No decisions were made when more than 140 Mennonite Brethren gathered in Phoenix, Arizona, Jan. 14-16, 2019, for the U.S. Board of Faith and Life (BFL) study conference on “The Bible and Women in Pastoral Ministry.” That’s because the purpose of the study conference was not to take action but after a 20-year hiatus to resume conversation around women in pastoral ministry.
When U.S. Mennonite Brethren last discussed women in pastoral ministry in 1999, they passed a resolution that women be encouraged to “minister in the church in every function other than the lead pastorate” and that women would be invited “to exercise leadership on conference boards, in pastoral staff positions and in our congregations, institutions and agencies…as gifted, called and affirmed.”
At the time, the resolution was a concession, with some people viewing the language as too restrictive and others as not restrictive enough. It became apparent during the 2019 study conference that in many ways, not much has changed. U.S. Mennonite Brethren remain as divided on the issue in 2019 as they were two decades ago.
U.S. BFL members took this division into account when planning the study conference, said BFL member Gary Wall.
“What happened in 1999 was a compromise,” Wall said. “We remain deeply divided. BFL planned this intentionally with the desire to hear from each other as well as leading scholars who love Jesus and take the Bible seriously but come to different conclusions based on the exegesis of relevant biblical texts.”
The study conference featured seven presentations, five of which were given Tuesday in a 14-hour marathon of sessions broken only by short breaks and meals. The first three Tuesday guest speakers summarized the biblical case for the two primary approaches: complementarian and egalitarian. The fourth guest presented an alternative approach to thinking about church leadership.
These guest speakers are recognized authors and scholars who were given the daunting task of condensing the biblical basis for their perspective into a 45-minute presentation. Some participants said at times it was like drinking from a firehose.
Understanding two common views
James R. Beck, senior professor of counseling at Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colorado, and editor of Two Views on Women in Ministry, provided an overview of the two most common perspectives. Beck described complementarians as holding that Scripture requires one or more restrictions on ministry for women while egalitarians hold Scripture doesn’t call for restrictions on ministry for women.
“One side should not accuse the other of being wrong or of heresy or of taking us down a slippery slope,” he said. “Each side can build their case on the basis of Scripture.”
Beck highlighted six “settled” issues to which both complementarians and egalitarians agree to, including that God gives gifts to both women and men.
“We need to celebrate every point of agreement we can find,” Beck said.
Beck organized the bulk of his presentation around how complementarians and egalitarians answer 13 questions. His conclusion was that “each side in this debate seeks to be faithful to the principles of Scripture, emphasizes the passages that speak most clearly in their favor and de-emphasizes—or even explains away—the passages that seem to favor the other side.”
Dan Doriani, professor of theology at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, presented the complementarian perspective. While he affirmed the ministry of women, he noted that in Scripture, women do many things but not everything.
Women occasionally serve as judges, prophetesses and help to start churches, said Doriani. But it is men who are monarchs, priests, apostles, church planters and elders. He said that in the Old Testament, women lead alongside men but give private counsel and do not make public proclamations. In the New Testament, women collaborate with Paul and are called by Jesus to discipleship, but Doriani emphasized that Jesus chose 12 male apostles, and that cannot be ignored.
“Jesus violated cultural conventions when he knew it was necessary to do so, so we cannot dismiss his choices of male apostles as mere cultural accommodation,” Doriani said.
Doriani said the prohibition on women teaching men in 1 Tim. 2:12-13 is not local or temporary but grounded in creation, “for Adam was formed first.”
“This position is unpopular,” Doriani said. “Aspects of biblical teaching always are…. But cultural views are not normative.”
Craig S. Keener, professor of biblical studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky, presented the egalitarian perspective. He highlighted women in prominent biblical roles, including Miriam and Huldah as prophetesses and Deborah as a judge.
Keener said it is important to read texts in light of their cultural context with the intent to apply transcultural principles. He said the instruction in I Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-12 for women to be silent in church addressed a specific problem: Uneducated women were asking disruptive questions.
“The problem in Corinth is not that women are teaching, but that they are learning too loudly,” Keener said. “That is why we need to take into account the letter’s original situation.”
Keener went on to say, “I believe that the transcultural principle in 1 Timothy 2 is not that women shouldn’t teach but that easily deceived people shouldn’t teach. In our culture that may be men or women—whoever lacks access to adequate biblical understanding. I believe Paul elsewhere does affirm women’s ministry, and this helps us to see that Paul himself didn’t prohibit women from always teaching the Bible.”
He concluded, “Again, not everybody agrees. Let’s wrestle together. And where we have to agree to disagree, let’s do so in love, as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Considering an alternative perspective
Michelle Lee-Barnewell, associate professor of New Testament at Biola University, La Mirada, California, presented an approach to the topic of women in pastoral ministry that she hoped would “make complementarians better complementarians and egalitarians better egalitarians.” She emphasized asking different questions about leadership, the authority of Christ, unity and equality, what ministry in the body of Christ looks like and what it looks like to be a man or woman in the body of Christ.
She suggested reframing the debate within the New Testament themes of unity as opposed to equality and a “theology of reversal” that emphasizes sacrifice.
“One of the tactics of the enemy is to turn us against each other in the gender debate,” said Lee-Barnewell. “What if we approached this from the perspective of being one body in Christ rather than about rights and positions? I think the conversation has been too focused on a power model rather than a relational model.”
In describing the theology of reversal, Lee-Barnewall challenged the common understanding of servant leadership, saying that in the Greco-Roman world the word “servant” would not have been used as an adjective to describe the leader. She suggested that a better way for 21st century believers to understand the oxymoron underlying this concept is to think of “slave leadership.”
She emphasized the instruction in Eph. 4:11 that the role of leaders is to “equip the saints.”
“A leader should be training others to be up front,” she said. “Would leadership be a less contentious issue if it was not about power but about empowerment?”
MB history, early church case study
The study conference began Monday evening with an historical overview of how Mennonite Brethren have involved women in church ministry presented by Valerie Rempel, interim vice president of Fresno Pacific Biblical seminary and J.B. Toews Chair of History and Theology.
“We stand in a long line of men and women who throughout the centuries and around the globe have struggled to understand and respond to God’s call on their lives and how to be faithful to Scripture,” she said.
Rempel noted that USMB women and men were both ordained as missionaries and highlighted the freedom women had to lead as missionaries while their participation in U.S. church leadership was limited. By 1958 when women were no longer ordained but rather commissioned as missionaries, 131 women had been ordained, 82 from the U.S. and the others from Canada.
“Throughout the first half of the century, women and missions were almost synonymous in MB churches,” Rempel said. “On the mission field they represented two-thirds of the missionary force. At home, they organized themselves into mission societies, meeting together for fellowship, for Bible and mission study and led the way in mission fundraising through mission sales and other activities.”
Rempel traced the changes and denomination conversations about the role of women that began in the early 1970s and grew to include articles and columns published in denominational magazines, the publication of two books, multiple study conferences, women registering as delegates to General Conference conventions and the presentation and discussion of various resolutions regarding women in pastoral ministry.
The dissolution of the General Conference in 1999 led to one last “clarifying” resolution that encouraged women to serve in all roles in which they are gifted except that of lead pastor. While Canada eventually passed a resolution offering local congregations freedom in both directions—more restrictive and more expansive—the U.S. has not formally re-engaged the issue until now, Rempel noted.
Rempel’s presentation was followed by a study of Acts 15 led by Larry Martens, former Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary faculty member and president. He framed the Bible study as a case study for how the first century church dealt with controversy.
Martens outlined six steps that the early church took that led to a mutually agreeable solution to their disagreement, beginning with a willingness to engage in a difficult conversation about theological issues.
“There will always be issues that threaten our unity,” Martens said. “Dealing with controversial issues in the church today calls for us to examine the Scriptures once again in our contemporary context to define clearly the biblical and theological truths that keep us centered, to reaffirm ourselves to that truth, to the nature of the gospel and how we understand that being fleshed out in our circles and in our midst and to say an unambiguous ‘yes’ to that truth.”
A global context
The final presentation Tuesday evening was a look at how the global Mennonite Brethren church is responding to women in ministry offered by Doug Heidebrecht, on staff with Multiply, director of global training at MB Biblical Seminary and a member of the Canadian Conference of MB Churches (CCMBC) Board of Faith and Life.
Heidebrecht presented his research on the global Mennonite Brethren views on women in ministry. He noted a wide spectrum along which various MB conferences fall. For example, while six national conferences ordain women, most do not; some do not ordain women or men.
He reviewed the variety of ways national MB conferences involve women in conference leadership, theological education and the ways that national conferences have discerned as a community how to encourage and equip women for ministry. He noted that while conversations about women in ministry have begun in several national conferences, most MB conferences have not developed an official position.
Heidebrecht gave specific attention to the process by which the Canadian Conference of MB Churches arrived at their decision in 2006 to approve a model in which the decision on women in pastoral ministry would be left to the individual congregations, based on their local context.
“Decisions made around the globe regarding women in pastoral roles are at least partly shaped by the historical backgrounds and the cultural contexts of those conferences,” he said. “This calls us to reflect critically on how our experience in a certain cultural context influences and shapes our interpretation of Scripture.”
He encouraged his listeners to ask: Which cultural attitudes stand in opposition to God? Which are a threat? Which are neutral? Which promote God’s purposes? “The challenge is that when we don’t carefully listen to the Word, by default our underlying cultural context will impact our conclusions, whether positively or negatively,” Heidebrecht said.
Table talks, sharing stories
After the presentations, participants were given 10 to 15 minutes to ask questions of the speakers. Questions typically asked for clarification or for the speaker to elaborate on a specific statement. Then participants talked around their tables using questions provided by the U.S. BFL. Table groups were then invited to report and reflect on their table conversation during an open mic time. U.S. BFL member Tim Geddert moderated the discussion time following each presentation.
Table groups were also encouraged to provide a written summary of their discussion and to turn in those notes to members of the Listening Committee who reported at the closing session.
The study conference culminated in a time of sharing, both Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
For an hour Tuesday night, seven women responded to the invitation to share their stories in a session moderated by U.S. BFL member Jana Hildebrandt. A recurring theme revolved around these women sensing a call from God, being affirmed for their pastoral and teaching gifts by the Holy Spirit and other others and the hurt and uncertainty experienced as a result of being restricted from serving in the church as they feel God calling them.
“For those of you who affirmed and challenged me, thank you,” said Joanna Chapa, Rio Grande City, Texas, and currently a missionary in Peru with Multiply. “I want to encourage you to continue to be a family that affirms your daughters and wives to be the people God wants them to be. Release them, empower them, learn from them.”
Whitney Douglas, associate pastor of youth and outreach at Willow Avenue Mennonite Church in Clovis, Calif., said, “If I stand before Jesus one day and learn I was wrong to serve in certain capacities, I think there will be space for me in the kingdom. I could not ignore the Spirit’s prompting.”
Kimberly Kliewer Becker shared that although she grew up as a Mennonite Brethren and graduated from MB Biblical Seminary, now Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, she has found her voice as a pastor in Mennonite Church USA serving Immanuel Mennonite Church in Lauderdale, Minn.
“I’m in a Mennonite church, and I’m a Mennonite Brethren and I feel displaced, not fully fitting there, not fully fitting here,” Kliewer Becker said. “I think that’s a shame, because this is my people, and it shouldn’t be this way.”
Differences and unity
Some two-dozen people spoke from the floor Wednesday morning. Moderator Gary Wall imposed no time limit and the tone of the comments were gracious and respectful.
Some women shared of their joyful ministry in the church as complementarians under the leadership of men, saying they did not feel restricted. Others, speaking from an egalitarian perspective, talked of their desire to follow God’s call on their lives.
“I’m OK with this (1999) compromise,” said Helene Wedel, Yale, South Dakota. “Although for me personally, the only thing left for a true complementarian to compromise on is the lead pastoral role. As a complementarian woman, that would be the threshold that I could not compromise.”
Marci Berrtalotto, Fresno, California, said, “Nobody walks with Jesus because they want to do it wrong. On either side, we are truly desiring to know Jesus Christ and be faithful to him. It is not an egalitarian or complementarian thing. This is a sense of call about what God has asked us to do.”
Some speakers, representing their constituency, offered words of caution regarding change while others affirmed lifting current restrictions.
“There is a deep-seated division among us,” said John Langer, moderator of the Central District Conference (CDC). Langer cautioned against moving in the direction of the Canadian Conference. “We have a lot of people in our district who have said they are not going to stay if it goes to local choice,” he said.
Xavier Pena of Hanford, California, who chairs the Pacific District Conference Hispanic Council, said the council is publicly declaring its affirmation of women in pastoral leadership.
Some shared how their perspective was broadened during the study conference. Many spoke about the need to demonstrate love for one another as discussion continues.
“I’ve never been denied a voice,” said Aaron Wiens, Fresno, Calif. “What I’ve heard here is that there are voices who haven’t been heard. I am ready to learn from and see the Holy Spirit work through women.”
Dwight Carter, Inman, Kan., said, “I vowed to listen this week and to be humble myself. As a complementarian, I’m sorry that the words of complementarians have hurt women and limited their expressions of faith. Can we agree to use theology as a guide to love rather than a disruptive tool?”
Roy Burket, Huron, South Dakota, called for equality of people but diversity of roles. He urged that the key to moving forward is to pray for encourage one another. “We must speak the truth in love so the Word of God is not maligned.”
Chris Douglas, from Boise, Idaho, who serves with Multiply and who was the moderator of the British Colombia Conference when Canadian Mennonite Brethren were debating the issue, commended the respectfulness and love shown by both sides. He said, “While this is important, and we need to come to some sort of agreement, we’ll probably have to agree to disagree. But at the same time, we can agree that there are lost people who need to know Jesus.”
Canadian representatives Ingrid Reichard, CCMBC BFL chair, Rob Thiessen, British Colombia MB Conference; and Doug Heidebrecht shared their encouragement and affirmed the USMB conversation.
Rudi Plett, executive director of the International Community of Mennonite Brethren, and Cesar Garcia, Mennonite World Conference general secretary, were also invited to comment. Plett and Garcia implored U.S. Mennonite Brethren to realize that the world is watching how the conference walks through controversial issues and that loving each other in spite of differences is a testimony to the world.
The study conference also included times of prayer led by Aaron Herenandez, Kimberlee Jost and Dina Gonzalez-Pina. Coalt Robinson and Rhonda Dueck gave morning devotionals that followed a time of singing led by the worship leader from Axiom Church. The study conference concluded with a communion service led by Valerie Rempel and Larry Martens.
As a follow-up to the study conference, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary’s Center for Anabaptist Studies hosted a webinar Jan. 23, 2019, that was moderated by U.S. BFL chair Tim Sullivan. About 60 people participated in the webinar that included comments from Rempel, Geddert and U.S. BFL member Rick Eshbaugh. Participants could also ask questions. The Center for Anabaptist Studies co-sponsored the study conference along with USMB.
In a Jan. 29 follow-up email to participants of both the study conference and webinar, the U.S. BFL outlines what can be expected from the board moving forward. “It is our intention to prayerfully consider the comments, questions and concerns and all of the data we gathered from the study conference and webinar and then consider what God might lead us to do next.”
In the email, the U.S. BFL invites the USMB family to “in the days and months ahead” to share comments and thoughts with the board at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The U.S. BFL will meet March 27-28 but does not plan to “formulate a proposal or conclusion at that meeting. However, we will continue to consider what the next steps ought to be and then try to be faithful to follow in whatever direction we feel led,” the board writes. “We don’t have a specific timetable for doing that. We do intend to let you know if any decision about process is made. We will try to be timely with that, but we ask for your patience as we listen to how God is leading us.”
“Resolved that women be encouraged to minister in the church in every function other than the lead pastorate. The church is to invite women to exercise leadership on conference boards, in pastoral staff positions and in our congregations, institutions and agencies. We ask women to minister as gifted, called and affirmed. We call the church to be increasingly alert to the gifts of women and to become more active in calling them to minister. We further call people in the Spirit of Christ to relate to one another in mutual respect as brothers and sisters in Christ.”