When I Opposed Women in Ministry

Suzanne Burden

Last year, when a staff member introduced us to Suzanne Burden, we asked her about writing for The Well. Suzanne shares with us here her journey wrestling with the issue of women in ministry which led her to co-author the book, Reclaiming Eve: The Identity and Calling of Women in the Kingdom of God

What gives? How did you change your mind so dramatically? An old roommate sent a Facebook message, inquiring why I seemed to have done a turnaround on the issue of women in ministry. She remembered me attending a Bible Study Fellowship gathering with her in my early twenties where I disapproved of a woman teaching a mixed group.

I didn’t view her question defensively; instead, it revealed just how much my views had changed on the identity and calling of women in the Kingdom of God. Only ten or fifteen years ago I openly believed and sometimes said that women should not be teaching men.  

I was a young woman objecting to the full inclusion of women in the Kingdom of God. I certainly felt I was being biblical. I prided myself on my willingness to fit into prescribed gender roles. And then something began to shift, though it was years in the making.

Around the age of 30, I worked as a freelance writer, compiling profiles of many of the women in the New Testament, 25 in all. It was shocking, really: upon close inspection, it seemed Jesus was behaving in revolutionary ways with the women in his path. Each time he met a woman I became a bit more unsettled; his behavior was not only countercultural, it seemed, but groundbreaking. My internal script began to unravel.

  • What was Jesus thinking when he approached the Samaritan woman and engaged her in theological conversation, prompting her to drop her water jar and become an evangelist?
  • How could the unclean woman touch him and be instantly made whole, going from complete exclusion to complete inclusion, raised up as a daughter of God?
  • What was our Savior thinking when he raised up Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the Resurrection, even though a woman’s witness wouldn’t hold up in court?

One night I was visiting a small church when an older woman performed a monologue of Mary the mother of Jesus, dressed in first century garb. As she walked to the back of the auditorium, I approached her. I remember chatting with her, commenting on studying the women of the New Testament and being shocked at Jesus’ interactions with them.

She leaned in and said simply: “Jesus has already set women free.” I’ll never forget it. Her timely words unlocked a doorway that had been bolted to me.

All of those passages in the epistles, as important as they are to understand in their culturally-specific context, really can’t undo what Jesus did.

It was as if I’d been swimming along in Paul’s words that a woman was not to teach or hold authority over a man my whole life, and this woman’s words caused me to come up for air. I would eventually reevaluate the context and reasons for each of the biblical texts used to automatically keep women in silence and submission to males in most evangelical churches and institutions.

A few years later and newly married, I attended my husband’s church and teared up when a female pastor administered communion. My own call came through a series of circumstances that were painful and exhausting. Many of those close to me, aside from my husband who was supportive, didn’t understand why I was “ignoring Scripture” and stepping out in this way. The call to open myself up to leadership in the Church and in the Kingdom is the most costly call to obedience Christ has ever asked of me.

My new truth, however, was this: I was now taking the Scripture more seriously than ever before.

I could no longer justify not using the spiritual gifts Paul spoke about in the epistles, gifts entrusted to me for the sake of the Kingdom. I glimpsed the redemptive arc of the gospel, I felt the Holy Spirit speaking to me directly and sometimes loudly, and I longed to enter into the alliance of men and women designed to further the Kingdom of God on this earth. I still do.

There have been times when I still want to run away from these discoveries, but I can no longer avoid the truth. Ruth Haley Barton put it this way: “When we require women to pay over and over again for Eve’s transgression with their silence and submission, we negate the full redemptive power of the gospel.” (Alan F. Johnson, How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals, pg. 44.) 

So when someone says, “I don’t agree with everything in your new book,” a book that encourages women to fully partner with their brothers to build God’s Kingdom, I smile and nod. “Neither did I,” I say, knowing I was them years ago. “But through studying the Scripture and witnessing the redemptive power of the gospel in the lives of women throughout the New Testament, I’ve changed my mind.”

It took years for me to understand God’s intentions for his daughters in the Creation narrative and how the gospel restores them. But now I can say with confidence as I lean in: “Jesus has already set women free.” Whatever your journey may be, I hope the same for you — all for the Kingdom’s sake.

Suzanne Burden holds an M.A. in Theological Studies from Grace Theological Seminary and is the coauthor of Reclaiming Eve: The Identity and Calling of Women in the Kingdom of God (Beacon Hill Press, March 2014).

32 comments

In a society with many abusive, negligent, irresponsible and spiritually evasive men and also assertive and overbearing women, we need to seek and honour God's designed intent. Human pragmatism often denies God's desires. There is no real ambiguity. You are clutching at straws trying to justify anything else but male headship. The designed intent is consistently set out in Scripture. God identifies as male. Jesus was male. The apostles were male. Headship is male. Paul and Peter taught on what a strong woman of God behaves like. It is an extremely high and demanding calling. But it clearly is not a call to equivalence with men or taking what God gave to man. The issue cannot be cultural because 1) The New Testament is the final revelation for this age 2) Paul addresses Timothy on this issue and refers back to created design, and not cultural influence.

Time for repentance and to stop meddling with God's church.

Jan 18, 2017 6:04AM by Simon

Simon, you are welcome to disagree with this article, as other commenters have done, but there is legitimate disagreement on this issue based on Scripture and your phrases--"clutching at straws" and "meddling with God's church"--are inappropriate and disrespectful.

Jan 18, 2017 7:11AM by anna.gissing AD-8795

I read this with great interest. I too, take scripture very seriously and have studied and taught for years. Scripture cannot conflict with scripture. My question then is, what do you do with Paul's statement?

Apr 26, 2016 7:28AM by Tami

My sister be free in Jesus name it is through the holy spirit that we know and can do the things of God. If God said that why is it only written in the new testament and not the old God uses who he wants to use if he call you to do something and you don't do it you will have to answer on Judgment day for it. Those verses without the holy spirit revealing them will cause you to be in bondage. They are talking about woman not speaking during prophecy and while church is going on you have to read the whole chapter before you just take words and run with it. Secondly the Bible clearly says that the head of the woman is her husband. Only your husband is the only one that is head over you meaning in terms of rule only in your home. In church jesus is the head. How many of you asked the holy spirit to give you the meaning of that verse or didn't you use your own understanding.

Aug 21, 2016 5:30PM by Anonymous

SO fantasic joy when sisters will go and be servant of Gosel with blessing and favor of God and be blessing with the HOly Spirit to quard and strength us all in Christ and God love women in his the works daily,thanks and bless,keijo sweden

Nov 7, 2014 7:55AM by keijo

Suzanne, I look forward very much to reading Reclaiming Eve. I was also intrigued by your mention in the post of the conversation you had with an older woman who was presenting a monologue of Mary, mother of Jesus. Do you happen to remember the church or location where that took place? I also sent a query to your website. It may be that we have met before. :)

Apr 14, 2014 11:09AM by Maggie

I enjoyed your piece and respect your perspective and am processing this issue.

I am curious, though, if you and others who agree with you could say the same about believers who genuinely think and believe as Sal (above) does? Granted, heavy handed "this is what God's Word says" declarations are not good conversations starters. But, responses such as "I used to believe as you do" are no different than the condescension that takes place from the traditionalist/complimentarian point of view towards progressives ("if you only know what I know you'd believe differently.")

Are all men who believe Scripture teaches women cannot be elders misogynists and chauvinists? Are they doing evil by promoting that traditional view? Is it really all about power/hegemony or could some be sincerely (and possibly correctly) interpreting the Scripture? Are all women who believe this uneducated and lacking the enlightenment that you now possess? Is it possible for someone to disagree with you and that you might be wrong?

I'm open to all perspectives, but I think that charitably giving others good intentions is a critical part of dialogue. I'm hoping that you feel the same. Thanks.

Apr 9, 2014 11:00AM by Chuck

Hi Chuck: Thanks for your question. It's an interesting one. And it seems to imply that we are so polarized on this issue that we are not able to honestly share our journeys with Scripture and with God in pointing the way on the role of women in the Kingdom. I find that to be sad.

There is so much hurt here, but as we all know, we are to be a people mainly defined by our unity (John 17:22-23) and our love (1 John 4:-7-8).

"I used to believe as you do" is an honest statement and from my perspective, a bridge-builder. In the end, I believe strongly that we will be evaluated for how we have wrestled with Scripture and with our loving God, no matter what conclusion we come to. Have we humbly lived out the principles of the Kingdom that Jesus came to bring, spreading his good news and his love and justice?

In this, everyone has their own journey to navigate, but we are learning together. As for me, the more I study Scripture, the more I believe that those restricting women are resting on a "weak hermeneutic" as Dallas Willard calls it. Women should not just be allowed to use their spiritual gifts, they are OBLIGATED to do so for the Kingdom's sake. And I fear that how we hold our power on this issue often influences how we hold our theology. However, I am surrounded by those who disagree. I love them, I honor their wrestling with Scripture, and I listen and learn from them. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and we need to keep talking, keep sharing, and keep extending grace.

Apr 10, 2014 7:35AM by Suzanne Burden

How is it weak hermeneutics? Please explain more.
Disobeying the commands by simply saying it is contextual seems weak. Let Scripture interpret Scripture. Interpret 1 Timothy and Titus 2 in light of Genesis 1-3.

May 12, 2014 2:09PM by Anonymous

I do wish Dallas Willard were still alive today so we could ask him to elaborate on what he described as a "weak hermeneutic." But I can tell you what I believe it means. If we evaluate 1 Timothy and Titus 2 in light of Genesis 1-3 (and for that matter, the entire arc of Scripture, which is the important thing), I believe it is difficult to conclude that a woman should not teach or have authority over a man. For one thing, women were actually doing this at different points throughout the story of the Scriptures; for another, we have to be careful that we are taking the whole Scripture into account and the redemptive movement that the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus ushered in.

Truth be told, you will not understand exactly what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians, in 1 Timothy, or in Titus this side of eternity. There are tricky greek words and context that we must do our best to excavate, but which we must admit we understand only in part. What we do know is that these letters were written to specific people in specific locations at specific times. Our task is to apply the principles and truth here to our culture today. If we say this is "easy," and we know exactly what was meant in verses that are less than clear, we deceive ourselves and others. Let the clear passages shed light on the less clear ones.

Jul 21, 2014 10:13AM by Suzanne Burden

Suzanne,

Thanks for taking the time to respond. I would say that your general response further underscores just how polarized the debate is - that we all fear being misunderstood by those with whom we agree or with those whom we disagree. So much so that we fear specificity that creates an angry response.

I believe that until people are able to disagree respectfully on this issue without fear that they'll be judged as hateful, ignorant, less learned, or worse heretics - we won't have unity or love but only the phony appearance of unity and love. This is especially true of issues that aren't central to the shared view of the person and work of Jesus.

For my part, I don't know who is right or wrong and frankly don't know if I'll ever know on many theological issues that are non-essentials. What I'm assured of is that once in Christ, no one is judged or evaluated based on whether we get it all correct. It seems this assurance should enable all of us to have civility and love while we disagree.

Thanks again for your thoughts and a thought provoking post. Grace to you!

Apr 11, 2014 1:05PM by Chuck

Thank you, Chuck.

Apr 14, 2014 11:30AM by Suzanne Burden

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!" I just want to voice my encouragement to you, and all women in all areas of ministry. Thanks for sharing your story, thanks for doing the hard work of groundbreaking. Sisters in Christ, you have the support and prayers of many of your brothers.

Apr 2, 2014 1:40PM by Ted

Thanks, Ted. I blogged about men like you today. Why I Love My Brothers http://suzanneburden.com/love-brothers/

Apr 2, 2014 2:59PM by Suzanne Burden

My parents were married by a female pastor. My maternal grandparents were brought to Christ by a female pastor. Yet, I ended up in a church that was very against female pastors...having moved 3,000 miles away, we ended up in the same denomination my grparents started in. I felt a call to ministry for many years and expressed that in volunteerism. Still wasn't satisfied. I've spent 35 years in healthcare technology consulting but this week I applied to a university to begin my education in Christian Ministry. So, I will retire in 10 years and begin my second career serving God vocationally. Unless he plans something so I can begin sooner. I'm 51. It's never too late to start. (3/4 of my children are either in or pursuing ministry...a family business?...perhaps). ;-) Thanks for this! Looking forward to your book.

Mar 24, 2014 12:48AM by cindy smith

Hi Cindy: You are on an adventure, and I pray you feel God's smile and that this will be a season of tremendous growth and blessing.

Mar 24, 2014 8:48AM by Suzanne Burden

Suzanne,

I can't wait to read your book! I'm in seminary and the affirmation of women in ministry is near to my heart. Thank you for taking this challenge on!

Mar 23, 2014 12:54PM by Michelle

Thanks, Michelle. The book is not just about women in leadership, but all women taking leadership in different areas as imagebearers (reflections and representatives) of God. It truly is for everyone.

Mar 23, 2014 3:22PM by Suzanne Burden

The Bible is pretty explicit when talking about qualifications of elders and pastors of a church. They are to be men. While it can be harder to interpret what exactly women are permitted to do, it is clear women are not permitted to exercise authority over men and teach as elders. These commands are not contextual but foundational since Genesis 1-3. The Bible promotes equality in value to both men and women, but complimentary different roles. Jesus is equal to the Father, but He must submit to the Father. They have different but necessary roles which compliment each other. This does not make the Father "more equal" or better than either the Son or the Holy Spirit.

Our experiences and feelings and giftings cannot stand in authority over the Bible. God prescribes the way we are to worship Him. As Intervarsity, we must move back to the foundation set when Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones founded this organization.

Mar 22, 2014 11:50AM by sal

Sal, Here is an article Kenneth E. Bailey that was very helpful to me in my quest to understand who I am as a woman in Christ. Once I too believed as you do. Enjoy! -JoMae

http://www.cbeinternational.org/files/u1/free-art/women-in-new-testament...

Mar 24, 2014 12:29PM by Anonymous

Sal, I find that I disagree not only with your view of women in ministry, but with your view of the Trinity. Jesus does not have to submit to the Father. That is why he said in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53 NRSV) How do you get MUST submit from that comment? In my view, you don't. The Trinity is equalatarian -- not authoritarian.

Mar 22, 2014 9:48PM by Anonymous

Well said, SAL!

Mar 22, 2014 4:04PM by Anonymous

Suzanne, what a powerful post. I also did not agree with women in ministry and as I led the women in our church, I taught them as I had been taught, that we were equal in Christ but some of us were more equal than others (it was said a lot more spiritually than that).

And then God began to challenge me as He used me to minister to guys, and as my husband encouraged me to preach in the Sunday service. It has been a circuitous route to freedom, but here I am... and those whom God has given me to influence... they are here as well.

I thank God there are scores and hundreds and maybe more of people who value women equally as minister because God helped me see the truth about this subject.

Bless you... it's a new day.

Mar 22, 2014 6:40AM by Bev Murrill

Hi Bev:

Yes, everything old (the women fully participating in the early church) is hopefully becoming new again. What joy it must bring to the heart of our Savior when brothers and sisters fully join together to represent his interests of love and justice in the world and to spread the gospel.

Additionally, you've hit on something that I believe is repugnant to God: the myth of "the female exception." There is no favoritism with God—he desires that all of us step forward to offer the gifts he has lovingly given us.

A "circuitious route to freedom," indeed. I can so identify with this phrase.

Mar 22, 2014 8:12AM by Suzanne Burden

I will admit, I haven't read your book, so this question may already be answered. But if Jesus had already set women free by the time Paul wrote the epistles you referred to, why would Paul bother saying those things? Wouldn't Christ's liberation of women make those passages as irrelevant to the early church as many believe them to be to today's church?

Mar 21, 2014 5:54PM by Honestquestion

You're not the only one to get hung up on this question. Let me point out a few things:

1) As Gail Wallace of the Junia Project has recently mentioned, there are about 70 verses instructing us on the use of our spiritual gifts in the New Testament. These lists are for both male and female. There are 6 verses that appear to limit women in some way in a culturally-specific context written to a specific church.

2) As New Testament scholar NT Wright has recently pointed out, 1 Timothy 2:12, the text often used as the "ultimate proof" that women cannot teach or be in authority was written for the culture of Ephesus, a place where women were serving as priests and worshipping Diana and Artemis the great goddess—where would that leave Christianity as far as how women would interact in leadership? In verse 11, it references learning first. A woman is empowered to and allowed to learn Scripture and truth. Until she does this, she is to remain silent. More from NT Wright at this post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/01/30/that-women-question-rjs/

3) Honest grappling with these texts is necessary for each of us. But in the end, what Jesus did in elevating women so much higher than their culture allowed and in calling them as disciples and ministers of the gospel set a precedent for gender reconciliation that I simply cannot ignore. As a Jesus-follower, I look to God's ideal made possible through Jesus life, death and Resurrection and I try to live up to that standard of freedom and reconciliation, not to a first-century Ephesian or Corinthian one.

Mar 22, 2014 8:07AM by Suzanne Burden

This is a much needed story that I enjoy hearing more and more as women are slowly speaking out about this. I'm excited about the book and would very much like to read it.

Mar 21, 2014 4:26PM by Rebekah

Rebekah, I'd very much love to hear how the book intersects with your journey. You can tell us on the facebook page if you like: https://www.facebook.com/ReclaimingEve May God bless you and keep you.

Mar 21, 2014 5:45PM by Suzanne Burden

I, fortunately, grew up in a family and denomination which has embraced God's call to women since it's inception. I am 4th generation female minister. What a frightening responsibility this has been. Yet when God calls you, male or female, there is no peace of soul until you respond as Samuel did, Speak Lord, for your servant is listening. What misery I would have if called by the Spirit but barred by man.

Thank you for a wonderful and respectful article. My mother and aunts thank you. Posthumously so do my grandmothers and one great-grandmother. They are/were all pastors following God's call.

Mar 21, 2014 3:51PM by Saved2trek

Beautifully said. Your courage (and the courage of the women in your famliy) inspires me.

Mar 21, 2014 5:43PM by Suzanne Burden

Thanks for lamentable truths!

Mar 21, 2014 7:59AM by Tebogo Modise

What an interesting way to put it.

Mar 21, 2014 5:44PM by Suzanne Burden

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