Encore: Skill, Talent, and the Call to be an “Excellent” Female Preacher

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Several years ago a new family joined our church. They were fleeing a rough experience in their former congregation, a large, seeker-sensitive evangelical church, experiencing the first stages of what would become a precipitous decline and implosion. It was a rocky transition since my congregation was—and is—several times smaller than the one they had left, and we are Anglican, which means liturgy, hymns, vestments, communion every Sunday, and many other traditions foreign to this new family. One of the things we observed was how often the word “excellence” escaped their lips. They had been involved in the administration and leadership of their former church where “excellence” had been a watchword. By “excellence” they seemed to mean production value, a kind of professional slickness. A church’s music, singing, lighting, preaching, communication, and everything public facing must be “excellent” in that sense.

As they became more integrated into our church, they became increasingly disconcerted by the lack of excellence at Good Shepherd. It was not that people did not try hard. The congregation gives it their all every Sunday, but there was not much that they could point to as consistently excellent—at least, by their definition. If we really wanted to succeed, they wondered, why not get rid of the people producing less-than-excellent work and replace them with people who do it better? Excellence seemed to be their highest value for corporate worship.

This family’s conception of excellence was bound up with the American value of merit. The one who performs a particular task most skillfully should rise to the top, while the less skilled ought take a lower place. In the sphere of business, industry, management, and government, this merit principle serves an organization well. But does the excellence/merit principle belong in a church? What about faithfulness? In this article, I hope to answer that question from God’s Word and apply it to the larger question of excellent female preachers.

Is Excellence the Goal?

To be sure, the Christian should strive to give his or her best. The preacher should toil over his sermon, the choir over their hymns, the ushers, readers, and tech people over their appointed tasks. Should there be a preacher who does not study for his sermon or a choir director who only practices when the mood strikes, then personnel changes would certainly be in order. But did Jesus choose his disciples based on their value from the world’s perspective? Were the twelve the best rhetoricians, the most polished evangelists, or the most piercing intellects? It seems, rather, that Jesus went out of his way to pick the bumbling and obtuse, patiently enduring their persistent infighting, thick-headedness, and stubborn-heartedness.

The basic pattern continued in the early church. To the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). It is not that the Lord never calls the worldly wise or powerful or noble. He does. But those impressive qualities are not prerequisites, nor are they common. In fact, God even calls the somebodies to become nobodies, so that they do not make the mistake of boasting in their calling or charisma. As Paul says a few verses later, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:28–29). While all gifts are from God, our Lord does not need human excellence. He so often chooses the least and the lowest precisely because human weakness makes his grace and power manifest. When the Lord brings a recalcitrant sinner to his knees through the unshiny but faithful preaching of a preacher who is mediocre in the world’s estimation, no one is confused about who did the converting. And this includes the preacher, who rightly assesses his gifts. More important than flashiness is faithfulness—a zealous desire to humbly obey God in everything.

An Egalitarian Foundation

In qualifying excellence, I do not pretend that I am introducing a newly discovered concept. “The Lord does not call the equipped but equips the called” is a well-worn cliché, and it’s often true. But the principle of faithfulness over “excellence” is one that is often neglected, especially as it relates to the question of women in ministry.

In our endless competition to keep up with culture, one of the foremost planks of the egalitarian argument is that many women possess skills to teach and lead that often exceed those of many male pastors. As the argument goes, only male bigotry prevents these gifted women from occupying the office to which God has clearly called them. As Christi Rooke, puts it, “I remember thinking, God, did you accidentally dispense these gifts to me or forget to make me a male? Because if I had been born with different anatomy, I would have been praised for my gifts and ushered into places of leadership. Instead, I was told to ‘tone it down’ so some guys’ ‘biblical manhood’ wouldn’t be emasculated by my passion and strength.” Ms. Rooke’s not-so-implicit assumption is that God’s will about who should fulfill which ministry role is made manifest by the relative excellence of the competitors.

A second argument, closely related, appeals to the biblical examples of women exercising gifts associated with the pastoral office. Here’s a recent example from Pastor Rick Warren, “the very first sermon, the very first Christian sermon, the message of the gospel of good news of the resurrection. Jesus chose a woman to deliver it to men. He had Mary Magdalene go and tell the disciples. Now that clearly wasn’t an accident. It was intentional, it’s a whole new world, baby. Now he has a woman go tell the apostles.”[1] Since Jesus sent women to tell the men about the resurrection, shouldn’t the church open the pulpit and the office of pastor to them? On what basis does the church prevent women from exercising a ministry to which Jesus appointed those first women at the tomb? Dr. Warren’s not-so-implicit assumption is that “telling”—the exact word used to describe what the women did in Mathew 28:7–8, Mark 16:7; Luke 24:9; and John 20:17—is the exact equivalent of a sermon.

1. For a direct refutation of Rick Warren’s tortured reading of Scripture, see Denny Burk, “Rick Warren Has Done the SBC a Great Service.

The Qualifications for Pastors

Before going further, it should be noted that Christian ministry is not a meritless system without any concern for giftedness and ability (see e.g., Ps. 33:3). Should two qualified candidates apply for the same pastoral role, the congregation would be wise to choose the more accomplished and skilled preacher. But that is not the congregation’s only, or indeed their most essential consideration.

As many have pointed out, the qualifications given for the office of elder/overseer in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are predominantly qualities of character. He must have a good reputation, be a faithful husband and firm but caring father, exercise self-control when it comes to alcohol and anger, and he must be faithful to the doctrines he has received. Yes, there are skill-based requirements as well: he must be able to preach and to refute those who come bearing false doctrines (Titus 1:9). But if the man is a skillful preacher and apologist yet he lacks self-control, he is not qualified for the office. Were the same congregation to choose between a faithful and morally qualified candidate who is able to preach and defend Christianity but with less skill and aplomb than an immoral but keen apologist and preacher, God’s Word would be obligate them to select the faithful but less able preacher.

The qualifications the Lord has given for the pastoral office include skill and ability, but skill and ability do not trump the other qualifications. As Bryan Chapell frames it in his book, Christ-Centered Preaching, the power of preaching is found in the Word preached, not the preacher of the Word. Practically, it is not ultimately by human persuasion, rhetorical allurement, or penetrating argumentation that God saves sinners; it is by the power of his word—however inelegantly delivered. This is precisely why, when Paul first preached the gospel in Corinth, he refused to employ the sophisticated repertoire familiar to the Corinthians. Instead, he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified . . . so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1–2).

The Wisdom of God in Restricting Female Preachers

The two primary arguments, then, that egalitarians put forward to support women in the office of pastor, in the end, ignore the question of God’s purposes for his church. Even if it could be shown that all women preach and teach more skillfully and ably than all men, that would not settle the question. The fact that women at times perform various functions associated with the pastoral office in scripture and that Jesus sends women to tell the men that he has been raised from the dead is indisputable. . But the debate has never been about whether a woman does or does not have greater or lesser skills or whether the Lord sent women to tell of his being raised from the dead. Rather, the debate hinges on faithfulness to the qualifications that the Lord has revealed for the specific office of pastor/elder/presbyter/overseer. Since, as has been amply demonstrated elsewhere, these qualifications delimit the office to men, no level of skill or function on the part of a female would suffice to qualify her for the role. God is not a pragmatist, nor does the Lord of the Church depend on human skill.

We do not serve a cruel or bigoted God who desires our harm. On the contrary, that God raises up and equips people whom the world despises speaks to the very purpose of the church. It is His glory we seek, not our own. Each person is called to some task that builds up the Body. The high honor God confers on women made in his very own image is not diminished by saying that some tasks and ministries are for men only. Rather, he displays who he is through the weak and dependent trust of the corporate Body in his mercy. God is far more concerned with our faithfulness than our flashiness and our humble earnestness than our haughty excellence. And when his church accomplishes his work in his way, this is how he transforms the world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Matt Kennedy

    Matt is the senior pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd (Binghampton, NY). He grew up in Corpus Christi, TX and graduated with a B.A. in History from Southwestern University in 1994. He earned an M.Div. from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, VA. He is married to Anne and they have six children. Matt oversees pastoral care, teaching, and preaching, administration, staff, and is committed to his singular passion—exegetical preaching.

Matt Kennedy

Matt Kennedy

Matt is the senior pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd (Binghampton, NY). He grew up in Corpus Christi, TX and graduated with a B.A. in History from Southwestern University in 1994. He earned an M.Div. from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, VA. He is married to Anne and they have six children. Matt oversees pastoral care, teaching, and preaching, administration, staff, and is committed to his singular passion—exegetical preaching.