A reflection on Women in Ministry.
My name is Katie Mitchell. I am a happily married mother of three, a former preschool teacher, and a late-blooming college student. That’s right…at the ripe old age of 42, I am just figuring out what I want to be when I “grow up!” People groups have always fascinated me. Where do we come from? Why do we do the things we do? How are we like one another? How are we different? So, my major is Anthropology, and someday, I hope to help people with the knowledge I’m gaining, whether it’s personally, professionally or spiritually. One area I am very passionate about is egalitarianism, which is the belief that we are all individuals with individual gifts, which are given to us by God, not determined by gender, and we should equally work together in service and leadership in the organizations we are part of. Strides have been made over the years in this area, but are we missing something? I think we are, and this post is my attempt to put into words what I’ve been feeling about it all.
Here are couple of caveats before I get started: First of all, I was raised right smack in the middle of the American “Bible Belt.” It has its own culture, especially in the evangelical Christian world. Some of the things I say may not resonate with you if you are foreign to this culture. Along with that, I am not Baptist. At least not yet. My family is currently visiting and prayerfully considering joining Second Baptist Church in Downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. But my main experience has been in evangelical Churches of Christ and protestant non-denominational congregations in various parts of the country. So, as you read through this, remember some of the thoughts I share are MY experiences and observations. If they resonate with you, that’s great! If not, maybe something I say can shed a new light on the topic for you. One more very important thing to remember as you read my thoughts is that I am not a theologian. I love Scripture and have been a student of it my entire life, but there are plenty of more qualified people out there who can explain the ins and outs of biblical history, Greek, Hebrew, culture, and context of passages. Check out this list of books and blogs here if you want to dive deep.
To begin, let’s talk about gender studies and statistics in Christianity. According to Pew Research Center women represent 45% of evangelical protestants. In other research, also by Pew, women are leaving The Church faster than men. There are different theories as to why this is happening, but I believe that even though many women are encouraged to use their leadership skills in their communities, those same gifts are not utilized in their churches. Why bother showing up if there’s no room at the table? Another reason why women are leaving is that there’s no one in leadership that looks like them. A major component of pastoring a group of people is comforting them in their time of need, celebrating with them in times of joy, and encouraging them through other aspects of the human experience. In many evangelical churches, leadership is exclusively male. There are some situations in life that only a woman can relate to and pastor someone through. To be clear, there are strong, compassionate women already doing this in just about every church I’ve been to. But we should have the guts to formally recognize their gifts and place them in positions of leadership. Instead, we take them for granted.
We really can’t talk about equality without addressing patriarchy, and the “softer” term for it, “complementarianism.” This is the belief that God’s plan is that males are uniquely created to lead, while females are created to, in essence, be “accessories” to male leadership. As I stated above, I am not going into the many theological misinterpretations of this philosophy here. Beth Allison Barr wrote an incredible book called The Making of Biblical Womanhood, which thoroughly examines Scripture as far as “God’s plan.” But based on my practical observations and experience, here is where I see bad “fruit” produced from patriarchy and complementarianism. First of all, these ideas promote inaccurate stereotypes of males and females. While there are physical and hormonal differences between males and females, the overlap in many of our brain functions and behaviors is pretty astounding. Many of the so-called “natural” differences are actually socially influenced and reinforced. If we can start looking at each other as uniquely individual representations of God’s nature, the proverbial playing field is naturally leveled. Along with this, in “the battle of the sexes,” nobody really succeeds if everyone just doubles down on being right and preserving power.
Second of all—and this is the most pervasive consequence of the above, in my observations: patriarchal culture can lead to the loss of authenticity in relationships. Many women in complementarian churches are taught from a young age to make themselves smaller and downplay, or even ignore, their passions and gifts. Many female college students with ambitions to become doctors or lawyers are steered toward nursing or teaching instead, so that they will have more time for motherhood—even if motherhood isn’t on the radar. Even if nursing or teaching aren’t interests or talents. (Side note: Thanks be to God for all the gifted nurses and teachers out there—female AND male!) Scriptures are cherry-picked and misused. Comments are made in conversations between many female friends, and sometimes from the pulpit to groups of women that sink in over time. And the message our daughters are raised with is that if we, as women, want something, we have to finagle our way around to get it rather than just kindly and confidently stating our needs. Phrases like “the husband is the head of the home, but the wife is the neck and she can turn the head…,” or, “you have to make your [husband/dad/male leader] think he came up with the idea in order for him to listen,” or, the famous, “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission,” are commonly thrown around, along with a wink to indicate these little “secrets” to getting what we want. The message is presented as a goal of becoming more like the “Proverbs 31/Titus 2 Woman,” but what it really produces is a bunch of “Delilahs.” And many of us forget who we really are in our essence. We become numb to God’s calling in our lives. And don’t even get me started on the idolatry of marriage in many evangelical churches. Single women and their talents can become all but invisible in this culture. Patriarchy negatively affects men too. In an effort to preserve power and become more socially accepted by their peers, too many men learn to disregard who they might really be, and they circle the wagons to embody a certain type of masculinity—one that resembles Clint Eastwood more than Jesus Christ.
So, what’s the solution? Are we just doomed? Well, my studies in Anthropology are encouraging to me! Did you know humans are the only primates that have the ability to create new ideas and solve complex problems? And we have incredibly rich verbal communication skills, which gives us beautiful ways to connect with one another. What if we’ve misunderstood what equality is? For that matter, what leadership is? Maybe true equality—holy equality—is not about women being “brought higher” to the same level as men, but maybe it’s about all of us truly looking to Jesus and making ourselves nothing. Truly being WITH others in their suffering, in their sickness, in their hunger, in their loneliness. What if leadership is really “empathy in action?” There’s a book title I’ve seen that expresses this nicely. The author’s name is Dr. Lynn Anderson, and—full disclosure—I have no clue what this person’s theology is like or even what the contents of the book are. But it’s called They Smell Like Sheep. Isn’t that perfect? True leadership knows no hierarchies. We must all use our authentic, individual gifts and partner together…then become smelly sheep together in order to show love to the world.
THAT’S what holy equality is. And I believe this crazy complex and radical idea is possible!