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Is Women in Ministry a Justice Issue? Yes, But Not Like You Might Think — An Excerpt from "Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles"

Categories Theology Book Excerpts

9780310519287 (1)For nearly half a century Kathy Keller, co-founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has heard the impassioned cry that gender roles in ministry is a justice issue.

"I have heard this cry from women with whom I’m having a quiet discussion, and from women who are weeping. I’ve heard it in small groups and had it shouted to me in large ones." (32)

While she understands their frustration and agrees women and ministry is a justice issue, it isn't in the way most people think:

“The matter of ordaining women is not an issue of justice, but marginalizing them is an issue of injustice.” (32)

Read this excerpt from Keller's Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles to better understand her position, and consider how it might challenge your own view of women in ministry.

-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)


Many of the people writing for the egalitarian or feminist positions begin their works with a narration of their personal journey. To some extent I have as well. But as much interest as this gives to what could otherwise be a dry work of theological reflection, that is not the personal journey I want to consider at this point.

At the beginning of this work I said that there were two pastoral fronts that needed to be taken into consideration when discussing complementarianism. The first front has concerned the hermeneutical issues connected with the most relevant texts. The second is the personal pain that women (most often) have suffered as a result of a lack of proper understanding of these texts, and the barrier those experiences create to accepting a complementarian understanding of the Scripture. Many women, and men as well, have been the victims of extrabiblical traditions arising from the Christian subculture that have limited or marginalized the gifts of women in the church.

The shameful fact is that in many churches the Scriptures have been interpreted so as to prevent women from exercising many, if not most, of the gifts of leadership and teaching, exhortation, encouragement, and so on, that the Holy Spirit has given to them. Not only does this disenfranchise half the church; it amputates the body of Christ.

An amputated body is a wounded body, and many women have been crushed by being told that their gifts, gifts given by the Holy Spirit, are not allowed, not wanted, even nonexistent or imaginary. No wonder the discussion is so often opened with the words, “This is a justice issue!”

I have heard this cry from women with whom I’m having a quiet discussion, and from women who are weeping. I’ve heard it in small groups and had it shouted to me in large ones. While I understand the frustration from which this sentiment is born, it has nevertheless been my task, at some point in our conversation, to explain that, no, it is not primarily a justice issue, but first it is a theological issue. What did God say? Why do we have to obey it? How can we do it? I understand their grief and confusion, and it is easy to sympathize with those who have been treated so unfairly (and unbiblically) by the church they love…

There is injustice to be addressed,  and biblical practices should be restored in the way women’s gifts are deployed, or fail to be deployed, in churches with complementarian or even more rigid philosophies. I am frequently embarrassed by others who use the title “complementarian” but who go beyond Scripture to legislate arbitrary rules about the age of boys when women must not teach Sunday school to them any longer, or whether a female small group leader should have a male co-leader if the group is mixed, and so on.

I do not know whether these extrabiblical restrictions grow out of a theological fear of the domino theory (let them hand out bulletins and the next thing you know they’ll want to be ordained) or a Christian version of the Orthodox Jewish practice of halakhah, where traditions and customs are enforced as vigorously as if they were Scripture, so as to give a wide berth to any occasion for sin.

Whatever their genesis, these nonbiblical boundaries fall under Jesus’ condemnation of obeying “the traditions of men” instead of “the commands of God” (Mark 7:8).

I cannot leave this subject without considering of how the injustices and exclusions done to women can and should be addressed.

As far as how they can be addressed, first there must be willing listeners. I cannot number the occasions—hundreds by now—on which I have been asked to reexamine my convictions on this subject. Sometimes the person is asking in tears and other times in anger, but I always agree. I have no investment in being wrong. I do not desire to be deceived or to deceive. So by all means, let us look at the data again. Having to come to grips with the case made for egalitarianism (and the actual people making the case) would force those who disagree to articulate cogent, persuasive, biblical reasons for the positions they do hold. In the process, my hope would be that we would all shed those merely cultural and traditional accretions that have determined “a woman’s place” and replace them with genuine biblical understanding.

Old Testament Today, 2nd Edition

Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles

By Kathy Keller

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