In my five years as a Christian, I have felt the weight of my gender, its capacity to be diminished, unheard and unseen more than any other time. Not because I suddenly became Christianly enlightened to the atrocities women face globally. No. It was more personal. In these five years I have been exposed to more limiting expectations and opinions based on my gender than in any other context I’ve been in during the 37 years prior to my meeting Jesus.
Did you inhale in horror? I hope so. In the 37 years before meeting Christ, hanging out in that broken world, far from a relationship with God, I experienced low-to-no gender discrimination. Didn’t even blip on my radar. Compare this to my recent, briefer time spent working in Christian organisations, worshipping in church, and studying at Bible college, and overnight my gender seemed to become the yardstick for my ability to do anything!
Take a church gifting questionnaire I filled out in year 2 after meeting the Jesus-fella. My top three ‘manifest’ gifts: wisdom, leadership, teaching. With but a point separating the three of them. Closely followed by knowledge, discernment, prayer.
Crickets chirped as I shared the results. “What will you be able to do with those in church?” asked one.
It was my first clanging indication that I wasn’t in Kansas (or indeed a developed, enlightened country) anymore. My ability to have wisdom, lead and teach all reduced and negated by having ovaries and breasts. As a lecturer at Bible College said to me last year, “You know, Phil, with some of the things that have been said to you, I’m amazed you actually are a Christian.”
But I am. And I have intentionally chosen theological study because what I was hearing didn’t match up with the fullness of what Christ Jesus offered me. I needed to discern where denominational opine was leading me away from Jesus, not to. And, thankfully, God blessed me with gifts like wisdom and discernment so I could.
How many awesome, gifted women are not meeting Jesus because of this sort of thing? How many remain unreached and lost as a consequence? This is what presses and hurts my heart the most. It’s why – despite feeling hugely uncomfortable speaking up and out in a context that has Timothy’s ‘woman, be quiet’ rattling around my brain – I continue to do so.
But I don’t want to have to operate at such a loud volume to be heard. It hurts my throat. So instead, I ask: Godly men, could you be quiet? Because in the quietness you might hear something new. Something Jesus is whispering. That this fuss about women is getting in the way of the Gospel and we need to shush and listen.
A recent post from an organisation that develops strategies to hold institutions, perpetrators, and enablers accountable for violence, harm, and cover-ups was the final shove to have me take to the keyboard after months of quiet. It comes in response to yet another church cover up of abuse. The headline used (from which I drew inspiration): Godly men, be quiet.
Boom. Nothing like a headline between the eyes. The writer opens:
The vast majority of church leaders have absolutely no business trying to be leaders in the movement to end sexual abuse. Part of how church leaders mess up–particularly in strongly patriarchal traditions invested in male headship (and let’s get real, for all the change that’s happened, that’s still most of Christianity)–is in assuming that they do.
With my hand on my heart for all my Christian brothers who have supported and encouraged me, I have to say: the article is right. Can you please, please, just shush and listen.
Listen without the defensiveness of #notallmen (and that goes for any women too who swoop in with the hashtag and rush to the defence of their husbands, brothers or sons). We know it’s not all men. But just like when everyone rushed to decry the data about domestic violence in Aussie churches, swooping in with the hashtag means you diminish the importance of what is being shared and, worse, you negate the pain and bravery it has taken for people to speak up.
You see, the very nature of how the world views leadership has pervaded many churches. Of course it has, or else we wouldn’t be reading story after story of collapsing meagchurches with leaders caught in sin without anyone being held to account.
Christian leadership courses teach being servant-hearted, leading from behind. To do so, it requires you to champion the least to the front. If Jesus told us the least will be first in the Kingdom of Heaven, then surely Jesus-like leadership demands the same of our leaders?
But do we see that in church? I think to model heaven on earth, we need to look more honestly at the locus of our spheres of leadership. And own that we do not do it. Not nearly enough.
Almost ten years ago, the top scholar on gender and leadership, Dr. Alice Eagly, released studies showing that women are more likely than men to possess transformational leadership qualities – they care more about developing their followers, they listen to them and stimulate them to think ‘outside the box,’ are more inspirational, and they are more ethical.
Gosh. Transformational leadership qualities. Caring about developing their followers. Listening to their followers. Stimulating them to think outside the box. Inspirational and ethical. Why, that sounds positively ‘Lead like Jesus 101’!
Imagine if the Vatican church had leapt on that research by Dr Alice Eagly a decade ago. Or the Southern Baptist churches. Would such growth – appointing women in vital leadership roles – have prevented the tsunami of abuse that is washing out of these organisations?
So who is least? For one, those women without a voice in church. Those women who are not represented or modelled female leadership outside of children’s or women’s ministry. Who hear a majority male perspective on scripture, and, worse, are made to feel they are rebellious trouble makers when they question it. Not because they seek to tear down God’s word. But because, as women, they have been long aware of how their opportunities are diminished because of their gender.
So they pray, and they wonder. They recognise Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, who bandages up bruised reeds and fans smouldering wicks. They think, surely, Jesus, you wouldn’t seek to diminish us too?
Of course not. Who were first to share the resurrection? The earliest evangelist to Samaria? All women.
Women like the persistent widow, the haemorrhaging woman, or Mary learning at Jesus’ feet. Many women challenged their status in a patriarchal society to be near Jesus, to touch him, to be forgiven and to grow in his likeness. To grow.
The trouble is, as soon as this topic get touched on, we get caught in shouty dialogue of what scripture says, who is right, who is wrong, who can lead, preach, teach etc. Don’t you think I’ve not prayed and wrestled with James 3:1? I know where my salvation lies and to whom I will give an account.
So, instead, can Godly men be quiet in this? Rather than rushing to speak, look at what we are seeing: the diminishment or lack of female voices is having far-reaching impact. Instead, look at the evidence that women have a vital role to play in leadership transformation.
When I turn up, again and again, asking for a new way it’s not because I’m a shrill harpy seeking to diminish men. It’s because I’m the persistent widow.
When I reach out my hand, my voice, fighting against the crowd to speak, to lead, it is not because I am some bossy feminist seeking to stomp all over men in my high heel boots. It’s because I am the haemorrhaging woman.
When I listen to the Holy Spirit, to learn and engage, to use the gifts He poured out on me in making sense of scripture and Jesus; having a knack to speak it, teach it, share it, it’s not because I seek to wilfully challenge. It’s because I am doing my best to honour and obey. To sit at Jesus’ feet like Mary.
Remember, too, there is a difference between quiet and silence. A culture of silence is a breeding ground for abuse. A culture of quiet creates the space for many more to be heard. For the last to be first.