What the Ordination Debate Misses: Laywomen in Ministry

Complementarians and egalitarians share common ground in lay leadership.
What the Ordination Debate Misses: Laywomen in Ministry
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As managing editor of the Christian Research Journal and a women’s ministry trainer in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Melanie Cogdill has had ample opportunity to closely observe the unique discipleship challenges faced by evangelical women. In Beyond the Roles: A Biblical Foundation for Women and Ministry, Cogdill has gathered essays from various authors who explore a theological foundation for women’s ministry and also delve into 14 practical issues often found in female-centered ministries. CT spoke with Cogdill to find out more about her burden for women’s discipleship in the church.

Why were you particularly burdened for a book that went “beyond the roles”?

Several years ago, I was in the exhibit hall for the Evangelical Theological Society, where the attendees are more than 95 percent men. The books some publishers had put out were ones for women that focused on marriage and motherhood. Literally hundreds of books come across my desk at work each year, and I have very rarely if ever seen a volume that addresses laywomen in ministry.

Sure, many books address exegetical issues regarding women’s roles in ordained leadership but not the particular issues women face as they minister to other women. As someone on the national women’s leadership team for my denomination, I wanted to let church leaders know that there is a fully developed ministry philosophy that doesn’t focus on a woman’s stage of life or marital status but that is all about equipping women in discipleship in the local church.

These essays don’t cover the exegetical debate about women's ordination. Why not?

I have spent my career working in theology and apologetics, and I have seen many, many books written on this issue from both sides. As someone who believes in theological, academic scholarship, the debate is very important, and there are two very distinct, opposite conclusions on what Scripture teaches about this issue. But at the end of the day, I want to encourage women in the pews of Christian churches everywhere to use their gifts in their denominational context.

At its core, the Christian faith is about knowing and worshiping God. There is a need to equip, train, and encourage women to do that in the context of all creedal churches. That means the lessons for egalitarians and complementarians are the same. The debate between egalitarianism and complementarianism, while at times hotly debated in terms of exegesis, ministry practice, and ordination, is not a gospel issue nor is it an essential of the Christian faith. The need for ministry to and for women is relevant to all evangelicals and Protestant churches regardless of denominational affiliation—not only in light of #MeToo and #ChurchToo issues but also because we all need to pro-actively disciple women and train women to disciple others.

The first section, with contributions from eight different women, is oriented toward a theology of women’s ministry. Did a consistent theme emerge?

The first section of this book really deals with the foundations of women’s ministry, which include studying the Word of God, having a robust theology of imago Dei, pursuing unity in the church, and discipling women through gospel friendships. The foundation for the discipleship of women has to be a theological one. In this section, writers first and foremost encouraged readers that ministry to women—and for that matter to men and youth of both genders—should be based on Scripture and provide a gospel-centered focus to all aspects of ministry.

What does shared male-female lay ministry look like in the church?

Scripture calls men and women to be co-laborers and partners in ministry. With the ongoing debate about gender roles and male-female relationships—both in the church and outside—how do we reclaim that collaborative vision, again, irrespective of one’s view on women’s ordination? Remember that not all men in our churches are ordained ministers. In fact, the majority are not. We work together in the church by making spaces and ways for all laity, both men and women, to be encouraged and equipped to use their gifts in ministry, not so people can follow their proverbial passions, but so we can equip and disciple all of Christ’s church. That’s the goal as Jesus laid out in Matthew 28.

In your opinion, what are the most pressing challenges for women in the PCA and other complementarian contexts?

As a single member in a denomination of more than 1,900 churches in North America with many different ministry and cultural contexts, I would not want to or be able to speak on behalf of an entire denomination. But I will say, as someone who is a women’s ministry trainer for the PCA, women’s ministry needs to move from a model driven by personalities, events, and markets to one that is founded on sound theology and Scripture. I don’t think that is an issue to have division over.

Christians at times can be reactive to the small number of more than 1,900 PCA churches in regards to ministry opportunities for women. Our denomination doesn’t ordain women, but beyond that, there is so much that women are doing. Women are better suited to minister to other women than men are in some circumstances. If a woman has suffered abuse, trauma, or rape, discipleship spaces for women ministering to women are more helpful than a man in those situations.

I certainly do not negate any woman’s experience, where she has not found places to serve in her particular church or been discouraged from serving and has felt frustrated by that. However, I don’t think we can draw conclusions that all women do not have a space to serve in the PCA. As a layperson, I serve and have served on denominational committees with men. There are opportunities for service, and where there are not, I want to encourage church leaders to think about how to use the gifts of the entire congregation—both women and men.

All Christians are called to serve in the church, so how can that be facilitated, not as a matter of checking some to-do list, but toward the broader goal of discipling God’s people and proclaiming the gospel? Our goal is to know the living God and make him known. So how can we utilize the gifts of lay people, including women, by helping the body of Christ in their pursuit of knowing God and making him known?

More generally, what are the pressing problems for women’s ministry in the larger church?

One hurdle that I see in the larger evangelical church is that the conversation about equipping women has been centered on seasons of life—particularly marriage and parenting. But Christian women should not be defined by their season of life. This is not to say that marriage and parenting should be ignored, but it frankly has become an idol for women. Our identity always needs to be first and foremost in Christ and in the pursuit of knowing and glorifying him, regardless of the season of life in which women find themselves.

Another hurdle that applies to the larger evangelical church, in the context of women’s ministry, is that we need to listen more carefully to each other. We need to believe the best about each other—per 1 Corinthians 13—and our ministry philosophy choices, as we seek to apply our biblical convictions in a culture that is increasingly hostile to a Christian worldview. We can have unity around the gospel but not uniformity of practice of ministry. That is a space that has tension in it, but we need to overcome the hurdles of thinking that ministry philosophy must be the same in different contexts. I work in apologetics with Christians of all different denominations and traditions, and of course, we have theological differences—some of which are substantial—but we can unite around the defense of the Christian faith.

Conversely, what excites you the most about the future of this conversation?

There are two distinctives that we like to communicate about women’s ministries: They need to be Word-based and relationally driven. Our vision is one in which women’s ministries are founded in the Word of God being our authority. They’re also a space for women to, as we put it, “think biblically, think Christianly, and live in community with believers in the church.” I am very excited about encouraging churches and church leaders to see the importance of women’s ministry, not as a silo venture like a Christian sorority, but as a ministry that seeks to reach all women with the gospel.

A second edition of Beyond the Roles: A Biblical Foundation for Women and Ministry will release this August.

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