Reclaiming female ministry within the Church

I caused quite I stir by defending a mild form of complementarism according to which men and women are (at least in some ways) statistically different so that it is mistaken to strive for a society where they ought to be equally represented in every domain.

I do not, however, hold this view owing to Biblical statements (which I see as culturally conditioned) but due to strong empirical evidence.

This is by no means an absolute conclusion and if it can be shown that men and women are statistically by no means different, I shall gladly accept this conclusion.

I consider anyway the following thing to be certain: during the whole history of mankind, many differences stemming from cultural prejudices have been seen as being the ways things are and should be, thereby causing a tremendous amount of frustration and suffering.

It is an inconvenient truth that the Church has plaid a very dark role by holding fast to dogmas which are clearly unjust and fly in the face of our concrete experience.

One example is the existence of female theologians, pastors and apologists. I think it should not be controversial that they do the job as well as their male counterparts.

Interestingly enough, I think that a good argument for encouraging their number to grow is because they bring up a different and complementary perspective in the concerned fields.

From an Evangelical standpoint, Leslie Kenney wrote a great manifesto for that purpose which I reproduced here.

I decided to start this year’s series with a reprint of what has become my manifesto. By the time you’re finished reading thing, I want you to make your hotel reservations singing “I Am Women.”

So here is my plea to any woman who feels called by God to serve Him through the study and practice of theology or biblical studies in an academic setting—to any women who feels called to serve God in any environment dominated by men—don’t give up, back-down, or walk-away! Please!

While the whole question of whether women should preach, teach, or be in positions of authority cycles through the Christian blogosphere with dependable regularity, I usually try to ignore it. However, back in August 2011 I read a blog post by Marlena Graves in which she quoted Margaret Feinberg. When Feinberg was asked in an interview whether there was a “gender ghetto” in evangelical Christianity? Feinberg’s response was:

I wonder why we’re even talking about this when there are so many needs around the world?…Now is not the time. When every starving person has food, when every homeless person has a place to live, when every well is dug, when AIDS has been eradicated in Africa, when all of our neighbors know Jesus, then we can sit and debate about titles and who should do what.

Moore’s response to this quote from Feinberg, which was much more restrained than what mine would have been, is that gender inequality in Christian leadership is a justice issue. No, it’s not as critical or urgent as saving people’s lives, but social justice is not a tidy, self-contained list of problems that can be ticked off one at a time; it’s an interconnected web of cause and effect. But more importantly, I sensed in Feinberg’s response more than a little rationalizing. If Feinberg can convince herself (and other women) that things like the gender ghetto within evangelical Christianity are superficial issues compared to world hunger, human trafficking and evangelism, then she can keep ignoring it as long as she wants to—and make other women feel guilty if we bring it up.

Fast forward to a few months later and the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in San Francisco November 2011. Now, I knew that there wouldn’t be many women there, but a series of posts by Michael Bird and Brian LePort made me start to wonder whether I might, in fact, be stared at like some carnival oddity. By time I got on the plane for San Francisco, the charts

illustrating how severely the ETS lags behind almost every other religious/academic organization in the number of female members had burned themselves into my brain. I wondered whether I would be sitting at dinner with a big invisible “quarantine” sign around me?

As it turned out, I was occasionally the only woman in the room, but more often I was one of two or three. And most of the men I met were downright giddy that a woman would want to pursue a PhD in theology, although they admitted that there was still a small contingent of hard complementarians who believed otherwise. My experience tells me that women would be welcomed at the ETS if they would come. The problem is that many women won’t feel comfortable until there’s a critical mass, and there won’t be a critical mass until more women come. As Michael Bird wrote in the post that started the whole ETS kerfuffle, “If you (women) don’t speak out for women’s issues among evangelicals, then who will? Don’t count on me, I’m male, and I’ll be too busy going to the various receptions and browsing the book exhibits, so it’ll have to be you girlfriend!”

By the time I got back from ETS, it was time to start prepping for the holidays. My days were spent in a haze of cleaning, shopping, and writing posts about Advent and the commercialization of Christmas. One day though, one of my favorite bloggers, Amanda Mac, wrote something that made me stop the holiday whirlwind. Apparently, another of those inevitable arguments had erupted on the blogosphere about whether women can lead or teach in church. The details really don’t matter, although you can read about it here. What mattered was Amanda’s response (paragraph returns have been removed for the sake of space):

I don’t know that there is any more fruitful discussion to be had about this topic around the blogosphere. It just ends up being a way for those who already know which side of the debate they’re on to affirm their position and sharpen their polemic against the other side. Part of me is tempted to do a self-imposed moratorium on writing about women and ministry issues on CW Theology. Part of me says, “Amanda are you nuts? Writing about women in ministry brings in the big page hits.” Part of me wants to throw everyone in a UFC cage and let them fight it out — The last person standing wins. All of me is tired.

In her post, Amanda links to another popular blog “Emerging Mummy,” in which Sarah Styles Bessey writes that she’s “leaving the men’s table:

So I am no longer standing beside your table, asking for a seat, working and serving and hoping to be noticed and then offered a seat or arguing for my right to a seat. I don’t care to sit here anymore. I have not desire to be indoors, in your neat boxes. Instead, I am outside with the misfits, with the rebels, the dreamers, the people of the second chance, the radical grace givers, the ones with arms wide open, the ones that you’ve rejected as not worthy of being listened to and I will be happy here.

This is a wonderful post, full of joy and triumph. And leaving, for Sarah, may be a gift that God has given her, but my concern is that she makes leaving the men’s table sound so empowering and downright sensible that women may leave who really need to stay.

It’s a ruthless truth that evangelical academics is an overwhelmingly (white) man’s world. Even the theological blogosphere, which should, theoretically, be a level playing field, is ruled by men. And as I’ve said before, the comments section of even egalitarian blogs like Scot McKnight and Roger Olson is populated primarily by men. Then there’s Amanda Mac’s Great Blog Experiment of two years ago in which she took all personal references off her blog, essentially making herself anonymous. When commenting on other blogs she used only her initials or some other genderless pseudonym. What she found was that people were more likely to click on the link to her blog when she was anonymous than when she used her real name and went back to being a girl.

Now other than a few specific hard complementarian sites and seminaries (and we all know who they are), I don’t think most of these guys are doing this on purpose. With a few notable exceptions, I don’t think there’s an active conspiracy to keep women out of the evangelical academy or the theological blogosphere. I do think that there is a centuries-old paradigm that continues to infect us all and that must be destroyed. It’s a paradigm that assumes that men, and only men, can interact with deep theological topics, and that women always speak from their hearts rather than their heads.

I have, literally, sat around the table with these men and been part of the conversation. I have spoken and been spoken to and many (though admittedly not all) of these men are ready and willing to talk deep theology with a woman. But how will the rest of the masculine academic tribe ever have this experience if women don’t pull up a chair and start talking—regardless of the odd reactions they might get. The reason I feature my photo prominently on my blog and also started attaching my photo when I comment on other people’s blogs is because I want people to get used to seeing a woman’s face. Focusing that much attention on myself does not come naturally and still feels kind of weird (as it probably does to a lot of women), but I encourage female bloggers and commenters to start doing the same.

Back in September 2012, Leanne Dzubinski wrote a wonderful post called “God Will Make a Way,” in which she challenges the frequently-held belief that if God intends a women to use her gifts in a non-traditional ministry that God will open a door for her to walk through. Dzubinski challenges this assumption on two fronts. The first problem, she says, is the assumption that if a women is not offered an opportunity to use her gifts that there is something wrong with her. The possibility that there might be something wrong with the system never enters her mind. The second problem is that it removes the responsibility of the woman to act, encouraging her to passively leave everything in the hands of providence. But the Bible tells us that God does not want us to be passive. God called Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and the New Testament Church (to name just a few). Then he expected Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and the New Testament Church to go and do what he asked them to do—regardless of the obstacles. “While God absolutely can and sometimes does miraculously change things for us,” writes Dzubinski “can we also consider that perhaps we need to work together to change the system?”

I ask any woman who has been called by God to study theology, hermeneutics, or apologetics (and you know who you are) to just do it. I encourage any women who feels discouraged or tired because she sits in a classroom populated entirely by men to remind herself that obstacles are not evidence that she should give up. I demand (and I don’t demand things very often) that if you are not called to “women’s ministry” that you do not let others channel you in that direction.

And I humbly ask that if you want to blog about complex theological issues, do it. Do it often. Do it well. And let everyone know about it.

I really hope that the Church of Rom will follow this trend in every respect.

12 thoughts on “Reclaiming female ministry within the Church

  1. What if they, statistically and/or on average, do an absolutely lousy job? At that point can we decide that the Church of Rome really had the right idea? Note: if the reply is ‘yes’, be warned, because in large part this question has already been answered.

    That’s not to say women can’t study theology, or do apologetics, etc necessarily. Even if the clergy is closed off to them, there’s many things they can do. But can anyone point me at a church known for its female clergy that isn’t also A) quite screwed up, and B) dying?

    And a little more information on this general theme:

    In short, if a father does not go to church, no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions, only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular). If a father goes but irregularly to church, regardless of his wife’s devotion, between a half and two-thirds of their offspring will find themselves coming to church regularly or occasionally.

    A non-practicing mother with a regular father will see a minimum of two-thirds of her children ending up at church. In contrast, a non-practicing father with a regular mother will see two-thirds of his children never darken the church door. If his wife is similarly negligent that figure rises to 80 percent!

    • Hello Crude.

      I think you should be careful not to confuse correlation with causation.

      It is true that many liberal Churches with female pastors are dying out, but I view this as due to the combination of two factors:

      – old fashioned liturgy
      – liberal theology denying the supernatural, the bodily resurrection of Christ and often even the existence of an afterlife

      Methodist, pentecostal and many Baptist Churches have numerous woman pastors and they are blooming up at the same time and attractive to many people.

      Now you can only say they are screwed up if you define this word in a rather question-begging fashion.

      Cheers.

      • Lothar,

        It is true that many liberal Churches with female pastors are dying out, but I view this as due to the combination of two factors:

        Well, not just dying out, but frankly abhorrent in terms of content and focus.

        Methodist, pentecostal and many Baptist Churches have numerous woman pastors and they are blooming up at the same time and attractive to many people.

        I don’t doubt that these churches are attractive to some people – everyone has their tastes. But don’t you find it worrying that, if I’m reading you right, all the churches that have had female clergy for a while are in absolutely sorry states – and the ones you’re pointing at in a positive light happen to be the most recent ones to change, and don’t have much of a track record to speak of?

        Sure, let’s not confuse correlation with causation. But at what point is it acceptable to gamble that we’re dealing with causation on this issue?

        Now you can only say they are screwed up if you define this word in a rather question-begging fashion.

        Well, at the same time, telling me that female clergy can bring a lot of great things to the church may also be question begging, depending on what you mean by great.

        Central to my questions is this: you’re talking about the importance of female clergy, the great things they’ll bring (even – perhaps especially – to churches you’re not even a part of), but you won’t really tell me what the importance is, or what the great things they’ll bring. We can point at churches they’ve joined en masse in the past, and… well, they certainly haven’t done anything to improve declining church attendance (if anything, they seem to have made it accelerate), or orthodoxy (you’re the one who associated them with liberal theology, not myself.)

        Maybe the proper attitude here isn’t to ask ourselves how to get more female clergy in those churches that bar it or don’t have enough of it yet. Maybe we should be asking how to get female clergy out of those churches they currently exist in.

        That’s a good question too. What would it take to convince you that that’s a good idea?

      • There’s another problem I’m seeing here.

        On the one hand, you recently posted (and I think supported) a plea from a woman whose big complaint was about the imposition of norms on outliers in society. Women being told they should behave like this, men being told they should behave like that, etc.

        Yet now we’re being told that the lack of women in various positions – in apologetics, in theology, etc – is wrong, even a violation of social justice (ever the malleable thing) which must be corrected.

        So norms shouldn’t be imposed on people, because strongly encouraging people to do what they dislike or don’t feel comfortable with is harmful. But if there’s not enough women present in a given field, this is a problem that must be addressed until enough women are present to satisfy what we think is a proper distribution.

        See, while the clergy is another question entirely, I don’t really have a problem with the idea of women being active in apologetics, etc. Just as I have absolutely no problem with a female programmer, or a female engineer – wonderful, if a woman has talent for that, go for it. But then along comes this idea that if there’s a lack of women in those fields, this is indicative of some some horrible injustice that must be corrected. Why should I think that, as opposed to women – even for benign cultural reasons – not being particularly disposed to some professions?

        I’m willing to bet that (say) feminist organizations are absolutely top-heavy with women. Is this indicative of a failing of social justice, and we should work tirelessly until said groups have gender parity? Better yet – religious parity? Is the lack of orthodox Catholic men in leadership positions in feminist organizations indicative of a ‘problem’ that needs fixing? And if not, then why is it assumed that a fix is needed in apologetics or the like?

  2. I just came across Rachel Evans’ If men got the Titus 2 Treatment…, which contains a fantastic piece of satire by Roberta Heard Ellis. A choice bit:

    It may surprise many men to learn that one of the most common instructions found in New Testament Scripture is for Christians to “greet one another with holy kiss” (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 11 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14). In 1 Thessalonians 5:26, Paul specifically instructs men to do this.

    Yet despite the fact that this is one of the most repeated directives of Scripture, one is hard-pressed to find men kissing one another on the cheeck in churches today. This is because those who do not take the Bible seriously claim these clear teachings of Scripture have a “cultural” component.

    But let us not forget that God’s word does not change or pass away (Malachi 3:6, Mark 13:31) and also that studying the Greco-Roman cultural context of the New Testament is kind of a pain. We are therefore obligated to take God at his word, whether these instructions make sense in our culture or not.

    I’d also suggest checking out Lawrence 2006 Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science (PLoS Biology), which I excerpt:

    It is not easy to write or talk about this subject. If you say, for example, that women are on average more understanding of others, this can be interpreted as misogyny in disguise. If you state that boys on average are much more likely than girls to become computer nerds, people may react as if you plan to ban all women from the trading rooms of merchant banks.
    […]
    The chance that a woman will mug you tonight on the way home is somewhere around nil. That is a quirk specific to my gender. —Michael Moore [4]

    Baron-Cohen makes one point crystal clear: you cannot deduce the psychological characteristics of any person by knowing their sex. Arguing from the scientific literature that men and women typically have different types of brains, he nevertheless points out that “some women have the male brain, and some men have the female brain” [2]. Stereotyping is unscientific—“individuals are just that: individuals” [2]. Yet Baron-Cohen presents evidence that males on average are biologically predisposed to systemise, to analyse, and to be more forgetful of others, while females on average are innately designed to empathise, to communicate, and to care for others. Males tend to think narrowly and obsess, while females think broadly, taking into account balancing arguments.

    • Baron-Cohen makes one point crystal clear: you cannot deduce the psychological characteristics of any person by knowing their sex.

      This is a little like saying that you can’t tell if someone believes in God just because of their regular church attendance. In principle they may well be only going for reasons completely unrelated to religious belief, and may be atheists.

      But you know what? It’s still a reasonable guide. At this point we live in an age where saying ‘A man has a penis, a woman does not’ can send some people into an uproar.

      • I don’t see what your objection is, Crude. If you read the paper, you’d see that the Lawrence actually does respect the statistical differences of men and women, and argues that the culture in science these days favors statistically-male psychology and opposes statistically-female psychology, contributing to the current gender gap. It seems like you almost got the opposite impression from Lawrence from what I and he intended?

      • labreuer,

        I was objecting to the quote which claims that psychological characteristics can’t be deduced by knowing someone’s sex, on the grounds that there are outliers. No, you can’t deduce those with universal and rapt certainty, but I’m not nearly as convinced that you can’t find patterns, trends, and averages. I think my objection to that line of reasoning is pretty clear, whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the paper otherwise.

        • No, your objection is not clear. It really seems like you read one sentence completely divorced from every other sentence. It would be like interpreting the following,

          “‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Deut 5:8-10)

          , as: “never make computer-graphic images of fishes”. I mean, that’s what the first sentence says, right? Surely that’s an implication if you just look at the first sentence?

      • labreuer,

        Let’s have a look at the quote again:

        Baron-Cohen makes one point crystal clear: you cannot deduce the psychological characteristics of any person by knowing their sex. Arguing from the scientific literature that men and women typically have different types of brains, he nevertheless points out that “some women have the male brain, and some men have the female brain” [2]. Stereotyping is unscientific—“individuals are just that: individuals” [2]. Yet Baron-Cohen presents evidence that males on average are biologically predisposed to systemise, to analyse, and to be more forgetful of others, while females on average are innately designed to empathise, to communicate, and to care for others. Males tend to think narrowly and obsess, while females think broadly, taking into account balancing arguments.

        Yes, I appreciate that Baron-Cohen presents evidence of averages, etc. I still do not find ‘you cannot deduce the psychological characteristics of any person by knowing their sex’ helpful. As I said, it’s nevertheless a reasonable guide – hence my example.

        Now, maybe you’d say that Baron-Cohen wouldn’t disagree, so my criticism is misplaced. If that’s so, then hey, guilty as charged. But as it stands I’ve taken the quote (well, the reasoning evident with the quote) to be problematic for the reasons stated.

        • @Crude, you realize the difference between ‘deduce’ and ‘statistically infer’, right? One follows logically and cannot be wrong; the other is often right, but not always. Let’s make sure we mean the same thing with this terminology.

      • labreuer,

        @Crude, you realize the difference between ‘deduce’ and ‘statistically infer’, right? One follows logically and cannot be wrong; the other is often right, but not always. Let’s make sure we mean the same thing with this terminology.

        I appreciate that distinction, hence my own example. I don’t think that subtlety comes across in the portion, at least not sufficiently. Say I’m nitpicking over something minor – guilty, most likely.

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