Could There Be A Connection?

In a post dated 2009 the Barna Group notes two trends. First, they note the growing acceptance of female ministers in (mostly) mainline (read liberal) denominations, e.g. the PCUSA, the ECUSA, UMC, UCC, etc.  The number of female ministers has grown “substantially” in the last 10 years. Second, they note that the median attendance a typical Protestant weekend service has declined from 108 to 101 during the same period. The report draws no connections between the two but one wonders.The connection between these two facts is not a straight line. I’m not arguing that fewer people are attending because of the rise in the number of female pastors. Indeed, there doubtless many congregations who are thrilled with their female pastors. I would not be surprised to learn that there are female pastors leading growing congregations. That isn’t the point.

Rather, the connection is this: the same factors that gave rise to female pastors in the first place are the same factors that are gradually turning up the heat on the frog in the kettle (which, ironically was the title by a book by Barna way back in 1990). I recognize that there are principled “evangelical feminists,” i.e. those who affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and who genuinely believe that Scripture does not forbid special ecclesiastical office to females. I also suppose, however, that most congregations who have female pastors have no idea that there is a principled, biblical argument against ordaining females to the pastoral (or presbyterial) office. With those objections, and the biblical texts on which they were based, having been swept away churches are now free to operate as they will. The ugly truth is that the refusal by many former cultural conservatives to ordain females to special ecclesiastical was never principled or biblical in the first place. Eventually that refusal became just an embarrassment. Without any basis in biblical revelation opposition to the ordination of females was truly only bigotry.

For a long time the theory of many erstwhile non-confessionalists has been to minimize areas of tension between Christians the prevailing culture. With the rise of the modern feminist movement, this one was easy. For the pietists what matters most is religious experience. Females are just as able to facilitate religious experience as anyone else, so why not? Many non-confessionalists (both liberals and “conservatives”) share an embarrassment over Paul’s apparently misogynistic tendencies. The great quest of much of the modern church has been to become acceptable or “relevant” to the prevailing culture. It has been thus since at least the early 19th century and Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Speeches to the Cultured Despisers of Religion. Liberals did it more quickly and conservatives have done it more slowly but both have done it.

The fundamental problem with such a goal is that the Christian faith cannot be made acceptable to autonomous modern man and remain Christian. The Christian faith was “foolishness” to first century Greco-Roman culture and it remains so in modernity. That’s a good thing. There’s a clear antithesis between the Trinitarian, Christological, Reformation theology of the cross on the one hand and self-assured, man-centered, idolatry of modernity.

Ironically, as the the non-confessional majority, in its quest to become acceptable to modernity, becomes more like the surrounding culture it becomes more irrelevant. The mainline has been bleeding itself to death for decades. The evangelicals are following suit. The consequences may not be entirely evident yet but the signs are there. In Joel Osteen’s presentation of Christianity, Jesus has been shifted from way to personal fulfillment to invisibility. This study by the Barna suggests that the patient is getting weaker by the year. Barna suggests that one possible reason for the drop in the median number of worship attenders is the rise in non-traditional congregations (e.g. house churches). I’m skeptical. That sounds like whistling past the graveyard. I think there is a connection between the drop in attendance to Sunday morning worship and rise in female pastors. The latter is a symbol of the capitulation of the church to cultural pressure and the former is one of its consequences.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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25 comments

  1. R. Scott Clark: “I think there is a connection between the drop in attendance to Sunday morning worship and rise in female pastors.”

    I do too.

    Disobedience to God’s Word has negative consequences.

      • Bingo, Philip. Gospel isn’t law, TUAD, or do you mean that the propserityizers are really on to something?

        After all, co-pastor Victoria doesn’t seem to be keeping the crowds away from the Lakewood Stadium.

    • Hey Philip and Zrim,

      If you both want to disagree with Professor Clark, go ahead. And if you both don’t think disobedience to God’s Word has negative consequences, then that’s up to you too.

      • TUAD,

        The point isn’t that there aren’t negative consequences to disobedience to God’s Word, but rather that such consequences aren’t always discerned in such hard-and-fast or immediate ways. After all, temporally speaking, plenty get kicked in the teeth for righteousness while others get away with their sin.

        But if you’re right, one wonders why Rome enjoys so much worldly success while confessional Reformed churches struggle daily.

      • TUAD, I think you must have missed the bit where Scott wrote, “The connection between these two facts is not a straight line.” My point, likewise, was that you cannot draw a straight line between (dis)obedience and (lack of) success. Examples abound in all four categories, and while we may be able to analyse reasons for certain cause-effect relationships, we should be wary of committing the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, and certainly wary of claiming that this is divine judgment.

  2. The rise in female pastors, as pointed out, has a whole load of implications for the Bible based church, and I would argue that the main concern today should be the creeping and persistent tide of women in supposedly evangelical churches who are moving into prominent church leadership roles, preaching and teaching, and yes, becoming ‘pastors’.

    Here in the UK there is a growing tendency for para church meetings and groups ( Northern and Southern Womens Conventions, for example) which are proto charismatic to promote female ministries which may inevitably lead to the question: “Well, why not women pastors?’ And my intuitive take is that the importance of preaching seems to be diminished as such various ministries take a more central role in church life.

    I have read finely nuanced comments, rich in intellectual sophistry, on how women can be deaconesses, and it is only a matter of time before some likewise convoluted ideas are promoted to allow women to be pastors and elders. And the Scriptural passages on these matters barely get a mention by those who promote it; relevance, results, and harmony seem to be driving factors.

    Scott, please could you consider a book or edit a book on this subject? It touches, like I have written, upon other fundamental issues like the drive for being contemporary, relevant (liked?), and results. Indeed, the “foolishness” of the cross must be a focal point for confessing Christians as we will not be faithful to the great Redeemer the LORD Jesus Christ if we keep nudging the church down a more user friendly path.

    It is likewise confusing that there are more professing evangelicals today (Like Olsteen and others here in the UK) who seek evangelism, female pastors, and Scriptural teaching with little reference to past wisdom and indeed the rich insights of the apostolic teachings from which they are departing. In the last few decades the changes of views on such matters in even supposedly Reformed churches has been breath taking and insidious.

    I would contend the medium and long term implications of such moves is disasterous. So, again please could you and others extend this subject into a clear, stimulating project (a book!) which gives a needed antidote to the spirit which is driving the push for female pastors/deacons, one which is contrary to Scripture and is deeply damaging.

  3. May it be that as more and more women occupy the pastor’s role the church inevitably becomes feminized and less attractive to men, contributing to the decline in attendance.

  4. I don’t get it: you’ve written:

    “The ugly truth is that the refusal by many former cultural conservatives to ordain females to special ecclesiastical was never principled or biblical in the first place. Eventually that refusal became just an embarrassment. Without any basis in biblical revelation opposition to the ordination of females was truly only bigotry.”

    To whom, exactly, do you refer here? I’m sincerely baffled.

    • Steve,

      Over the years I’ve had conversations with folk who’ve argued that women shouldn’t be pastors because not because it is forbidden by God’s Word, not because it violates the order established for Christ’s church by her Lord, but because women are naturally unable to be effective pastors etc. In other words, the ground of their opposition wasn’t principled but bigoted. As soon as it was demonstrated that there are females who have the ability to pastor effectively the ground of their opposition was eliminated. Bigotry is never a good ground for any argument. The proper ground for opposing the ordination of females to special office should be that it violates the explicit teaching of God’s Word in 1 Tim 2, among other places.

  5. I recognize that there are principled “evangelical feminists,” i.e. those who affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and who genuinely believe that Scripture does not forbid special ecclesiastical office to females.

    I have yet to find any of this kind. Most simply say “Yes, Scripture is inerrant but it contradicts itself in some places!”

    I also suppose, however, that most congregations who have female pastors have no idea that there is a principled, biblical argument against ordaining females to the pastoral (or presbyterial) office.

    This may be the case for new believers. However, many that have been Christians for years have read the the whole Bible, and choose to play gymnastics with the exegesis of the text instead.

    One friend of mine said “Paul was simply talking to the Jews in Ephesus and this does not apply to Gentiles or to churches today.” He also rationalized that since so many men are into pornography and sin, that God has raised up women to lead in today’s church!

  6. Dr. Clark,

    You write,

    “The ugly truth is that the refusal by many former cultural conservatives to ordain females to special ecclesiastical was never principled or biblical in the first place. Eventually that refusal became just an embarrassment. Without any basis in biblical revelation opposition to the ordination of females was truly only bigotry.”

    And,

    “Many non-confessionalists (both liberals and “conservatives”) share an embarrassment over Paul’s apparently misogynistic tendencies.”

    But is it not precisely Paul’s “apparently misogynistic tendencies” that seemed to provide a Biblical justification for the chauvinism of those “former cultural conservatives”? They thought they were being Biblical. Besides, I wonder how “former” this is. Fairly recently I sat in a Sunday school class with a well known confessional leader in the PCA who said that Paul’s reasoning in 1 Tim. 2:9 – 15 was that women are by nature unfit for ecclesiastical office because women are by nature more easily deceived than men. I have to admit, I have a hard time seeing how this is not what Paul is saying; that women should look homely, keep their mouths shut, and stay pregnant (if not barefoot).

    For someone who wants to just take scripture straight, as I do, this more than anything in scripture really grates my modern sensibilities the wrong way. It seems to fly in the face of my experience, and you seem to suggest as much when you say in your reply to Steve, “As soon as it was demonstrated that there are females who have the ability to pastor effectively the ground of their opposition was eliminated”. So there are females who have demonstrated the ability to pastor effectively. But how can that be?

    My question is, how is it not the “explicit teaching of God’s Word” that women are “naturally unable to be effective pastors”? In other words, was not the ground of the opposition of the old-guard to women’s ordination in fact a principled bigotry? I am asking for help here, because I have a hard time seeing how that is not the case when I read:

    “I do not permit a woman to teach or to excercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not decieved, but the woman was decieved and became a transgressor. ” 1 Tim. 2:12, 13

    How is Paul not saying that women are by nature unsuited to pastoral, or ecclesiastical office because they are by nature more easily deceived than men? It would seem, on the face of it, that this is the ground of Paul’s command. I really want to hear how this is not the case, because quite frankly, if this is what scripture does teach, I have a hard time believing it at this point.

    • Brian,

      Paul’s point in 1 Tim 2 is not that females are naturally unable to preach, teach, and shepherd. I certainly wouldn’t base such an argument on that passage anyway. Yes, Eve was tempted first, but unless one wants to hold the Roman Catholic view that we were corrupt even before fall by virtue of being human, we don’t want to conclude that Scripture teaches that females are inherently inferior to males. At the risk of confusing the two kingdoms I would appeal to Maggie Thatcher as counter evidence. Clear there’s a woman who was able to lead, govern, and serve with distinction. Her sex did not inhibit her ability to lead nor did it inhibit Elizabeth I of England nor Queen Victoria. I’ve no doubt that there are, all things being equal and Scripture not forbidding it, females who are more competent to pastor than males. Indeed, in some respects men are not very well suited at all. We tend to be poor at inter-personal relations. We tend to be slow at picking up social clues. We tend to be results oriented (buildings, bodies, and budgets) rather than oriented to persons and process. These are all areas where most of the females I have known are better equipped by nature and nature to be pastors. We don’t want to ground our argument in nature or we shall surely lose the point.

      I don’t have time to give a detailed exegesis of Paul in 1 Tim 2 right now but let me suggest that I doubt that even the staunchest complementarian would read 1 Tim 2 as you suggest. Paul does appeal to a creational order and he does draw a conclusion from it is a supposition that the ground of his ordering is an inherent defect in Eve rather than some other. I suggest that the ground behind his creational order something other than an inherent defect in Eve. Remember, God created Adam and Eve “good.” There was nothing wrong with them before the fall. It is a form of rationalism to suggest that there was and thus we know why the fall happened. We don’t know why the fall happened. We know THAT the fall happened and we know the order in to which Paul appeals. After that we should be very careful about the conclusions we draw.

      • Scott,
        Would it be a good analogy to say that women as pastors would be like using a dewalt drill for a hammer. It would get the job done but that’s not what it was meant for (and on the battery it is explicitly stated to not use as a bludgeoning device)? Or would that fall under the bigotry category?

  7. “Supposing” Paul was wrong on women being pastors, ministers, et al, What assurance do we have that he wasn’t wrong on Christ’s imputation of righteousness too? That to me is the bigger issue.

    My 2¢.

  8. FWIW, here’s a rambling stab at 1Timothy 2:13-14

    Paul is not building an argument based on Eve’s deception, that women are therefore inherently prone to deception, or some other weakness, and thus barred from special office. Rather he is rehearsing the simple facts of what took place in creation and fall, and their consequences.

    1 Tim 2:13 states the creation pattern. As Adam has a priority in time of creation so he has a leadership role in relation to his wife. She is to be a “helper suitable to him”. Verse 14 states what happens when that creational order becomes disordered and distorted.

    Adam was formed first, not Eve. Adam was not deceived, but Eve was deceived and entered into transgression.

    This doesn’t mean Adam didn’t sin, but that Eve sinned under influence of Satan’s deception. Adam sinned becasue of Eve’s persuasion. Paul is simply reflecting the narrative of Genesis 2-3. So, in Genesis 3:13 Eve says, “Because the serpent deceived me and I ate” whereas God rebukes Adam in Genesis 3:17 saying, “Becasue you listened to the voice of your wife…” Adam’s sin was a failure of leadership. Eve’s was a failure to submit to Adam’s leadership. Had Adam led and Eve helped and submitted Eve would not have been deceived and Adam would not have been persuaded.

    Genesis 3:6 tells us that while the Serpent whispered his deceit to Eve, and Eve bought the lie he was selling, Adam was “with her”, yet remained silent as Eve distorted the word of God, exaggerating God’s prohibition, rejecting God’s command, eating the fruit and giving it to her husband.

    Paul is illustrating the sin of both Adam and Eve here. The first Adam, God’s son (Luke 3:38), ought to have crushed the Serpent’s head at that moment but he did not. That would have to wait for the Last Adam. Adam was made first, yet Eve was deceived first becaue Adam did not step up and put hismelf between his wife and the serpent. Dire consequences result when the creation order is obscured or reveresed.

  9. Dr. Clark, and Mr. Strain,

    OK, points well taken, but what of this “creation order”? How far does it extend?
    When Paul says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to excercise authority over a man” does that not make a Maggie Thatcher (excellent example by the way) in violation of the creation order? I mean if this is creational and merely ecclesial, for women of Christian conscience anyway, how does that prohibbition of Paul not extend to every leadership office in society? The magistrate? The boardroom? The classroom? Academia? These would all involve her having to “teach” and/or “to exercise authority over a man.”

    Also, Dr. Clark, I am sorry to say that I am not exagerating. The same pastor also said that women should not teach theology even in a purely academic setting, and that even when teaching women and children most of what women teach should be pretty well limited to topics that pertain to being “keepers at home”.

    I don’t think the point of those who think this way is that woman is defective. It’s just that her pretty little head is not wired to do the intellectual heavy lifting. They would say it’s all part of the “creation order”.

    • Bigotry can be clothed in very nice clothing but it’s still bigotry. Nature is not an endlessly elastic term. We cannot simply clothe our prejudices in the nomen “nature” and be credible. Nature is known, observed, and described for us in Scripture. Some of the best scholars I read, mainly historians, are females. There’s no reason why a female can’t write academic theology. That’s just silly. Where we should draw the line is where Scripture draws the line. The “sit down and shut up” approach to females helped to facilitate the rebellion we’re now seeing.

      • The “sit down and shut up” approach to females helped to facilitate the rebellion we’re now seeing.

        Bingo again. Is it any wonder that egalitarianism pushed back at least as hard as authoritarianism shoved?

  10. Brian,

    The scripures seem to me to be crystal clear about women’s role relationships in the home and in the church. Beyond that we are in the complex and dagerous realm of inference and deduction which can often reveal more about the prejudices of the ‘interpreter’ than about the intention of the text of God’s word. Does the Bible teach that a woman cannot be President? I think the Biblie is silent on the matter. Can they teach in a University context? Yes, of course. It is just plain bigotry, as Dr Clark points out, to say otherwise.

    It seems to me that this is yet another area where the doctrine of the 2Kingdoms helps. The authority prohibited to women is eccelsiastical and spiritual not civil. American civic society is not analogous to Israel and we do not have warrant to expect detailed, symmetrical instructions from God for the state as well as for the church. It is therefore not at all incongruous that there might be one paradigm for the excercise of spiritual authority and another entirely for civil authority.

    • Mr. Strain (and Dr. Clark),

      Thanks for the extremely helpful reply. I wholeheartedly agree. Please don’t think me thick-headed (though that may be true), but I guess I still have this lingering question as to what in Paul’s teaching here in 1 Tim. (and a couple of other relevant passages) limits the scope of the woman’s role only in the home and the Church? Is it context?

      I think this is still more of a live issue than one might think. Dr. Clark said in response to my first questions that “I doubt that even the staunchest complementarian would read 1 Tim 2 as you suggest.” I beg to differ. Voddie Baucham is a very high profile and fairly mainstream “complimentarian”, and nothing if not one of the “staunchest”. See his over the top commentary on Sarah Palin as a VP candidate here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f14z3cnNzzo

      I know this CNN clip confuses the Kingdoms all over the place, but just focus on Baucham. This guy has a fairly wide hearing in the Reformed world.

  11. Most people who are against women ministers only believe so because they have never seen one.

    Which is the bigotry Dr. Clark mentioned above.

  12. Getting back to the main point, is there a correlation between women in the pulpit and declining church membership in those churches. The answer is clearly yes there is but not because there are women in the pulpit but because those churches are no different than the surrounding world.

    When Christianity is no different than the culture and has nothing to offer that people cannot get elsewhere then you will not see many going to church. We saw this in Europe and now we are seeing it here.

    But when the Church is adhering to it’s unworldly ways we actually see a vibrant church membership. Christ went from 5,000 followers to 12 and he told them they could leave as well. God calls his elect and no matter how his elect screw it up they will come.

    Someone mentioned the success the apostatizers were having (Olsteen and Rome). But while Olsteen at least has big crowds, Rome has been steady in it’s decline while confessional Christianity has been growing outside Europe and the US. Still size of membership has nothing to do with the Grace given to that membership.

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