April 27, 2009 by

Sexism by Default: Why Men Must Not Be Passive


Categories: current issues, food for thought, healing wounds

I think every experience can provide an opportunity to learn; and the recent dialogue that took place on Jonathan Brink’s blog concerning the Origins project is no exception. (If you’re just tuning in, click these three links to catch up.)

First, let me make clear that this post is not to discuss Origins specifically; as far as I am concerned, the issue in question was resolved; I am very thankful for the action that was taken, and I support Origins’ efforts and wish them nothing but the best. Rather, it is the rest of us, the ones who participated in this discussion about the equality of women in the church–and the ones who continue to view it from a distance–who need to take a look at the bigger picture and learn from this experience.

I’m a student of human nature, so I read people’s reactions and comments with interest all the way through. And here is what I observed:

  • Among the women who commented, there was nearly 100% solidarity, not just behind Jonathan’s concerns about the Origins leadership roster, but (more importantly) the deeper issues it represented. I could pick up within their remarks a strong desire for their voices to be heard and understood, as well as an appreciation for the fact that this issue was being discussed so openly.
  • Among the men who commented…I found a mixed response between agreement and disagreement, maybe about 50/50. None of the men were in favor of sexism, per se; but I felt many of the responses actually tended toward deflecting the issue. Specifically, I observed examples of denial, avoidance, and even some shifting of blame. Some of the men (even among the ones who agreed with Jonathan) chose to take a more detached, philosophical approach, where the women (understandably) approached the issue more emotionally.
Allow me to summarize (and paraphrase) the gist of some of the objections raised by the men:
  • Origins is inclusive of women in leadership; you have misunderstood.
  • You are rushing to judgment.
  • You are framing a historical narrative and unfairly pinning it on Origins.
  • You have cast an unfair shadow on Origins on its opening day.
  • Maybe there just happened to be no women qualified to lead, or who wanted to lead.
  • Maybe the team that evolved just happened to be men, no exclusion of women intended.
  • Can’t we just assume the best and give them the benefit of the doubt?
Without putting words in anyone’s mouth…at times, I have to say I almost detected a vibe that said, “Hey–you guys are GUYS! These guys are probably okay and probably aren’t sexist; why are you picking on them?”

I bring this up not to fault anyone in particular; everyone has the right to their perspective and opinion. But when a line is drawn in the sand like this, our gut reactions can really show us something about ourselves, if we are willing to look. It was actually within these types of remarks that I realized a lot of the guys weren’t fully understanding why the question was even raised. The answer, I believe, is made clear when we understand the difference between passive agreement and acting on what we say we believe.

For many years, I have supported the idea of the equality of women, and done what I felt was appropriate to live that out. But until recently, mine was a passive agreement. I thought it was enough to let women have a place, rather than going the extra step of making a place for them.

But here’s the thing, men: we live in a civilization that tends toward suppressing women by default. If we are not purposeful and intentional in overcoming that, we will inevitably lean back toward the default without meaning to. It’s like standing on a slope; if you don’t intentionally lean against the grade, gravity will take over and your own weight will take you toppling downhill as a result.

When I recently came to the realization that even women in supposedly egalitarian settings were still being overlooked and wounded, I saw the danger of my passivity. I saw that not only was I still capable of suppressing the woman, but I probably had, many times, without even realizing it. In that moment, to my dismay, I realized that because of the slope we stand on…by being passive, I was still adding to the problem.

My passivity WAS sexism. It had just taken a more subtle form.

I knew in that moment I could no longer settle for being merely in passive agreement.

And neither can any man who truly wants to be part of the solution.

Here’s why I say all this: I believe that this entire incident–from the mis-step at Origins itself to the mixed reactions to Jonathan’s raising of the question–has revealed a deeper issue, particularly among the guys, that we must not ignore. Because the common thread running through all of it is…passivity.

I firmly believe nobody at Origins meant to create a stir by the initial depiction of their leadership; all they wanted to do was stir the hearts of people toward mission and engage them in the project. It was just that they did not see (at first) the potential for wounding in the way they depicted their leadership. And even after Jonathan raised the issue…many of the men involved in the discussion did not really see what all the fuss was about.

That is the key we must not miss: many men did not see it. Not seeing is the tell-tale sign that we have defaulted to the passive approach. Not seeing is what causes us to step on our sisters and add to their wound without even knowing what we did.

And guys: Not seeing is not an excuse.

I cannot stress this enough: when it comes to the men’s response to this issue…passivity IS sexism.

The slope leans too far in one direction, and if you aren’t purposefully being part of the solution, you will be part of the problem. There is no neutral ground on a slanting slope. You will lean one way or the other. It just can’t be helped.

This, my friends, is why this wasn’t a case of nitpicking; the issue needed to be raised–because overlooking it is passivity, and passivity is sexism by default. This isn’t about political correctness; our sisters deserve for us to see them, to see their wound, and take action to heal that wound. There is great treasure God has placed within them, and they need their brothers to stand with them, not passively, but on purpose.

To commend Origins once again…when they saw it, passivity went away; they took action. With one very simple move, they immediately transferred from adding to the problem to being part of the solution. Kudos to them.

This is the lesson I truly hope we can take away from this experience. May what has transpired these past few days move us from passivity to an active response. May God give us men the eyes to see, and the feet to act. May we be convicted and inspired to see our sisters, honor them, make room for them, and defend them when necessary.

They are worth it, after all.

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.

17 Responses to Sexism by Default: Why Men Must Not Be Passive

  1. Gary Delaney


    I agree!! Passivity in this instance would definitely be sexism by default.

    Christian men everywhere should be rising up, encouraging the women in their lives to step out and use their God-given gifts and talents for the glory of God.

    The Body of Christ would be much richer for it. Individuals, marriages and families would grow deeper spiritually beyond belief, if this were to happen.

    Just some thoughts!!


  2. Reina

    Jeff, I am still quite amazed (being new to your blog) by your insights.

    I like how you say that passivity IS sexism. I have this discussion with my husband on occasion, and he insists that sexism no longer exists. When I argue that just because he doesn’t see it blatantly doesn’t mean it isn’t there, he dismisses it out of hand.

    That, obviously, is frustrating. I just want to applaud you again for your open thoughtfulness, even if it be at your own expense.

  3. AbiSomeone

    Thanks for hanging with this topic, Jeff. As I left this comment on the most recent thread at Jonathan’s, I thought I would add it here, too.

    This is John Park’s response to my gratitude for the changes made:

    “you’re welcome. looking back, the original page really miscommunicated our values, not only about diversity, but it also looked top-down (what were we thinking!) thank you to those who pointed out our oversight.”

    This sister is grateful. ;^)

  4. Jeff McQ

    I’m with you, bro. We were talking about this in house church this past weekend, not just about women in the church, but women in general…thinking about all the amazing advances man has made through the centuries, in science, medicine, the humanities (art, music, literature, architecture, etc.)…stuff mostly credited to men. And for all this…we wondered how much farther along we would be as a race had women been permitted the same advantages as men. As much as we pat ourselves on the back for our achievements…it’s like we’ve lived history with one hand tied behind our back. Sad, if you think of it.

    “…even if it be at your own expense.” That sounds a bit scary. Your husband isn’t coming after me or anything, is he? 🙂 Joking aside…thanks for your encouragement, and thanks again for the way you’ve added to the conversation.

    That is greatly encouraging. I had heard nothing from Origins since the change was made, and Jonathan heard very little. Glad to hear of some verbal acknowledgment from the other end. I, too, am grateful. God bless.

  5. Erin

    I can’t even say how much I have appreciated the idea that passivity is assent and that needs to change among men in leadership. It’s wonderful that you and Jonathan are willing to call this out, because it’s been my experience that many men won’t listen to what women have to say about this…but they are more likely to listen to other men.

    I might have missed the answer to this somewhere in the discussion here or at Jonathan’s…but I have a question. Not to single out Origins, (because I have seen this exact same thing in numerous emerging and missional type organizations and conversations) and forgive me for being blunt…

    Does changing the layout of their page change the fact that there are no women on their core team?

    I am confused about that, but I could be misinformed on the structure of their leadership.

  6. Jeff McQ

    “Does changing the layout of their page change the fact that there are no women on their core team?”

    Short answer: no, it doesn’t. 🙂

    Slightly longer answer: My understanding now is that the Creative Team members are actually the leaders of Origins, and the core team members are merely representing their respective churches. But the first layout made it look like the six guys on top *were* leading the pack. So the layout change was supposedly to better reflect the leadership as it actually is. No one at Origins, to my knowledge, has admitted to wrong thinking or attitude on this matter, only to miscommunication of their intent. Certainly changing the layout neither proves nor disproves the presence of sexism; and certainly it’s possible that changing their layout could have been simply a maneuver to silence the controversy. But as I said on Jonathan’s blog in the comments, that wouldn’t really be for us to judge–that’s God’s domain. All that can be reasonably expected of them is that their actions be consistent with the equality toward women that they claim to endorse, and I think they moved toward that when they changed the layout.

    Also, the wording for core team is a little vague still. When you read it, it sounds like the “core team” is actually the *three churches themselves*, as represented by the two from each church. Am I reading that right? I dunno. But they seemed to clarify that the six guys are not the top dogs, anyway.

    Okay, that answer was more than “slightly longer.” 🙂

  7. Erin

    Thanks for clarifying that, Jeff…I think I have seen it so many times that I’m a bit too likely to assume the worst. But if they have indicated that they do have women in leadership roles, then that’s good.

  8. Jeff McQ

    Honestly, your “assuming the worst” is actually understandable, considering all the crap that has gone on before. This actually underscores what I’ve been saying about being purposeful and intentional…because there’s a lot of damage to undo, and we need to lean that much harder the *other* way to help heal it. Almost like a necessary over-compensation? 🙂 Thanks for weighing in on this.

  9. Cynthia

    I have been following this conversation since Jeromy first posted the Wounded Image of God and the subsequent postings by you and Jonathan Brink. My thanks to the three of you and others who are speaking out and acting boldly.

    I felt a bit frustrated with the comments over at Jonathan’s blog about Origins and you have summed it all up with this statement:

    “Specifically, I observed examples of denial, avoidance, and even some shifting of blame.”

    Just this week, I talked to the leadership of our church about having not included women in the conversations that are happening about our future though about 2/3 of our attendees are women and we are ministering in a poor community with primarily single mothers and of course, that females represent a part of God’s heart as well.

    I could replace Origins name with our church’s name in that bulleted list you posted and that would be almost verbatim the things I was told during that frustrating conversation.

    They simply do not see this as an issue and I was accused of bringing a cultural problem and interjecting it onto our community … and they would include women if there were any women qualified (Don’t get me started that 22 yo male trumps the experience and wisdom of a 45 yo female) … that men just happened to be the ones to stand out and be invited that they hadn’t intentionally excluded women.

    The structure of my own marriage (btw, my husband and I are probably the oldest couple there and have been married the longest … 23 years) was called into question because we don’t identify as complementarians but egalitarians … living in mutual love, mutual respect, mutual submission.

    So, the challenge I have for myself is to live this truth … in love, in grace and in peace … within this community. I am grateful to my own husband who empowers me as a woman, who empowers his daughters and his sons to live above the cultural standard and the Christian cultural standard. I am grateful to my fellow brothers in Christ who remind me that I am not crazy, I am not some feminist warrior who is in rebellion against God (though I do identify myself as a Christian Feminist).

    A couple of weeks ago, I heard David Korten speak at the Institute for Servant Leaderships Sacred Activism conference and he said that change begins when there are many conversations that challenge the common cultural story. That is what is happening now on these blogs, in homes, across tables at the coffee shop. I am hopeful that a storm is brewing and I think it will be fun to see what God is stirring up. Keep speaking, keep writing, and we all will live it.

    Grace and Peace Jeff!

  10. Jeff McQ

    Thank you for sharing your current situation with us, and your thoughts. Your story provides some confirmation that the passivity we’re talking about is actually very common.

    The thing I’m realizing in this conversation–and why I believe God is in it–is that it is never enough for Jesus that we just accommodate change, or give lip service to it because it’s politically correct to do so. To Jesus, change occurs in the heart. And so it isn’t enough to give women a few token seats on a board to prevent complaining, or make room for women on staff now and then. Our *hearts* need to change on this whole issue.

    And that’s what this all boils down to: the excuses we give to deflect the issue reveal that this change still needs to happen in the hearts of men. I believe this conversation is part of God’s attempt to purify our heart motives to match what we say we believe.

  11. Erin

    Since you so graciously answered my question before, I’m back with another one or two. I’m really just trying to get my own mind around all this. Forgive me if you’ve already addressed these topics; while I’ve tried to keep up with the conversation, there may be some parts I have missed.

    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?

  12. Jeff McQ

    AWESOME questions! You really have me thinking…I think the second question about qualification probably deserves its own post, so I’d like to ponder that one a bit further, with your indulgence.

    As to the “affirmative action” approach to this…I have always had mixed feelings about affirmative action in general when it comes to race. I see the purpose behind it and understand why it exists…but I can also see how it ties the hands of employers and can force them to overlook people who are genuinely more qualified in order to fill a mandated “quota”. It often ends up being what I call “reverse racism.”

    But here’s the thing: if you have to *force* people to give equal opportunity, you haven’t solved the root problem–only treated a symptom. Racism, and sexism, are matters of the heart first and foremost, and someone can practice equality on the surface and still be prejudiced…and it will come out in other subtle ways.

    Sorry if I’m rambling, but I’m processing this as I go…to try and answer the question, I’m not exactly sure that active inclusion *has* to happen for change to take place, because as we suggested before, one can simply go through the motions. I am of the opinion that it’s the other way around. If change takes place in the heart, active inclusion *will* happen. In other words…active inclusion isn’t the cause of change, but the effect of it.

    When it isn’t happening naturally, it’s a symptom that change still needs to occur in the heart, and so it’s right to raise the challenge and keep the truth about this at the forefront. Because active inclusion *should* be happening. IMHO, someone who plays the “affirmative action” card in this case is probably still needing some heart changes. My first impression about it is that it is another deflection. In one sense, they are right in saying they shouldn’t do it *just* to placate women. But they are also revealing the truth of what is (and is not) in their heart–that they probably don’t really want to go that extra mile.

    Rambling again…this one probably needs its own post, too. 🙂 Stay tuned…

  13. Erin

    Thanks again, Jeff, for humoring me. I look forward any additional thoughts you have on these topics.

    I apologize for diving into your posts on this after so much conversation has already taken place, but I’m sometimes slow to work things out in my head, and the questions come up later rather than sooner.

  14. Hell On Wheels

    As a sister who has felt this intensely, I would like to thank you for your posts on this subject. It’s been mind numbing and painful to see the tacit approval of such oppression by Christian men. So many times I’ve shaken my head wondering what was so controversial or taboo about admitting that yes, historically, there has been a problem and that yes, there is still a problem.

    It is incredibly hurtful when, after addressing the issue of sexism, one is told, implicitly or explicitly, that her perception is wrong.

    You will help sisters not only regain their voice, but also confidence in their perspective. It’s badly needed.

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