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No Longer Male and Female: Why Do We Still Separate by Gender in Church?

by Vanessa Bickle | January 19, 2022

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Top 15 Winner!

Several years ago, I was confronted by a male clergy person who dismissed my thesis that the gifting of women in the church was still restricted because of patriarchal gender ideology. He believed that since women could be ordained as priests and deacons in our denomination, it logically followed that women were no longer restricted from using their gifts in the church. 

This was just one example of how the unrestricted use of gifts in the church gets overshadowed by the issue of women’s ordination. The full affirmation of women in leadership roles in the church does not necessarily open the door for women to freely use their gifts. Instead, opportunities to use our gifts are doled out based on sexist gender ideologies of what it means to be a woman or a man. 

Recently, I surveyed three congregations as part of my doctoral research on men and women in the church. My hope was to discern the respondents’ personal views on gender-based giftings as well as learn about the respondents’ church environments. Both men and women responded to the survey, and 49 percent of them provided their gender information. While 78 percent of all those surveyed expressed a belief that men and women had the same gifts with respect to the church (including leadership roles), the reality of their experiences was that over 50 percent of them had their gifts refused or had observed others’ gifts being refused. Among those whose gender was identified, men and women observed the refusal of gifts at the same rate (50 percent), but men’s gifts had been refused at a much lower rate (10 percent) compared to women.

Restriction of gifts is not always obvious or deliberate. My research ultimately showed that gifts were subtly refused through gender-based ministries and common church practices. There is a conflict between actual individual gifting and perceived stereotypical gender roles. Church leaders may not intentionally publish sexist articles in the weekly newsletter. But in reality, the underlying message can be quite clear. 

A New Vision for Ministry Groups

A quick search of church websites will find women’s ministry group events such as afternoon teas, craft nights, recipe swaps, jewelry exchanges, and scavenger hunts. A similar look at men’s ministry group events will reveal titles such as Valiant Men (focusing on healthy sexuality), Men and Meat (combining barbeque and Bible study), Fight Club (for doing battle with the enemy), and A is for Ale (a meeting place for men to do what men like to do—enjoy good beer and good food). The unfortunate reality is that church leaders form gender-based ministry groups around what they think are the interests of all men and women. 

While it is not wrong to hold events that attract different people groups based on their interests, it is wrong to divide men and women into separate Bible study and fellowship groups based solely on their gender. When the most intimate experiences of our faith life separate us by gender, we miss the voices and experiences of the other half of the church. 

Combat Gender Stereotypes

Fortunately, there are simple solutions to this problem. (Simple, however, does not mean easy or intuitive.) Gender stereotypes have deep roots, and our daily lives are unconsciously wound up in them. Both leaders and congregants need to recognize where stereotypes are prevalent in their churches and work toward eliminating them, allowing women (and men) to fully participate in the life of the church.

Equip Women and Men Equally

Every ministry group should challenge its members equally in terms of theology, relationships, spirituality, and emotional health. If Bible studies are consistently grouped around stereotypical activities or themes, potential participants who don’t match the pure stereotypes of masculinity or femininity (and who does?) will feel excluded or even experience shame because they don’t fit in. For example, if the men’s group is studying a volume of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics and the women’s group is reading the latest mass market paperback comparing chocolate to Proverbs, the women aren’t being challenged at the same theological level as the men. Or if the women’s group only engages with topics relevant to raising children, those who are childless by choice or those who were unable to have children will experience emotions in the range of exclusion to sorrow. Church leadership must evaluate all ministry groups with a focus not just on the biblical content but on the presence of underlying gender stereotypes in each group’s content and form. 

Talk about Sex 

One complaint about mixing genders in a setting where personal matters of the heart will be shared is that a woman or man might want to talk about items of a sexual nature that would be inappropriate when the other gender is present. Yet the church should be the very place where safe conversations can occur between men and women on any issue. If we are never able to talk about sexually charged themes with each other in a safe and godly environment, how can we reconcile the deep chasm that has formed between men and women over the issues of sexual abuse? An important note of concern is that women or men who have been sexually abused may find it difficult to engage in ministry with the opposite sex. Pastoral concerns such as these are very valid reasons for separate ministries, but not as normal practice.

Separating men and women into gender-based ministry groups limits our church relationships by gender instead of being reflective of our relationship potential in the secular world. From working to going grocery shopping, we spend our days engaging in relationships with both men and women. Church ministries that are not separated by gender can bring men and women together and provide them with different perspectives on biblical teachings that influence their secular lives. 

De-Segregate Common Church Practices

The common practices of the church may seem harmless enough and without blame in the marginalization of women and the refusal of their gifts. How could something that we have done for hundreds of years be problematic? Unfortunately, many church practices that we don’t even think about when we are doing them cause unnecessary division and promote men over women due to their patriarchal roots. Let’s explore two of these practices.

Balance Gendered Language for God and People

First, the most basic yet pervasive practice is the language we use to communicate about God and to each other. From the pulpit to the foyer, the language of our sermons and conversations need not make an object masculine or feminine if it does not need to be nor should one sex be ridiculed or demeaned. Church leaders should refrain from language that is patriarchal and, as a result, unnecessarily masculine. Words spoken from the pulpit should avoid depicting stereotypical norms or associating either gender with clichéd behaviors. The language of our leaders should be balanced, avoiding examples that are exclusively masculine or feminine, instead expressing their humanity through a natural identity that is not forced into either distinctly male or female forms. 

Create Mixed-Gender Groupings Throughout Church Life

Second, let’s look at the separation of the church into two groups for responsive reading or singing in parts. While it may appear natural to divide the group based on gender, leaders should resist the tendency to do so and instead separate the singing or the reading by voice range (low or high) or location in the room (left or right). Your congregation may find it unusual at first but will adapt with practice and understanding. 

Division by gender can seem inane and harmless, until we become aware of the consequences. When a group is separated into male and female, those who don’t fit gender stereotypes experience negative emotions. I have a low female voice and would normally choose to sing with the male part. Once the division has been made by gender, I am unable to fit into either group. The other problem lays in how one group is always defined as primary while the other is secondary or in opposition. Men are typically called on to start the singing and women provide the response or the echo, which establishes a hierarchical pair that says women have no identity independent from the men. 

Concluding Thoughts

Dividing by gender in language and practice is easy. Recognizing the impact and changing how we do church takes thought and practice. Church leaders should test every situation where they are inclined to divide based on gender. Substitute the separation by gender with race, ethnicity, or level of income. Does it still make sense? Is it still appropriate? If not, then the separation should not occur. Try out this formula every time you are tempted to separate people by gender in common church practices. 

Attentiveness to common divisions in ministry and practice and a willingness to change reveals church leadership that is ready to break the patriarchal bonds that have prevented women from fully using their gifts in the church, allowing women and men to serve together in their own identities as children of God.

 
Photo credit: Photo by Philippe Leone on Unsplash


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