As a Colombian with Lebanese heritage, I grew up in a Christian context where there were no female pastors, only pastors’ wives. In my culture, men cooking and helping in the kitchen was perceived as wrong, and women were expected to carry the responsibility and burden of taking care of the domestic chores. In this same context, women were refused leadership roles in different areas of society, and women were only seen in the shadow of their male counterparts.
The ideals of machista culture were cemented in me from a young age. I adopted the belief that men were better than women: stronger, more intelligent, born to be in leadership positions, and chosen by God to be the head and priest of their families. I remember the struggle I felt as a teenager, being led by a single, female youth leader at my local church. My machista intuition told me that the female youth leader didn’t deserve to lead me and that I could be a better leader than she was. I didn’t recognize how wrong my mindset was, and I couldn’t see my own male privilege.
Learning to See Women
The fact that my eyes were trained to honor and admire male leaders didn’t allow me to perceive greatness in the women around me. It took me a few years of being married, moving to the multicultural nation of Australia, living apart from our families, and four-and-a-half years of theological studies to realize that I was surrounded by strong, empowered, capable, and driven women who fight against all odds to salir adelante (find success).
I realized that if it wasn’t for my mother, I would not be who I am today—psychologist by profession, theologian by education, pastor and teacher by vocation. My mother, Ana Luz, who was born in rural Colombia and grew up on a farm, became a doctor and specialized in radiology. She was the main breadwinner for our family for a few years when my father was between jobs.
And my mother wouldn’t have been able to become a radiologist without the help of her older sister, my godmother, Ernelda. She was the first woman in her family of twelve siblings to go to university, where she became an accountant. Another example is my auntie Vilma, who after being abandoned by her husband had to raise and support my cousin without a “man’s help.” Finally, there is my wife, Paola, who has paved the way for herself, excelling at work and refusing to be just her husband’s “plus one.”
These four women, alongside a constellation of female theologians and colleagues who find themselves “en la lucha,”1 opened my eyes to the reality that women are as strong as men, and in some circumstances even stronger than we are. They helped me recognize that the so-called “weaker sex” can be the head of the house, the provider, and the priest of the family. Women rise to every occasion, even when opportunities are limited for them. My privilege was challenged and my mindset was changed after reflecting on the experiences of the women in my world who have molded and impacted my life.
Deconstructing My Machista Privilege
Sometimes, I can’t help but ask myself, “Do I read the same Bible today that I used to read in my machista days?” and “How is it possible that I frustrated women’s opportunities to lead by such faulty, old, and disempowering rhetoric?” Thank God my eyes are now opened to this reality. I can say today with all confidence that God chooses and empowers women in the same way as men are. I turn to the pages of the Bible and enjoy the fact that the first preachers of the resurrection were women, that Paul had Phoebe and Nympha leading the churches of Rome and Laodicea, and that Junia and Priscilla were prolific and respected among the apostles. Although these expressions of women’s equality are reality in the pages of the Bible, we are far from that equality in real life. Male privilege is still the currency of the global church, and only male willingness to engage with the female narrative will turn this ship around.
When I refer to privilege, I’m referring to the social, economic, religious, and political elements that “protect and save me from the hardship and dealing with difficult situations that people who don’t look like me go through.”2 So the fact that I’m a man who occupies a male body makes me privileged over women. No one questions if I’m fit for ministry or not simply based on my gender. I’m more likely to be welcomed into leadership inner circles. All of this simply because I occupy a male body, and societal structures are designed to privilege my maleness.
When we become aware of our privilege, there is one important question we must ask ourselves: How do I use my privilege? Today I am a pastor, and I find myself in a position of leadership and teaching, training the next generation of ministers. Many leaders have asked me how they can use their influence and pulpits to empower women. The first idea that comes to mind is what Archbishop Óscar Romero used to say, “Those who have a voice must speak for those who are voiceless.”3 However, I think we can do more than that. Women have their own voices; we should ask them. That’s why I have asked my friend and colleague Stephany Pantoja to share some ideas for male leaders who want to leverage their male privilege to uplift women.
Five Practices for Every Male Leader
by Stephany Pantoja
When speaking or preaching to a crowd, we must consider the various age groups, lifestyles, and stages of life represented within the audience. More specifically, male speakers must be particularly cautious in how they direct themselves toward women. Growing up, I realized that only two groups of women were represented in church sermons: married women and mothers. Rarely did I hear a male pastor direct himself toward women who worked, women who studied, women who were widowed, or women who did not want to marry or have children. As a result, I started to form a picture in my mind of the ideal woman. I believed that motherhood and wifehood were the superior marks of a godly woman.
Coming from a heavily male-dominated Mexican culture, women’s equality was not affirmed in my upbringing. Therefore, any form of elevating the female voice felt foreign and uncomfortable. When I moved abroad, I was confronted by different models of womanhood. It felt like I had entered a new world, which then allowed me to challenge and reassess my own beliefs. I was single, young, and naïve, but for the first time I was able to separate my worth and spiritual authority from my relationship status and titles.
Over the years, I have come up with a short list of what I would say to a male preacher, teacher, or leader who was looking for ways to leverage his male privilege to increase women’s equality in his unique context.
1. Recognize your privilege as a man
I am not expecting you to apologize for your gender, but I do hope you recognize that we have different rights and privileges because of our gender. Your goal should be to preach and teach in a way that recognizes these differences.
2. Get familiar with feminist content
There are many translations of the Bible, and as result, there are many understandings of it. A feminist interpretation of the Bible is not a diabolical interpretation or any kind of manifesto against men—it is simply the way that female readers perceive and understand the narrative of the Bible. If you want to include and speak to the female members of your congregation, you need to get acquainted with how they read and understand the Bible that you preach. I recommend you read books from female theologians who can expand your views about this issue. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Phyllis Trible are a great starting point to understand the way that female scholars interpret the Scriptures. Then, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Elsa Támez, and Nancy E. Bedford can amplify your understanding of the liberative expression of feminist theology.
3. Include all types of women
It is horrible to not feel represented in the examples of sermons and lessons. It makes women feel invisible and unheard—and much less able to connect with the core of what you’re trying to communicate. It creates separation and distance between the audience and the message, which limits the influence of what is being communicated. Therefore, take extra and intentional time to consider the examples in your teaching and preaching. Ask yourself if you are including the widows, the women who work, the infertile, the housewives, etc.
4. Empower women, but don’t speak for us
Now this is an important nuance: if you are trying to encourage or empower women, please do not speak for us. Our voice is enough, and we are capable of using it. Provide space for the female voice and allow room for us to grow. It is possible this is one of the first times someone is encouraging the woman you invite to use her voice, therefore use your experience to champion, teach, and guide. If you find yourself with few good women speakers on the line-up, raise them up. It is never too late. It is up to the whole church community to make sure we are all growing and moving forward in our gifts and calling.
5. Recognize women’s pain
Yes, it can be uncomfortable and even feel unnecessary to recognize women’s pain, but it is incredibly important. For too long women have had to carry generational pain that is manifested differently in every context. For some of us it’s silence, for some it’s shame, for some it’s feeling inferior. Do not allow your ignorance to blind you to women’s pain in 2022. When you are preaching or teaching, recognizing your audience’s pain will help you connect with the women in your congregation. Recognizing women’s unique, generational pain will help all of us heal and bring change into this world.
We wrote this article mainly for male pastors and preachers in order to provide personal reflection and practical tools on how to create space for women and lift their voices and history. If male leaders do this, the other half of the church will finally have space to develop their calling and ministry, and then the church will function at full capacity. It can be scary at first, but women have been gracious all these years. We owe it to future generations to create a church that welcomes and uplifts women.
Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash.
- Ada María Isasi-Díaz, En La Lucha / In the Struggle: Elaborating a Mujerista Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).
- Miguel De la Torre (professor of social ethics and Latinx studies) in discussion with the author, December 25, 2021.
- Óscar Romero, quoted in Miguel de la Torre, Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass Christianity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2019), 125.
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