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Sarah Starrenburg

Of Course She Can! (Theoretically): Gender in the Egalitarian Church

Posted on Jun 5, 2012 in Theology | 12 comments

This is a subject I’ve successfully avoided writing about for the almost 7 years that I’ve been blogging.

In fact, I’ve largely avoided talking about it much at all for almost 15 years now. Because no one wants to have this conversation. And even fewer want to hear it raised by a woman.

The topic is gender in the church.

…still – I ask that you consider not closing the browser just yet.

To begin with, I’ll clear up what I’m talking about, and what I’m definitely not talking about.

Firstly, I’m not talking about marriage. Roles and submission in marriage is a whole other thing, and not at issue here at all. I’m talking about women and men in the church in general. The brothers and sisters. Cool?

Complementarian and Egalitarian: What does it mean?

So – in general, Protestant churches doctrinally fall into one of two camps. I shall now summarize them in wildly general brushstrokes as relevant to this piece…

There is Complimentarianism, which holds that the Bible advocates that there are certain roles, ministries and involvement in the church which women are not able to be involved in. The extent and details of what this includes and excludes vary from church to church. What is off limits for women could range from only senior leadership and eldership (or deaconship), through to women needing to remain entirely silent in services, with no involvement in worship, teaching, prophecy or leadership. It also extends to broad gender relations.

Then there is Egalitarianism, which holds that the Bible advocates that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are poured out upon all believers without regard to gender, and that all people should be able to exercise those gifts within the Body of Christ through ministry and leadership.

To pause here for a moment, another thing I’m definitely not talking about is which position is most biblical. That’s a question of enormity, and goes way beyond the capacity of a blog post. Further, I’m really not trying to argue that point. If you hold to complimentarianism; if you attend a complimentarian church; if you’ve really searched the scriptures and you believe that is the most faithful interpretation, then I respect that. It’s not a salvation issue – though it does have serious and significant ramifications on the church. And so we can agree to disagree. I won’t try to argue you around to egalitarianism here.

No, my parameters of discussion here have to do with those churches that do support a position of egalitarianism, and whether that is being upheld as faithfully in practice as it is in position. So my starting point here is this – “If we hold to a position of biblical egalitarianism, then…”

Okay? We all good? We understand I’m not trying to start any ‘which position is more biblical?’ arguments? Excellent. Thanks!

A Movement Birthed in Egalitarianism

There are a number of denominations that hold to egalitarianism, including my own, Australian Christian Churches (formerly Assemblies of God). The Pentecostals in Australia in fact had a particularly egalitarian inception. We got going just after the turn of the 20th century, and by 1930 more than half of our congregations were established and led by women.[1] This was similar in the establishment of Pentecostalism in other countries, including the United States and India.[2]

But the landscape of these churches has shifted.  Examining the state of the ACC in 2009 (the latest statistics I have) only 26% of credential holders were women, and these women held a disproportionate percentage of lower level credentials (special or probationary, not fully ordained).  Women represent only 5.7% of senior pastors – and even these tend to be in smaller churches. When considered in terms of the leadership of the movement, there are very few women on regional and state executives and only one on the National, who was elected in 2009.[3]  Preaching rosters in many egalitarian churches today are similarly weighted heavily in favour of male representation. Perhaps most tellingly, a 2001 examination of the demographics of women in ministry in the AOG found not a single credentialed woman in the denomination under 30.[4]

In other words – we’re going backwards. We’re not raising up and releasing our young women. It becomes clear as we take in the situation that just because churches have a position statement endorsing egalitarianism, does not mean it is a cultural value that is driving praxis.

Avoiding the Subject

Look, I know. I know the assumptions and criticisms and clichés cast upon women who bring up these things…Terms like ‘shrill’, ‘grasping’ and ‘power-hungry’ sometimes make an appearance, explicitly or implicitly, as do ‘nagging’, ‘bitter’, and of course, ‘militant feminist’.

Why do you think I’ve avoided it for so long?

And that’s the thing you see. I’ve avoided it because for many years, the line I’ve taken has been this – It’s not my place to talk about it. Conversations like that need to be driven by those who have the power. It’s the men who need to talk about this stuff. Not the women. Women talking about this stuff just turns people off the conversation. And so on, and so forth. This has been my argument to myself about why it was okay for me to keep my mouth shut.

But then, very recently, a very godly, wise woman who has been around this issue for longer than I’ve been alive challenged me on my silence. She raised the question of me getting involved in talking about this. I explained my line of reasoning on my silence.

I think it’s best these discussions are driven by the men, I said.

Of course, she said.

Of course it would be wonderful if the men talked about it. But they don’t, she said. It would be just fantastic if the Pentecostal pastors got up at conferences and talked about this, she said. But they don’t.

And I finally realised. I was fifteen, you see, when I first noticed the incongruence. I decided if I just waited, some of the very good and godly men around me would surely notice too and raise the issue.

It’s now 15 years later. And waiting doesn’t seem to be working.

And so, I am with great hesitation pulling together what I see, what I’ve read, what I know.

So What’s Going on Then?

Of course, there are plenty of practical rationalizations for why things are the way they are; why the gender imbalance is there.

But then, there are always plenty of rationalizations for institutionalized marginalization.

Ooh, sounds a bit harsh, right? Like I’ve inferred some kind of malicious intent?

But that’s just it. I don’t believe that’s the case at all. There’s no plot or hidden agenda. There’s no backroom committee of baby-boomer men conspiring to keep women out of ministry, out of influence and out of the conversation. And yet, they are largely missing. Why?

I believe there are a few reasons.


One of the most powerful ones is what Shane Clifton, the Director of Research and Head of Theology at Alphacrucis College (the national Bible College of the ACC) calls “the challenge of the need for male patronage”:

“Given the simple fact that most leaders are men, it is vital that women receive mentoring and support from these men. The difficulty is not only the fact that male leaders tend to gravitate more naturally toward the support of younger men… 

More significant is the common fear of cross gender relationships that prevails among conservative Christians.  Public moral failures of prominent pastors in recent decades have contributed to official and unofficial rules and practices that prevent men and women spending any time together alone. While such practices may be well intentioned, they have the unintended consequence of separating women from male leaders and colleagues, reinforcing the glass ceiling that keeps women out of leadership…

Such practices establish a legalistic approach to human relationships and ethics. Just at a time when Pentecostals believe that they have escaped the legalisms of past generations, restrictions against attending the cinema have been replaced with rules preventing open and honest relationships between women and men.  And as St. Paul reminds us, legalism leads to death – in this case, the death of female ministry (ironically, by way of practices that are unlikely to even achieve their intention to prevent infidelity).”[5]

If the current majority of ministerial leaders in the church are men, and they are only mentoring other men in ministry (vocational or otherwise)…. just what do we expect other than the marginalization of women from ministry and leadership? It’s as simple as it is troubling.

We have become so anxious to avoid even the appearance of evil – which, as I’ve discussed previously, is a completely misappropriated verse meant to relate to discerning whether spiritual manifestations are from God or not. We seem to be so phobic about contact between men and women – especially married men and younger women – that we forget that every day in businesses all over the world these kinds of mentoring and skills-development relationships manage to exist in an appropriate and professional manner.

Certainly there are areas of spiritual development and discipleship that should remain man-to-man and woman-to-woman – but this should not by extension exclude mentoring relationships that focus on other areas. There are ways to make it work…if you value the development of young women in their ministry and leadership gifts enough. The risk of men and women sinning together is never best solved simply by isolating the genders from each other. Across history and cultures, that solution has never led anywhere good.

image credit alliance1911 on flickr

An Undefined (but defining) Sense

The second factor I believe is at play in our current situation of gender imbalance is this – I believe there are a great many Christians – and this is perhaps largely due to a lack of explicit theological exposition and teaching on the subject – but who, though theoretically egalitarian, have a general if perhaps undefined sense that leadership, especially leadership in the church, most particularly preaching leadership in the church, is more likely to be found in men. Women can lead, absolutely. No argument here, we’re egalitarian. But it just seems to come more naturally in men.

That’s the sense, the feeling, of the issue. Take a moment to consider – do you feel, deep down, that leadership is just kind’ve slightly more a male thing than a female thing? If so, then it’s very possible you are interpreting masculine as normative. You are seeing ‘the way men tend to lead or preach’ as ‘the right way to lead or preach’. It’s the same thing women writers struggled with a few hundred years ago when they started to write novels that felt nothing like the ones written by men and were therefore deemed unskilled. Women like Jane Austen were told that no-one wanted to read what they had to write, because it didn’t sound like what was currently being defined as ‘good writing’.

If you are perceiving leadership in the masculine-as-norm manner, then you are forcing women who are gifted in this area to conform to masculine patterns they were not designed for, or resign themselves from the field of play. You are limiting the expression of gifts to a very particular kind of woman, those who can manage to ‘play like the boys’. You are robbing the church of the richness of the feminine that is reflective of the other half of God’s image.

And it is not even just about those women who may be called to ministry. It is about what it does to women in the church broadly when no one speaks with their voice – there is no modeling; no representation; and no balance. Furthermore, what does it say to those who are unchurched when they encounter a faith community that purports to value women and men equally, and yet defaults over and over again to a model of male leadership?

The Hard Questions

If, on the other hand, you don’t believe this – if you believe, rather, that leadership and teaching are not any more a male thing than a female thing; if you genuinely prescribe to the position statements of egalitarian churches…then we cannot escape the question of why, after so long and such counter-cultural equality at our beginnings, and in the face of such huge strides in vocational equality in the rest of society around us, WHY the ministry arena – the preaching and leadership within the charismatic, egalitarian church – is so overwhelmingly male.

This is about The Church, not my church, although I’m sure it will probably be interpreted as such by some. But this is certainly not some kind of attack on my Senior Pastor, who commendably overturned all historical precedent in our church to date to bring a thoroughly qualified female elder onto a previously all-male board. That being said, my church is not exempt from the overriding patterns of inconsistency between doctrine and practice when it comes to the questions of women in all levels of ministry and leadership. It is a much bigger issue than one church, or one leadership, or one denomination.

We just can’t ignore it any longer. If we believe that the current gender imbalance is not the mandated biblical pattern, then we must admit that there are systemic issues reinforcing that patterning. And we must, if we are to be loyal to our supposed theology, begin to examine ways to correct those self-reinforcing structures – what Jim Reiher in Australian Pentecostal Studies calls an “unconscious boys club which is both structural and cultural”.[6]

Is it Good Enough?

Let me end with an anecdotal example. When I was doing my theology studies, I had to do a leadership critique on one of the prominent Pentecostal pastors in Australia. It was an overwhelming positive evaluation – in fact I got in trouble and lost marks for not being critical enough of his leadership! But one thing I did notice, amongst all the interviews and articles and materials I went through to research his leadership, was a comment he made when an interviewer asked him about women on eldership –

“It is true that at this point, none of the church Elders are women.  I think it’s something that we need to keep addressing, but I do have one particular key person who has a real strong biblical stance on that, and I think mostly it’s out of respect to them at this point, that I haven’t considered bringing a woman onto the eldership.”[7]

In other words, the exclusion of women was not a deep conviction of the church’s overall position. We need to ask ourselves – is that good enough? Is not wanting to push too hard, not wanting to make anyone uncomfortable, is that good enough? Or, as Willow Creek’s leadership did when it came to the question of women in certain roles, is it beholden on us to search the scriptures and be very, very clear about our position on women, make that known so that everyone knows where they stand, and then pursue that even if it makes some people uncomfortable?[8] General uneasiness does not a theology make.

Indeed, all theology – all bringing together of the scriptures and life – is local theology, since all theologians – by which I mean all pastors and Christians in general – operate, think, construct meaning and construct emphases based on their own particular context and experience of life. However, when there is an overwhelming homogeneity amongst the theologians, leaders, preachers and pastors who hold positions of influence and exposure, this ‘local’ becomes somewhat ‘default’, and is elevated to ‘orthodoxy’. If theology is about bringing together the reality of God and the reality of human experience, then a poor service is done to the collective body of Christ when only a particular segment of human experience is used to make that connection. Surely a vast area of truth is neglected when revelation is only sought from one perspective.

[1] Barry Chant, The Spirit of Pentecost: Origins and Development of the Pentecostal Movement in Australia, 1870-1939 (Macquarie University, 1999), 39.

[2] Mark Hutchinson, “The Contribution of Women to Pentecostalism” in Shane Clifton and Jacqueline Grey, Raising Women Leaders: Perspectives on Liberating Women in Pentecostal and Charismatic Contexts (Sydney: APS, 2009)

[3] Shane Clifton, “Empowering Pentecostal Women”, Presented at the APTA Theological Symposium: Pentecostalism Power and the Exercise of Authority, 2009.

[4] Jacqui Grey, ‘Torn Stockings and Enculturation: Women Pastors in the Australian Assemblies of God”, Australasian Pentecostal Studies, Vol 5-6, 2001

[5] Shane Clifton, ‘Empowering Pentecostal Women’.

[6] Jim Reiher, “Do Assemblies of God Churches in Victoria Really Believe in Women’s Participation in Church Leadership?,” Australasian Pentecostal Studies, no. 7 (March 2003).

[7] Australian story (2005).

[8] Bill and Lynne Hybels, ‘Evangelicals and Gender Equality’, within How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals, Ed. Alan Johnson (Zondervan, 2010).

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