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Published Date: December 5, 2009

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Fuzzy Words and Quick Assumptions

As a person who examines words for her profession, I am consistently amazed at how often we (myself included!) use certain words and expressions and assume that we all understand what they mean. For instance, consider the phrase “spiritual leader.” For as long as I have been a Christian, I have heard this concept applied to men, as a way to explain “male headship.” Just a few weeks ago, I listened to a pastor preach on Ephesians 5:21-33. Being familiar with the long debate over the meaning of the word “head” (kephale), I listened carefully for his definition, especially when he reached verse 23: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” This pastor did not explicitly define kephale, but he did refer to husbands as the “spiritual leaders” several times throughout his sermon. The problem is, no one really knows what the expression “spiritual leader” means. The pastor, while a godly, wise, and loving man whom I respect greatly, tried to define a fuzzy biblical word—kephale—with an even fuzzier contemporary phrase. (The Bible, by the way, never uses the the term “spiritual leader.”)

I have friends who label phrases like “spiritual leader” as “Evangelicalese”—a lighthearted way of highlighting how our Christian culture develops its own imprecise language. In an effort to not fall into this “Evangelicalese,” therefore, I share these thoughts at the beginning of our issue on leadership development. While we quite often toss around the term leadership and are quick to assume we understand what it means, what leadership encompasses (and the definition of who is and should be a leader) is a fuzzy concept to many Christians. So before we get to the “how-to’s” of developing effective leaders, let’s turn to some definitions.

We believe that leadership encompasses some kind of authority, responsibility, and influence. We also believe the Bible teaches that God gifts both men and women for leadership roles in all realms of life—the church, home, and world—and that he does not discriminate based on our gender, ethnicity, or class. This is the starting point for this issue of Mutuality (and for more explanation and biblical research, be sure to explore the CBE website). 

With so much confusion in the church about gender and leadership, perhaps it comes as no surprise that women encounter a maze of difficult expectations in living out their leadership callings. Our first article, therefore, includes insights from female ministry leaders on the obstacles and opportunities for women in ministry. Responding to ten common frustrations women leaders face, our authors share painful stories, encouragement from the Bible, and practical tips for moving forward.

Next, Rosie Ward challenges the popular beliefs that men and women are opposites and that they lead and communicate differently according to their gender. Mimi Haddad then invites us to understand leadership through the example of Esther, examining the qualities of effective (and ineffective) leaders. Finally, Joanna Balda poses a compelling question about the very nature of how we conceptualize leadership, and Jim Smith highlights the anniversary of Edith Deen’s important book on historical Christian women leaders. Be sure also to see Aída Besançon Spencer’s helpful response to the question of why Jesus did not choose women to be among his twelve disciples.

We pray this issue will be an encouragement to you as we all work to clarify and model true biblical leadership. Blessings on you as you read and reflect!

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