Discussion Paper: The Role of Women in North Central Church (version 2)

5th February 2002

1. The Issue
2. Its Importance
3. The Problem
4. Precedent in Related Churches
        4.1. New Frontiers International
        4.2. Bermondsey
        4.3. The King's Arms
5. Recommendations
6. Bibliography

WARNING: Read with care! This is not doctrine. This is not the position of North Central church. This is merely a statement of some of the issues related to the role of women in our church. Any opinions expressed in this document are liable to change. Warranty void except where prohibited. Your mileage may vary. Terms and conditions apply.

1. The Issue

Perhaps the most contentious issue in contemporary evangelical Christianity is that of the role of women in the church. Extreme positions include, on one hand, that of the Brethren churches, in many of which women may make no audible contribution to meetings other than joining in the hymns; and on the other, the Ichthus churches, in which there seems to be no functional distinction between the roles which men and women may play in the life of the church.

Ultimately, every church adopts a position on this issue, because even those churches which never explicitly adopt any stance imply one by how they actually function. We are keen that North Central should not fall into the trap of sweeping this issue under the carpet, addressing it only indirectly by our practice: we would prefer that whatever position we reach, we reach by honest prayer and rational study rather than by default, and we want putative members to understand clearly what that position is, so that they can decide whether or not to join us without discovering later than they disagree with our position.

Reduced to its essentials, the practical problem is this: while the New Testament is clear that men and women are equal in value before God, it also appears that there is some difference in role. Exactly what that difference is, is not spelled out in as much detail as we would like! So different churches, all genuinely striving to interpret the bible correctly, take different stances on whether women are allowed to:

  1. Lead worship in small groups
  2. Lead bible studies in small groups
  3. Lead small groups
  4. Lead worship in main meetings
  5. Lead area groups (i.e. groups of small groups)
  6. Preach or teach in main meetings
  7. Be members of the eldership team (i.e. the leaders with overall responsibility for the church.)

2. Its Importance

This issue is crucial to our church for at least three reasons.

First, as leaders we are answerable to God for the way in which we care for and develop those we lead. If we stop women from doing things that God would want them to do, then we are answerable to him. We also have a responsibility to the women themselves to develop them to their full potential in God.

Second, the way in which women function in North Central will have a profound effect on how it is viewed by visitors, especially non-Christians. If a church which is predominantly female in membership (approx. seven men and seventeen women[1]) is dominated in meetings by the minority of men, that will send an unappealing message to many women (and many men for that matter.)

Third is the issue of utilisation of resources. If we have, say, four good bible teachers in the church but two of them are women, and therefore excluded from teaching on Sunday mornings, then we will only be getting the benefit of half of our bible-teachers. This has negative consequences for the church as a whole, as well as for the individual women involved.

These are strong reasons for opening up many areas of church activity to women, but not strong enough to overcome the teaching of the bible, if indeed it teaches that this is the wrong way for churches to function. That's what we need to determine.

Our goal in resolving this issue, indeed all issues, is first of all to honour God, and his specific instructions on how his church is to be built; and secondly, to be relevant to the culture in which we live and work. In that order.

So if our honest understanding of the bible passages that deal with the role-of-women issue is that they are excluded from certain roles in the church, then we will, however reluctantly, exclude women from those roles. However if our honest understanding is that there is no role distinction then we would allow women to perform any role.

Whatever decision we reach, we will consult with the New Frontiers London Leadership Team to understand their view. We are gladly related to New Frontiers and want to submit to their leadership.

3. The Problem

Our problem in reaching understanding on this issue is simple: our common-sense conflicts with what the bible appears to teach. Living in Western Europe in the 21st century, it is absolutely contrary to our intuition that there may be some roles from which women are excluded simply on the basis of their gender. Yet there are passages in the New Testament which seem on the surface to say just that.

Does it really teach that? Or does it appear that way due to biases in translation or interpretation? Or, if it does teach restrictions to the roles that women can take, is its teaching only for the Middle Eastern first-century culture in which it was written? These are the issues.

I offer an anecdote to show how unreliable our common-sense, or even our ``spiritual gut reaction'' is in judging such matters.

My Christian background is in the Brethren church, where I was converted out of fairly aggressive atheism at the age of sixteen. When I first went to a meeting of the local charismatic church (because I'd promised one of my teachers that I would visit his church if he came to my baptism) I was horrified by two things: one was prayer in tongues; the other was women's audible participation. It's hard to express how much this felt like a spiritual reaction - as though I were hearing directly from God that he found these things abhorrent. Yet clearly my feelings on these things have changed in the last seventeen years![2]

The moral is just this: what feels like a deep and unshakeable spiritual conviction may be nothing more than a prejudice inherited from prevailing culture, whether ostensibly Christian or purely secular. Part of our problem is the difficulty of setting aside such preconceptions so that we can hear what the bible actually has to say free of semantic filters.

4. Precedent in Related Churches

We can hope to get some perspective on these issues from the positions taken by churches and groups related to us (although we should not adopt their positions wholesale without our own conviction.)

4.1. New Frontiers International

NFI as a movement is widely perceived as being towards the more conservative end of the scale, generally allowing women to perform roles 1-4 (see above) in its churches. This perception is backed up by the fact that, at its showpiece bible weeks, the rare sessions in which women preach are generally for women-only audiences; it doesn't help that they are invariably led by the wives of the main leaders (Wendy Virgo and Liz Holden). However, many Stoneleigh worship sessions have been led by Kate Simmonds.

In practice, individual NFI churches seem to operate rather differently from each others. Certainly, it's very hard to get any of the senior NFI leaders to articulate a clear position on the role of women.

4.2. Bermondsey

Bermondsey's NFI church, rather confusingly called Vineyard, tends to do things its own way much of the time. It is probably rather to the ``left of center'' on the role of women. After some weeks consideration, Dave Nunn (the lead elder) decided that he would be happy for a women to lead an area group (role #5 above) - this was a specific woman, being considered for a specific role. In the event, though, she turned it down, so the pudding was never proved.

Bermondsey's leaders give the impression that they'd be happy to have women preaching, but it's not actually happened, to my knowledge, in the decade that I've been associated with that church.

4.3. The King's Arms

The King's Arms church in Bedford is also affiliated with NFI, but seems to be even less tied to whatever ``party line'' might exist that Bermondsey is, often giving the impression of being as much influenced by the U.S. Vineyard churches and the Willow Creek movement as by NFI.

King's Arms regularly uses women as small-group and area-group leaders and worship leaders, but generally does not allow them to preach in main meetings; although ``special cases'' such as Jackie Pullinger have done so.

5. Recommendations

One helpful way to take this forward would be a four-stage programme:

I would recommend inviting Kristin Aune and perhaps Philippa Currier to join us in this exercise. A big group would be counter-productive in discussing an issue that tends to generate more heat than light, but in Kristin, we have access to one of the most solidly bible-based Christian feminists in the country; and it's obvious that Philippa is a very clear thinker.

6. Bibliography

A few suggestions:



My 7+17 are Nick & Sue Mike & Fiona Pete & Fiona David & Beryl Sujen & Amanda Jim & Troy Matthew, Esther Ruth, Sarah, Kay, Shelley-Anne, Aneeth, Theodora, Clare, Joy, Maureen and Nicolette (if we count her while she's in Birmingham). I have almost certainly missed some people; no offence intended. [back]
Actually, my position changed very quickly, because even though there were things I hated about the charismatic meeting, there were also things that I loved: most immediately, the obvious depth of the worship. This was what kept me hooked for long enough to do the study that opened me to the charismatic phenomena. [back]

If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/women.html.

Feedback to <mike@miketaylor.org.uk> is welcome!