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Evangelical Questions: “Certain Women”
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about Women and their role in the church. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Today’s verse comes from Luke 8:1-3:
Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.
So here we have Jesus and his disciples going around doing what they do – and we also have a group of women who are supporting them financially, and though the text doesn’t say it they were probably offering lots of other practical means of support as well. And so the question presents itself about the role of women in various churches. This is not an easy question answer on a number of fronts, but one of the most complicating factors is that “Evangelical Churches” are not 1 single entity. “Evangelical” is not a denomination or formal group. Evangelicals are a subset of Protestants whose tradition and way of thinking developed about 75 years ago – around the time when the Billy Graham crusades began. But they can be of any denomination – like Baptists or Methodists – or they can be of no denomination at all. So when we say, “What is the Evangelical stance on women?” there is no one single answer to that. There are some general trends and I’ll talk about those, but there are also lots of exceptions. Explaining our LDS understanding is complicated for other reasons. Unlike Evangelicals who have a decentralized structure, we have a very centralized structure so the official list of what women can and can’t do isn’t hard to identify – the difficult thing for us is that there are a lot of feelings around this. And I’ll talk about that a little today too.
The Evangelical View on Women
First, let’s gain some understanding on how Evangelicals view women and why they see it like they do. And the first thing I’ll say is that I’m not talking about the characteristics of Evangelical women. The reality is that they’re not all that much different than Latter-day Saint women in many ways. They love Jesus, they serve their families and community tirelessly, and they want good things for their children. But I’m going to talk about how they’re viewed in their churches, what they’re allowed to do, and why.
I want so badly to be able to explain this to you in a simple way by saying, “there are two groups, and here is what they think,” but the on-the-ground reality is very different than that. I’m going to tell you how I understand it, even though it’s a bit messier. And I know that even though this series is aimed at Latter-day Saints that we have some Evangelical friends who are listening along and I’d love to hear your experience on this issue in the comments – there really is a wide variety of how this plays out here.
So, according to the Pew Research Center roughly 10% of American churches (in all their varieties) will ordain women and allow them to take the top leadership position in a church. And about half of those are Evangelical churches. So a pretty small minority of churches will say that women can be the lead pastor in a congregation. Of the largest 100 Churches in America – churches that have between 10,000 and 40,000 members (a few outliers have up to 100,000 members) 3 have a woman in the senior role, and 4 others have had one in the past, but not now. So the number of churches that have women in top leadership positions is very small, and we’re going to set that group aside for moment. The only reason I really point them out is that sometimes I think Latter-day Saint women look at other churches with a sort of misunderstanding that they all have women who are allowed to do as much as they want, and that’s just not true.
Public Role of Women
Of all the remaining churches, which is the vast majority, there are limits on what women are allowed to do, but those limits vary from church to church. Latter-day Saint women might find it amusing to hear that is that many, many of those churches women are not allowed to speak (meaning teaching or preaching) in a public service. I say that’s amusing because we let 12 year-old-girls teach us on Sunday morning on a regular basis. So sometimes when I hear Latter-day Saint friends complain about women not having enough of a role I just chuckle to myself because right out of the gate girls and women in our church already have a greater role than in many places. Churches that have this practice – women not being allowed to teach a mixed group in public – are doing so because they are trying to obey their understanding of Paul in the New Testament when he says, “a woman should remain silent in the church.” They take that very literally – this doesn’t mean that all of them like it, but they get respect for trying to take scripture seriously.
In other churches women are allowed to speak or teach, but they are restricted from doing other things like bless and serve communion, or perhaps are restricted from being on a governing board or something similar. And here is where women in our church have a lot in common with Evangelical women as girls and women in our church do not do these things either. And it is probably fair to say that Evangelical women have mixed feelings about this just as Latter-day Saint women do. And they manage those feelings much like women in our church do.
In terms of public worship outside of speaking/teaching Evangelical and Latter-day Saint women are pretty similar. In both traditions women are frequently found leading worship – for us that looks like a song leader helping the congregation with hymns, and for them it might look like a praise-band on a stage. In both traditions women are often found doing things like teaching Sunday School, leading youth, planning events, coordinating various service efforts, and more. We sometimes joke that our church would not run without the Relief Society, well their churches wouldn’t run without the women who do the equivalent work.
When it comes to ordination it’s an interesting view. Many Evangelical churches don’t even practice ordination, so it’s not an easy comparison to make. Of those who do, they think about it differently. Ordination is usually not about being able to lead priesthood ordinances. There are a few minor exceptions to this and those have to do with who is authorized to do something like perform a wedding. But for the most part ordination is a process through which the community recognizes that a certain person has a call to some kind of ministry and they become ordained as a way for the congregation to say that they will sustain this person in their call. In function this is what we do too. I know that there are women – some whom I like and respect a lot – that would feel really frustrated with that explanation because they feel using the word “ordained” is important. And I sympathize with that pain. But in function, the callings that women experience in our churches work the same way that ordination works in most other churches. It’s recognition that someone is going to be filling a role and the community pledges their support.
Interestingly enough, Evangelical women do not usually receive this formal kind of calling and declaration of support or sustaining. If the 3rd grade class needs a Sunday School teacher, a woman might volunteer, get a bit of training and some materials to use, and that is that. There is no calling and setting apart, no sustaining. While we don’t use “ordination” language for women in our church, the apples-to-apples comparison puts us in a situation that is often better than is recognized.
Another difference to point out is that only the most liberal of Evangelical or Protestant churches would talk about having a Heavenly Mother. And to be fair, it’s not like we know a lot about how to do with her or even have a very developed theology around her – but we do have the concept of her. The only comparison that comes close for Evangelical women is that they can sometimes talk about God having feminine qualities – maybe a reference to the verse about Jesus being like a “mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings.” But it stops there. Before I joined our church I did not know that Latter-day Saints had a belief in a Heavenly Mother. The way I found out went like this…I wasn’t even studying with the missionaries yet, but I wanted to visit a LDS service and just see what it was like. It happened to be Father’s Day. We sang the hymn “Oh my Father,” and I was shocked to see the line about, “I have a Mother there.” But I think I told myself that it was only a song and didn’t think too much about it. But one of the speakers that day was a middle aged man whose children were teenagers. He talked about the work of being a father with all its rewards and challenges, and admitted that he could not have begun that journey in any way without his wife. And then he said something like: It’s just like our Heavenly Father…a Mother is required for someone to become a Father and aren’t we grateful to have a Heavenly Mother.” To say that I was shocked was an understatement. Only the most liberal of liberal churches would talk about God in that way. I was very confused. Later I messaged a friend to ask about it – the only sense I could make of it was that this idea must have belonged to that individual man and he was saying something provocative but it was based in his own belief and logic – it couldn’t possibly be a teaching of the Church.
The Two Trees
Before we are done here I want to make one recommendation. I know this is a tough topic for some women in our church. If nothing else I hope this comparison has helped you see that when you compare like-to-like, we actually have quite a bit to be very pleased with. And still, I think any of us can struggle from time to time. And I have a thought for something that might help.
On the FAIR website (and YouTube channel) there is a talk called The Two Trees by Dr. Valerie Hudson. Dr. Hudson is a member of our church and also a professor at Texas A&M in the Department of International Affairs, previously she taught at BYU. Her list of impressive credentials is longer than my arm. I say all of that to say that this woman is no dummy. She is incredibly impressive. And she gave a talk called The Two Trees that addresses this topic so well. It’s a long and dense talk. I won’t do justice to it with this summary but her main point is that both men and women are required in this work. Without a woman (Eve) the whole human project would have never got off the ground. And without another woman (Mary), Jesus Christ could not have come to save us. But men have their role too. Without the man Jesus Christ we would be stuck in our sin forever. And without a priesthood bearing man we have no ability to accomplish ordinances. It took women to usher us into this world, and it takes men to usher us into the next. If this is at all interesting to you please go listen to Sister Hudson’s talk. It was the single most helpful thing for me to get all of this settled in my head.
So there you have it. There are many similarities – and some important differences between Latter-day Saint women and Evangelical women. I hope this conversation encouraged your faith and sparks something in you to learn more.
Join us next week and we’ll tackle another topic from the New Testament.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.