Scot McKnight, an award-winning author, blogger, Two Handed Warrior contributor, and professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL, has written extensively about women in the church, discipleship and the Christian life. Several chapters of his book, Blue Parakeet, are devoted to examining the biblical support for women in leadership. Additionally, his most recent book One.Life looks at what it looks like to live a life devoted to pursuing Jesus and kingdom living.
Here, David Kinnaman and McKnight take a look at the recent Barna research on Christian women today, particularly women’s levels of satisfaction within the church. Whatever your own take on women’s roles in the Church today, Scot offers compelling perspectives on the research.
Five Questions on Women in Leadership with Scot McKnight
Q: You have written quite a bit in your book Blue Parakeet and in other places about women in church leadership. After you looked through some of the Barna research on What Women Think of Leadership and Their Role in the Churchreleased last week—on how women feel about their role in church—what were one or two things that struck you most?
A: Some of us have been working hard for the church to recognize the call of God to teach for women. Our struggle for women creates friendships with fellow strugglers, nearly all women. The struggle and the friendships suggest things are not so cheery in the church as the Barna numbers of this recent study show. I have no access to satisfaction studies of women when it comes to leadership, so I admit this study led me to ponder—rather quickly, and early the day the Barna notice arrived in my e-mail—the results. My own immediate conclusion was that women being satisfied really ought not to surprise. The majority of “attenders” and even more “active participants” in a local church are women, and this must indicate women are more satisfied with church than are men. So, I embrace that number as telling an accurate story of church life today. (I would like to know what percentage of males are satisfied, too.)
But I would like to press into the number that 73% are satisfied. I wonder if this is high enough. And I also wonder if some of those 73% could be more satisfied if their church both taught about women in ministry from a more expansive viewpoint and permitted women to—and here is where the whole issue lies for me—preach from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.
Now let’s consider the number from a different angle. What percentage of males in a church are satisfied? And even more importantly: What percentage of males in a church are called into pulpit preaching and theological teaching? I don’t think that number is very high; let’s say less than 5% of males are called into public teaching. So I wonder if the 27% of females who are not satisfied means there is a larger number of dissatisfied females who think they are called to teach/preach than dissatisfied males who think they are called to teach/preach.
Q: One thing we noticed was the different reactions to the research from inside and outside the church. While many Christians reacted with “Well, those numbers aren’t bad, most women are happy in church and with the roles they have.” The outside reaction (for example, this article by Hemant Mehta and this article in Washington Post) has been more of “How do any women feel as if they can’t be leaders in the church?”). How would you respond to both of those reactions?
A: Numbers are numbers for me. If the Barna number is accurate, then it gives us some factual knowledge about women and churches. Anyone who learns to reason on the basis of evidence instead of ideology or theology should embrace the facts.
Some who criticize are deciding for others what ought to make them satisfied. In Blue Parakeet and on my blog for years I have stated that I think a mutualist view of marriage and male-female relations in the church is the most biblically-faithful way to live out the gospel and the Bible in our world. But I have plenty of friends who are complementarians, some of them Christians and some of them not at all Christian, and I do not remonstrate [argue with] with them about their wrongness (in my view). When it comes to love and relationships, and when it comes to church and women, we have to approach others respectfully.
So, in marriage, my contention is that we let people love one another the way it is best for them. When it comes to Christian marriage we strive for a love based on the example of Christ and what the Bible teaches about God’s covenant love, which counters our cultural stance(s). In the church, we have genuine differences and I will defend the right of the complementarian to win the argument in his [their] church as I will also ask them to defend the right of the mutualist to win the argument in [their] church. But I admit to tiring when I hear those most committed to civil tolerance bash and trash those who differ with them, when they ought to respect the views of others.
Q: In our research, the vast majority of women say they believe they can be leaders in any role in church (and they also believe their church thinks this), but from experience you know this isn’t true. So, where’s the disconnect? Why do you think women believe this when it isn’t always true?
A: I don’t know what to make of this. “Any role” might already be defined as “roles appropriate for women,” and my own reading of that number in the Barna study immediately led to that conclusion. I could be wrong. So, perhaps another question to ask is this: What roles in your church can women play? So on the “My Church Does Not Allow Women To…,” I’d like to see another category: “Preach from the pulpit on Sunday morning.”
And, if I may push on this one, I’m not always sure what “leader” means: One might understand that to mean “I can be the leader I want to be because I want to be the leader of women’s Bible study.”
On this one I’d like to see a follow-up survey that asks questions connected to more traditional terms in the church: Can women be “elders” or “senior pastor” or “preach from the pulpit on Sunday mornings” (on a usual basis)?
But, again, numbers are numbers. The majority of women are satisfied with what they can do in their local church. I have no desire to disrupt that satisfaction. Instead, I want to be an advocate for women who believe they are called to teach the Bible and are restricted by their local church.
Q: Where do you see the church needing to connect more intentionally—or perhaps in a more challenging way—with women?
A: In some ways I believe we are selling women short by not educating the church about the expansive ministries available to women. The call of God does not respect ethnicity, class or gender/sex. God calls whom God wants, and this is seen throughout the Bible—from Deborah and Huldah to Mary, mother of Jesus, and to Priscilla and Junia. Furthermore, there are stories of women who are rarely told—Esther and Ruth being prominent examples. Time after time I asked students in my classes at a Christian college, students who grew up in churches, who some women were in the Bible—like Phoebe—and they had never heard of them.
So I believe churches need to re-commit to the women of the Bible and to do this we need churches across the globe teaching the passages about women in the Bible.
Then we need to tell stories about women in the church, women whose stories have not been told because male preachers and teachers have naturally gravitated toward stories of males. We hear plenty about Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Wesley, Billy Graham and rarely hear about women like Mary Bethune or Phoebe Palmer. Pastors and preachers and teachers and parents need to commit to reviving the stories of women whose stories have been neglected. This does not require a mutualist posture on women in ministry; it requires only the sacred recognition that God’s women have stories that need to be told.
Q: As you’ve observed the research we put out , are you encouraged or discouraged about what it says in terms of the state of Christian women today?
A: My first response is that I’m more informed. I’m also thinking we can sharpen the tool to ask some more precise questions that might shed more light.
But the overall conclusion is that in your survey field you find the conclusion that nearly 75% of women are satisfied with their church. That’s something to celebrate; any study that shows church folks are satisfied is news for much of the media today, so I’m glad for this.
This study showed to me again how few are actually called into the “ministry” as traditionally defined—so that the one-quarter or so who are not satisfied will reflect a variety of reasons, not necessarily because they want to exercise their perceived gift of teaching and preaching. The debate in churches over who gets to preach—males or both males and females—is a debate about a small percentage of actual males and females.
What this also shows to me is that we have to commit ourselves to focusing on what matters most: God—Father, Son and Spirit. The gospel, or the Story of Jesus—lived, died, raised, exalted and coming again—as the one true saving Story. Who preaches on Sunday morning matters, but Who gets preached matters even more.