Women in the Church

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.


On Changing One’s Mind…

I was recently engaged me in a personal and face-to-face conversation about a previous blog post (see Misogyny, Masculinity and Violence). I used to experience mild perturbation when people would choose to disregard my requests for this blog to be a space of dialogue rather than a bulletin board that people would discuss with me as they had a chance. However, I recognize this as inconsistent with my desire for dialogue. For dialogue can be much more real and lively in a face-to-face setting. What came out of that dialogue was a lively discussion about mental illness (which the reader in question seemed to think was the primary subject of the original post), feminism, equal pay (which he unsuccessfully described as an “opportunity” for his female employees to demonstrate their competence in order to rise to the level of pay initially offered his male employees. In his defense, I believe this illegal practice is no longer being perpetuated in his business), and my use of the word “pussy,” which (was actually used as a quoted statement that was said at/to me, not by me). My primary partner in dialogue (although we were in a group of 5) believed that post to be about mental illness, completely missing the messages about masculinity and violence and misogyny at the core (and the title) of the post. Within the post, I even wrote:

“This is not about mental illness. This is about misogyny, masculinity, and violence.”


This seems to happen a lot. A reader will attend to one specific word or phrase and miss the meaning of the whole text. My readers do this with my blog. News/media agencies do it with sound-bytes they get out of news conferences and press releases. And Christians do it with the Bible. In some ways, we can’t help it. We grow up in a context and with teachers that teach us to attend to certain things and to disregard others. We look at texts (books, blogs, reports, data, non-verbal cues, people, events) with certain goggles or contact lenses that tremendously impact our perceptions of those texts… often not even aware of the hermeneutic (lens) in use.

I have been wrestling for at least a couple of years, with my own engagement of the Church, the South, the culture in which I live, and the way it views women. Within the (big C) Church there has been tremendous debate over the appropriate view of masculinity and femininity, with wide-ranging and diverse opinions/mandates defining what is viewed as appropriate and applicable to either gender. While I am a feminist, I am also a Texan. and I am deeply influenced, whether I like it or not, by my culture. I wrote in an earlier post that husbands do not and should not have to earn their wives’ respect. I took some heat (again, in private conversations) for the stance I took in that post. While I stand by my experience and the narrative of what happened for me, I admit that stance feels binding and too narrow for my expanding view of what it means to live into the Kingdom of God. I have decided I can no longer argue that this is the “right” approach to male/female relationships. It is a valid approach, and many don’t find it as binding as I do, but I choose to live out of a wider Gospel than that approach allows.

First, it assumes complementarian views of men and women, which I do not ascribe to. (See this description of differences in the complimentarian/egalitarian arguments as presented by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, but please read it with awareness that it is written and presented from a complimentarian perspective.) Second, it provides too restrictive of a view of what it means to be masculine or feminine. Some women experience and receive love when it is communicated through respectful engagement. Others want romance. Others still, want a dependable partner for a reading date or a nightly chess game… and everything in between. I imagine mens’ desires and needs are equally as varied. Complimentarians tend to plot gender roles and behavior in a dichotomous way, using “either/or” masculine/feminine language, and manliness or appropriate femininity becomes a issue of heirarchy. Consider locker room shenanigans designed to determine pecking order in the emerging-man world, or gossip-wars designed to shame young women for being “less lady-like” than so-and-so. I got called a terrible name for a lesbian throughout my senior year of high school, simply due to the fact that I cut my hair very short, notwithstanding my long term (in high-school terms) boyfriend. Complimentarians may to allow some room for gray-space and flexibility about roles, so long as you maintain some position on your birth-gender assigned side of the masculine/feminine dichotomy. By viewing masculine/feminine in a dichotomous way, we cannot help but impose a hierarchy, comparing one to another to determine who is performing more or less according to their prescribed masculine/feminine ideals. I cannot operate in this way. I feel bound by any systematic comparison. I think comparison is the root of much unhappiness, and inherently unfair. (More on that in another post.. maybe.)

Acceptance of an egalitarian, and I believe a feminist perspective allows one to hold space for those who align with the popularly accepted (whatever that means) behaviors, activities, occupations, and attitudes commonly associated with either masculinity or feminity, but also allows for the existence of appropriate and acceptable space in which the lines are blurred, and men may take on tasks/attitudes/views more commonly identified as feminine and vice versa. There is not the inherent need to judge/compare, and room for acceptance in a new and inviting way. There is no need to compete for acceptance or love. There is no need to prove your place in the heirarchy, because it doesn’t exist.

So, I have changed my mind about the “respect your husbands,” thing? Not exactly. Women need to offer respect to the men around them, all men. All women, too, for they (we) are the bearers of God’s image in the world, and we should not tarnish it. Men, you are to offer love and dignity to all women in your life. All men, too, for we are the bearer’s of God’s heart for the world, and we should not crush it.

For those who would criticize my willingness to change my mind publicly with Ephesians 4:14, please note, the context of this verse is a call to unity in the Body of Christ, and a description of the ideal treatment plan for humanity. It refers to an ideal state of being mature in the knowledge of God… whom I believe to be too big a mystery to claim full and mature knowledge of on this side of life.

For those who would criticize my willingness to be swayed or convinced of a different perspective using James 1:6, well… I’m not even going to engage that one beyond to note that verse has no direct bearing on or connection to one changing her mind. It is specifically referring to one’s prayers, and faith in God.

For those who would criticize, using the curse, specifically claiming that God cursed women to desire to control their husbands, and for him to rule over her (Genesis 3:16), or for those who would argue that Ephesians 5:21-33 indicates heirarchy is God’s will for the relationships between men and women, I must say, I used to fleetingly agree. But I cannot rest into this. Not because I am a man-hater, or a power-hungry or controlling woman. I can be controlling, ask my husband! But when I am controlling, I am living into the curse and the flesh, rather than living into the fullness of Christ, who wrecks these binding and false prescriptions for differentiation in identity. For living into the fullness of life as a witness of Christ’s work in the world means that:

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. (Galatians 3:26-28)


Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory…. you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds. Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father. (Colossians 3:1-4, 9b-17). 

I believe this is a call to live into the Kingdom of God, something that Jesus spoke of often (see “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of heaven“). Note that living into the fullness above calls all believers to embrace and clothe ourselves with with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience — all characteristics that are often places into the complimentarians’ “feminine” list? I believe that as Christians, we should be living into the fullness of the body of Christ, not handicapping half of it. I believe the Church will be a more desirable community, and less confusing for both men and women, if we stopped calling women to shut up, subdue, ignore, or neglect their gifts and callings when they walk into the church. As it is, western culture is egalitarian-leaning in practice, although women still do not have the same protections and opportunities many men take for granted. Yet, in the church, we often ask/expect that women will shed or silence or shut-down their strengths, and step into line behind their male counterparts and leaders. Church! This makes us a foul-smelling, and ill-fitting, and unattractive as a Bride! This is one of the things that kept me from the church initially, and then caused me to leave the church for a time in my life! If you don’t allow full functionality to a body part, It will get weak, and become useless. It may die. This is what I believe the Church’s historical approach to women has done. Let us welcome our women into the fullness of the Kingdom of God here on earth. And let us demonstrate to those outside of the Church what unity and full functionality can look like in the body of Christ!