“There are as many differences within each gender as between them.” These were words I wrote in the very first post on this blog last summer.
And then at the turn of this year I meandered around the topic of women in leadership through a few posts of different tone and focus and before long moved on to different topics that captured my attention and garnered more interest from readers. I also asked several women to write pieces on the topic very aware that being a man I had a particular and limited perspective. But that never came to pass.
I’m writing this post as part of #mutuality2012 a blog series and synchroblog hosted by Rachel Held Evans. And as I write I’m faintly conscious of an expectation that subliminally sits on any guys joining in this discussion: how to be apologetic for the way in which men have restricted the ministry of women in church and dominated them in family life, all the time being as fulsome as possible in support of women doing all things men do, and doing so in the most lyrical and disarming tone.
Except I may strike a discordant note, I’m not 100% convinced that all roles within a church should be gender neutral. This issue does not affect me in the way it does many others. In fact there are few people it affects less. I am a man, I am not married nor in a relationship, and I do not lead a church. So the words scattered on this page necessarily do not bear the same connection to personal experience that others may string together.
But then again, lets reflect on the nature of the body of Christ brought together in the church. And maybe what affects one of us affects us all. Maybe the difficulties experienced by some and inflicted by others are not the exclusive preserve of their perpetrators and victims. Maybe, what wounds one wounds us all.
So while I write from an abstract stance I am not disconnected from the issue. I am part of a church with women in it, I lead a small group with one, I have friends for whom this matters much, and others who frankly don’t care. And here comes the crux. I go to a church which would be broadly classed as complementarian, in that there are roles, or more precisely a role (that of elder) which only men hold.
I hesitate long and hard as I write these words. I have chosen to be a part of this church. I knew what they believed before I joined and have found them more open to women teaching than I had caricatured them as. And in choosing to be a part of this church I have therefore the need to respect the decisions the church takes. This is not an absolute abdication of opinion, but it is an awareness of the choice that I have taken.
But I am a nomad. This is not the church family I grew up in: there things were different. As a young child before clear recollection women wore head coverings in my church, until one day the church conducted a volte-face and stocks in conservative female head wear plummeted. One of the very best teachers in the church was a woman and my younger sister preached before I did. The family of churches it now belongs to is firmly in the egalitarian camp.
So I stand at a junction seeing down both routes and here is my hunch. It’s not a theological point of view. Or one evidentially proved. Just a hunch. I would rather the church did all it could to invest in leaders of whatever shape, size or gender.
My biggest problem with restricting roles to men alone, and by extension categorising women into a particular role, is not so much stopping women from holding those roles but the message that it sends which places a concrete ceiling above women in the church.
Maybe women shouldn’t lead churches. But what is the very worst that can happen if they do?
Maybe some of the men who lead churches shouldn’t be leading them.
A regular refrain of proponents of women in leadership is that it’s about gift and not gender. I want to throw that one away. Some of the very worst leaders are those with the greatest of gifts but the weakest character.
But nor is it all about gender. There are as many differences within each gender as between them. There are men that are singularly unsuited to leading churches. If gender is not a fixed set of characteristics, is it simply biology that dictates who should and should not take certain roles?
Yet there are some characteristics that seem more prevalent in one gender over the other, and when roles require such characteristics is it necessarily wrong that one gender is represented more than the other?
If we take a look at the issue through a different lens maybe we may get a better perspective. The push for more women in political leadership comprises two distinct strands. The first suggests that because men and women are equal they should be equally represented in political institutions. The second posits that because men and women have different traits, it is necessary that political institutions have a balance of both in order to benefit from the distinct skills and characteristics that each gender brings.
Is political authority male dominated because the nature of the role demands characteristics that are predominately found in men, or is it because we have defined political authority around the characteristics that are found in the men that have historically and contemporaneously occupied those posts?
Is church leadership male dominated because it requires certain characteristics, or have we defined it around those characteristics?
I like the idea of a church that is prepared to get things wrong. I like the idea of a church that invests in developing leaders.
If we open our eyes to the variety of characteristics within each gender and turn off our presumptions about gender roles we may end up in a familiar place. After all surely something lies behind where we currently are. But we may also end up somewhere different. Maybe more women will lead churches. Maybe more men will raise children at home. Maybe they won’t.
Maybe in the most equitable of worlds we would still have a church whose leadership is overwhelmingly male.
But I remember we don’t live in that world. And we need to find a response that recognises the uncertainties and difficulties and the challenges. That doesn’t deny the disagreements. For me, as someone caught between the egalitarian and complementarian camps, not feeling fully welcome in either, these means we give this thing a go. We embrace mutuality. What’s the worst that could happen?