A recent article from Christianity Today should have our attention: “Researcher: Most Evangelicals Support Women in Church Leadership.” As the summary explains, “Despite the ongoing debates over gender roles, surveys show significant agreement in favor of female Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, speakers, and preachers.”
What does this article tell us? Well, I believe it tells us both more and less than the headline and summary let on. While it is true that the research cited in the article indicates that most evangelicals support women in church leadership — more on that below — the survey questions define “church leadership” variously, from teaching Sunday School to preaching at a women’s conference, from leading worship to preaching the Sunday morning sermon.
Now, anyone who has followed the evangelical gender debate over the past decade might recognize that this list of church leadership roles actually skirts around the most significant issue in the debate — whether or not women should “teach or exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12) within an ecclesial context, and what are the implications of the Bible’s position on this outside the walls of the church.
While CBMW’s Danvers Statement has been and continues to be a touch-point for what defines complementarianism, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are major differences among those who call themselves complementarians on this very question. Now, I do not think I can name a single complementarian who would restrict women from teaching other women at a women’s conference. In fact, I and many like me believe Titus 2 not only permits but commands this kind of teaching ministry. Nevertheless, reserving the function of preaching the Sunday morning sermon for qualified men only is a more direct application of the plain words of 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” It also more faithfully reflects the spirit of the Danvers Statement, which confesses “some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men.”
It is not surprising, then, to see that the research presents a statistical drop (10–14%) between those who support women in other church leadership roles and those who think women should preach the Sunday morning sermon.
But what may surprise everyone, as it surprised me, is the strong majority support that is reflected in the research for women in church leadership — including preaching the Sunday morning sermon. Look at the following statistics:
According to the research presented by Ryan Burge in this Christianity Today article — and at this time I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the landscape he presents — 72.8% of all evangelicals surveyed believe women should be allowed to preach on Sunday morning. That number is much higher than I would expect. And as the graph above shows, the other leadership roles receive more support — 86.9% of surveyed evangelicals believe women should teach Sunday school. Does that mean children’s Sunday school? Or mixed adults? These clarifications would have surely nuanced the data, as I would suspect far more support women teaching children’s Sunday school than adults, men included, for reasons articulated by Dr. Tom Schreiner.
But the number 72.8% should have our attention. As Burge goes on to explain in the article, this number does not change significantly when stratified across church attendance frequency; in fact the number increases with attendance.
While it is true there are those who consider themselves complementarians who support women preaching — this has been termed the “Kathy Keller” position, who summarized her position once as “a woman can do anything an unordained man can do in the church” — the number 72.8% exposes the need for an organization like CBMW. Conversely, this means 27.2% of evangelicals surveyed by Christianity Today believe the Sunday morning sermon should be restricted to qualified men — a position that I believe is obvious from a plain reading of both 1 Timothy 2:12 and the Danvers Statement.
In other words, we’ve got work to do.
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