework and didn't ascribe to it "the way we had always done things" If we arrived elsewhere... well, we knew there would be implications, but we'd deal with those.
We had many long discussions on our forum... you can still see them there, filed in the "forum graveyard" at the bottom. I had the elders read Sarah Sumner’s book Men and Women in the Church. We prayed. We talked. We prayed and talked some more. At the end of that process- about 7 months or so, we were at something different than complementarian, though not quite... ever so close, but not quite, egalitarian (though to tell you the truth, the difference is so miniscule that most wouldn't really see it).
There were a few really instrumental realizations that got us where we ultimately ended up-
In no particular order of importance...
The fact that Jesus allowed women to follow Him, to sit in the place of disciple (Luke 10: 38-42), that women were prominent in the early church as deacons (in spite of the clear instruction of the Apostles in Acts 6 to choose "men"), and well known as teachers (Priscilla), the fact that Paul, contrary to much of his culture, advocated that women be taught… this said to me that God was still about raising the status of women.
We also realized that in the New Testament context women in leadership positions may have been a hinderance for the Gospel, particularly among the Jews. But In our context, NOT having women in ministry, or at least not having that role open to them, was a HUGE hinderance to the people we were trying to impact. We looked at that, asked ourself "Is this an "A" level issue?" and when we realized that it wasn't (at least to us) we became more comfortable with either outcome. We knew that good, Christian churches existed on both sides of the spectrum, we knew that our commitment to the Gospel was strong... and so we began to worry a little less about what one person calls "creeping egalitarianism in the emerging church.” If our mission was to reach these people, we wanted the offense to be in the Gospel, not our polity, ecclesiastical structure, bad coffee... whatever.
Next, we realized that God had placed women in positions of leadership and/or spiritual influence all through Scripture. Whether Deborah the Judge, Huldah the Prophet, Anna the Prophet, Priscilla the teacher... It was impossible for us to say "It is a universal principle that God does not desire women to be in leadership." It was clearly not the case. And if these are exceptions to a universal rule, then at least we know there are exceptions, don't we? We had to come to a place where we could say, "If God puts a Deborah in our midst, an Anna in our midst, a Priscilla in our midst... we had better be prepared to recognize that."
So, just like that, we became open to women in leadership, if God put them there. I guess we thought that if God was laying down an absolute law in the NT and backing it up by the order of creation, He would have been a little more consistent in His application of the principle throughout the entire narrative of Scripture.
Of course we had to deal with 1 Tim. 2: 11-12, which seems to bar women from leadership in the church. On that, I think it’s necessary to place it within the larger context of 1 Tim 2, particularly that which comes after it. It seems clear that the end of 1 Tim 2 ("But women will be saved through childbearing") was correcting a heresy in the early church. As it is translated in English, and without a cultural understanding of the times in which it was written it's hard to see. Taken literally, as translated, you have to say that women are saved by means of having children. But understanding that Paul was, in fact, correcting some proto-gnostic heretics that were saying that women were the cause of man's fall, that God was very, very displeased with them, and that to be saved, they needed to give up their sexuality which so tempts men and become more like that which really pleases God, namely men, helps us make much better sense of the verse. In fact, the gnostic Gospel of Thomas (which seems to be full of the very ideas Paul wanted to correct) says this: "Simon Peter said, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." (GoT 114). The thought that Paul was correcting was that only by giving up intercourse and other "worldy" pleasures can women (and men, but especially women) be saved... and if a woman had a child? Well, how evil to take part in sex and bring another person into this wicked world! (Clearly, this group didn't last very long.)
Paul is saying that's hogwash. Women can be saved through (not "by means of", but "through the middle of" that is, in spite of the experience of- the Greek can mean either) childbearing if they continue, like anyone else in faith (which saves you), love (which demonstrates you are saved) and holiness (ditto).
Understanding that the last part of that paragraph is correcting a heresy (and actually raising women’s status) and is notoriously difficult to understand in English without a proper cultural background helps us to see that the verse we get so hung up on ("I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man"), which seems so clear in English, might fall into the same category.
I Timothy was written to a pastor (Timothy) in Ephesus, a center for the worship of the goddess Artemis. The word translated "exercise authority" appears only here in Scripture, so it's hard to get a handle on, and could mean “dominate.” It seems that what was happening was that in the church at Ephesus, where people were coming out of pagan goddess worship, women were taking a dominating position, telling the men how it would be, and claiming a privileged position. Paul says that they, like anyone else, should learn from their teachers quietly and submissively, and that he did not allow women to teach the men in a dominating way. He then corrects another heresy that was going around, taught by the Sophists, in a culture that was accustomed to goddess worship- that it wasn't Eve that sinned first, but Adam (Have you seen the bumper sticker that says "Eve was framed"?), and that in fact she was the one first created. It’s very human and very silly of us to get caught up in the “who sinned first” argument… Paul isn’t basing a prohibition of women in leadership on the order of creation, rather he’s reminding them of the facts of the biblical narrative and asking them to keep it straight. He was dealing with a very early form of religious feminism.
So... when you put all that together, Paul says, I don't allow women to dominate men, and these ideas going around are incorrect- Eve was the one who sinned first and wasn't the one created first, but lest you think I buy into the other side, that says women are evil, let me correct that as well.
It's a notoriously difficult passage, and in light of Paul’s admonition to us that In Christ, there is neither male nor female, Jew or Greek, etc. and because we see the "arc" of scripture (the way women's status is progressively raised through Scripture) as well as many of the examples of women in leadership, we are hesitant to exclude women from any role.
So where are we now? "Open" would be the best word. We are open to whomever God raises up and gifts as an elder in our midst. We have no set number for balance between men and women... If, the elders look out at our community for those exercising the gifts and role of elder so we can then give them the title, and we see no women doing that, we may end up with a male elder board for a bit. But I don't think that will happen. God has placed some amazing women in our midst, and we are currently in the process of approaching a number of men and women about serving as elders.