Defining the debate: women in leadership

The question of women in leadership is not a single issue, it is a plethora of overlapping and sometimes contradictory, sometimes mutually exclusive questions. So before we start wadding into the discussion it is worth defining the debate.

As I have pondered upon this issue I think the various questions form around three themes:

  1. What we believe about women in leadership?
  2. What is the impact of these beliefs?
  3. How should the church respond?

Obviously the answers, and indeed the questions, for 2 and 3 depend on the answer to the first theme. But I don’t think that necessarily means it is the most important of the issues.

Perhaps too often we have known what we believe but have given insufficient thought and attention to what the impact of those beliefs are, and how the church should respond.

In the first theme the questions that require exploration include the classic, and maybe principal, question of what roles should women be permitted to hold in church life. However, it also includes the need for a consistent ethic of gender roles that includes family life and positions of authority in wider public life. For example, what does our understanding of gender roles mean when considering who should be the main earner in a family, or whether a mother should stay at home if they have kids rather than going out to work? The church is increasingly embracing an idea of church life that is far more than a congregational service on a Sunday: ministry takes place in all parts of life and men and women are in positions of leadership and authority. Therefore it is important to have a theology of gender that addresses this form of leadership. These are theological questions.

The second theme asks: if this is what we believe, what does it mean? What are the consequences of either allowing or preventing women from holding all positions available to men? The consequences fall into a variety of different categories, the general life of the church and the discipleship and development of men and women forms one main section, but there are also consequences for the impact the church has outside of its congregation. What is the impact on mission of a church that takes a particular stance on gender roles? Does the presence of strong male leadership make outreach to men more feasible, or does the absence of women disenfranchise many from engaging with the church? These are descriptive and analytical questions.

The final theme is one of response, if this then what. With all of the categories of response to the above questions there is work that the church needs to do. In situations where a church places definite restrictions on the role of women, how can it ensure that women do not feel like second class congregants? Some would argue that they can’t. But often the problem of response is more evident in churches that don’t formally endorse strict categories of what men and women may or may not do. In these situations the challenge is ensuring that the practice matches up to the theological position. For example, if a church holds that women can do everything except be in overall leadership, is this modelled in the life of the church? These are practical questions.

A further part of this theme is how individuals respond, it will come as no surprise that there is only so much I can say in answering this one. How does a woman who feels called to ministry act with integrity in a church that suggests this is not a role she should take? And commensurately, how does a man act if he is in a church led by a woman and he is uncomfortable with this arrangement?

There are a lot of questions. And a lot of individual stories that make up a tapestry of experience. Hopefully over the coming weeks we can learn how it all fits together. I’ve got a few guests lined up, but if any of the issues mentioned above hit a nerve let me know and this space is open for your thoughts.

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