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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What makes us tick: men, women and leadership

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ — Ephesians 5:21

Men and women are designed for a relational posture that points away from self and toward both God and others. Submission is not oppression; it is a self-giving posture that calls men and women to something bigger than themselves. Husbands and wives, men and women, submit to God and one another because they are designed to bear the image of God.

In the theological world, submission has become something of a controversy. The arguments gather not around submission itself but around the nature of human design. Is this design a hierarchy or a partnership? In the debate over that question, two terms surface. Let’s look at them, shall we?

Complementarianism

A complementarian worldview says men and women are equal in dignity but different in roles. In this way of viewing human design, the man has responsibility for “loving authority over the female” and the woman has the role of “willing, glad-hearted and submissive assistance to the man.”¹ Antagonism is introduced into this design at the Fall, leading the woman to compete for authority. Complementarians are adamant that the power given to men is to be used only in self-sacrificing ways, in keeping with the character of Christ. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, who have both written extensively on this view of human design,² claim that the male-female hierarchy has been so from the beginning. 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.

Complementarianism emphasizes the distinctions between men and women, as well as their roles. In the healthiest view of this theological stance, men and women bear God’s image equally, with the man having the role of leader and the woman having the role of helper. In its most extreme form, complementarianism may imply that the image of God is given to men alone (“God did not name the human race ‘woman’”²).

Do you see just how dangerous this theology is if you follow its trajectory all the way out? At the very least, the danger of this approach to human design is it emphasizes roles over gifts. Where Genesis, chapter one, paints the picture of partnership, complementarianism introduces a hierarchy.

Egalitarianism

An egalitarian worldview says men and women are equal in dignity and equal in responsibility. Both men and women are created in God’s image and both are given responsibility to rule over His creation. The emphasis is on responsibility rather than role, on being rather than doing. As Tim Tennent writes, “Submission is not the duty of one, but the call of all.”³

Egalitarians emphasize our common responsibility to live out our design. This worldview is more consistent with all of Paul’s extensive teaching on spiritual gifts. Body and soul, character and ministry, gifts and call, are all interwoven, so that humans are divinely prepared for service and expected to live out that call.

Egalitarianism emphasizes equality while acknowledging that men and women have clear distinctions — physically, emotionally, socially. Their physical differences reflect deeper realities. Men in general are wired to provide and protect; women in general are wired for nurture and community. In this way, both complementarianism and egalitarianism have merit. The problem comes when we limit the roles of women. The differences between men and women do not necessarily equate to roles as a complementarian worldview might suggest.

The real theological test is in the Trinity. Remember that we are made in the image of God. If indeed, Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist as a hierarchy (a notion that destroys unity of essence), a hierarchical relationship between men and women is justifiable. But if within the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit are equal in both essence and relationship, any other theological stance falls short by limiting a Trinitarian worldview to the same terms we might use to define fallen humanity.

A hierarchy within the Trinity tears at the fabric of unity; likewise, a hierarchy among humans tears at the fabric of created design. Sin set us against each other; Christ calls us to stand together against the real enemies — the powers and principalities of the air.

Submission means placing “self” at the feet of Jesus for the sake of a greater mission — the building of the Kingdom of God. This is the biblical design for women and men and we add dignity to the work of the church when we learn to submit to one another’s strengths, rather than establishing power bases.

When Jesus says, “This is my body, given for you,” he is painting a picture of God’s Kingdom and of human design. When men and women enter into true partnership with one another, they also become a picture of that Kingdom.

 

1. Ware, Bruce. “Summaries of the Egalitarian and Complementarian Positions.” posted June 26, 2007. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

2. Piper, John and Wayne Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A
Response to Evangelical Feminism. Illinois: Crossway Books. 2006. see especially loc 2224.

3. Tennent, Timothy. “Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Egalitarianism vs.
Complementarianism (Part XI)” TimothyTennent.com website.

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Why women lead

It seems to come in waves.  Some weeks (months, even), I have no conversations at all about women in ministry or church leadership.  Other weeks, it is a theme. Since it has now surfaced three times this week (and it is just Wednesday!), I thought I’d post something I’ve shared in other forums before.

When the question is asked of me (and it often is) about how I have arrived at my beliefs about women in ministry, this is how I respond:

1. Women were last at the cross, first at the tomb and first to be told to “go and tell.”

2. Jesus himself chose a woman to be the first preacher of the gospel. She is the one Jesus met in the garden on the day of his resurrection, and she’s the one to whom he said, “Go and tell the others …” And they were men she was telling. I believe my ministry is in that spirit. I have been called to go and tell.

3. As for the two passages in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Timothy, I do believe they must be taken in within the context of the whole Bible. They must be read through the lens of Deborah’s story, and through the lens of Mary’s charge, and through the lens of Galatians 3:28 (“there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”). I consider also the women who traveled with Jesus and the women (Priscilla and Junia) who labored in the gospel in the first century. God has surely not called all women into vocational ministry (nor has he called all men into vocational ministry), but he has surely called some. The Bible itself testifies to that point; that women were mentioned at all is a testament to the respect they were given. These verses must also be read through the lens of the creation story, which did NOT create hierarchies but fulfillment. Men and women fulfill each other. In some obvious ways we compliment, and in all ways we are in partnership.

The Bible must always be read within its historical context. Paul’s letters are not bound historically, but they are rooted historically. What we know about women in the first century is that they weren’t yet equipped to lead. They were largely uneducated. They had no experience in public gatherings. The Christian ethos gave them far more freedom than they’d had before and Paul’s instructions agreed with that. He allowed them to learn. He encouraged them to ask questions. In his letters, he honored a number of women who were laboring in the gospel. I don’t believe it was Paul’s intention to create a theology of women (otherwise, he would have given many more lines to the subject), but to manage a rapidly growing movement rooted in a particular place and time. Perhaps a more universal truth to arise from his comments would be, “In all you do, be humble, recognizing your limits.”

4. In this regard, Jesus’ words carry more weight. His commands and charges at his resurrection are all gender-neutral. Go make disciples. You will be my witness. Take up your cross and follow me. I can’t imagine God meant for only half the population to fulfill these commands and commissions.

5. Finally, just from my own place as a pastor, I deeply resonate with the exchange between Jesus and John’s disciples. When John (the Baptist) was in prison and wanted to make sure he was on the right track in his belief about Jesus, he sent his disciples to ask, “Are you the one?” Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” In other words, tell John I’m bearing fruit, and fruit is how we are judged in the Kingdom of God.

When I stand before the throne, I intend to bring the fruitfulness of my ministry with me and I have absolute confidence I will be judged by my fruit, not my gender.

This is what I hope for among those who serve Christ with me at Mosaic: I want to serve with folks who can fully appreciate the fruit we are bearing together without taking offense at my part in it. If someone can’t quite feel comfortable bearing fruit within a ministry led by a woman, I encourage them to find a place where they can bear fruit without that concern.

To bear no fruit is a dangerous thing. Whatever else we believe or don’t, I’m confident that our fruitfulness is what best honors the Christ we serve.

RESOURCES TO HELP YOU THINK ABOUT THIS:

This seedbed page lists a number of blogs and resources on topics related to women, ministry and biblical roles (some of which were written by me):

http://seedbed.com/category/women-and-ministry/

For more a more in-depth look, I can’t do better than what Ben Witherington has already published on the matter. Ben is a professor at Asbury who has written extensively on this topic. You’ll find great stuff from him here:

http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/bibleandculture/2009/10/why-arguments-against-women-in-ministry-arent-biblical.html

 

 

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