Brian made a comment in my previous post that I wanted to address more fully here. This article is interesting along these lines. The discussion of women in ministry and leadership positions within churches needs to be freed from the context of the Sunday morning “worship” setting. So much of the discussion in churches like mine focus on what women can and can’t do in the worship setting. I don’t claim to walk moral high ground here – most of my discussions revolve around the same issue. Here’s the deal – this issue scares people to death! We are afraid to talk about it, we are afraid to study it, we are just afraid.
Here’s a little perspective of where I’m coming from. I grew up in a traditional, old-fashioned 1960’s era Church of Christ in the northwest part of Ohio where there are approximately one church per county. We had 50 folks on a good Sunday. The church had no elders, but made decisions in “men’s business meetings.” My dad has never really gone to church thereby giving my mom no voice into the decisions of the church – a church that she was one of the most active people. However, once I was baptized, I got a vote! So . . . at 15 years old, I had a voice on the decisions of the church . . . but my 40 year old, life-long Christian mother did not. Even before I had thought much about anything, something seemed screwed up about this.
I moved on to Lipscomb University where all of my Bible classes were taught by men (white men, at that, but that is another story). I worked for a church for four years where I met my first minister who was a woman – our children’s minister was a part-time minister, and our preschool director was a woman. These two women were the first women I had ever seen stand up in front of a church and talk – they made periodic announcements. Even this became a talking point among the elders and ministers there at times. The ministers saw no problem with it, but the elders “had to be sensitive to those in the congregation who could have issues with it.” The inclusion of women elsewhere in the service was limited to women singing with microphones in the praise team, and occassionally running the sound board. Oh yeah, and our janitor was a woman. When it came to decision-making, the gender barrier was most prevalent. Most/all decisions were made on Sunday afternoons in a board room with the (all-male) elders.
In my first full-time ministry setting (in which I still serve) I have found a bit more inclusion, but only minimal. It seems to me what drives the issue as much as anything is practicality. If there are fewer numbers and more “able-bodied women,” there are more opportunities afforded. Our particpation on Sunday mornings has mainly been through the public reading of Scripture. We had one of our teens (with her brother and dad) read through a Scripture in a traditional sense (up front, behind the pulpit) only once. One person got up and left. There were others a bit offended. We have done it more frequently without the person being in front. To answer Brian’s question from the previous post, we’ve gone about it this way:
Frankly, I have pushed this issue. Those reading this blog from my church are aware of that, but I feel especially passionate that we have not afforded women the role in our churches that they deserve. I have publicly made that statement. I believe that the church has proliferated a world-wide culture of oppression, and are slowly awakening to it. I have tried to be soft and subtle. The elders have attempted to teach on this issue: when we set out to do a study of the issue a few years ago, one family left simply because we set out on the study, and few people cared to attend. My interpretation of this is that everyone already has their mind made up, they just want to be told what direction the church is going to go. Following the class, (and this gets at the shortcoming that the article decries), nothing really changed. I have set out the following “roles” of our service I believe we can most easily and most quickly include women: our formal announcements (this is a no-brainer for me), serving communion, leading public prayers, reading Scripture. Except for reading, we have not yet expanded in the other directions. There is plenty of work to be done through these issues, but it doesn’t even get at the more difficult issues of “presiding” over the Lord’s Supper, sharing testimonies (which we have done on several occassions, and what my church in Nashville would do), and the two biggies that I don’t see as realistic in this setting: preaching and eldership.
I have completely changed my mind in this area. I was open, but always traditionally conservative right up through graduate school. John Mark Hicks challenged me on the issue, he does not believe women are called to serve as lead pastors or elders, and I wrote a paper reaffirming this. Perhaps it was giving in for a good grade, but I like to think I wrote what I believed. However, I have come to see Scripture differently, more organically and alive. It seems to me as though people who want to limit women’s participation are failing to recognize a great working of God in our world today.
Our elders have recently retaken this issue up for study. In some ways it highlights the challenge of our leadership structure as our four elders have different perspectives on the matter. In the end, I think we can talk all we want about including women in these positions and that may or may not change things (though, of course, I hope it does), however, this process, is itself foiled. Four men, talking among themselves, deciding where they stand in this area that affects half of our population? This does nothing but further the problem. The real issue, as I’ve come to recognize it (mostly thanks to my wonderful wife) is that women are never consulted, appreciated, heard in these discussions. Our traditional structures of leadership have no place for women’s voices. This is the issue that we should focus on. Most women in our churches are the product of an environment where their voices have not been heard or respected, and that makes the initation process all the more challenging. Just because she’s a woman, she may or may not believe her role should be expanded – but surely she believes her voice can be heard more seriously.
This is a very challenging topic of discussion for any church. It brings into play so many prejudices and traditions. It is difficult to have an open and positive discussion without falling into negativity. However, it is a conversation that must take place. Now, having two daughters, I am more committed than ever to helping people overcome their bias and their misinterpretion of this critical area of faith. Oh to be a part of a church that no longer dwells on such issues, but has moved on to the meatier areas of faith.