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May 30 2013
God cares more about our gifts than our gender.

"Her duties undoubtedly begin with the home, and if home duties be generally neglected, all attempts at performing wider ones will be more or less disastrous failure."

Were it not for the slightly outdated syntax, this statement could very well have been taken from some Christian organizations, instead of a description of wifely duties from the 1896 book Woman's Work in the Home.

As we examine women in leadership in different realms of life, we must also look at their roles in the church, and the connection between giftedness and gender.

Women make up only 10 percent of senior pastors and are paid less than their male counterparts, according to a 2009 Barna study. The figures are even lower among evangelical churches. At a time when women are making great strides in other areas—advancing in higher education, heading up a record number of Fortune 500 companies, and gaining influence in government—why is the church lagging so far behind? And what are the obstacles that restrict women from understanding and using their gifts on behalf of the Body of Christ?

Anecdotally, we can probably all list the reasons. Women find themselves reluctant to stand up in lead in an environment where we're not encouraged (or even discouraged) to do so. We are taught that church leadership roles are reserved for men; we grow up hearing that it isn't polite for us to express our opinions; we are still told, at least implicitly, that our place is in the home, with the kids, the cooking, and the Pinterest crafts.

But is there a place for women at the table? If a woman possesses the spiritual gifts of teaching or leadership, would it be best for her to ignore them so that men can take their place? Paul's writings in Romans 16 and 1 Corinthians 12 have a great deal to say—which might be surprising, considering the bad rap Paul gets when it comes to women's roles in the church.

Paul concludes his letter to the Romans by commending a number of people to the church at Rome, including Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Junia, and "Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord." Paul wasn't thanking them for their delicious potato salad at the church potluck—important though that is. He wrote to publicly recognize these women whose contributions had done nothing less than help to establish the Christian church.

As Christians, men and women, we are responsible for recognizing the spiritual gifts that God has given us, as we read in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Paul gives us a comprehensive look at the various spiritual gifts in the passage following these verses. He mentions gifts of healing and helping and wisdom and speaking in tongues and more, calling them all "indispensible" parts of the church and the body of Christ. There are many parts to one body, as the metaphor goes, and each person within the body has something valuable to contribute to its flourishing. That means me, and that means you.

I believe those who wrote the Bible were inspired by God to write it. I also believe God is clear when God needs to be clear—within a context, of course, that demands our understanding. So when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 about the spiritual gifts and does not once mention gender as a dividing line for who gets what gifts, I think we should pay attention. Do we really believe that when Paul sent this letter to Rome he accidentally forgot that distinction? "Oops! Should have included that part about women not being able to lead or teach! Sorry, God!"

Instead, the whole chapter lays out a case for each person having spiritual gift or gifts to put to use in the body of Christ. Paul talks about those gifts and warns us against envying the gifts of others. Never does he suggest that spiritual gifts are to be divvied up according to men and women. God, it would seem, is much more concerned with gifts than with gender.

Paul writes that "it is the same God working in" Christians as we exercise our gifts. We see that God gives us good gifts to be used in the kingdom, creating an obligation for us to use them and to use them well.

"Obligation," along with words like "duty" and "commitment," has taken on a negative connotation for some in today's Christianity. But there is no better word for what we are charged to do with the gifts God has given us. And if you are a woman who is gifted in teaching or leadership, you are obligated to do so.

There is something especially pernicious about men and women in the church who use Scripture to tell women they cannot teach but then have a hard time saying what exactly it is about women that makes them unfit for the job.

Here, I have Dallas Willard to thank and his wonderful foreword from How I Changed my Mind About Women in Leadership. God would not ban women from holding certain positions in the church just because, as Willard said, men won some kind of cosmic coin toss. Over and over again, when we read the Bible, we see women who led and taught and held authority and started ministries. Now, I would argue that the modern conservative position is much more culturally than biblically derived.

The good gifts that our good God has given us are not ours to ignore. They are his, they belong to him and it is our duty to offer them up to God's kingdom. Jesus continually elevated the status of the women around him because he continually elevated the dignity of everyone around him.

If women don't cultivate their gifts of teaching and leadership, if they aren't encouraged to attend college and seminary and take on new adventures and challenges, the Body of Christ will be incomplete, indeed.

This article is the fourth in a weekly series on women in leadership, appearing on Thursdays on Her.meneutics. We previously discussed women in undergrad and seminary.

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