Women Preachers: Form Follows Function

Form Follow FunctionMy blog on Monday about women preaching has generated quite a firestorm of activity. This forum is not really the place to hash our scriptural arguments, you will need to wait for my book for that. I made the claim that for some folks, this issue was not even open to discussion. I did this without evidence, but some of the comments received have confirmed this.

I want to make a modest proposal today about the nature of church leadership, borrowing a principle from the architectural world. Architects are taught that “form follows function.” A successful building will be constructed when the developers understand what its necessary functions will be, and architects draw plans for accommodating those functions. This principle is often extended into many other areas, including organizations. Successful organizations are built to facilitate necessary functions and must adapt to the changing functional needs of the organization. Form should be dynamic based on actual, vital activities of the organization. If there is rigid structure that resists change, functionality will suffer.

I have thought that this principle should be applicable to the church in several ways. First, I think this is what was going on in the first century. The earliest leaders in the church after the ascension of Jesus were the twelve apostles. In Acts 6, the evolving functions of the church necessitated engaging a different set of leaders, those who would do food distribution duty.  Why? Because the apostles could not keep up with this function and still perform their vital function of prayer and ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). So the organizational form of the church adapted.  In Acts 15, the leaders of the Jerusalem church met to consider the necessity of circumcision for Gentiles, and we see another modification of the church’s leadership structure. Now we have “apostles and elders” (Acts 15:6), and the leader of the church is James. He is not an apostle. We assume this is the brother of Jesus and that he would be considered an elder. A little after this, we get one of the earliest descriptions of the leaders of a church in 1 Corinthians 12:28: apostles, prophets, and teachers. No preachers or ruling elders in sight!

The Pastoral Letters of Paul to Timothy and Titus are often cited as authoritative for church form, the definitive structure for all time. But we may observe that Paul commanded Titus to “appoint elders” in every church (Titus 1:5). Who is the Titus who does this for us now?

All of this is to say that perhaps we get this backwards. We think we need elders in our churches, but I have been involved in more than one church where a newly elected elder asked, “What am I supposed to do?” We think we need deacons in our churches, but often there is confusion over the division of labor between elders and deacons. We think we need a church board (a concept completely absent from the early church), but we are not sure who should be on it, and how it divides responsibilities with the “Preacher.” Does the Preacher work for the board, does the board serve the Preacher, or do they serve together?

It seems to me that the church needs folks to oversee operations. If we need to give them a title, they can be called “Overseers.” We need mature, wise people to teach sound doctrine and refute heresy. Maybe we could call these folks “Older, Mature Leaders.” We need caring people to tend to the physical and spiritual needs of the congregations. Maybe we could call these folks “Shepherds.” We need people to see to physical needs of the church and minister to the community. Maybe we could call these folks “Ministers.” We need people who are well grounded in the word and have the time to develop helpful, scriptural sermons. Maybe we could call these folks “Preachers.” If we want to sound more traditional, maybe we could use the titles Bishops, Elders, Deacons, and Preachers, but when we do this we potentially lose a lot of the functionality aspect of the role. But maybe if we approached it this way, the gender issue would not seem so important.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College


12 thoughts on “Women Preachers: Form Follows Function

  1. Mark, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this very sensitive issue facing many churches throughout the SC Movement and beyond. It is very difficult to take a major step against an ingrained tradition in our fellowship like the role of men and women; however, it is critical that we re-examine this (and any other “tradition”) with as an objective opinion as possible. I think that’s what you’re going for here and I appreciate the effort. Hopefully even those who disagree will at least be open minded enough to consider it without digging heels.

    • Thanks Chris,

      I guess I pretty convinced that there is a group of folks whose minds are closed on this issue have no interest in further study or dialog. Sad.


  2. Mark, I too appreciate your efforts in bringing this long-debated issue out in the forefront once again. You and I have been down this road together before. I am afraid you are correct, however, in saying that there are people who have no interest in studying the scriptures with an open mind. Even when shown scripture that supports a view other than the one they have been taught they dig their heels in and close their minds to the possibility that they may be wrong. I have studied the scripture and read many books on both sides of this issue. In the end it comes down to God’s calling in my life, and I will continue to look for opportunities to preach the Gospel whether it is in the pulpit on Sunday morning or whether it is to my next door neighbor. I thank God for giving me a church family that believes there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” My wise husband put it this way; “Is my salvation any less valid because I heard the Gospel message from a woman? I think not.” (Galatians 2:28) I look forward to more dialog and your book.

    • This is where we thank our Sunday School teachers for teaching us the Gospel message week after week. Thank you, Margie Mowles, Maxine McNew, Doris Seeger, Jean Green, Diane Hansen, Norma Dyrdahl, Linda Cram, Donna Dicks Corliss, Linda Harleman, et al.

  3. Mark,
    I am very much appreciative of what you are sharing. I came to similar conclusions years ago about what women should be and could be doing in the kingdom work. As I see the issues, it has to do with how some read the Bible. For some it is a static, contextless etched in stone list of commands and directives which are interpreted only in light of one’s own tradition. Yet, Hebrews reminds us that word of God is living and active. The books we possess come out of context, out of situation and we often don’t have the whole story. Paul may have had issues with women in Ephesus so he silences them there. But a close reading of 1 Corinthians has all members of the church participating in the worship enterprise.

    I find in the New Testament discussion about how slaves should behave, and master treat them. Our favorite way to handle those passages is to talk about our jobs, workers and bosses. It is not about employees and bosses (though some applications might be inferred) I have repudiated slavery. Some could, and for a long time did support the institution by the very words of the Bible. I and hopefully the church has outgrown the need for admonitions concerning slavery and we now are active in its extinction.

    I think we spend so much time trying to figure out what people cannot do, that we have trouble getting around to the high command of Jesus, like “make disciples.” I love listening to people, be they men, women, old, young, speak of God’s grace and mercy. After all blessed are the feet of those who bring good news.

  4. Thanks Mark for “taking on” such an incredible topic. I have ALWAYS loved your way with words, and am grateful that I can still glean from your teachings. This is such a touchy subject, which is truly sad when it has nothing to do with our salvation.

    Thank you again!!

  5. I think that this idea gets to the root of the difference between Protestant and Catholic understandings of ordination, and why I could support women in all areas of ministry when I was a Protestant and now as a Catholic support the all-male priesthood (I understand that I am taking this in a totally different direction than you were intending).
    Generally speaking, Protestants understand ministry and ordination as a primarily a functional thing. It is not difficult to support (depending on one’s hermeneutical approach) women in ministry when you view ordained ministry functionally, because clearly women are capable of effectively fulfilling this task. Catholicism, on the other hand, (and with it Eastern Orthodoxy and maybe parts of Anglicanism) understands ordination in a very sacramental way, an ontological change, effecting a permanent mark on the soul (as with baptism and confirmation) of the ordained. For Catholicism, ordination to the priesthood is a participation in the priesthood of Christ (beyond the priesthood of all believers that flows from one’s baptism) and the priest plays an important role of signifying Christ to his bride, the Church. Understood in this way, gender does become important as a part of the sacrament of ordination (b/c without a male, it loses the symbolic/signifying value). It has nothing to do with the ability of women to perform particular tasks like preaching, but depends on the understanding of ordination as a sacrament, not just a functional role. And of course the Catholic church does understand there to be static “offices” for the structure of the Church (as the SC-movement understands there to be static “offices” as well), consisting of bishop, priest and deacon (rather than the SC movement’s elder and deacon, with minister fitting somewhere in there).

    Sorry for going off-topic a bit. Thanks for your great thoughts on this important issue. Form and function are definitely foundational to understand for any discussion on ordination and ministry.

    • Dan, I am not Catholic but have lots of friends in the priesthood and have spent many hours with them. I would disagree that there is some type of ontological bond or essence in the two genders that would make it impossible for women to be priests. We are all one in Christ. I will blog about this a little more on Thursday or Friday.


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