An Open Letter to Women Who Lead

A while back, a colleague reached out with deep frustration over some incident or another that caused her gender to bump up against her calling. I felt her pain. It is amazing how quickly a moment like that can set us back. Because I’ve felt her story and heard it from too many others, I suspect that my response to her may resonate with others who find themselves frustrated by life in a fallen world.

Friend,

I suspect you already know the stuff we all know: that we live in a fallen world; that we will struggle to make partnerships out of hierarchies on this side of Genesis 3; that “standing” in the Ephesians 6 sense of that word is hard as heck but still the best option we have in a fallen world.

Given all that, this would be my advice to you in a sentence: After you’ve done all you can do, stand. That is your call. Stand.

And I get it … standing can be tiring. And holding an uncomfortable position can be uncomfortable. An yes, it can get old and after enough of it we would rather just do our small work and grow old and bitter than keep rubbing against the grain. That is our choice, of course. But that is not the call.

The call is to stand. After we’ve done all we can do, stand.

So when hard things happen, go ahead and blow off steam and be angry and sound off, but then get back at it. Get back to making your stand for Christ. Learn winsome ways to make your point and stay in the game. The call doesn’t disappear and I can assure you that it is so much more frustrating to avoid a call than to deal with the pressures that incubate inside of one.

Stay in it. Stand.

Be angry at injustice and at the enemy of our souls who has found a foothold in gender inequity, but don’t assume we can win that argument and defeat something nearly as old as humanity, that somehow if we just say it right the thing will go away. This is human fallenness we are battling! It is in our DNA. Be angry about what the enemy has done to humanity, but don’t settle for the cheap way out by blaming Hollywood or government or worse yet, men in general. Don’t give room to defensiveness. Make sure your arguments are biblical, theologically sound, practical and most of all, that they come from a whole and holy place.

Because this thing we deal with is a fact of the fall (have I said that yet?). I assume it will be here until Jesus comes back. Our challenge is to learn how to navigate past it so we can do the things we’re called to. How do we as women support each other without competing or belittling or forgetting, or worse, stoking unholy fires by projecting? How do we raise up men by encouraging them to love and respect us as partners in the work of lifting up Christ, without competing with or belittling them?

Ed Stetzer says church planters are 400% times more likely to succeed if they know what they are up against. The Small Business Administration says much the same thing about entrepreneurs. Realism is an ally. So on the point of women as leaders, here’s what you’re up against:

  • Sometimes you will experience condescending attitudes from men who have no idea they are being condescending.
  • Sometimes you will experience the jealousy or competitiveness of women who have no idea they are broken in that way.
  • Sometimes you will experience subtle and even overt sexual advances by men who know what they are doing and by men who got broken as boys.
  • Sometimes you will be passed over by churches because you are female, because they are gripped by the spirit of fear.
  • Sometimes you will be invited to speak/ sit on the platform/ write/ participate for no other reason than that you are female (take it … every time, take it and be grateful; never mind their motives).
  • Sometimes you will experience lack of success because you are female, and sometimes because you’re not that great of a leader. And it will be hard to know which is which.
  • Sometimes you will feel crazy because when you verbalize your experience of any of the above, others will deny or minimize what you’re feeling. They’ll tell you you’re doing “just fine.” And you will feel crazy because what you know to be true is not validated.

All those things will happen to a woman who chooses the path of leadership. And we’re not just talking about Christian leadership, but leadership in general. Hundreds of studies in multiple fields bear out the fact that you will have these things in your life. Which is not to say men have no challenges of their own. Men have other things to deal with and we ought to be careful to hear them, too.

But friend, these are our things and they are not necessarily because you are not good enough, though it is possible you have placed yourself into something you’re not ready for. Your pain is not necessarily because you are not called or gifted, but please be sure that you are. The call of God is not for the faint of heart.

If you are called and gifted, then hear me: sometimes this call will be hard, Some things just are, because we live on this side of Genesis 3. As Paul said, we’re not battling flesh and blood but powers and principalities that want to take us down.

So now you know, which means you are 400% more likely to succeed because you can be in this with eyes wide open. You are more likely to succeed if you will seek your own healing, stop apologizing your way into rooms, and trust that if you’ve been invited to a table then you belong there. You are more likely to succeed if you will take responsibility for your own gifts and hone them so you’re making the most of the moment.

And listen: You can’t lose if you will spend your energy lifting up Jesus. Let him take care of your reputation. Your job is to stand. Witness to your creation-call by being good at it. And if you sense you’ve been given a prophetic voice to speak into this arena more boldly, then pray desperately for humility enough to stay under the Lordship of Christ so the unholy fires don’t burn up your message.

If my thoughts don’t settle well with you, then do your own research, find your own message … but either way, keep pursuing healing because the Kingdom is starving for warriors like Deborah — both women and men who are whole and holy, courageous and ready. And keep pursuing healing for your own wounds because healing is freedom. Whatever has happened to us, Jesus can return our souls to a place of peace. It has been liberating, after too many years of being fearful and defensive, to simply be at peace as a woman who loves Jesus and finds joy in leadership within His church. Praise God for the healing grace of Jesus that brought me this far and please, God! Heal me some more because I’m not nearly who You’ve designed me to be. Not yet. But I’m a Methodist, so I absolutely believe I’m getting there. And so are you, my friend. So are you. 

In all things may Jesus be praised! 

— Carolyn

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Calvinism, Gender Politics and the ESV

In any attempt to speak into a conversation about Bible translations and theology, I am skating on the edge of my own incompetencies before I even begin. Receive this blog in that light. I write not as a scholar, but as a pastor deeply troubled by what reformed theology is teaching this generation about men, women and value. In fact, I’m stunned.

Let me begin with a word about what some Calvinist (reformed) theologians teach about the nature of women in general.

John Piper and Wayne Grudem, who have both written extensively on a “reformed” view of human design, claim that the male-female hierarchy has been so from the beginning. In their book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, they argue from Genesis, chapter two, that woman was taken out of man and that man was given dominion over the whole earth before woman came on the scene. They both lean on their heavy exegesis of the word “helper” to suggest a woman’s supportive role (Recovering, loc 2384).

Complementarianism emphasizes the distinctions between men and women, as well as their roles (Recovering, loc 2384). In the healthiest view of this theological stance, men and women bear God’s image equally, with men having the role of leader and women having the role of helper (Recovering, loc 2144). The weakness of this approach is that it emphasizes roles over gifts, gifts being the New Testament preference.

In its most extreme form, however, complementarianism doesn’t just define roles; it implies an unusual value, to say the very least, to men. Grudem states, “God did not name the human race ‘woman.’ If ‘woman’ had been the more appropriate and illuminating designation, no doubt God would have used it … he called us ‘man’ which anticipates male headship” (Recovering, loc 2224). Where Genesis, chapter one, paints the picture of partnership, complementarianism uses linguistic tricks to insert a hierarchy.

And now, in a last-minute edit, what has been woven into their theology has been solidified into a popular translation of the Bible. The Calvinist camp has now placed the idea of patriarchal design into the English Standard Version of the Bible. The editors of that version (with Grudem as general editor) recently released a statement, after making a handful of final edits, announcing that the ESV is now complete and will remain unchanged for all perpetuity. Among the final edits is a change to the language describing the curse of the woman in Genesis 3. The editors have changed the wording from, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” to “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

That translation tweaks the meaning of the verse. The revision now implies that far from being an effect of fallenness God designed gender hierarchy. The problem is that the language doesn’t support the revision.

Of this translation, Scot McKnight says, “It is not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong.” Indeed, McKnight goes on, “This translation turns women and men into contrarians by divine design. The fall means women are to submit to men and men are to rule women, but women will resist the rule. This has moved from subordinationism to female resistance to subordinationism.”

Can I say again that I am stunned by this?

The editors of this popular version of the Bible (one I’ve used for years) have intentionally taken a creation-up view of scripture, using their theological biases to weave into the text something that isn’t actually there in order to make their point that gender hierarchy is a matter of divine design and not human fallenness.

This is stunning in its boldness. It is one thing to write commentary on a passage and claim one’s opinion as a sidebar discussion. It is another thing entirely to manipulate the words of the text itself to favor one’s theological biases.

The editors must rethink this. As faithful students of the Word, we must resist it. As Carolyn Custis James poignantly states, “Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop that reveals the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message in contrast to the patriarchal world. We need to understand that world and patriarchy in particular—much better than we do—if we hope to grasp the radical countercultural message of the Bible.”

I am deeply concerned for the direction reformed theology is leading this generation and these ESV final edits only deepen my concern. I am concerned for the women who are being led down a patriarchal path to a place where their very value is stripped. It is dangerous, indeed, to imply that women don’t share in the creation fabric of humanity; it is foolish to state that at the fall, nothing changed. Much more, I am concerned when an agenda is so deeply held that it overrides the integrity of biblical scholarship. When that happens, on what basis can we argue anything?

The original design for men and women is partnership, not hierarchy. The fall fundamentally, catastrophically altered that relationship. All thoughtful, faithful Christians should be fighting like crazy to get all of us back to the other side of the fall line, because it is as we live out our created design that we bring glory to God.

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