“Hey fellas. I have an opportunity for you to meet with a church planting coach later this week. It includes a free lunch. Let me know if you’re interested.” As a cash-strapped student, how could I refuse the offer of a free lunch? Plus, I met the criteria of being interested in church planting. I went to the lunch meeting, took in the information, ate a lot of free food, and went home without considering the events much further.
As I have reflected on that event, and even looked at the recipient list, one thing stands out to me—none of the women in my program were invited. And this isn’t for lack of capable women. There were plenty of women in my program who would make excellent church planters, yet they were not even offered a seat at the table. As I think about this, I am struck by how much complementarian theology permeates every part of church life. And, if we fail to do anything about it, we cannot expect that to ever change. If we hope to see opportunities for women in positions of church leadership, we must be intentional about creating them.
When I started as a pastor, I was advised to learn the culture of the church before making any major decisions or changes. The culture of a congregation sets the tone for how ministry will be carried out and what changes will be deemed acceptable over the course of time. It’s true—it’s difficult to move a church in a direction that contradicts its culture.
In a new church plant, an intentional pastor can, to some extent, craft the culture that he or she desires. However, there are limitations to this idealistic hope. The primary one is that people are not influenced only by the culture within the church, but also by the broader cultures they’re part of. Yours won’t be the only Christian teachings they hear, and they’ll also be shaped by the broader, secular culture as well. If one thing has become abundantly clear over the last several years, it is that patriarchy is alive and well in church and secular culture alike.
No matter how much we strive for a clean slate in church planting, people will arrive with their own ideas about how the church should be run. These preconceived opinions are the foundation upon which the church’s culture will ultimately be built. Therefore, it is paramount that church plants consciously foster a culture of egalitarianism from the very beginning. In order to do this effectively, there are some basic steps we can take as our new church plants get off the ground.
1. Empower Women to Lead
Mentorship is an important aspect of Christian leadership. The relationship between Paul and Timothy demonstrates just how meaningful a mentor can be in the life of a young leader. In Paul’s final letter to Timothy, he encourages Timothy to take up a similar exercise with those whom he teaches. Paul writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). In some (hopefully many) instances, a woman will be responsible for leading a new church plant. These women should be intentional about empowering other women to lead however they are able, just like Paul encourages the believers in Ephesus, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Ephesians 4:1). In addition to empowering all to serve in the areas in which they have been called to serve, the female pastor will be uniquely positioned to mentor young women in her congregation who are gifted for leadership.
Male church planters must be even more intentional in fostering women’s leadership and egalitarian culture. Because the church is being led by a man, many preconceived notions about male leadership and dominance will be affirmed before anyone steps foot through the door. In order to protect the congregation from these ideas permeating the church’s culture, the male pastor must invite women to visible positions of leadership. This could include the deacon and/or elder board depending on how the church is structured. It could also include vision-casting committees or boards entrusted with the discipleship of other members of the congregation. In addition, sharing the pulpit with women provides yet another opportunity to promote and reinforce an egalitarian culture.
It’s also critical that male pastors mentor women who are gifted for leadership. Too often, Christians shy away from male-female friendship and mentorship for fear of sexual sin. The truth is, it’s entirely possible to have friendships and professional relationships with people of the opposite gender. Men and women don’t need to avoid each other, but can interact responsibly as adults.
2. Teach about Women in Scripture
One of my responsibilities as a pastor of a small church is to review the curriculum for our children’s program. Recently, the lesson was focused on the story of Josiah and the discovery of the scrolls. In this particular presentation of the story, the narrative moved immediately from the discovery of the scrolls to the recommitment of the nation of Israel to following the Torah. What it failed to mention is that the only reason the people ever knew what the scrolls contained and what they meant is that a woman named Huldah taught the men in leadership about the texts.
Now, I must confess that even I was not aware of Huldah’s role in this story until recently. This experience has led me to lament the fact that so many pastors, teachers, and curriculum developers omit her from their teaching about Josiah. This story is just one example of how pastors can do a better job of ensuring that women who play a prominent role in Scripture are afforded a prominent place in our teaching.
3. Be a Practical Egalitarian
In the first chapter of his epistle, James writes, “But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (James 1:22–24 NRSV). Here, James makes clear that the person who has heard the truth of Christianity must go beyond merely hearing that truth and progress toward actively living it out in daily life. This same admonition should be applied in the life of one who seeks to advance the egalitarian movement in a patriarchal world.
If we are going to say that women are equal, then we have to live in such a way that this is demonstrated. As was mentioned before, this means providing opportunities for women to lead in our church plants, mentoring women for leadership, and teaching about women. But it means more than that. If you’re married, it means modeling egalitarian marriage. If you’re a man, it means not participating in degrading jokes about women—and even calling it out when others do it. It means thinking critically about the ways patriarchy manifests itself in things like politics, entertainment, economics, and more, and helping others do so as well. It means reflecting on the things we say and do unintentionally. If you’re a man, do you describe assertive women as “bossy” where you’d call a man doing the same thing “confident”? It’s easy to believe in egalitarianism. It’s a lot harder to discern how patriarchal cultural norms are shaping us, our churches, and our communities.
Church planting provides a unique opportunity for the promotion of egalitarian theology. In many ways, it is a clean slate and a fresh start. It is important, however, that church planters remain aware of the broader culture, and work to combat the falsehoods that are so prevalent in a patriarchal world. Church plants that truly hope to be egalitarian and make a difference in the world must make egalitarianism a foundational part of their church’s culture. Perhaps a good place to start would be by addressing our emails about church planting to “ladies and gentlemen,” instead of “fellas.”