Earlier this month, I ran across a tweet from a female pastor. It read:
Man noticing my collar: Are you a preacher?
Man: I don’t believe in women preachers
Me: I am literally standing right here so…
This exchange points to a reality that women leaders know too well: our very presence creates conversation because it challenges the single narrative that dominates many Christian circles—leadership is the domain of men. Women leaders not only spark conversation, but have the opportunity to model good leadership and civil dialogue. Ultimately, we point the church to a clearer vision of the cross and human identity.
Sparking conversation (and controversy)
As the president of CBE, I am invited regularly to speak on women’s leadership at schools, churches, non-profits, and more. One of my most memorable sermons took place at an evangelical college. This school had a long history of training women evangelists, and my talk was on the senior theme for the year: “Women’s Equality is a Biblical Ideal.” I took the stage and began to speak.
Within minutes, the men from the football team became visibly agitated. The faculty seated nearby responded with a firm “be polite” posture. From the pulpit, it seemed a showdown would erupt in the middle of the auditorium. My message—even my presence—challenged the narrative these young men held. For them, women’s equality diminished their masculine identity. Though they attended a school with a history of training women for leadership, they were unaware of their own history. The faculty knew the history, but the message had failed to transform these students. There was no showdown, but I promise you there were many new and lively conversations.
At another event, at an institution that once trained women for evangelistic work, the chair of the Bible department—the man who introduced me to the audience—bolted after I took the stage. At other events, students walked out as I celebrated the women church-planters who worked beside Paul. Others have boycotted my talks altogether. My presence, and the message I brought, confronted them with an uncomfortable reality: their own evangelical legacy had been pressed to the margins by a single narrative culture of male-only leadership.
Sparking conversation, and sometimes controversy, is a fact of life for women leaders, and it can be exhausting. Because of this, the courage and civility women demonstrate in their prophetic leadership is all the more impressive. Refusing to apologize for our calling and identity in Christ, we resist the narrative of patriarchy persistently and charitably, even among those who disagree with us. In the process, minds are changed.
Ten years ago, I was one of several scholars working to start a study group on gender at the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). Originally, we proposed a single, egalitarian perspective. ETS leadership wisely pushed back, recommending that our committee and the papers presented represent both egalitarian and complementarian views. We agreed, resulting in rich conversations of learning and life-long friendships of deep trust. It has also strengthened us as proponents of our own view! The kindness and respect learned and earned at ETS brings to mind a wise-beyond-years complementarian I met at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS).
Newly elected as president of GCTS’s student senate, Bruce invited me to lunch as a senator representing women in ministry. Assuring me of his support despite our differing views, Bruce took time to learn my story. And, he expressed gratitude for the kindness egalitarians demonstrate in their scholarship and as colleagues. He wanted me to know that his heart was with us.
Recently, Bruce and I shared a few laughs as he described his journey to an egalitarian position! I am forever grateful for his courage of character in engaging not only the scholarship and leadership of those who differed from him, but also their stories. In the end, he was won over by their unapologetic leadership (though not everyone will be)!
Revealing Calvary’s power
Women leaders not only disrupt the single narrative of male-only leadership, they also reveal Calvary’s power by aligning women’s identity not with Eve’s sins but with Christ’s victory over sin. Whether through their words or by their mere presence, women leaders proclaim that women and men equally bear God’s image and are equally remade in the image of Christ. Christ’s emancipation of women allows the entire human family to flourish.