Feminism+women+churches and all that

I’ve been contributing at my friend Amy’s blog this month in her “Feminism February” theme. There’s a 200 word-count limit though, and this is something I feel so strongly about I thought… wait… I have my own blog. I can rant as much as I want. So sorry this is long. For my friends who read this blog for the social justice-stuff and not the God stuff, you might be like, “Whaat is she going on about?!” I apologize. This is one of those “Christian-house-keeping” issues we’ve just got to work through.

http://renewaldynamics.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Woman-with-tape-on-her-mouth.jpgThere are a lot of Christian feminists who are pretty all-or-nothing. They see ordaining women as a justice issue, and that’s a hill they are willing to die on. I’m not willing to die on that hill. (Don’t kill me yet Christian feminists! I’m just pragmatic!)  I think there are too many smart, godly people who love Jesus and have a high regard for scripture who don’t think women should be ordained. And they’re not just prideful, power-hungry authoritarian men, or doormat women like they’re sometimes depicted. They are sincere followers of Jesus who really want to follow in his ways, and for them to ordain women violates their conscience. I respect that, and spending years arguing for them to start ordaining women will change nothing for the actual women in their churches. But I think there’s a bigger issue at hand, one that is way more practical. If you’re not going to ordain women, you should still be a church that passionately pursues honoring, celebrating, and advocating for the women in your church: for their voices, for their ideas, for their gifts given to them by God. In today’s culture, where women are now able to be CEO’s and have more opportunities for leadership in the work-place—when they walk in on a Sunday morning, if it’s not communicated to them that your church is a place that actively values the input of women, they’ll walk right out again.

Even more than that, I think if Jesus was running a church (and women weren’t ordained), it wouldn’t even cross a woman’s mind to advocate for female ordination, because the gifts and voices of women in the church would be so celebrated, and tasks, duties and opportunities to serve shared so well between men and women that it would seem peripheral. When we see how Jesus treated women, we see that even though society excluded them, looked down on them, and silenced them—he listened to them, touched them, talked with them and let them be his disciples. That’s the exact opposite sense that many women feel when they walk into a church. If our example of leadership is Jesus- the ultimate servant, who had authority but washed his disciple’s feet, who didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped (to be claimed, to hang on to, to say, “this is my right!”) … then I think we need to ask ourselves, “Are our churches serving women? Are our churches listening to women? Are we actively seeking for input from women, actively encouraging them to develop whatever spiritual gift God has given them?”

And I think you can communicate this and do this even without ordaining women (and you can have a woman pastor and still not communicate this). I also think that when you communicate this, it doesn’t just benefit women, it benefits everyone in the church.

Here are some ideas:

ENCOURAGE AND CELEBRATE ALL SPIRITUAL GIFTS: 

“Everyone has different spiritual gifts, and they’re all important. Serving in childrens’ ministry is just as important as preaching. Women who want to preach are just going for the lime-light, but there’s more to the church than just the sermon. If women have gifts of teaching or preaching, they should use those in childrens’ or women’s ministries.”

I’ve heard variations of this a lot. I guess my main problem with this statement is that if you really believe that all gifts are equally important, does your church actually reflect that in its practices? If we talk about Sunday morning corporate worship as one of the most important times for ministry, and if we emphasize the preaching of the word by the pastor as the most important part of that, then we’re not actually validating all gifts. We give about 60% of our time to preaching at our church service, if not more. If things are running late, the thing that gets cut is never the sermon, it’s something else. That in and of itself communicates that preaching is the most important. We also pay the people who preach, and give them time to prepare their sermon—but there are many churches that don’t pay their Sunday School teachers, who are delivering an equally long “service” to the kids (and actually, it’s often more interactive and fun than the “big people’ sermon).

When was the last time you heard something like this from the pulpit?

“Parents, as your kids walk out to Sunday School, I just want to remind you that they are in great hands. Julie has a real gift for teaching and preaching, and you can be confident that your children are being fed God’s word in an exciting way that is relevant to their lives.”

OR

“We’re running a bit late today, but I’m going to cut my sermon short so that we can sing that song again, because the worship team really helped us meditate on and encounter God’s glory in such a meaningful way through that song.”

OR

“We’re not going to have a normal service this week, because we’re going to be out serving food to homeless people. Jody has organized this event, and she has a real gift of service and compassion for lost and hurting people. We’re so thankful we have people like Jody and her team in our church who can lead us as we reach out to people in our community. So today we’re not going to hear a sermon, we’re going to leave these walls and be the church.”

When you encourage and celebrate spiritual gifts in all their diversity, in all the different ways they are manifest in the church, then the emphasis is not on people being “excluded” from the pulpit or from anything. Because being in the pulpit on a Sunday morning is seen as just one bit of the entire body.

DISCOURAGE STEREOTYPES

So let’s say your church believes that women are called to be home-makers and men are called to provide for their families. Both are equal jobs, just different. That’s fine. But nowhere in the Bible does it say that men can’t volunteer in the nursery or serve the coffee after church, and women can’t take up the offering or serve communion. Especially when it comes to children’s work—kids need positive male role-models. And maybe you have some women who have a real gift of leadership who would be great at organizing the ushers and inspiring them to see their role is not just handing out bulletins and taking up collection but really inviting people into the house of God. If you only ever “market” needs to one gender based on stereotypes, you might be missing out on engaging people and their gifts.

Also, while you’re at it, don’t make gender stereotyped jokes either. It’s just not worth it.

INCLUSION IN DECISIONS

So maybe due to your constitution you can only have a male pastor and a male elder board/council. Just like Jesus didn’t hang on to power and authority but gave it away, how are you hearing the women in your congregation? How are you including the perspective of women in decisions your church makes? Maybe the married women can use their husbands to get their voices heard, but what about the single women? What structures do you have in place to get the input and perspective of women in your church? And if you have an opportunity for them to share, and no one does—is it because they don’t want to, or because they haven’t been encouraged and their input seen as vitally important?

This year in our church we have about 8 people on our council and just one of them is a woman. Is that because no women wanted to be on council? Maybe. But a lot of those men weren’t so keen to be on council at first, either, until individuals in the church leadership approached them and encouraged them to consider the vital role they could play in the church by serving on council. How are you encouraging women to serve and lead and make their voices heard in the avenues available to them? If you actually do value the input of women, then you’ll seek it out. If you don’t actually value it, you won’t make an effort to seek it. Do you view the women in your church as possessing a vital contribution?

 PUBLIC INCLUSION:

When people walk into a church, and they encounter women up-front, assisting with singing, reading the Bible, welcoming, taking up collection, or praying, then it sends an unconscious message: Women are welcome and valued and celebrated here.

MEN, SPEAK UP EVEN BEFORE THE WOMEN:

What if our churches were places where before the women could even mention something that was offending them, or an area where they were feeling excluded, the men in the church stepped up and said, “ I’ve noticed that we’re not honoring women in this area.” Men, if you have the microphone in your church, if you’re in a position of being listened to—how are you using that position to advocate for those who don’t have the mic? What if you were so attuned to the needs of others, that the “others” didn’t even have to mention their needs? What if you were the one to say, “Hey, I noticed we’re having this event, but it’s in the evening and we have a lot of single moms in our church? So how are we going to provide childcare so the women can go to this? “ Or, “Hey pastor, I noticed that you frequently quoted from male theologians in your sermon series, but you didn’t mention one woman– did you actively seek out female theologians who have written on that topic?” Or, “Hey, I noticed that we don’t have many women on council this year. What steps can we take this year to ensure we have more next year, and how can we make sure we’re listening to women this year, even though we have an all-male council?” That takes hard work. You have to cultivate awareness in yourself, because if you are a man, you are probably completely unconscious of the ways things might be biased towards men. But take the time to grow in awareness and educate yourself as an act of love for your sisters in Christ.

 DOES INCLUDING WOMEN DISCOURAGE MEN?

I’ve heard people say before that basically:

1. Men are lazy.

2. If women start doing X-male-only-activity-in-church then the men will drop out and sit back, because the women will get it all done. And we need to have men active in the church.

And this from men.

Well, if that’s true, then I think you have a MAJOR discipleship problem on your hands. If the men in your church have not been transformed by the gospel enough to work along-side women in ministry–whether it’s serving tea or serving communion—without either feeling threatened, or sitting back and letting the women do all the work, then I am not sure the gospel has penetrated deeply enough into how they view the world. So work on that.

I’m not saying we want a church where women are completely running the show. Then you have the same problem: men would arrive and feel excluded and unrepresented. What I’m saying is we need more churches where both men and women and the gifts God has given them (without regard to their gender) are celebrated and used for the glory of God.

PS: A lot of this could apply to churches that say they want to be culturally/racially diverse, but actually are not. Think about it.

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12 thoughts on “Feminism+women+churches and all that

    • He he 🙂 Should have thought of that! 🙂 On a more serious note, though, something I’m wrestling with is how to communicate this in a loving, thoughtful way to people who are in positions of leadership that they will actually listen to. It’s one thing to harp away on my blog to people who probably agree with me… it’s another to engage with people and have real conversations! Anyone have ideas?

      • One thing that I think can be really helpful is writing a letter to the council/eldership or whatever when you leave a church (should you be leaving a church at any point) thanking them for the ministry of the church and critiquing where you think they have blind spots. The trick is that you can’t be angry when you leave, you have to be leaving for a neutral kind of reason and you have to pick the biggest issue and show how that affects stuff you have concerns about so that it becomes about one thing that could be changed (even if there are plenty of other problems as well).

      • I wish I did have ideas about it. Unfortunately, this issue is so polarizing that I don’t think that people will listen. There are those who will settle for nothing less for ordination, and there are others who simply cannot believe that there is anything wrong with the church or Christianity. This is further complicated by the fact that the internet is paradoxically, making it far easier for people to live in the echo chamber rather than engage with the opposition in a meaningful, thoughtful way. I don’t hold out much hope for fruitful conversations.

  1. I agree with much of what you’ve said Steph but I must say, I don’t think most of your points are “women’s role” issues. They’re actually about how the entire body works together. So the easiest one to pick on is:

    “Parents, as your kids walk out to Sunday School, I just want to remind you that they are in great hands. George has a real gift for teaching and preaching, and you can be confident that your children are being fed God’s word in an exciting way that is relevant to their lives.”

    When was the last time you heard that about the guy Sunday School teacher?

    The problem, I think, is that we have messed up ministry models and so in an effort to emphasize preaching (which is a good emphasis in my opinion) we’ve devalued everything else and we’ve also set up wrong expectations of sermons and preachers. So it’s a two-way street in my mind and yip, often the pastor is to blame (very often!) for lots of the problems but so are the people who didn’t get stuck in and involved like the Holy Spirit made them to be.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, James. So I totally agree that it’s not just a “women’s role” issue, it’s a whole-church-using-their-gifts thing. And I definitely think we need guys teaching Sunday school! 🙂 (I think I talked about that in not making different service opportunities based on stereotypes)– I was just only highlighting women in those three examples (oh wait, I guess I didn’t specify women in the music team, but in my mind I did) because I was trying to highlight how when we really do celebrate the different gifts and see them as important, there are more opportunities for women to be represented and feel they are a vital part of what’s going on. But the same is totally true for men.
      Yeah, I think the problem is if you have an all-male leadership team AND you’re in a church where no one else is actively serving/using gifts and no one else is encouraged to serve/use gifts, then it really ends up looking like it’s just men running the show (so it’s not a male/female thing,even though it looks like it, it’s a leader/follower thing). And can be a self-perpetuating cycle. It doesn’t make the men running the show the only ones to blame, per se, but it does mean something unhealthy is going on. I totally believe in the priesthood of all believers, and we’re all responsible for the part we play or don’t play. But at the same time I think people in authority have also been given more responsibility for how they steward that authority–and are they devoted to actually empowering people in their churches to use their gifts? (I don’t mean to sound judgmental or condemning by that last part, because it’s hard and it involves more than one individual and the movement of the Holy Spirit).

  2. Steph, thanks for sharing these thoughts. I have so many thoughts tumbling around in my head about feminism and so it’s great to hear (see?) some of these put down on paper by someone else! I think this is always a tricky topic, but definitely something that needs to be talked about more!

    I came across a great blog post the other day – http://www.pierreduplessis.co.za/blog/why-i-am-a-feminist. It’s short but completely to the point, especially when he writes: “My two cents, empower women as women. We don’t win when women act more like men, we win when women own their feminity and draw from that strength.”

  3. Pingback: Feminism February: Open Letters | The Monday Heretic

  4. Holy cow. This is everything I’ve been wanting to communicate about this issue. You’ve written it so thoroughly, graciously, and winsomely. I’m definitely sharing this!

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