Recently my church did something remarkable. In a quite conservative (politically) suburban church in the super-conservative Deep South of the USA, my church community elected a woman to the position of Chair of the Board. This election was the first to my knowledge of its time in this church body. Let it be known, my church is not known for being liberal. I sometimes feel as if I am too far to the left to fit here well, but I stay. I love the people and feel called and welcome into this community. Our church lost a few families as a result of this election, which hurt. We are not a large community and the absence of even one family is felt… and missed. I recently had a fantastic conversation with our remarkably available pastor about the impact of this move among the larger community of churches our area and within our community. As we spoke of this, he surprised me by his response and approach to the whole debate. He stated that he was at peace with women in leadership to whatever extent it did not facilitate passivity in the men of the church. Wow. What beautiful middle ground. And what a way to create space for those on both sides of the debate. Thank you, Simon!
One of the major concerns I have about this whole debate is that it seems to miss the impact the debate itself has on the church community of men and women, and the impact it has on our mission and those who watch us from outside of our ranks.
Let us consider the impact on the men of the church: (Caveat – I write as a woman, having only minimally staffed my thoughts on this with other men. I am open to feedback from my brothers, whom I invite to contribute to my thoughts on this subject.) My pastor, and other influential men in my life have raised a yellow flag, indicating the need to proceed with caution here. For (some) men in the church, the curse of Genesis 3 means an ongoing, perhaps lifelong struggle with the weight and cost of his labor. This is a daily, and for some a moment-by-moment struggle against a nagging sense of futility. When a woman steps up and embraces a role of leadership, this may be perceived as a threat, or a neon sign pointing right to the heart of his failures. Some men seem to perceive women in leadership as a sort of scarlet letter—clearly marking and even drawing attention to their failure to adequately fulfill or maintain their God-given call to rule the earth and all women, children, and living things therein.
I have concern that the insistence that women serve in inferior positions and are prevented from leadership or influence of men unnecessarily burdens men with more than their share of the work. This only feeds into any fear of failure and any sense of futility that men struggle with. When we force them to carry the weight of the whole church or their whole family authoritatively, and without strong partners, we doom them to failure. My husband is strong, and together we can overcome obstacles that he could not on his own. Why? Because I am strong in places he is not, and he trusts me enough to work with me effectively and to allow me to work out of my strengths to the benefit of our whole family.
Another impact that I see the debate about women in leadership has upon the men of the church is that awareness of the debate can feel cornering to men (and women). A new or growing awareness of the debate often begs—demands—that a man choose a side. If he chooses to advocate for women in leadership, he has to acknowledge that this privilege, calling, ability, authority have been withheld from women for too long. Allowing or encouraging women into leadership roles and/or teaching positions means sharing the power and influence that he has known, possibly taken for granted, and perhaps abused. I struggle to imagine a man who would acknowledge these things and not feel compelled to turn the tide. Truthfully, I want no partnership with that man.
Considering the debate and choosing to advocate for the historical status quo, means a man must hold tight to his power and control and acknowledge that it is threatened by all those “others” who are advocating otherwise. It requires him to take a stand against equality of the sexes.
This debate divides families within the church and divides the church family itself. More on that in a bit.
Let us consider the impact on the women of the church: For women, the impact of the debate between complimentarians and egalitarians may feel like a threat to their faith and understanding of their place in God’s created order. I do not know how long the church has viewed women as secondary characters, with authority just inferior to that of their male peers and counterparts. For me, it is too long.
As an American (white) woman, I am privileged to know and experience relative equity in my daily life and business. I am free to start a business, or work outside of the home, or manage my money, or speak, or teach in the world around me. But the moment I walk into many churches, I am expected to shed those freedoms, and assume a quieter, meeker, subservient role. I am to submit, and be quiet, per the recommendations of I Timothy 2 and Ephesians 5. But it doesn’t stop there. In many Christian homes, this idea is perpetuated within the home, and so a woman who is free to go about being the authority of her body and affairs is expected to shed that authority as soon as she enters the two places that should be the safest spaces for her: her home and her church community.
The debate around this, which sometimes goes unrecognized and unnamed and at other times is endowed with unnecessary importance, also begs women to choose a side, and divides the body of sisters in Christ, causing division and strife that is not congruent with the call for unity in Psalms 133:1, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, etc… We are divided against each other, and at times against our brothers in ways that prevent us from fully demonstrating the love for which we are to be known. We short-circuit our message of Love to the world around us, because of our disagreements and factions. Jesus had a different plan, and I believe to this day, still intercedes for us as follows:
20“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. 21I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. 22“I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. 23I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. (John 17:20-23)
For some women of the church, this dichotomy actually drives us out and away from the faithful practice of communion and community with other Believers. We, the Church, atrophy and shed potentially fruitful members, because we are too busy fighting about whether to allow her voice or influence in our midst.
Long has it been the women who draw men and families into deeper (or any!) church communion. If we willingly shed women because we cannot allow their voices, or because we are too busy fighting about what extent to which her influence should be tolerated, we will likely lose their families too. How’s that for contributing to male passivity?
What about the impact on the mission of the church? When those outside of our ranks, non-Believers, or not-yet-Believers, or Believers-in-recovery observe our infighting, how often do they dismiss the goodness of our God or our faith, or miss the hope we have to offer? How often are we dismissed, debilitated by our arguing over details of the praxis of our faith that even the most well-trained theologians cannot agree on? This is NOT a salvation issue. The complimentarian/egalitarian debate is all about practice and authority!
When I say that, it really feels like I am crying out, “This doesn’t really matter!” In some ways, it doesn’t. In some ways it does. But if the impact of this debate on our influence, or our audience’s willingness to hear our message of hope is a net negative, why bother?
What is the impact on the women outside of the church? Much of this issue relates back to the impact on the women of the Church. Our arguments about why women should be submissive and in non-authoritative positions makes us appear undesirable to women outside of the Church, who do not understand the joys and appealing parts of surrender and submission. Yes. I said that. I believe this could be an issue where, as 2 Cor 2:16 notes, when we would be a pleasing aroma to God, we become the stench of death to those who do not know him. For some Believers, that may be your calling, and I bless you. I will seek to let my spiritual walk be honey on the lips, and an alluring aroma for those who would seek and find Him.
The impact on the men outside of the church? This is the one group that I believe is LEAST impacted by the whole debate. Many of them are blissfully unaware of the whole issue, all the questions and passions that seethe within it. They have the privilege of non-involvement. For men outside of the church who are aware, the insistence that women be not involved in positions of leadership just makes the Church look antiquated, quaint. For these men, their power and authority are not at stake, so why do they care? They are not involved. And for feminists, even feminists within the church, sometimes these men are the safe-havens and advocates they struggle to find within their own homes and communities.