Mennonite Brethren are a praying people. Whatever they decide is God’s will for them, you can be sure they prayed a lot about it. The U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches’ study conference on “The Bible and Women in Pastoral Ministry” Jan. 14-16 in Tempe, Ariz., was no exception.
Prayer wasn’t the only priority that made the USMB process healthy. With enough time for unhurried plenary discussion, the study conference produced the gracious dialogue every church hopes for when a controversial issue needs hashing out.
More than once, someone reminded the group that the world was watching. Others want to know how MBs will resolve their differences. They want to know how MBs will respond to women who hear God’s call to preach and lead.
This awareness of outsiders’ perceptions may be the key to a solution that achieves the USMB purpose of bringing more people to salvation in Jesus Christ.
What helps, and what hinders, the gospel in a certain place and time? That is the question the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches allows each congregation to use as a guiding principle when deciding whether it is open to a female lead pastor.
This is not to say that the church should simply do what is popular. But when there’s room to disagree and still remain in fellowship — as many at the study conference seemed to affirm is the case on women in pastoral ministry — allowing Canadian-style local choice would be the best answer.
Sound biblical interpretation and successful church ministry have something in common: Both consider the context. Why did Paul say it was disgraceful for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor. 14:35)? It might have been because of how others would perceive a group that let its meetings get out of hand by allowing uneducated women to ask questions in public. They should ask their husbands at home, Paul instructs.
What would Paul say to women today? What would he tell a female seminary graduate who knows the Bible better than anyone else in the room?
A Sunday school teacher who responds to a woman’s question with “ask your husband at home” would be hindering the gospel, no matter that the words come straight from Scripture. What helped a church gain a good reputation in Paul’s time could ruin a church now. In North America today, “no woman could ever be our pastor,” sounds as offensive as “ask your husband at home.” In a culture accustomed to women in positions of leadership, a church that limits women’s roles cannot credibly claim it treats men and women as equals.
People at the study conference talked about differences that matter or don’t. Lack of gender equality is a difference that matters. It can be a deal-breaker.
The USMB conference has lost members — and gifted female pastors — because of it.
In his presentation on how the early church dealt with controversy, Larry Martens of Clovis, Calif., called for exercising grace and truth, as the believers at the Jerusalem Conference did when discerning God’s intention for the Gentiles, described in Acts 15.
The words of the Apostle James apparently were decisive in setting the Jesus movement on a path of inclusion and growth: “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:9). The heart of the matter was the church’s evangelical mission. An obstacle to spreading the gospel needed to be removed. This is also true of any restriction on women in ministry today.
After Martens spoke, table groups discussed these questions: What are the core and unchanging timeless elements of the gospel that every generation should affirm? What are the differences that are of secondary importance? In what areas might we allow for differences in our practices?
Then they knelt to pray.