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Advocating for Gender Equality in Neutral Ministry Settings

On August 23, 2016

The author has asked that we publish this article anonymously for the sake of her work in an interdenominational ministry.

Working in an interdenominational ministry setting is a saving grace when I am frustrated by the church’s politics, favoritism, and doctrinal stubbornness. I love working in ministries where churches unite, putting differences aside, to serve a community. It is such a beautiful picture of Christ’s vision for service and unity in the body.

These settings are also usually a safe place for me to serve as a female egalitarian. In this setting, I can be reasonably confident that I will not receive a hurtful lecture on complementarian doctrine, because those serving with me are aware they are in an interdenominational setting. We all take care to stay on common ground for the sake of the ministry.

However, as an egalitarian woman, I still face many triggers. 

I am painfully aware that many of the brothers I serve with believe I belong in my “place,” serving according to gender roles. They don’t have to say a word. I know based on their denominational affiliation and their professed contentment with the current state of their denomination.

I don’t wish to paint my male co-workers as cold-hearted. In fact, most of them are absolutely in love with God and actually believe this “place” or role is best for women. They truly think it is a nice place to be, a good role to play. Because of that, it’s likely hard for them to imagine the pain of being a woman with a hunger to lead and teach. This bias is evident in several subtle ways.

First off, male pastors are never addressed by their first name without the title “pastor.” I’ve always wondered how they would address a female pastor serving alongside them. Would they refrain from using the title since it is controversial to them? I wonder if my male coworkers would put doctrinal differences aside and honor a woman pastor the same way they honor male pastors.

And even when there are no female pastors present, these greetings are painful to hear. I suspect that many who assign this title of honor to men would never afford such a status to any female, even if she had studied just as hard and was every bit as competent and gifted as a man. And sadder still, I suspect she would not be granted the title even if she did the same exact work in an unofficial capacity.

I believe that complementarianism is sugar-coated oppression of women. Many women’s gifts go unrecognized and unrealized under the guise of “complementarity” and women who serve, lead, and teach, particularly those who do so in unofficial capacities, are never given places of authority in the church.

It is true that believers should not seek places of honor for ourselves, but by the same token, we are to honor the leaders among us, as stated in 1 Thessalonians 5:12: “Dear brothers and sisters, honor those who are your leaders in the Lord's work. They work hard among you and give you spiritual guidance.”

When we fail to recognize the authority, work, and service of female teachers and preachers, we fail to live out the Scriptural mandate to honor all “leaders in the Lord’s work.” Half of the church has never been honored for their service as leaders, even though they have served unofficially as theologians and teachers of men and women since the dawn of the church.

Often, in all but name, women are pastors.

Is it any wonder that women often feel less than in the church? There’s a whole category of gifts they’re not allowed to exercise, made all the worse by the fact that they already lead ministries that God has clearly blessed.

I believe that if Christian men truly understood how fortunate they are to be male in a patriarchal world, thus enabling them to freely and fully pursue their gifts, they might take a closer look at Scripture concerning women in leadership. I am convinced that some proponents of complementarianism would revisit their position on women in ministry if they really thought about how painful it is for women to deny their gifts because of their anatomy.

But it’s not only the question of whether my male coworkers would give the title of pastor to a woman that bothers me. I’ve also noticed that preferential treatment is given to men within our ministry. In meetings, their words are treated with an extra level of submission and respect not given to the words of women. When resolving disagreements, people easily settle on what the male pastor proposed instead of what I or another female lay worker suggested. His words carry more weight.

Many men in our ministry who belong to the same denomination engage in small talk while they are serving alongside me or other women. Often, they discuss church business that I know is closed to women in their denominations.

I also hear male coworkers ask other men to “preach in their place” at a service, or cover a pastoral role while they are gone for whatever reason. They’re enjoying a brotherhood of sacred work that l and other women will never be invited to join.

I have to wonder: What if I was passionate about preaching or teaching? Would my male coworkers attempt to stand in the way of that calling? Would they be convinced that I have no business pursuing those gifts in an official capacity?

I hear some in this ministry subtly preach gender roles to the unsaved as if they are synonymous with the gospel. I want to stop them and tell them that patriarchal teaching has no place beside the gospel. That they may choose to preach that message in their own churches, but this space is intended to bring people to Christ, not to convince them of a particular brand of Christianity.

And yet I wonder, by saying that, do I also condemn myself? Because I frequently tell those I minister to that women are capable of strong leadership for God. I don’t directly refute complementarianism, but I do subtly preach gender equality. Where is the line?

I’m still trying to find it. But I believe that these interactions and questions will arise with increasing urgency as the issue of women in ministry becomes more and more polarizing in the church. So with that in mind, how can egalitarians work for the kingdom in environments where they are likely to encounter subtle but visible reminders of hurtful complementarian doctrine? What are we to do? My advice:

1. Know the Limits of Your Context

In neutral settings where cooperation and unity are necessary, find ways to respectfully dialogue with coworkers who disagree. Know that conversations on women in ministry in interdenominational settings will sometimes be limited. Develop relationships of mutual respect with coworkers and initiate one-on-one conversations outside of work or in safe settings.

2. Do Self-Care

Make a list of coping skills that will help you operate without excessive frustration in these non-egalitarian environments. Before asking how you might go about changing the ministry’s culture, prioritize your own emotional and spiritual health.

Ask yourself if you can excel in an environment that is ambiguous on women in leadership. Is that a workplace deal breaker for you? Do you have a team of people who can fully support your gifts outside of work? If you decide you’re emotionally prepared for it, then start strategizing.

3. Embrace Both the Unity of the Body of Christ and the Vitality of Justice Issues

I doubt anyone—complementarian or egalitarian—would disagree with the assertion that cooperation between all of Christ’s body is necessary for his kingdom to come on earth. However, we should remain committed to transforming the world, moving from patriarchal culture to kingdom values. We can love our brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with us while still advocating for gender equality and justice. May God grant us the wisdom to balance both of these Christian mandates. 

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