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Women In The Church | Provoketive Magazine
22 Nov 2011

The Author

I am the Senior Editor at Provoketive. I am the author of the recently published, Discovering the God Imagination. I also serve as Senior Editor for Civitas Press, a boutique publishing firm specializing in inspiring and redemptive ideas. I am developing a new model for publishing and seek to create new opportunities for fresh and creative voices.

Occasionally, I speak on issues of justice, postmodern theology, and living a life in the way of Jesus. I leads workshops on The Practice of Love and Exploring a Postmodern Gospel at BeADisciple.com.

I am a son, a husband, and a father. I live in Folsom, Ca, with my beautiful wife and amazing three children.


Women In The Church

A little while ago, I had a very deep conversation with some friends about women in the church. One of my friends strongly holds to the idea of a male dominated society “as God ordained”, and the other two hold the opposite view, that “women are equal.”  I grew up in a family that empowered women.  I always saw the female voice as valuable because it was valuable in my home, but not my church.  My mom was integral to the function of the church and yet she was never invited up front.  There was a quiet saying in the pews that, “men made the church, but women made the church run.”

I understand both positions and coming from a male perspective have wondered what it would be like to be a women in a male dominated society. The church has always been patriarchal. For some reason God chose to use men as the primary leaders in his mission of restoration. All the fathers of the faith are men (Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Joseph, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.). Jesus chose twelve men to be his disciples. Paul wrote the primary bulk of the New Testament epistles. The role of men in God’s mission is just obvious.

But women also do play an important role in his mission. None of those men would be where they were if it weren’t for their mothers. When I look at the women in Scripture, especially the women who followed Jesus, they seemed to get it more than the men. The first person to anoint Jesus was a woman. It was women who were with Jesus at the cross. It was a woman who sat at Jesus’ feet. It was a woman who first went to visit Jesus at the grave. Women just seem to get it before men sometimes.

I don’t really want women to be equal in the traditional sense, always competing for the top rung, whatever that is. I don’t want women to be like me or like my buddies. I think when women try to be men, they miss the beauty of what it means to be feminine. The women I know who try to compete with men inevitably miss their own humanity. What I really want to know is why God chose to make us different. What is the real value of our differences?

I didn’t choose how God lives out the mission of restoration. I didn’t set humanity and gender roles. God did. I also don’t want women to be reduced to subservient add-ons that serve a purpose when we need them sexually, or for care-taking purposes. So how to we find a way to coexist in harmony and congruence, especially in leadership? Maybe there’s a third way, a way that elevates women to the glorious gift that they are in our lives.

I do want to see women the way love would see them. My friend asked, “How do we discover and lift up each other’s humanity? How do we, as men, lift up women? I just know that love elevates.”

So I’m left with a wonder that men, in our silly need to subjugate women, we may be missing something. Maybe women sometimes see it better than we do. And when they are pushed down we miss one of the real ways that God is speaking to us. I know that when I really need to listen to God, my wife is one of the first people I trust to speak honestly with me. She has been one of the primary ways I hear how my Heavenly Father is speaking to me. She has validated what I am feeling (even when I don’t like it) more often than I care to admit.

Maybe if men learn to listen to women a little more, we’ll begin listening to a different voice that has always been available to us, a voice of reason and compassion. A voice of love. Maybe men have spent so much time pushing women down, we’ve missed one of God’s glorious ways of speaking to us, providing us wisdom when we most need it.

So my question is, “How do we find a way to lift women up in the church?”

  1. how do we find ways to lift up women in the church? you can start by dismantling 80% of the assumptions espoused in this piece. “i don’t really want women to be equal in the traditional sense…” subjugation isn’t silly; it’s oppressive. of course you are missing out on half a world of wisdom if you fail to listen to women’s voices. this argument is tiresome.

    • Suzannah, for you it may be tiresome, but I can’t ignore that men need to have these conversations. And what would you dismantle?

      • As far as dismantling goes, I would start with this:

        “I think when women try to be men, they miss the beauty of what it means to be feminine. The women I know who try to compete with men inevitably miss their own humanity.”

        i don’t personally know any women who want to be men – unless you are referring to transgender people. This argument is deeply annoying – where are these women who are trying to be men, exactly? I’ve never met one – and I know women who are pastors, engineers, and construction workers and in other male-dominated professions. They all seem to still be fully human to me (although they may or may not fulfill your personal definition of acceptable gender roles.)

        Women want the same opportunities as men – we do not want to BE men. (For confirmation of this fact, feel free to read almost every single bit of feminist theory and theology written in the last twenty years.) If your question is “How do we lift women up in the church while simultaneously barring them from positions of power?”, the answer is “You can’t.” Until you are ready to let go of the notion of Deity-approved gender discrimination, “working together in harmony and congruence” ain’t going to happen.

        • Christy, I’m glad you’ve never met women who try to be men. This was very common for me in the business world, and if that was not your experience, great. But it was mine. If it’s annoying for you, then fine. I can’t control your annoyance. And is this experience exclusive to women? Obviously not. It’s unfair to assume that I was drawing the same conclusion that all women want to be men.
          In drawing that conclusion you missed my point. The reflection of God exists in both genders, together, in Adam coming back as one. My point is that we need to see both elements of the God image in our community, or we miss God’s true reflection.
          And this is what I don’t get about your pushback. I agree that women want the same opportunities as men. I never said differently. But men don’t allow that. This was the point of the post. And yet you pushed back on someone who was trying to state the very same thing that you desire.
          As I said to Joy. This is history. Does that make it right? No. But talking about it is the beginning of change.

          • I think Christy’s point is that when you met women who were goal-oriented, driven, and extremely ambitious in the business world, your assumption about them was that they were “trying to be men.” This assumption is one that is based on patriarchal ideas about gender – that men are ambitious and highly driven while women are caring and have low goal-motivation. However, many, many individuals do not fall into these definitions of gender. Christy and the previous poster were annoyed by your assumption that simply by having these characteristics, the women you encountered were “trying to be men,” when in fact, they were most likely simply acting in accordance with their own high-focus, high-motivation personalities. That you would say that such women were “trying to be men” reveals that you do, though perhaps unconsciously, subscribe to at least some of the patriarchal gender norms that many women have fought very hard to overcome. This is not to condemn you – we all must realize our own assumptions about the world before we can seek to truly change anything. God bless you in all your future attempts to lift up and recognize the women (and men) who are doing God’s work in the world.

      • jonathan, men can have all the deep conversations they like, but if you can even agree that women are equal to men, will that conversation really go anywhere?

        you infer quite a bit about a gendered nature of God’s “mission of restoration.” perhaps identifying the origin of some of those assumptions is a better place to start a conversation, because many believers love Jesus and the Word and don’t read it that way.

        there is certainly common ground among christians who believe differently about gender roles, but using “maybe” language to suggest that women have valuable contributions to make is more than a little insulting. men don’t need to lift up women, but if you desire restoration and you’re stepping on us, you’re gonna need to move your feet.

        • Suzannah, I use “his” as a historical reference simply because Scripture indicates it as such. Yet, it seems like you want to pick a fight for my raising the question among men. I do not wish to return that favor because I recognize I do not sit in your shoes. I do not know the oppression you have felt. That is part of the problem. Yet to condemn me for raising the question seems a little unfair.

          And to my own credit I wrote a book that included a very deep reference the the original image of God as inclusive to men AND women. I never stated men and women weren’t equal. Our equality resides in our dignity, not our gender. My point was and is that our reflection of the image of God always must include both.

          • i don’t want to fight and apologize if my comments seemed combative. your point about raising this issue among men helps me understand part of this disconnect. is this post not intended to be read by women? it reads as exclusionary, and that is part of what commenters are pushing back against.

            you said that you “don’t really want women to be equal in the traditional sense,” and i read that as your not thinking/wanting women to be equal to men, because to most people, there is no such thing as traditional and non-traditional equality–either women are equal or they aren’t.

            i won’t clutter your comment section anymore and appreciate your affirming our shared worth from being made in the image of God.

          • Suzannah, this post is meant to be read and commented by anyone. It’s a human conversation that involves both men and women, but also involves history. I wish gender issues were not a problem. I sympathize with how you feel, but please don’t exclude yourself. If you do, you miss the opportunity to influence men with your voice. I created this space (Provoketive) to ask those hard questions and dialogue about them. Things still need to change. But change begins with acknowledging where we are at now.

            My comment about not being equal has to do with our differences in gender, not dignity. If we can sit at the table as equals in value, what then does our gender mean to the conversation. How are we uniquely designed as men and women to work together. And I’m not talking about a “complimentarian” approach where men are left with the final decision. I’m talking about listening deeply to each other’s voices.

            Yes I am speaking to men in general, specifically because men are in traditional seats of power. But I also don’t think men will solve the problem. We can contribute to the solution by opening spaces for women. Not because it’s a duty, but because it’s the fullest reflection of God in our midst.

  2. Realize that those who chose the books in the Bible were men because of historical culture. Truly recognize women as part of the human race, not “less than”. Finally, in saying, “We find a way to lift women up”, you imply “men”. Women need to lift women up, whether men do or not.

    • Joy, I simply state the obvious, where men make up the predominate majority of church leadership (and almost exclusively within the Evangelical culture).

  3. In servant leadership, there is no hierarchy, because servanthood implies not only doing something for somebody else but submitting to them at the same time. If Christian leaders are truly douloi christou (slaves of Christ) and diakonoi pantou (servants of all), then they should be the most submissive members of the congregation whose goal is that everyone else should be empowered and exalted to follow God’s call. Thus, in a truly Christian household or church, there would not be any way of knowing who’s “in charge” because everyone would be trying to exalt everybody else.

    My wife is also a minister. When she and I got married, we preached a sermon together on the passage about marriage emulating the bride/bridegroom relationship of Christ and the church that patriarchal Christians love so much. I washed her feet while she talked and she washed my feet while I talked. We talked about why it was a sin for Simon Peter to refuse to let Jesus submit to him by washing his feet and how it’s in our best mutual spiritual interests as a couple to take turns being Jesus and the church, balancing the amount that we submit to each other, because the one who is being submitted to is really the weaker party.

    The original historical need for a patriarchal society is understandable. One gender gets impregnated if they’re raped, and there were gangs of horny men wandering the streets of ancient cities (Genesis 19, Judges 19). Thus for an ancient city-state to have any kind of social order when people from different extended families were living side by side, every woman needed to be sheltered behind a father or husband. Patriarchy had a purpose, but our more developed social order has made it obsolete.

    I suspect that the reason some conservative evangelical women accept a patriarchal society is because it allows them to be servant leaders while the men “get up front” and puff up their egos. Men are the ones who are in the greatest spiritual peril in a patriarchal society. We should insist that women be given equal authority to put a check on the damnation of our own spiritual pride.

    • Morgan, that is an incredibly beautiful story. What remarkable insights! Thank you for being so candid and truthful. I think, deep in our hearts, as we mature in Christ, we know what “mutual submission” and “leaders are servants first” means. Still, we rarely see it in action. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Your first paragraph about empowering every member of the body speaks to that better than anything I’ve ever read. At the same time, even women who have a strong sense of their own “identity in Christ”, whose spouses and brothers in Christ recognize their gifts, can feel like they must hold back so as not to offend those who hold the patriarchal view on the role of women in the church. I wish I could clone you and give every sister a Morgan for a best friend. :-)

  4. In a household or church ordered by servant leadership, it would be difficult to tell who was in charge. To be a true servant is not just to do something for other people but to submit to them. Servant leaders understand that leadership IS submission. Men appear to be “in charge” and “up front” in conservative evangelical churches because their women are exercising true servant leadership. Men should insist upon women being treated equally to avoid the spiritual peril of our own pride. I am only able to be a pastor because my wife is my chaplain.

  5. I’ve been intentionally staying out of this because based on the questions you are asking, whatever happens, this particular conversation needs to be had by men and it’s ironic that there aren’t many or (any?) comments from them here. Sad really. This too is a major part of the problem.

  6. Coming late to this conversation…

    I, too, have to take issue with the idea of women who “want to be men” (again, like Christy above, unless referring to transgender people). What does that even mean? That women want to behave in ways that men usually do? That they have personality traits or behaviors that we typically associate culturally with men? Because this seems to be beyond the idea that women can function in any type of work.

    I suspect that people are just not comfortable with the idea that characteristics are without gender–that a woman could be ambitious, driven, and powerful or that a man could be gentle and nurturing. We imagine that even when a married couple consider each other to be equals in all things, someone has to be “the man” in the relationship and someone has to be “the woman.”

    My two children both exhibit traits that are gender non-conforming. Should I tell them that they are limited in what they do because someone might become confused that they “want to be” the opposite gender?

    Until personality types stop having gender, this type of conversation is still relevant.

    • amy, yes! i believe that conversations about gender are important, too. it’s the prescriptive, culture-based arguments about how wo/men *should* be that are problematic, needlessly limiting, and ultimately deceptive.

      i’m raising a boy and a girl and believe that men and women are different in ways i might not have believed before i had kids–but i am not willing either to make the leap from “boys tend to be rough, physical” etc to “men are/*should be* like this and women who act that way are trying to be men.”

      • Suzannah, and I wouldn’t make that argument either.

      • Yup, that’s exactly what I mean.

        I have a son who takes ballet lessons. He does it because he wants to, not because I’m trying to “prove” anything by forcing him. He’s good at it. But I certainly wish I had a dime for every time someone said something which amounted to, “You’re going to turn him into a sissy/girl/queer.” It doesn’t just bother me because he isn’t any of those things (at least, not that I know of–he’s only 8). It bothers me because so what if he is? So what if he grows up to be a man with more “feminine” sensibilities? And what difference would it (or should it) make to anyone else if he’s gay or transgender? And why does ballet or being gentle, sweet, or nurturing automatically make him queer?

    • Then what do you see as the point of gender Amy?

      • “Then what do you see as the point of gender Amy?”

        That, right there, is the question we should be asking, rather than what it means to be male or female.

        And really, I don’t have a good answer. The best I can do for the moment is to suggest that maybe the purpose has been different in different times and places. As far as I can tell, American masculinity and femininity are pretty different from the same in, say, ancient Japan. Perhaps a good survey of what gender and gender roles have meant through history and geography might give us some clues.

  7. Jonathan,

    I hadn’t seen this article when I posted “Gender Roles as God Intended,” but I think my piece is a fitting response to the question you pose at the end of this thoughtful missive. I’m grateful as a woman to see men speaking on our behalf on this very precious and pertinent issue.


  8. As I grow older and as men and women get older I see less and less difference in the male and female genders … that leads me to think that maybe most of the differences come from cultural biases. For example – I used to think that my husband was very different than I am but over the years as we have continued to reveal ourselves to one another the truth is that at the core of ourselves we are very much alike and a lot of what we were “being” for so many years came from what we were taught we should be because of our gender.

  9. Coming to this conversation late– but I can hear your respectful, honoring voice, Jonathan, and I think part of the pushbacks are a result of miscommunication. When you said, “I don’t want women to be equal in the traditional sense,” the context in which you wrote that leads me to believe you meant, “I don’t want women and men to be exactly alike or for women to have to act like men to get ahead in this world or in the church.” But “alike” and “equal” are two different things, and I, too, found myself bristling at the idea that you don’t want women to be “equal”– that is, to have the same rights and opportunities that men have. However, I don’t think that’s what you meant.

    I agree that there are no good qualities of character that are “pink” or “blue” — for Jesus embodied all the virtues, including strength and nurturing, assertiveness and gentleness, and we are all called to imitate Him. The differences between men and women seem to me to be related to our biology. Men can be fathers but not mothers; women can be mothers but not fathers; women have more estrogen and men have more testosterone– all of which leads to different experiences of, and ways of approaching, the world. But Christianity is not about the spiritual only. It is a faith that considers the physical to be good, and our physical bodies are gendered. So we do have differences and should celebrate them. We are not all alike and should not try to be– but it is the stereotypes of “gender roles” that really try to make us all alike (all the women one way, all the men another), not the notion of true equality in which we can all be who we are, with our individual differences, and yet have the same powers, rights and opportunities.

  10. I reacted to two phrases: “the fathers of the faith were male”… yes, and the mothers of the faith were female, and there were many of them. Also, “Jesus chose men to be the twelve” yes, and the women were right there along with them from the beginning. Here is where I suspect the writers have deliberately chosen to overlook the role of women in the gospels and the early church, either because it was unfathomable to them, or on purpose to uphold the societal norms of their culture..

  11. I have been mulling over your thoughts (and a hopeful interpretation of your intention…) for a week now. I’m new to this site, and I hope I haven’t come too late to this comment string.

    Yes, the conversation needs to happen. But, unfortunately, I was quite put off by a lot of what you said. I found myself physically reacting to many of the words above, especially when folks would comment and you chose not to listen from your position as an outsider to the situation (i.e., you are not a woman in the church), but chose instead to figuratively dig in and defend your opinion, even using the formulaic “but I can’t be ____, I did ____,” with regard to the image of God in your published work. It’s that obstinate stance that evokes in me a torrential history of disappointment regarding the topic of equality in general, not just specifically within the (United States, Christian, Protestant, etc.) church. If what was written was not your intent, then how about a “part two” post? The topic surely is important enough for more airtime, even if your call to action is littered with “maybes.” Or have I missed your part two? I would love to carry on the conversation, and I am now reading through other articles on your site.

    There are so many pieces of this conversation that must continue, but, for now, I will branch off in one direction and ask if you’ve seen or heard about the documentary “Miss Representation.” It’s about women in the media, but I am interested in your thoughts on it. It recently was released in its entirety on YouTube, which you can find here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGlSkdKzolo. I bring up this film because it highlights how pervasive gender inequality is in this country. As for your question of the point of gender…well, that could be part three.

    • Stephanie, this was a process of me being honest, but I have never been more misunderstood in six years of blogging than in this post. But I take responsibility for that because they are MY words. They were not well said. You don’t know me so you can’t know my history with standing up for and with women. I created this space (Provoketive) to give voice to these types of conversations. They are not always kind, or fun, and perhaps more awkward. There is a tremendous amount of tension between the sexes that can stir with a single word. Yet I agree we need to talk about them.

      Perhaps you are right and this content deserves another post to share some of my deeper thoughts. And perhaps you’d like to contribute to the conversation as well.

      • Jonathan, I’m sorry to hear you feel so misunderstood- I know how frustrating that can be, on a smaller scale. I want to tell you that I was rubbed- mildly- the wrong way by some of the same phrases others have mentioned. I was not convinced that there was any problem in your thinking or intent by what you originally wrote… but I was by your response to criticism. Based on your comment above, I’m again inclined to think I misunderstood, but I think it’s important for you to understand that you are contributing to that misunderstanding. Many of your responses above have appeared to me to be rather defensive, a la “That’s not what I said/meant.” It would help me immensely, if you would explain what you were getting at in these statements that others have taken issue with. We all get misunderstood at times- all the more so over text, and further when addressing issues that are provokative and emotional. Would you kindly take another stab at explaining your meaning?

        • Lindsey,

          I’ve actually put to this to rest. My original intent was to respond with a different post, but I have never found the right words to address both what was on my heart, and the push back I received from the post. This piece begins with the basic assumption that men are already in power in the church. The primary pushback was against that. It assumes men are in control. That’s just a fact. It doesn’t make it right. And that was the risk of stating that fact. It appeared that I was validating it, when I wasn’t.

          And Provoketive as a medium is now retired. I’m okay with it. I’ve been misunderstood many times before, and it won’t be the last.

  12. Thank you for your response, Jonathan. I would love to continue, and contribute to, the conversation.

  13. I think the best thing the church can do is stop devaluing femininity, stop treating womanhood as inherently weak or lesser than manhood, and stop pushing such a narrow, stereotyped, superficial definition of femininity to begin with.

    Of course most women will reject femininity if they are constantly sent the message that it is all about being pretty, quiet, helpless, passive, and boring. I think a lot of women are naturally feminine, but they also posses qualities of strength, ambition, intelligence, and drive. It’s not so much that they aren’t being “womanly”, but that we don’t allow our definition of womanhood to have any interesting, active, or dynamic characteristics.

    In short: women will be more comfortable being women once Christians (and secular society, too) get over the idea that girly stuff is stupid and lame.

    We also need to stop shaming women who naturally embody tougher characteristics. So what if she’s a tomboy and looks like one? Biological sex isn’t the main thing that determines one’s personality (your reproductive organs are not the same thing as your gender qualities). Also, women don’t exist to be your ornaments or to make you feel comfortable by fitting in a non-threatening little box.

  14. Many excellent comments above. I’d just like to add some (generic) thoughts:

    The question was asked, what is the point of gender then? Of course at the very least it’s reproduction. But to ask beyond that is to mistake personality differences for gender differences. In other words, why not ask what is the point of personality? There are easily more differences among men and among women than between them, especially considering a wide variety of cultures through history. Isn’t it possible that, in some cases, people were driven to homosexuality because they didn’t act the way their society demanded for the body they were born in? The irony surely escapes those who insist upon strict gender roles.

    The undeniable fact is that not all men are good leaders/protectors, and not all women are good mothers/nurturers. And whether two people share an intimate bond has more to do with how they “complement” each other than how well they play contrived “roles”– as if one’s flesh is not an intrinsic part of their identity and can be changed as an actor would play a different role in a different film.

    But we really need to ask ourselves: if we long ago gave up arguing about whether blacks should have the same “roles” as whites, why do we still argue about whether women should have the same “roles” as men? If the flesh is not what God values most or bases gifts upon, then the kind of flesh is irrelevant. And if the equality of blacks did not make whites less white, surely the equality of women does not make men less manly. To even ask the question “what about women in the church?” is to betray a flawed foundation; it need not be asked at all.

    Women are not to politely ask for a place at the adults’ table but to “come boldly to the throne of grace”, through the “curtain torn in two”, and take the seats bought for us by the blood of the Lamb. “When one part of the Body suffers, the other parts suffer with it.”

  15. I am very late to this discussion and I think that many have made great points. Johnathan, I appreciated that you “wondered what it would be like to be a women in a male dominated society.” I can’t say I have ever had a man ask me that, but here are some things that came to my mind immediately.
    • It isn’t much fun.
    • It means hearing/learning about male (exclusively) heroes/movers-and-shakers in cultural and biblical history. But then when you emulate those heroes, you are criticized and condemned for being “too masculine,” “assertive,” “loud,” “bossy,” “usurping what doesn’t belong to you”—as though courage and faith that is expressed through teaching, exhortation, prophecy, and evangelism are male traits. I honestly don’t ever remember learning about any women leaders in world history until I was in high school (although there were, in fact, many) and certainly I never heard about women heroes of the Bible preached in church (except for Mary). I grew up literally thinking that there were none.
    • It means living your entire life hearing things like “mankind” and “man” instead of “humankind” or “humanity”; or “you run like a girl” (obviously bad) or “don’t be such a cry baby” (even worse) and you quickly absorb the concept that males are representative of all humankind. So maleness becomes the measure or plumb line for what is excellent or preferable. And you measure yourself by that plumb line to see if you pass or fail.
    • It means living your life hiding your true self in order to keep up the appearance of being acceptably “feminine”—whatever that means. I still don’t know what that means. I am a woman, but I don’t often think of myself as a woman, but rather as a human being. It is not until I have done or said something that doesn’t fit the definition of feminine, and I receive push-back against it, that I realize that I have stepped outside the boundaries. But, I am female, so who has the right to define what is feminine? Shouldn’t it be females? I am simply who I am.
    Once, a male friend of mine made the comment that I “think like a man.” It had never occurred to me whether or not I thought like a man or a woman. (I didn’t know what to think of that—whether I should fell complimented or insulted. I think he was simply surprised).
    • It means at times having a deep sense of shame for being female, because many of the things that are stereotypically female are not valued.
    • It means having people not take you seriously, or treat you like a child, because “what can a woman contribute that is of value?”
    These are the things that came to mind immediately. I am sure that if I thought longer, I could think of more.

    I am glad that some are willing to have this conversation.

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