Years back, a close friend candidly shared her intent to befriend only married women with children the same age as hers. At the time I was single and childless. With unshaking confidence and moral certainty, an egalitarian told me, “We’re a church of forty, and we’re all under forty.” Had I been looking for a church family, my age would have been a painful barrier. I wish comments like this were rare, but they’re not. And, they’re not only short on empathy, self-awareness, and a Christian spirit of inclusivity, they also smack of superiority—that we have no need of friends or church family who are not like us in age or life experiences. While we cannot help but enjoy the company of like-minded people, our faith history, and that of CBE, is a story of like-mindedness in Christian ideals, not embodiment. I believe that explains the vitality we have experienced, especially in the early days of CBE.
When CBE incorporated, our founders were well into their seventies. Yet their wisdom, experience, and knowledge of Scripture and the Christian world was established and evident to all. Age barriers were not only irrelevant to our work and organization, they also seemed at odds with our Galatians 3:28 mission of gifts-based instead of male-based ministry. In fact, CBE’s community was strikingly diverse with regard to age, denominational affiliation, ethnicity, and geographical representation, especially compared to our “dialogue partners.” If you worked closely with CBE’s early community, this diversity was itself a significant source of inspiration, capacity, and wisdom, demonstrating the power of CBE’s mission. We are not unique in this regard.
Nobel Prize recipients in the humanities are generally well beyond middle age, because wisdom comes through experience, and experience is often hard learned. In making that difficult transition from warrior to diplomat, leaders have absorbed years of pain, as Dr. Shirley Mullen—President of Houghton College—noted in her 2019 CBE conference workshop. Seasoned leaders are often older, but cultures like ours too often dismiss their contributions because of age.
Quoting Bonnie Marcus, founder of Bonnie Marcus Leadership, “As soon as women show any visible signs of aging, they are viewed as not only less attractive, but less competent.”1 Moreover, age discrimination at work (like all injustices) falls more often on the backs women than men. It also begins earlier for women than men. Women past a certain age are promoted far less often than men of the same age. This helps explain why we have so few women in C-suite offices. However, research shows that including older women in the workforce not only makes economic sense but older women are also a source of the stability, joy, and wisdom that come with age.
As Christians, we have the examples of older leaders through church history whose confidence, strength of character, and clarity of vision came from years of intimacy with Christ and “a long obedience in the same direction.” We have many reasons to work beside women sharpened by the Holy Spirit through years of faithful service. Yet sexism and ageism—demons that travel together—continue to rob the church of God’s richest resources.
In-groups, especially those based on embodied resemblances, are not only less productive, less ethical, and less willing to “reach across the aisle,” they also fail to challenge and develop us. Ultimately, they truncate our fullest development as God’s people. Just as Jesus crossed barriers of gender, age, and ethnicity to minister, so we are called to do the same. Let us not betray the deep reality of our faith by seeking friendships, churches, and organizations with people who resemble us. To do so reduces our work as Christians and our own souls because religions we “make up for ourselves always reduce reality to what we feel comfortable with.”2
As an organization exposing theologies that demean women because they are embodied female, we must resist our culture’s tendency to prize youth over God’s gifts in older women. As Kenneth Cragg wrote, “It takes a whole world to understand a whole Christ.”3
1. Margye Solomon, “Working Women’s Double Dose of Discrimination: Gender and Ageism,” Forbes online, November 2, 2020.
2. Eugene H. Peterson, Runs with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 180.
3. Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), 183.