This article was printed in the March/April Christian Leader and is a condensed version of the longer article that was posted online Feb. 7, 2019.
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 the issue 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 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 not much has changed. U.S. Mennonite Brethren remain as divided on the issue in 2019 as they were two decades ago.
The study conference featured seven presentations. Three guest speakers summarized the biblical case for the two primary approaches: complementarian and egalitarian. The fourth presented an alternative approach to thinking about church leadership. These speakers, recognized authors and scholars, were given the daunting task of condensing the biblical basis for their perspective into a 45-minute presentation.
James R. Beck, senior professor of counseling at Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colo., 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,” Beck said. “Each side can build their case on the basis of Scripture.”
Dan Doriani, professor of theology at Covenant Seminary, presented the complementarian perspective. While he affirmed the ministry of women, he noted that in Scripture, women do many things but not everything. 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. “This position is unpopular; aspects of biblical teaching always are…. But cultural views are not normative.”
Craig S. Keener, professor of biblical studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, presented the egalitarian perspective. He highlighted women in prominent biblical roles and spoke of the importance of reading Scripture in light of its cultural context.
“We have explicit commands of Scripture, and we look for principles and how they apply to our situations,” Keener said. “If we don’t take into account the ancient culture, we are effectively making our own culture the arbiter of the text.”
Michelle Lee-Barnewell, associate professor of New Testament at Biola University, presented an approach that she hoped would “make complementarians better complementarians and egalitarians better egalitarians.” She emphasized asking different questions about leadership, unity as opposed to equality, the authority of Christ, 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.
“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 much focused on a power model rather than a relational model.”
MB history, early church case study
The study conference began Monday evening with an historical overview of women in Mennonite Brethren church ministry presented by Valerie Rempel, interim vice president of Fresno Pacific Biblical seminary and J.B. Toews Chair of History and Theology. She highlighted the important role women have played on the mission field, the organization of women’s mission societies and the conversations that began in the early 1970s about the role of women in the church.
“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’s presentation was followed by a study of Acts 15 led by Larry Martens, former Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary president and faculty member. He framed the study as a case study for how the first century church dealt with controversy.
“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 formal presentations concluded Tuesday evening with a look at how the global Mennonite Brethren church is responding to women in ministry. Doug Heidebrecht, on staff with Multiply and director of global training at MB Biblical Seminary, presented his research on the global Mennonite Brethren views on women in ministry, noting a wide spectrum along which various MB conferences fall.
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.”
Table talks, sharing stories
Participants did more than listen during the study conference. After each presentation, participants asked questions of the speakers, talked around their tables and then reported on their table conversation during an open mic time. Table groups were 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 stories and sharing.
For an hour Tuesday night, seven women responded to the invitation to tell their stories. 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 others and the hurt and uncertainty experienced as a result of being restricted from serving in the church.
“For those of you who affirmed and challenged me, thank you,” said Joanna Chapa, Rio Grande City, Texas, currently a missionary in Peru. “I 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.”
Saying she could not ignore the Holy Spirit’s prompting to serve, 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.”
Kimberly Kliewer Becker said that although she grew up as a Mennonite Brethren and graduated from MB 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.”
Some two-dozen people spoke during the Wednesday morning open-mic sharing. Women shared of their joyful ministry as complementarians in the church 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, Calif., 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, Pacific District Conference Hispanic Council chair, said the council is publicly declaring its affirmation of women in pastoral leadership.
Some shared that 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. 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 and 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, commended the respectfulness and love shown by both sides and pointed to common ground. 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.”
Representatives from the Canadian Conference of MB Churches, the International Community of Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite World Conference were invited guests and were given an opportunity Wednesday morning to speak.
The study conference also included times of prayer, morning devotionals and singing. It concluded with a communion service led by Valerie Rempel and Larry Martens.
In a Jan. 29 follow-up email to participants, the U.S. BFL outlined what can be expected from the board moving forward. The board invites the USMB family to share comments and thoughts with the board at email@example.com as they “consider what God might lead us to do next.” The U.S. BFL will meet March 27-28 but does not plan to “formulate a proposal or conclusion at that meeting.”