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.