On June 23, 2018, Nairobi Chapel posted a tweet announcing the appointment of Dr. Janet Mutinda and Prof Marta D. Bennett as the first female elders in the church.
“Dr. Janet Mutinda & Prof Marta D. Bennett have today been ratified as the First Female Elders during the Nairobi Chapel AGM 2018 in adherence to the new gender policy of the church,” read the tweet.
This was accompanied by a link to a policy document on the church’s website titled: “Nairobi Chapel’s Position on Women in Church Leadership” which stated, among other things, that:
“Having humbly sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the process of studying the scriptures, we, the Elders of Nairobi Chapel affirm the inclusion of godly women to serve as Elders, Lead Pastors and all other leadership responsibilities within the institution of the local church.”
To many Christians in Kenya, this seems like a non-issue. We are used to seeing women pastors and elders in some of the most popular churches in Nairobi city. Pastor Kathy Kiuna of Jubilee Christian Church (JCC) comes to mind. You probably attend a church with female pastors and elders and it has never really been an issue worth highlighting.
So why did Nairobi Chapel decide to make a formal stand on the matter? While I have not spoken to any person in the church’s leadership to understand the reason behind the decision, the policy document gives a helpful context.
“The matter of women in leadership in the context of the local church has become an increasingly debated issue in evangelical circles. Although this subject is not a primary doctrine of the Christian faith, it relates very meaningfully to how a church conducts its operations practically.
“In this regard, the Elders of Nairobi Chapel have found it necessary and wise to study this issue thoroughly in order to provide its official position,” reads the introduction of the document.
I think it is commendable that Nairobi Chapel has taken an official position on this divisive topic. Many churches with women in their leadership are often fuzzy on this matter. Some think it a non-issue and therefore not worthy of discussion.
Yet we keep seeing church members sparring online and in other informal forums over this very matter. Dozens of blogs and social media posts have been written by laity on this subject, with some even by people who attend apparently egalitarian churches but defending a “male-only” interpretation of the New Testament’s position on church.
Friendships and relationships have been strained and sometimes severed by these debates. Most members have approached their local church leadership with their questions and concerns only to receive an evasive and non-committal response. Yet the gender debates are increasingly taking center-stage even in secular public discourse — think gender pay gap and gender representation in government.
It is regrettable that the “church in Kenya” has largely been silent on the matter. Many believers look up to their churches for guidance and direction on many issues that spill over into their secular contexts. Most are not ready “to give a reason for” the practices that are otherwise so evident in their own churches.
Little surprise then that many Christians here in Nairobi and in the country hold theological positions that contradict what is often taught and displayed on their own pulpits. This is because the only place we get clarity on these matters seems to be from our favorite bloggers and celebrity pastors in the West.
Our own local churches have proven non-committal and cagey.
This should not be. Our first earthly responsibility as Christians should be to our local church. This is made so much more difficult when the local church cannot facilitate a context where we may figure out what we believe on so many contemporary issues.
I hope this move by Nairobi Chapel will be the start of more Kenyan churches being more deliberate and explicit about what they stand for on some of these controversial biblical issues. If this will not be a tipping point, I hope it will at least be a nudge in the right direction.