Recently, Beth Moore published an open “Letter to My Brothers” which brought a previously subterranean conversation about Biblical gender roles to the surface of many Christian conversations and circles. I appreciate the tone of her letter and find it to be conciliatory and kind, while still calling a spade a spade regarding the imbalance of male and female leadership in the Church. Beth’s conciliatory tone in the letter is one I hope to emulate here with my own thoughts on Biblical gender roles.
I have spent my entire life in the context of the Church and have been led by men (most notably, my daddy and my husband) who strive to live in submission to God and to the edification of those around them. My pastoral leaders have largely exhibited the same combination of personal submission with a desire to lead and edify well. I have not been the victim of abuse or severe misogyny that has harmed or subjugated me. Nor do I have designs on feminism or elitism to the exclusion of male leadership.
With that being said, I must also assert that my local church experience has not functioned in orthopraxy according to the theology or orthodoxy they have taught, when it comes to both men and women being the Imago Dei (image bearers of God), co-laborers in the Gospel or simultaneous recipients and participants in the gifts of the Spirit. All the churches I have attended and served within have taught that men and women are equal in value before God but distinct in the roles they should hold within the Church…a position which resonates as biblically sound in theory. But in practice, in my experience, it has left some holes that are concerning.
I believe we as Americans have learned something in the last century about theories which tout “Separate but Equal” as their banner. I don’t say that to be inflammatory or to equate the frustrations of unequal gender roles within the Church with the gross injustices and outright harm of the Civil Rights era in the United States. But the principle holds true: “separate but equal” is a theory which propagates the flourishing of one group at the expense of another, regardless of intent. Further, I do not believe it to be a position that reflects the character of God as exhibited in the totality of scripture.
The gender roles of church leadership, as they are presently defined within most local churches, often have more root in tradition than they have in scripture. The Bible clearly provides examples of women who held God-given roles of leadership as judges, teachers, deacons, decision-makers, disciple-makers, public speakers in corporate situations, learners and friends of Jesus, himself. Likewise, we can site scriptures which speak of there being “neither male nor female, slave nor free…” in Christ, along with passages that indicate Apollos (a man) was taught by Priscilla (a woman), and many individual examples of Jesus’ intellectual and instructive relationships with women.
I realize any one of these examples can be taken out of context or extrapolated out to an unhealthy extent. But I believe that if you read the entirety of scripture for the purpose of discerning God’s heart toward gender, the overwhelming theme of love and compassion indicates that neither male nor female bear the image or leadership qualities of God alone. Rather, it is only in beholding men and women serving and leading together, that we see the fullness of God represented by human leadership in the Church.
Women fail to exhibit healthy leadership skills because girls are not being taught to cultivate healthy leadership skills. If we are to change the trajectory of gender roles in the church, we must ensure that both the masculine and feminine aspects of God’s image are reflected in leadership in the Assembly. And that will require existing leaders to prayerfully seek out those Jesus-followers who exhibit leadership giftings and callings and, over time, pour into them to cultivate those leadership traits to their fullest extent for the glory of God and the betterment of the Church. This will also require that we attempt to silence the voice of tradition in our own ears, as we seek out the full counsel of Scripture to discern to what extent women should participate in biblical leadership.
This issue of gender roles in the Church has been evaluated, analyzed and debated by many people more educated and articulate than I. But I must add my voice to those who are asking “where is the feminine image-bearer of God being represented in local church leadership?” As I look around me now and over my past experience in the Church, I can identify women who have led me and others in beautiful and compelling ways. But I have a difficult time identifying enough exemplars of women who are genuinely serving and leading in roles that are equal to their capacity and calling. Please join me in praying for and equipping women to serve and to lead as God has already designed, called and gifted us.