A collective day of Eshet Chayil

Today is a day of collective Eshet Chayil.

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Today is International Women’s Day. And I wish it wasn’t. I wish it wasn’t necessary to take a day to celebrate women

Maybe I take the typically chauvinistic perspective and ask why we take a day to do this, but do not do likewise, or at least not with the same gravity and publicity for men (apparently there is an international men’s day – it’s in November).’s achievements, contributions and continued struggles.

And then I remember. Every day men’s achievements are celebrated, it goes with out notice because it is normal. It is the everyday fabric of our life to celebrate men and take women for granted. Our culture operates in a way that gives men authority by default, privileges their status and orients society around their behaviour.

That’s why a day is needed to say something different. To draw lines in the sand that relegate cynics to the league of the also ran. To praise women who achieve, and women who achieve by simply surviving. The virtue is not in grandiose claims or conquering Everest (although this particular female first deserves every accolade) but in the living of life to the full.

Fullness of life is not determined by success or status. It’s not the Margaret Thatchers or Hillary Clintons that define the role of women. It’s not Taylor Swift or Anne Hathaway either. It’s my mother and my sisters, it’s their daughters with their whole life ahead of them. It’s doing what you are called to do, doing what is in front of you, and doing it without having to battle for the right to achieve it because you are a woman.

But on this day, when women are celebrated, applauded and encouraged, is it possible that men could feel left out? The response that men get 364 days of the year to parade their achievements doesn’t quite do justice. Because the world is changing, and even when it is changing for the better, that doesn’t mean change is easy.

While the church takes its time deciding the role of women in leadership it misses the men that are slipping out the back door. There are roughly twice as many women as men in church, and although men frequently control the leadership of churches they feel power and position slipping from their grasp. I’m not saying that this is the right response, but it is a common response, and it is one that needs to be acknowledged. Where purpose and position used to be axiomatic, they are now conditional and shared, there’s a transition that is taking too long, and it is a transition that leave women still struggling, and men seemingly displaced. It is the world where things are rarely easily won.

It’s this power shift that causes the problems. It is why a day such as today is both needed and lamentable. The fact that we have to fight for rights and equality and not live in the light of should never need stating. Steve Holmes put it beautifully this morning, “I’m not going to try and illuminate the sun. I’m not going to try and dampen the sea. I’m not, any longer, going to try and defend the ministry of women in the church.”

I don’t think the church should trade in their sermons for Ultimate Fighting Championships. And nor do I think that means the church must be gilded in petals and painted pink.

The church should shine a light to the world and proclaim loudly that men and women do not win at the other’s expense.

Today is a day when men should celebrate the women they know, the heroines of their life. And when they should stand beside those they do not know and need an advocate to give them a voice. It is a day when we should cry out for the women of valour who are living out their purpose in the great and the grit. A day when the name Eshet Chayil should be shared with abandon.

Am I a feminist? Opening up a conversation

There’s been a lot written about feminism in the Christian world this week, and recently the Christian feminist network was launched. The question I’ve been turning over in my head is whether I am one. Am I a feminist?

It’s not as easy as it seems to answer. Is it as simple as believing men and women are equal? Is it more systemic: ensuring equal rights, whether that is social, political or economic? Is it challenging structural imbalances that restrict women through spoken and unspoken patriarchal cultural norms? Is it not removing any hair from your body?

Feminism has a bad reputation in conservative Christian circles. It is seen as undermining the family, destabilising society and rejecting God ordained gender roles. Some of the rhetoric that emanates from the church criticising feminism is overblown and unhelpful. But that doesn’t mean all of the questions should be ushered under the carpet. They should be engaged with sensibly and fairly once we have a grasp on what both Christianity and feminism demand of us.

Only when we have clarity over both identities can we decide whether they are compatible, or fundamentally at odds.

I want to open up a conversation and see where we end up. I’ve already got a couple of thought experiments in my mind that I want to work through. The conversation got moving on twitter this afternoon, but hopefully a bit more space will be created by blogging about it. Does being a feminist require that you are pro-choice, or at least think that abortion should be available even if you consider it wrong?

And the one that got me thinking about this, can you be a feminist and hold a complementarian view of women in leadership? Instinctively I say no, but then I step back and ponder the reasoning behind it. What is the starting point for that decision, what are the non-negotiable river banks?

I am committed to the authority of the Bible, and that might make this a hard conversation for some. It means that once I have worked out what the Bible says about something, it is that which guides the other values and priorities in my life. So if I was to hold a view which was the best conclusion I could reach from scriptural evidence that men and women should take different roles, whether in family life, the church or society, that would then guide how I worked out if feminism was compatible with my beliefs.

I am committed to hearing the voices of those who need feminism the most. I am a middle class white man, and I have a lot of learning to do.

I am committed to rooting my conclusions in reality. I could come up with the most sophisticated and elaborate philosophical construct of belief and equality and it be meaningless if it is not grounded in real life. One example of this struck me this afternoon, on twitter:

I understand where this comes from, how easy is it to say that you agree with something but tag a ‘but’ after, which completely undermines your agreement. The most infamous ‘but’ is equal but different. But what if that’s correct? What if men and women are equal but different? I think they are, at its most obvious, men can’t have children.

So the question isn’t removing the buts, but examining whether and how difference is used to undermine equality.

As I said, I don’t think this is simple.

Unity for the love of God

Yesterday was not a great day for Christian unity. But sometimes good things come out of not such good days. I hope it was one of those.

Under the gaze of intense public scrutiny, from both Christians and the mainstream media both UCCF and Bristol CU changed their positions yesterday. And they did change, even if they were presented as clarifications. Bristol CU moved from a position of only allowing women to speak in certain rather restrictive circumstances, to now committing to open up all their speaking engagements to men and women. For UCCF a former position of not having a position seems to have morphed into something more robust, stating that it would be “wholly against the UCCF basis of faith and the advice of UCCF staff” if a CU devised a policy not to have women speakers for some or all events. That’s not the same as not having a position, and while I welcome the change, let’s be frank and call it what it is.

**Update** All is not as simple as this! Pod from UCCF has been in touch and defends the absence of a change of policy. UCCF have always held that the Basis of Faith as the only requirement for speakers, and for CUs to prevent a speaker on other grounds goes against the unity at the heart of the basis of faith. From the sounds of it, rather than a formal change in policy, it is a more robust application of it. **End of update**

A lot of talk went on yesterday and most of it was fairly respectful and gracious, most of it was from people committed to the witness of the church as well as the full use of all people and their gifts and talents. I think there is a place for public debate, and I don’t think all church matters and discussions of theology and practice should be decided behind closed doors or in private. Light is brilliant and shows up what might be wrong and we should not be afraid of the light.

Even so, I worry that as the world looked on yesterday, as the papers ran their stories and journalists sought out a fresh angle, what was shown was not a body of believers committed to working together for mission but a gang of factions, each desperate to get one over another.

And I spent a lot of time thinking about unity. Thinking about what unity looks like, what it requires, and what it is for.

What is unity for?

Unity is for mission, it is so that the world may see. It is not to provide a warm and cosy feeling. It is not to impress the world. It is not to do away with differences. It is not to suggest that all roads lead to God.

It is so together we can present Jesus to the world.

What is unity?

Unity is not being a doormat. It is not compromising on everything in some false attempt to keep everyone happy. Nor is it an attempt to sideline secondary issues in order to focus on core doctrine and mission, because that logic leads to a lowest common denominator when those who are most conservative or keen on the status quo win out. Take for example the issues of women speaking or the exercise of spiritual gifts. The logic that all are happy receiving teaching from a man but only some are happy with a woman teacher, so we’ll just have men, is a false unity. So to is the idea that because we all agree that the Holy Spirit enables us to understand and receive the teachings of the Bible we’ll stick to just that because some might not agree that the Holy Spirit speaks today through prophetic revelation.

Unity is tough. It is being fully aware of our differences and agreeing to work together. It is loving each other more than we love our own doctrine.

Unity is not about creating or maintaining a monopoly. That’s another thing that sometimes bugged me with the CU when I was at university, the idea that they were the bastion of unity and everyone else were dissenters and trouble makers. Maybe I put it a bit strongly, but a strong idea of unity does not try to take over or incorporate those who think and operate differently. It finds a space to exist together and work together.

What does unity require?

Unity would not take any effort if we all already agreed. And if would be nothing more than a saccharine soaked beauty-pageant-esque call for world peace if it had nothing to unite around.

Unity is also not the same as working together. I am willing to work with just about anyone, and I think churches and Christian organisations should show willingness and initiative to do so. I work with people whom I disagree on many things but we come together for a common cause. We come from different places, and ultimately our goal is different, but for a segment of the journey we can help each other out. To give it a technical term, it’s called co-belligerence.

Unity requires a common goal, but it also requires a common cause behind reaching that goal. The UCCF Basis of Faith is similar to the Evangelical Alliance’s, but with a couple of important differences. Probably chief among these is the commitment of UCCF to the infallibility of scripture compared to a concept of the Bible as supreme authority and fully trustworthy for faith and conduct in the Evangelical Alliance’s basis of faith. The challenge for UCCF is that not only is it an evangelical organisation, of which it should be proud, but it requires a standard for unity that some evangelical Christians might not agree with.

The question, and the challenge, is what level of core agreement is essential, and what draws too tight a circle? At what point do we stop working together because our differences have become too great? And who judges if and when those differences become too great?

It is easy to say that mission is our common cause, but that is hard to do. I have seen on the ground the challenges of churches working together in evangelism. What happens when people commit to following Jesus, which church do they go to? I’ve seen jointly run Alpha courses run aground because of differences about baptism.

Unity requires a humility that this is a hard road to walk and we haven’t worked out all the contours. It requires a humility to accept when we get it wrong, often when we are too eager to prove that we are right.

Why unity?

We work together because the church is the bride of Christ. We commit to overcoming but not dismissing our differences because we are called to be united. We are committed to unity because we want the world to see Jesus, and to see the difference He makes. And that makes it worth the effort. It makes it worth the heartache, the headaches and the disagreements, it even makes it worth the rather messy and not always wanted public disagreements.

It is hard, it is challenging. It will frequently be frustrating and we will often get it wrong.

And when it all goes wrong, when we want to tear each other apart, instead we fall over ourselves to serve one another out of a love for God and a commitment to make Him known.

Bristol CU and finding grace in hard places

Ten years ago I was a fresher at university. I arrived fresh from a charismatic church environment heavy on the use of spiritual gifts and where my younger sister sometimes spoke at our Saturday evening youth church meetings.

Three things caused an immediate dissonance between my experience of church and what I encountered with the Christian Union. One was the absence of any practice of the spiritual gifts, no prophetic words, speaking in tongues or prayer for healing. Secondly was the friction which later become outright hostility between the CU and Fusion which I had been introduced to and had expected to be the predominant feature of my spiritual life. Thirdly the bar on women preaching or serving as president of the CU.

I had a minor leadership role within the CU during my second year and argued fiercely against the position vis-a-vis Fusion. And when the elections were held to confirm the nominated committee I spoiled my ballot, I believe only witnessed by one other. The election was a formality, the people filling the posts had been chosen by the previous year’s committee – a process which enshrined the conservative position.

I also found the position around women speakers nonsensical, Damian Thompson alludes to this in his Telegraph article on the current furore. When does teaching become teaching, for example women were allowed to give evangelistic apologetic talks but not speak at the evening main CU meetings. Leaving Fusion to one side for now, the justification behind the CU’s position on women and spiritual gifts was that these were secondary issues not foundational to the Christian faith, and therefore to take a position on these would damage the unity of Christian witness on campus. To some extent I got their logic, I didn’t want to see a charismatic CU, a conservative CU, a CU that had spiritual gifts but not women speakers, maybe one backing infant baptism and another supporting adult immersion. However, the logic was also flawed because it defaulted to a conservative position that kept those against various things happy and those wishing to see a missed aspect feature alienated.

I also sat in on the university council meeting where someone brought a motion to disaffiliate the CU because of its positions, I can’t remember the details, I suspect it was either around not having a women president or its views on homosexuality. The details are not important. What was important was that a body separate to the CU felt they had the right to decide what was or was not a legitimate aspect of Christian belief.

I know different CUs take different approaches, some are charismatic, some have women speakers, some work alongside Fusion in relative harmony. I think there are two massive challenges here that are worthy of note, firstly CUs are good as organic student run societies led by people who know the community they are reaching. But this means those in leadership will often be relatively inexperienced.

Secondly, CUs are not churches, but operate and exist as quasi-church entities, that means that for students they are often the place where most of their spiritual interaction and input occurs. For this to work and not displace the primacy of the local church it requires local churches to support and guide the work of student led ministries. It requires local church unity. It means that they don’t try and place their style of worship above another, or use a default conservatism to maintain a status quo that actual does damage the unity of Christians on campus for mission.

I don’t know what’s going on at Bristol CU at the moment, but I know plenty involved in CUs who have got caught up in student media storms, or pressures from the student union. I think they need our prayer as a matter of urgency. I think they need the support of the local churches, I think they need wise counsel. And I think they need our grace. I think they have tried to handle a difference of opinions in the best way they felt they could. It maybe that they’ve got this wrong, but don’t we all from time to time?

Women bishops: a view, an analysis and a reflection

Yesterday evening at about 6.20 I was poised outside Kennington tube station. I was on my way out for the evening and furiously refreshed twitter to bring me the results of General Synod’s vote on allowing women bishops. As soon as I saw the numbers my heart sank. I knew 134 was not twice 74, down to six votes in the House of Laity the measure fell and it was decided women would not become bishops in the Church of England any time soon.

All evening I kept half an eye on twitter and getting in past midnight started reading through the comments, blogs, news articles and more posts on facebook expressing distress bordering on outrage at the decision. And here’s what I have, firstly a view I kept out of Monday’s post, followed by an analysis of what the vote means, and finally a reflection.

A VIEW

I wanted the General Synod to support the measure to allow women bishops. Part of the reason I kept quiet was because it is not my church and I do not want to tell another church how to do their business. I was also aware of friends in the Church of England who do not agree with women in positions of church authority.

As I descended underground and out of twitter’s reach a sadness dwelt in me deeper and more profound than I had expected. This was not a technical decision or an abstract theological debate. This was a choice to marginalise the ministry of many. I also cannot agree that this was a vote in favour of unity over division: around 7 per cent of parishes would opt out of the episcopal authority of a woman, this decision helped those groupings stay within the church, but it alienated a far larger number who saw the settled will of the Church of England as supporting women bishops. Unity is not maintained by changing nothing. A small blocking minority cannot be the guarantors of unity.

One final view point, I utterly reject the labels being placed on the Church of England by commentators in the press and politicians in parliament. They are seeking to hoist the church onto a petard they devise through a litany of pejorative labels. It is not the role of the church to succumb to every popular pressure, and were it the right thing to do, I would completely support a measure that saw the church become more unpopular in the eyes of the world. However, this is not such a move.

AN ANALYSIS

Ultimately I think those opposed to women bishops, the Anglo-Catholics and those labelled as conservative evangelical (a label I will not use because it suggests such a view is a necessary feature of conservative evangelicalism), will lose out because of yesterday’s decision. They won the vote yesterday and some of their glee at protecting their protectionism was deeply unedifying, but if they think this has solved their problems I suspect they will need a strong cup of coffee.

Those making this point in the Synod debate sounded a little threatening but once I stood back and analysed the likely trajectory of this issue I was inclined to agree. The way and margin by which they won, as well as the overwhelming support for women bishops from the leadership of the Church of England, means the result will cause a large amount of resentment for the way a tiny, and I think it is fair to describe 7 per cent of parishes as tiny, part of the church has blocked a decision which in principle has been agreed. What is most distressing from an external perspective, and which makes me most likely to see the governing structures as not fit for purpose, is that a view taken and agreed by the church cannot be implemented.

After the introduction of women priests, and because of the direct impact it had on them, those who opposed women as either priests or bishops, and wanted assurance their theological convictions would be respected got organised and ran for synod, in 2010 it was reported they had a blocking minority in the House of Laity. Perhaps because of the wider view of the church and the general public this was not given serious consideration, but it was evidenced last night as true. This present vote will galvanise supporters of women bishops, and I suspect especially those from evangelical churches who have largely ignored the structures of the central church because they have been busy doing local parish ministry.

We will likely not reach the point we were at yesterday for about five years, in 2015 when the next elections for synod take place I expect a vibrant campaign in favour of women bishops, and then an expedited process to bring the matter to a final vote once again. And here is where I think those celebrating today should take careful stock of the situation. For many supporters of women bishops the delegated authority which a woman bishop would have to provide was a slight on her status and an indication that she was a second class bishop. There is no guarantee that a future measure would have the same strength of protection, or the same good will among the church to accommodate, those opposing women bishops.

It may be that item 501 was the high point for the provision of those unable to accept women in church authority.

A REFLECTION

But step back for a moment from the politics of the decision, try if you can to soothe the sores caused by rejection.

We don’t live for a kingdom defined by titles and preference. We don’t serve a king elected by popular mandate or blocked by a dissenting highly organised minority. As a contributor said yesterday in the debate, we don’t serve a God who went for bronze, silver or gold, we serve a God who went for wood and nails. I don’t know who @batesjen26 is, but saw this tweeted this morning:

The life of the church will go on. As a non-conformist that might be an easy thing for me to say. There will be worship to God that inspires and encourages, there will be teaching that uplifts and educates. There will be service that humbles and cares, and leadership that stoops low to avoid being cut down. And it will be done by women in the same way as men.

The value that we give to people should not be defined by the labels they wear or the office they hold. I believe that today more than any other we must remember those who serve without ever seeking promotion. This is less about the delayed ordering of female purple clerical vestments, and far more about what it says to women and girls, as well as men and boys, about the value we endow each other with. It also cannot be easy for those committed to a church that seems incapable to carrying out a decision it long ago determined as the right course to take. But while the governance of the church may be in crisis the work it is doing in cities, towns and villages across the country continues to thrive.

Today we pray. Today and tomorrow we love one another and seek to love more those for whom it comes hardest.

50 shades of purple – should women be bishops?

Sometime conflict is essential. Sometimes it is even healthy. It can lead to better solutions, and in the debate and discussion it can occasionally bring people together. I blogged last week about the conflict in Gaza, as well as the way it was reflected on twitter. Hot on the heels of this conflagration comes another, this time a little closer to home and thankfully without violence.

Tomorrow the Church of England General Synod decides whether women can become bishops. I wasn’t going to get drawn into the conversation, I didn’t want to be just another voice either calling for one thing or another, or join the chorus of drowned out pleas for peace and good will.

I’ve been a part of churches where women are encouraged to be full part of every area of ministry. And I’ve been in others where certain roles are considered to be the preserve of men alone. I’ve also been in churches which said one thing in theory and the practice looked very different. And to top all that one of the most revolutionary moments in the life of the church I grew up in as a child was the decision that women didn’t have to cover their heads in meetings. That was over twenty years ago.

I’m also not a part of the Church of England, for just under a year I was part of a Church of England church, but I never settled and the bits I liked least about it were the few times it adhered to it’s more Anglican aspects.

The combination of this background, an aversion to arguments, and the fact I work for an organisation that represents churches on both sides of the debate helped me keep my thoughts to myself.

This isn’t really about the question of whether women should become bishops, and the debate tomorrow isn’t either – although if you chose to tune in you will certainly here their proponents vocally making the case. There is a strong majority within the Church of England backing the move so the question at the heart of the measure to be decided is how to allow women to the episcopate while ensuring that those who have theological objections to women holding positions of church authority are able to continue with good conscience in the church.

The problem is both groups think they are right.

And that’s where arguments and discussion, and the most delicate of negotiations fall down. Because those who want women to be bishops see this as an issue of justice, of fairness, of faithfulness to scripture, and those who don’t cite the biblical arguments with equal abandon. It does little for the way the world looks at the church, and more importantly, little for the words we say for the authority, clarity and perspicuity of scripture.

There are two arguments put forward, one for equality and one for difference between the genders. Those two don’t have to contradict, in fact I would fully subscribe to both. They are therefore canards in this debate. Both claim that they are right, and moreover that they have divine backing for their views. This is a route that gets dangerous pretty quickly.

The challenge facing the Church of England is whether they are prepared to work to sustain a broad church with bishops, clergy and congregations who hold significantly different understandings not only of the role of women but their understanding of scripture. Because while this is the presenting issue it is not the only division within the church. Nor is it that those opposing the change are the only ones that take scripture seriously, many backers of women bishops would argue that it is their opponents who misuse the texts they quote to support their backing of the status quo.

If the unity of the Church of England is vital then it is important for all those who disagree to give ground and accept that for a solution to be found that succeeds in maintaining unity no one is going to get everything they want. But that’s life. It really is. If you bring any group of people together to work at a common cause there is a need for compromise and negotiation. The difficulty in the church is that for so long it has been a recluse of unity from a world of divergence. It has clustered closer and closer around what it agrees on and lost sight of the many differences that are conveniently ignored.

I pray that the church would be as one. And be as one so that world would believe. I pray that the Church of England, and the wider church, will make it through their deliberations and the fallout, however it may fall, with a commitment to work together for the sake of the gospel. And to be honest, you could have skipped the rest of this post because that is all that really matters.

Maybe women shouldn’t lead churches [mutuality 2012]

“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?

This post is part of #mutuality2012 a series hosted by Rachel Held Evans

Women in leadership: gender generosity

Theology is probably not my strongest point, I get impatient with it, I want to move on, I want the answers with everything resolved and neatly organised into custom made boxes. But that’s not how theology works. Maybe by its very nature it has an unresolved tension that runs right through it: a complexity that permanently remains just out of grasp.

It can’t be ignored altogether, but nor can it be rushed. And the legacy of two millennia of deliberation enforce a hesitancy against jumping to conclusions and the risk of hubris of thinking that you know for certain what others have wrestled for generations over.

So I step with some trepidation into the theological terrain of gender. And I do so knowing that behind me sit not only theology but also tradition and reason and culture, all things that flavour and colour the debate. A tradition that has seen men take the primary roles in public and church life, a tradition that suggests a woman’s role is with her family. A culture that tells me men and women are equal and all discrepancies must be removed. And reason that struggles between the two, trying to use the witness of scripture to arbitrate between what is and what should be.

The fact that for pretty much all of the visible history of the church men have held all the leadership roles does not tell us very much. It could either mean that it’s been right all along, and we should carry on as we are. Or that we’ve got it colossally wrong and history just anaesthetises us from this.

I think that the New Testament tells us two broad messages about the role of women within the church and a third that relates more broadly to gender, and maybe specifically to marriage. Here I will deal with the first two and leave the third to a later post.

The first message I pick up is that women were clearly active and present in many, and probably all areas of the early life of the church. Men are clearly the dominant force in the early church and they are the witnesses that we look to in the letters of Paul, the ministry of Peter and the training of Timothy. But women had a role too and from the hints we pick up about Phoebe, Junia and Priscilla their role was significant. Junia was described as highly regarded among the apostles. Scott McKnight has investigated this particular lady’s history and how through many centuries she was exorcised from the text and turned into a man. Women read scripture in public, helped instruct apostles, they hosted churches, they financed ministries, and as an apostle, which Junia was, would have planted churches. The churches we know now cannot easily be compared to those of the first century so working out which roles in our present churches they would occupy if they lived now, or if our churches existed then is a tricky exercise. So instead, I’ll satisfy myself with a broad description that women were significantly involved in the life and leadership of the early church.

The second message is that there are clear prohibitions on the activity of women in the early church. Mostly this involves women not being permitted to speak in church and have authority over men, but it also addresses head-wear and make-up. These, as the most explicit commands relating to gender and the church, have traditionally won the day, and are certainly hard to ignore.

Other arguments are also marshalled against allowing women to occupy positions of leadership which I believe to be spurious and distracting, for example citing the male only membership of Jesus’ twelve disciples. While true as fact it means nothing, absence does not confer endorsement. I would take the issue of slavery as a parallel, Jesus did not speak out against slavery, that does not mean he condones the practice.

Another that I find hard to give credence to is the use of the masculine pronoun when referring to apostles and teachers, and the command that they should be the husband of one wife. Firstly, I see very few churches refusing to permit single men in positions of leadership, even if they would not allow women to occupy them. Secondly, lets play a little game of futurism. In a few centuries time records of the Conservative Party in the early twenty-first century come to light. Historians debate whether or not the party allowed women to hold the post of chairman, after all, the title suggests it refers explicitly to a man. The problem comes with the records of Sayeeda Warsi, otherwise recognisable as a woman, but described as a chairman. What are we to think, that this was in fact a man?

As I summarise very briefly the theological landscape surrounding gender and the church I think we have to hold two apparently contradictory messages and decide where that leaves us. One, women were in positions of responsibility and leadership in the early church, secondly that women are instructed not to teach.

The problems that I have with drawing too heavily from the passages that tell of women not speaking in church is that our adherence to them, even in churches that place strict confines on the roles a woman can take, is patchy. For example, very few churches operate a mandatory policy of head-scarves for women. Nor do churches insist women must be completely silent in church as passages in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 suggest. The point I am making is that even in conservative churches these passages are parsed and interpreted before application.

It seems to me that one of these themes must be wrong, or at least wrongly applied if interpreted as a universal command. And I think that’s where we start to get towards some sort of resolution, for me it is easier to see how the commands requiring women to be silent and not teach men are reflective of specific situations in the early church. It is hard to write off the practice and ministry of women who are commended as highly regarded. Quite where this leaves us I am not certain, but it does show the direction in which I am travelling.

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.