May 7, 2009 by

Women, Church Leaders and Affirmative Action


Categories: current issues, healing wounds

If you’re just tuning in, you might want to read these posts for background:
There’s this one,
and this one,
and this one
oh, and this one here.

In the course of the ongoing conversation on this blog about gender issues, both in the church and out, Erin posed a couple of interesting questions. Let me quote an excerpt of her comment here:

One thing I heard recently was something like this:”Well, we’re not going all affirmative action just so women can feel included.” In other words, in this case while they weren’t actively excluding women, they felt that if they actively included women to something like an equal balance, they would feel like they were doing it just for the sake of it or that it would look to outsiders that they were bowing to the women to make them happy.

I also heard, specifically in the context of ministry, that there just aren’t as many “qualified” (the definition of “qualified” being subjective) women to fill certain roles. It occurs to me that maybe the reason there aren’t as many qualified women is because they haven’t been actively given the opportunities in the first place.

Do you think that a practice of active inclusion of women to an equal degree has to happen in order for things to change?

And do you think there should be some admission of or responsibility-taking for the role men have played in creating the lack of “qualified” women in the first place?

I love the way Erin makes me think. 🙂 I have a number of thoughts going on about this, and I hope I can share them coherently. (Being able to actually use the word “coherently” may be a good sign.) 😀

First of all–I actually understand the objection in itself, or rather, the thought process behind it. Ever since the concept of “affirmative action” came to the fore, I’ve had mixed feelings about it–because although I agree with the heart behind it, I don’t believe it is the best way to deal with the problem of discrimination, either with race or with gender. It’s akin to putting a band-aid on an open wound, or treating one symptom of the disease rather than going after the disease itself. It is an attempt to force a balance or equilibrium without dealing with the reasons why imbalance was created in the first place. And not only does it fail to prevent discrimination–in most cases, it simply moves it around, essentially shifting the unfair advantage from one group of people to another. So in one sense (and I say that guardedly), the objection has a point. A forced equal male/female balance in church leadership doesn’t signal equality in itself, and if females were preferred over men just because they are female…it’s just as wrong as when females are discriminated against. You can’t solve discrimination by discriminating the other direction–and that’s exactly why the affirmative action approach doesn’t work. Equal opportunity only exists when people are given equal chance to qualify for a given position…not necessarily by forcing an equal representation among those selected.

That said…there is the underlying issue that sometimes people aren’t given the chance to qualify. In cases of race, minorities don’t always have access to the same quality of education that whites in America do. And in cases of gender–particularly in the church–women have been in a culture of suppression for a long time, and when it comes to being prepared for certain positions in the church…many haven’t had the chance to “qualify” for such positions. (And as Erin pointed out “qualify” is a subjective term.) So it is highly probable in many church circles that when leadership is trying to find someone to do a certain leadership task, more men than women will be in the pool of candidates, regardless of how open-minded the leadership might be.
So while it’s true that the affirmative action approach won’t solve the problem, that doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem, or that just providing “equal opportunity” will solve it. It seems to me that we need to be tackling the problem a little further back up the trail. First…we need to deal with the prejudice and bigotry that cause the oppression; and second…instead of placing under-qualified people into positions for the sake of balance, we need to be helping them qualify, so they have an equal chance of success.

So this leads to my dealing with the second question first: should the men take any responsibility for their role in the under-qualification of women? In my opinion…the answer is yes. I’ll address “qualifying” momentarily, but let’s just say that to whatever extent we have church positions to qualify for, if women do not qualify, it is (at least partly) because our prolonged suppression of women has robbed them of the chance to do so. Thus, part of how we can move from a passive role to an active role in restoring women is to come alongside them and find creative ways to help them develop and refine their own skills and gifts. I know this is theoretical, and I don’t presume to know exactly what that looks like in every environment. But I do believe that when we have the heart to restore the woman, those solutions will present themselves.

I questioned whether I needed to say this, but because Erin mentioned that “qualifying” is subjective, I feel I should mention that in my view, the whole idea of “qualifying” for church leadership has been overblown, for men as well as women. Most of the hoops we make people jump through to qualify as leaders aren’t really founded in the Bible. Just look at some examples of early church leaders: they range from Paul (a learned Pharisee fluent in multiple languages) to Peter (an uneducated fisherman from Galilee) to Priscilla (an apostolic female house church leader whose educational background is unknown, but whom Paul honored with the term “co-laborer”). There were no seminaries, no Bible schools; and when leadership criteria are mentioned in the New Testament, the focus is actually more on character than level of education. My point is…from a Biblical standpoint, there are a lot more women already qualified to lead than we might realize; we are the ones who often make the qualifying standards more stringent than the Bible dictates. If you disagree with that idea, you have the right; but either way…whatever standard we are using to “qualify” someone for church leadership, not only should the standard apply across the board, but prior to that step, we should be trying to ensure that people of either gender have the same opportunities to meet that standard.

Having said all that…let’s look at this from yet another angle. Let’s look at the first question again: is the active inclusion of women in equal balance with men actually necessary for change to happen? Apart from all previous discussion about the “affirmative action” approach, or how many women are qualified…let’s approach this from the standpoint of who is asking the question, and why they might be asking, because I think it’s actually a bit telling.

If you think about it…for someone to say they don’t want to put women into leadership just to bow to pressure to appear non-sexist, it begs the question: why aren’t they already doing so regardless of what people think? In other words, although no one expects them to do it for the wrong reasons, it doesn’t change the fact that they aren’t doing it for the right reasons, either. To me, playing the “affirmative action” card in this case is little more than another deflection of the deeper issue. If they haven’t already naturally enabled women to serve in leadership, than even defending that stance by saying, “we don’t want to do it for the wrong reasons” reveals that there is still a heart change that needs to happen. Sorry if this offends anyone…but I think it still exposes a root of sexism, and a need for the heart of the man to be softened toward the woman.

So to answer the first question last…I don’t believe active inclusion of women has to happen for change to take place. I think it’s the other way around. Active inclusion of women is the sign that change has taken place–that we are changing the way we view women, the way we treat them, and the opportunities we afford them to qualify. It is the outward manifestation of the change in the heart. It is the effect of change–not the cause of it.

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

9 Responses to Women, Church Leaders and Affirmative Action

  1. Amy

    My brother, you so totally “get” the entire dynamic of women’s struggles in the Body.

    Simply, yet I hope you know, so deeply…again, thank you for continuing to ponder, think and write about this.

    Someday, whether it is this side of Heaven or in the Eternal New Earth/Heaven, we will all be equal and treated as such.

    Until then, we do our best with the gifts we have and the environment and people Papa Jesus Holy Spirit has placed us with.

    ~Amy 🙂

  2. Arthur Sido

    It has nothing to do with women being “qualified” or capable of filling roles in the church that a re reserved for men. It is a matter of them not being called.

  3. Jeff McQ

    I think the best way for men to “get” this dynamic is simply to practice awareness. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Thank you for voicing your opinion. While I respect your right to have this opinion, I disagree with you one hundred percent.

    If this were just you and me sharing opinions, I’d leave it at that…but since others will read this (including some women who will no doubt be wounded by your words), I must speak up a bit more…

    If I could convince you to look at this issue with a fresh pair of eyes, I’d recommend looking at the Scripture through the lens of the historical context in which it was written, rather than our own culture–and look at the whole counsel of Scripture, not just the verses traditionally used to uphold this view. Also, I’d recommend considering how it might feel if the tables were turned–if our culture were female-dominant rather than male-dominant, and if you had to spend your whole life unable to release your gifts or fulfill your calling simply because you were told (by women) that the Bible said it wasn’t your place. This is the reality many women in the church still live with every day. I think if you did these two things, you might arrive at a different conclusion.

    At the very least…perhaps it would give you enough compassion to think twice before categorically informing the women reading this blog that they aren’t really called.

  4. Sam

    At one time we attended a church where one of the male leaders used drugs and was unfaithful to his wife. Many knew this, but he was allowed to continue in his position for years because he was “called”.

    Then there are those women who say they have been called, but cannot do whatever they feel called to because of their gender. I know some of them. Does it not take a very pompous, self-righteous person to know that another has not been called?

    When I was a teen, there were more women than men who attended our church. I asked why this was. The response – because more women are interested in spiritual things. If that is true, then why, I asked, do we not have more women in leadership?

    There are no roles in the church reserved for men only.

  5. Erin

    Thank you for taking these on, Jeff. I’m sure you know it’s close to my heart. It still seems like a circle to me — women can’t lead because they aren’t qualified and can’t become qualified because they can’t lead. That is a generalization, of course. But I love to see the winds of change happening, and I believe they are.

    As an aside, if memory serves, the bible doesn’t say the spiritual gift of Pastor/teacher/leader is reserved for men alone. Why would women be given if if they were to not use it?

  6. Jonathan Brink

    Jeff, I have been deeply impressed by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

    The oppressor can’t be rescued from his own actions. He has to own them and take responsibility for them. To do so he must participate in the restoration of the oppressed. Not for the sake of rescuing but because in doing so, he is restoring his own dignity by restoring the dignity of the other.

    And equally so, the oppressed cannot be rescued. If they are, they end up oppressing the oppressor because that is all they have learned.

    The oppressed must first discover their own dignity through dialog and reciprocate that to the oppressor, most actively through non-violence. To strike back is to become the oppressor.

    So I wrestle with first finding the dignity of those around me, those that I have oppressed.

  7. Jeff McQ

    “There are no roles in the church reserved for men only.”
    This I agree with one hundred percent. 🙂 Thanks!

    I appreciate the thought-provoking questions, and I hope my thoughts have done justice to them. As long as this “vicious circle” goes on, it becomes easy to let one answer explain the other and vice versa, so no one has to actually grapple with the issue. Kind of like nobody questions *why* “the show must go on.”

    The show must go on. Just because. 🙂

    Very good thoughts, brother. I appreciate this perspective, and relate to it.

    Here’s another way to look at it…and this isn’t an exact analogy, but since I sort of think mathematically…I picture a number line with zero in the middle. When an oppressor simply stops oppressing, it does not erase the negatives, or change them into positive. If you are in negative territory on a number line, you must reverse course and *stay* on course just to get back to zero…and then you go into positive territory. This is why I harp on the passive approach so much here…because passive neutrality is still negative. Actively restoring the oppressed is movement in the opposite direction, and that is what will eventually take us out of negative territory. 🙂

  8. Gary Delaney


    Upon reading, I am once again struck by the notion that there are so many people who just accept the church “pat answers”, without truly reading scriptures with an open mind, so that they can ascertain truth from them.

    The Church of Jesus Christ cannot even begin to attain maturity until women are allowed to step into their destinies within the Body of Christ.

    But, also as you pointed out Jeff, the hoop jumping that is required in the church is far beyond what is biblically mandated. The biblical mandates are character, maturity, ability to discern spiritual matter, as well as, studying to show themselves approved. But, what many do not consider, I believe, is that when Paul wrote that statement to Timothy, there weren’t any seminaries for him to go to. Just like the apostles did not go to seminary. Paul was speaking about studying the scriptures on his own.

    But, all of that just to say that there are many women who are already qualified to step into ministry positions and do at least as well as many men who have been occupying ministry positions for many years.


  9. AbiSomeone

    It is great to see this post in the May 09 edition of Next-Wave. Thanks again for your encouragement on behalf of the other half of humanity!

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