Women in Leadership: The Current Debate

Dale M. Coulter

It seems my articles have sparked a lot of debate over the question of women exercising leadership. Three points are clear: 1) the official teaching of the Church of God already recognizes women as leaders who can pastor, sit on standing boards, and vote as part of the General Assembly; 2) some Church of God ministers and members deeply disagree with the official Church of God teaching and would prefer that women not pastor or exercise leadership over men; 3) there remains confusion over the motion in part because of a conflation between leading, being an ordained bishop, and the biblical role of bishops.

In this article, I want to offer some further points in favor of passing item #2 that “General-Council certified female ministers” be allowed to serve on the General Council. That’s all this motion does. It does not make women ordained bishops. Still, the most vocal opposition has come from Church of God men and women who are not in agreement with official Church of God teaching.  

First, it is overly simplistic to claim that women cannot be ordained bishops or lead pastors and then apply that to every kind of leadership. When Paul mentions “every woman who prays or prophesies,” he clearly thinks that women can pray publicly and function as prophets in house churches (1 Cor. 11:5). The issue in 1 Corinthians 11 is not whether women should participate in the public worship of the house church, but how they should participate.

Second, Paul’s claim that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets must include women (Eph. 2:20). Paul was familiar with NT prophets like Agabus (Acts 11:27-28) and Philip’s prophesying daughters (Acts 21:7-11). Paul, Luke, and their companions stayed at Philip’s house in Caesarea (Acts 21:8). This was before Paul wrote Ephesians in Rome. In his statement in Ephesians, Paul does not single out male prophets from female prophets. All are included.

What are the implications of Paul’s statement? In Ephesians 4, he talks about prophets as gifts that Christ gave (Eph. 4:11-12). Prophets were part of a larger group whom Christ gave to equip for the work of ministry and edify the body of Christ as part of the very foundation of the church. Given that Paul knows of female prophets, he must have included women among those who equip and edify. Female prophets were leading as part of the church. To think otherwise goes contrary to scripture.

Third, there are different kinds of leadership in both the NT and in the Church of God. Part of the confusion stems from the debate over whether women can be lead pastors. Being a lead pastor is not the only kind of leadership. If I hire an associate pastor who is a woman, she is leading even if I remain the lead pastor. If a wife holds credentials with the Church of God and preaches and teaches alongside of her husband who is the lead pastor, then she is exercising leadership over men and women. Women who serve as hospital and military chaplains are leading. The official teaching of the Church of God sees this as following the biblical pattern because women prophets were part of the foundation of the church and thus equipping and edifying.

There are 9450 credentialed female ministers in the Church of God. This total is split almost evenly with 4783 female ministers in the United States and 4667 outside the United States. These women are co-pastors with their husbands, worship leaders, evangelists, chaplains, staff members, faculty, and lead pastors. There is no doubt that they are exercising leadership at various levels from preaching or teaching men to leading men as part of a pastoral staff.

While I will deal with 1 Timothy 2:1-11 in a later post, I want to make it clear that the question of whether women can be ordained bishops or lead pastors has nothing to do with whether they can lead. These are separate questions. The debate in the Church of God is over what kinds of leadership can exercise, not whether they can lead.

Let me conclude with this thought: If you are convinced that women can exercise various kinds of leadership for which they are credentialed, then you should vote to pass item #2. Female ministers already serve beside their male counterparts in various leadership positions. This is keeping with the witness of the New Testament. Those who want to claim that 1 Tim. 2 means that there can be no female leadership of any kind are misinterpreting scripture.