Women as Elders at Grace Long Beach
THE PARTICULAR QUESTION the elders are addressing is whether we can recognize women and men as elders, or men only, if we are to be faithful to Scripture. The elders have asked me to address this question with you during second hour on April 14 and May 12. I find this to be a joyful, if somewhat daunting assignment. The elders also want to listen well to the congregation, and have planned focus groups for that purpose. I wanted to write you ahead of time to tell you what the question is, why we’re asking it now, and what to expect moving forward.
WHAT’S THE QUESTION, AGAIN?
If we are faithful to the witness of Scripture, can we recognize women and men as elders, or only men? You may have noticed that the question the elders are discussing is about elders. The elders are not questioning what our position is on women in ministry, or on women in leadership more generally. We gladly recognize the work of God through women at Grace in both ministry and leadership (including pastoral leadership), and we praise God for that work, and for the particular women God has called and gifted to bless this church. The question of women as elders is distinct from the question of women in ministry and leadership, because the elders exercise oversight for all the ministries of the church. Biblically speaking, elders are called to oversee the life of a local church, to practice pastoral care, and to work hard for the church, and the church is asked to esteem such people highly (see, e.g., 1 Tim 5:17; 1 Thess 5:12-13). The way the organization at Grace works is this:
- The pastoral staff are accountable to the lead pastor;
- the lead pastor is accountable to the elders (in particular, the executive board of elders);
- the elders are accountable to the church membership;
- we are all accountable to Jesus Christ our Lord.
Since elders oversee the ministries of Grace Long Beach, one could say that the leadership and ministry of both men and women is ultimately the responsibility of qualified men who are called as elders. The question we face now is whether this arrangement is what God desires of us, or whether God’s desire for us is that women and men serve together in the office of elder.
I also want you to notice that the question is whether we can recognize women as elders in light of biblical witness. It’s not a question about power (whether women are allowed to be elders), or a question about capability (whether women can be elders). It’s a question about faithfulness to God in light of Scripture: are we to recognize only men as elders, or men and women together as elders in response to the biblical witness?
SO, WHY THIS NOW?
The elders began exploring this question just over two years ago after reading a book called Eldership and the Mission of God, which first prompted the question. The elders then decided to address the matter intensively: we spent hours studying and discussing key texts in Scripture (along with seven women invited from the congregation to offer their perspectives), we read articles and listened to lectures by respected evangelical scholars, and we prayed fervently. After almost a year, it was clear that there was genuine theological diversity on this matter among the elders, and we were unable to complete this process prior to Lou’s sabbatical and subsequent resignation. (Lou was our former senior pastor). Now the elders have taken up the matter again. We have not yet made a decision, and there is still theological diversity among the elders on the matter.
So, why now? For one thing, it has been an ongoing conversation among the elders, and it wouldn’t be pastorally responsible to prolong it further, even though it has proven difficult to us. But the simplest reason for the urgency is the recommendation of our church consultant N.L. Moore. She suggested it would be best to arrive at a decision on whether we recognize women as elders before our next pastoral hire, since it’s a significant theological issue. The elders found that recommendation wise and plan to complete this process toward the end of June.
WHAT TO EXPECT MOVING FORWARD
The elders are committed to bringing this process to completion in a manner faithful to Jesus Christ, obedient to the Scriptures, and attentive to the pastoral needs of the congregation. The two talks during second hour are supposed to help us understand different perspectives on this matter, as well as ground the whole conversation in the Word of God. As the elders approach a decision, we also want to make space to hear from the congregation in focus groups. It is important to us to listen to your thoughts, feelings, questions, hopes, and concerns. (You can sign up for a focus group at the bottom of this email.)
The talks given during second hour will be centered on passages in Scripture that help us discern what God has for us with respect to women as elders. Each talk will also deal with the difficult questions of culture and interpretation inevitably raised for us in this discussion. This Sunday, we’ll consider how cultural attitudes about men and women have influenced the church for quite some time, and then we’ll turn our attention to Genesis 1-3, where we see God’s creational intention for man and woman, and its corruption in humanity’s fall. Next month, I hope you’ll see why interpreting the letters of Paul on this matter is not as simple as it would seem at first, and then we’ll talk about some key texts from Paul (e.g., 1 Cor 11:2-16; 12:4-11; 14:26-40; 1 Tim 2:1-15; 3:1-16; Titus 1:5-9; Rom 16:1-16; Gal 3:26-28). I recommend that you spend time with these biblical texts prior to each talk. Read them and discuss them with friends, and pray for God’s help for all of us. After each talk there will be time for questions. Questions will be taken until about 12:30PM. Parents still will need to pick up their children at 12PM, but are welcome to return to the question time after that. The talk and the questions that follow will be recorded, in case you’re unable to make it.
I hope this whole process will give us fresh vision for what we may become as men and women conformed to Christ, quite apart from decisions about ecclesial governance. My desire for this process is not only that we would learn better how to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; I also hope that the Holy Spirit makes us more holy, more conformed to the life and love of Jesus, more fully human as men and women together bearing the very image of God.