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How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals

How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals

by Alan F. Johnson

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This book features a number of autobiographical accounts as to how various persons have come to change their minds about women in leadership. Well-known Evangelical leaders—individuals and couples, males and females from a broad range of denominational affiliation and ethnic diversity—share their surprising journeys from a more or less restrictive view to an


This book features a number of autobiographical accounts as to how various persons have come to change their minds about women in leadership. Well-known Evangelical leaders—individuals and couples, males and females from a broad range of denominational affiliation and ethnic diversity—share their surprising journeys from a more or less restrictive view to an open inclusive view that recognizes a full shared partnership of leadership in the home and in the church based on gifts not gender.

How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership offers a positive vision for the future of women and men together as partners of equal worth without competitiveness in the work of equipping this and the next generation of Christian disciples for the ‘work of ministry’ and service in the Kingdom of God.

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18 Years

Read an Excerpt

How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership


Copyright © 2010 Alan F. Johnson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-29315-6

Chapter One



I am a "baby boomer." Following World War II my parents settled in a tiny southern town so my dad could begin his first dental practice and rear two sons with solid family values. As I began to experience life in the 1950s, I was deeply impacted by the early days of the Civil Rights movement. This movement for social justice raised a lot of questions for me: What is equality before the law? Why do some people have the power to control what other people can or cannot do? Eventually, when I left home for college, these kinds of questions led me to ask questions about the role of women, especially about how their gifts should be used within the church.

In this almost idyllic familial context I was given a great blessing - a genuinely Christian home where my mother and father loved one another and mutually respected the gifts that each had been given by God. They lived life together in a complementary way and were always open to the Spirit leading them as a couple. The problem my mother faced, especially in that context and time, was soon easy for me to see. Mom was a gifted teacher of the Bible. She was, in fact, the best Bible teacher that I ever heard until I went to college. I honestly think she was the best Bible teacher in our town. This is a story in itself.

Jealousy among local pastors, who knew how gifted (and popular) she was, surfaced when her Bible classes for teens drew large numbers of young adults from every church background to our home. But I soon realized that Mom's teaching ministry was severely limited by the gender roles placed on her by the church and the culture. Before she died, at ninety-one years of age (2007), we often discussed questions about her gifts and teaching. The reason for many of these conversations was simple-no one shaped my ministry more than my mom. I think she eventually realized that I struggled with how much the church had limited her ministry simply because she was a woman. Since both of us profoundly loved the church, these weren't easy conversations for us. But I think she quietly rejoiced in her son's personal questions. What she wanted, more than finding perfect answers, was that her son would remain faithful to Christ and the basic teaching of Scripture.

Eventually I would raise questions about why Mom was limited by gender roles. Mom never actually debated this point. She quietly used her gifts within the context that she knew. Like me, she had a determined, independent streak, but she never rebelled. I was the one who questioned a lot of the accepted order of things, but the problem finally came down to one question: Was there clear teaching in Scripture that allowed the full use of women's gifts in ministry, or did gender close some doors?


I read the relevant biblical texts that seemed to answer the question and came to a negative conclusion about women having a leadership role in the church. The Scripture did seem, at least to me at the time, to say clearly that women should not teach men or hold authority over men, either in the home or the church (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1-16; 14:33-35; Eph. 5:21-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Tim. 2:8-15; 3:2, 12; 1 Peter 3:1-7). The evidence I found in these texts seemed conclusive; thus, I faithfully resisted women in some ministry contexts, especially as elders and pastors.

I soon learned that the real question was not whether people like Mom could use her gifts. Most agreed about her gifts and their importance. The pressing troubling question came down to this: How should my mom have used her gifts in relationship to the men in the church? Should she have been encouraged to actually teach men? Many years after I became an adult, she was given a dying Sunday evening women's class in a megachurch. The class began to grow rapidly. The women then began to bring their husbands, who gladly listened to Mom teach until the pastor stepped in to stop it! The irony was that Mom was the only female on the search committee of this church that had called this pastor to serve that church. She loved him deeply.

In her own context the question was clear: Should she be barred from teaching men, from serving in any kind of pastoral role alongside of men, or from being an elected deacon in our local church? For many years I agreed that the answer was "Yes." The biblical texts seemed to say this clearly, so far as I could tell. I thus assumed that she had some truly wonderful gifts, but gender roles limited their wider use because God had created it this way. He desired an orderly context in which this was the right way to delineate leadership in the church.

My understanding of the issue of women in ministry was really a part of the "biblical" subculture of these formative years. Questioning the interpretations that bore directly on this issue was actually painful. In fact, when I entered the pastorate in the early 1970s, questioning this issue seemed to undermine the very authority of the Bible. My fellow (male) pastors almost all argued this way. I found comfort in holding to a strong certitude about the Bible's teaching on this controversial subject.

To be completely truthful, I am now convinced that what I deeply feared during my early years in the ministry was rejection. I desperately wanted to be a successful pastor (who doesn't?). I served among all male pastors who held the same view. If I thought about this issue deeply and questioned what my peers taught, I was putting myself in a most difficult position. This could cost me my ministry. I had a young family to support.

I still recall, to my deep chagrin, a time in the Wisconsin home of Stuart and Jill Briscoe (who had graciously invited me to spend several days with them to see their ministry firsthand) when this subject came up. It was the early 1970s. I listened as a person questioned Stuart and Jill about the "role of women in the church" following a Sunday meal. Their response was calm and careful. But inside I said, "These very gifted people are abandoning the authority of Scripture. I can't abide their denial of biblical authority." As a result of my painful emotional reaction, one that I now deeply regret, I have always been acutely aware of how difficult this issue can be for people who were nurtured in a church context where "no women in leadership" is normative. (I am profoundly grateful that the Briscoes relate their story in this book. I have apologized to them for my negative response in the 1970s!)

The few biblical texts I have mentioned above, about which there are hundreds of articles and books that seek to interpret them, seemed straightforward enough. Yet I still knew that I had come to know Christ, and the basic teachings of the Scripture, through my mother. And much of what I had learned from Mom, especially during my teen years, came directly through her public teaching ministry where young men had been present. (Teens eighteen and nineteen years old are clearly not young children!) Like Timothy I had come to "sincere faith" through my mother (cf. 2 Tim. 1:5). In my heart this always left a door open for a different kind of question, one that increasingly troubled me over the years: Was my mother's Spirit-given ministry actually held back by an understanding of Scripture that was wrong? It took me a long time to deal with this question honestly, but eventually, when I did, my answer forced me to change my view of women in ministry. The church had missed out by not using the gifts and calling of my mom more openly and wisely.

In my late teens I realized that God was calling me to pursue the gospel ministry. Again, my mother was the one person whom God used to confirm my direction. (The church would also concur, over time, that I had the requisite gifts and godliness to enter the ministry; thus, I was formally ordained. I believe this affirmation is essential, and the Scripture supports both careful examination and a wise approval process.) All of this led me to embark on more serious formal study of the Bible. Several institutional settings helped me prepare my mind and life for this call. In a solid and open academic context I would first begin to raise some of the questions I had about these texts related to women in ministry. The answers I received seemed to confirm my view that women should not hold office or teach men, though some of my most respected professors left me wondering since they addressed some of the very questions that resonated most deeply within me.

In my ecclesial context "feminism" was seen as a plague, a vortex of unbelief and disobedience to the divine order. And most of the traditionally conservative commentaries I consulted assured me that the several texts I mentioned above were clearly prohibitive of women's wider ministry. I thus drew the following conclusions from my early formal study:

1. Only males should hold office in the church or be given approved leadership roles.

2. Only males should teach where both genders were present.

3. Women should only use their teaching gifts with other women and younger children.

These conclusions satisfied me, for a time, but the doubts remained. When the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) was formed, I read their material and thought this was the best way to understand the Scriptures. I even joined CBMW and read their magazine and published books for some years. I was sure that I had finally found the solid answers I needed. These godly men and women who led and wrote for CBMW were faithful, conservative, and widely respected leaders who made strong biblical arguments.

I especially resonated with the term complementarian. I still resonate with this term. But let me explain. Who doesn't believe that men and women complement one another in a number of dynamic ways? I believe complementarity is basic to the created order since we were created male and female. Eventually I came to reject the idea that one side in this debate was entitled to this word. I am a complementarian. Men and women are wonderfully different and interrelate in a way that complements one another. The two sexes have beautifully different ways in which they express their God-given uniqueness.

THE QUESTION IS NOT BIBLICAL AUTHORITY The first issue I had to face, as I began to reopen the issue of women in ministry in my late forties, was biblical authority. Did the view that gender was no longer a barrier to ministry actually deny Scripture? I had thought so for years. It would take some serious wrestling with the Bible to satisfy my inquiring spirit.

Leading opponents of women as eligible for all the ministries in the church often charge (in subtle or not so subtle ways) that biblical authority is the real problem in the debate. They use what is called a "slippery slope" appeal. Opponents of a completely open view of women in ministry often charge that people like me-who believe that women can be pastors, or deacons, and thereby exercise teaching (authority) in the church-are denying the authority of Scripture. Given the numerous attacks made against biblical infallibility over the course of church history, this charge has a powerful emotional appeal. So long as a person links the question about women and ministry with this negative allegation, there is no way a person who believes the Scripture is God's Word can seriously consider the importance of stories like those in this book.

What is at stake here is serious. I do not doubt this for one moment. If God intends for men (only) to hold authority in the church, then if I work for reformation and change in this area, I am wrong, maybe seriously wrong. But if the other side has read the Scripture incorrectly and thereby preserved a kind of patriarchy that is foreign to the story line of the New Testament, it is clearly time to rethink this issue in terms of the church's larger mission. When I concluded that my view had changed, I knew I could not run away from this reformation. Reformation is a special interest of mine. I have learned that all reformations are painful and take time. None is without problems and excesses.

But make no mistake; this issue is really about proper biblical interpretation, not about biblical authority. In fact, the question comes down to this: Can a woman serve as an elder (generally with a plurality of other elders, so it seems evident in Scripture) who leads/oversees the church through teaching and pastoral ministry (Heb. 13:17)? When we state the question this plainly, we can seek to humbly answer it by forming a carefully nuanced argument that is rooted in all Scripture, not just in a few problematic gender-restrictive texts. I concluded, after a lot more reading and struggle, that these extremely difficult texts could not be interpreted with the certitude I once held without an adequate understanding of the local historical and cultural context in which these exhortations were originally given.

THE MINISTRY OF JESUS AND PAUL Telling my story in this way does not allow me to explain precisely how the Bible convinced me to change my mind about women in ministry. And it certainly does not allow me to answer all the objections. But what I must say is this: it was the teaching and practice of both Jesus and Paul that became the strong foundation for my change.

Consider the ministry and teaching of our Lord Jesus himself. His relationship and human interaction with women is nothing short of remarkable if the Gospels are read carefully and the Old Testament and its cultural context are kept in mind. Yes, he chose twelve apostles who were males. (It should be noted that both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions firmly embrace the idea of a male priesthood. I respect this view, and I have many priests who are my friends, but I do not believe this doctrine of priesthood is either biblically correct or faithful to the earliest Christian tradition.)

But there were women involved in Jesus' life and ministry who were like "apostles" to the twelve male apostles. The primary meaning of apostle seems to be: (1) someone who was with Jesus and was commissioned and sent by him, and (2) someone who was an eyewitness to his resurrection. If this is true, then our Lord clearly had women "apostles." Indeed, in many ways these women in the Jesus story were as prominent as, and in some cases even more prominent than, the men. The simple truth is this: the real Jesus story turns patriarchy upside down! When people ask me what changed my thinking initially, the answer is simple: the life and ministry of our Lord and how he dealt with women.

One story must suffice to demonstrate my point. In Luke 10 we read of Jesus enjoying fellowship in the home of Mary and Martha. We have all heard sermons about Mary being the one who sat at Jesus' feet to worship him while Martha was the sister serving in the background. But how many realize that Mary's place in this story is one that was only taken by males in that culture? Women would never have engaged in this kind of dialogue with men. She openly challenged the social norms, and Jesus praised her!

Similar examples abound throughout the Gospels, especially in Luke. Such stories, when understood in their rich context, demonstrate that our Lord dealt with this question differently than the male leaders of the synagogue, who prayed every Sabbath: "God, I thank you that you've not made me a Gentile. God, I thank you that you've not made me a slave. God, I thank you that you've not made me a woman." What did women do in this context? They prayed, "God, I thank you that you've made me according to your will." I believe a careful reading of the Gospels will show that our Lord acted in a manner that consistently turned this upside down. His kingdom was not to be patriarchal. Both his words and actions prove it. The fact that men have often made it such is clearly not because they have followed their Lord closely.


Excerpted from How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership Copyright © 2010 by Alan F. Johnson . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Alan F. Johnson (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Christian Ethics and Emeritus Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) at Wheaton College. He is the author of commentaries on Paul’s letter to the Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation and co-author with Robert Webber of What Christians Believe. He and his wife Marie reside in Warrenville, Illinois and have four daughters and nineteen grandchildren.

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