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Published Date: August 26, 2015

Published Date: August 26, 2015

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The Challenge of Leading In A Hierarchically Ordered Universe

God uses all kinds of spokespeople to communicate important messages to the church and world. In the past few years, former US President Jimmy Carter has been one such advocate—challenging audiences to affirm and respect the personhood and contributions of women. Carter’s 2014 book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, grew out of his travels to more than one hundred forty countries. The book begins with the former president’s bold statement that “the biggest challenge facing our world today,” the belief that maleness is superior to femaleness, is often enforced by the twisting of religious teachings.

The ripple effects of these deep-seated convictions are evident in many parts of the world today. Joy erupts when the doctor, midwife, or family member exclaims: “It’s a boy!” at the moment of a baby’s birth. In contrast, in many cultures (e.g. the one-child policy of China), being born as a girl-child may result in infanticide, less access to food, limitations on educational opportunities, and potential future relegation to child slavery or sex trafficking.

Regrettably, the mindset that being male is somehow better and preferable continues to pervade the thinking of the church. The same selected passages are cited over and over—such as I Timothy 2:12 (women should not “teach or to assume authority over a man”) and sections of Ephesians 5-6. These verses are believed to be a universal prescription for gender roles within marriage and in the church, and are even thought to have implications for societal relationships. Many believers recognize that Satan would love nothing more than to limit and inhibit the contributions of half the world’s population—all based on “divinely ordained” gender-specific roles. 

A major study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts[1] reflected the prevalence of a belief system characterized by a “hierarchically ordered universe” among evangelicals.[2] According to Gallagher, this vision “has been drawn on with great success historically and continues as the orienting gender story among the majority of conservative Protestants today.”[3]

One of the implications of this theological perspective is that just when the Christian church should be a shining light into a dim world in terms of respecting the contributions of both men and women, conservative perspectives continue to limit what women are allowed to do and be in the church and beyond. As documented in a major 2014 study titled “Gender Dynamics in Evangelical Institutions: Women and Men Leading in Institutions and the Nonprofit Sector,”[4] women are substantially under-represented in senior leadership roles across much of the evangelical non-profit world. This study drew from 2010 tax forms of over 1,400 organizations to provide demographic information on senior leadership teams. A second phase of the research project involved surveying the leaders of a subset of four hundred and fifty organizations to assess their views on women in leadership. 

In comparing these US evangelical nonprofits to their secular counterparts, the representation of women on boards and in senior leadership roles in evangelical organizations was about half of that found in secular nonprofits. As one explanation for these findings, Reynolds observed: 

“In addition to gender stereotypes and discrimination present in society more generally, evangelical institutions also have unique cultural, theological, and structural realities that may inhibit women’s access to leadership roles. Conservative evangelical theology and culture is often connected with stronger beliefs about gendered differences, and ideas about gender difference are a key reason inequality persists within institutions today.”[5] 

Notably, of those responding to the Phase 2 survey of organizational leaders (N=673), 51% of the male participants identified as egalitarian and 49% reported self-identifying as complementarian. In contrast, 65% of the women identified themselves as egalitarian and 35% self-described as being complementarian. Despite the fact that only 6% of male and female respondents agreed with the statement that men should hold distinctive leadership roles within society (in contrast to higher percentages within the family and church), viewing life through the lens of a “hierarchically ordered universe”[6] undoubtedly has implications for women’s leadership aspirations and experiences. 

Even as segments of the church struggle with the appropriate roles for men and women, based on God’s “design,” leadership literature is increasingly documenting the value of having women’s voices and perspectives “at the table” in terms of leadership and decision-making. For example, a summary of the literature by Kezar[7] documents the leadership effectiveness of women, who often adopt a transformational leadership style characterized by collaboration, empowerment, ethical decision-making, and communication.

Summarizing research from the corporate sector, Madsen provides citations for a host of studies that document improved performance by organizations in five areas when greater numbers of women hold board seats and are in leadership positions: (1) improved financial performance; (2) strengthened organizational climate; (3) increased corporate social responsibility and reputation; (4) leveraged talent, and (5) enhanced organizational innovation and collective intelligence.[8]

Additional research that lends credence to the value of women’s perspectives and contributions as leaders is found in a 2013 book titled The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future.[9] The fascinating research reported by Gerzema and D’Antonio involved surveys of 64,000 participants from thirteen countries. The results indicated that two thirds of those surveyed—including 63% of the male respondents and 65% of millennials-agreed with the statement: “The world would be a better place if men thought more like women.”[10] 

Advancing women into leadership roles in the church and in our world is important for numerous reasons. The complexity of today’s decision-making requires the benefit of multiple perspectives, and the next generation needs male and female role models who are leading effectively. We only need to view the daily news or look around at the world’s hotspots to realize the amount of pain and unresolved conflict that drains energy and life from millions. The old ways have not worked, yet the proposed solutions are more of the same old, same old. As Gerzema and D’Antonio summarized from the results of their international research as conveyed in The Athena Doctrine, “The sentiment was the same across the planet: we’ve had enough of the winner-takes-all, masculine approach to getting things done. It’s time for something better.”[11]


[1] Gallagher, S. K. “The Marginalization of Evangelical Feminism,” in Sociology of Religion, 65(3), (2004): 215-237. 
[2] Ibid., 219.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Reynolds, A. “Gender Dynamics In Evangelical Institutions: Women and Men Leading In Higher Education and the Nonprofit Sector,”in Report for the Women in Leadership National Study (Wenham, MA: Gordon College, 2014).
[5] Ibid., 4.
[6] Gallagher, S. K. “The Marginalization of Evangelical Feminism,” 219. 
[7] Kezar, A. “Women’s Contributions to Higher Education Leadership and the Road Ahead,” in Women and Leadership in Higher Education, eds. K.A. Longman & S.R. Madsen (Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2014), 117-134. 
[8] Madsen, S. R. “Why Do We Need More Women Leaders in Higher Education?” in HERS Research Brief, No. 1
[9] Gerzema, J., & D’Antonio, M. The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2013). 
[10] Ibid., 8. 
[11] Ibid.