I sat in the classroom next to my husband still yawning from the 7 a.m. start time yet motivated to be at church because the topic was important to me – mentoring.
It turned out to be one of the strangest classroom experiences I’ve ever had.
From the beginning the women, outnumbered three to one, were invisible. The conversations were directed toward the men and the illustrations were about men. Though the content was really good and gender-neutral, when the teacher laid out the strategy for establishing mentoring relationships, he only addressed the men. When I heard the strategy, I groaned. I knew it would not work. Women had been exploring mentoring programs for decades and his basic idea had been tried before. And failed.
After class I approached the teacher and shared the history of mentoring within women’s ministries along with my past efforts to implement programs in previous churches. I asked him to reconsider their plan based on women’s experiences. There was no further discussion or any invitation to help shape what they hoped to initiate among men in the church. I did not understand why any discussion and planning taking place did not include both male and female leaders at the same table. It seemed to me that sharing decades of women’s experiences would save the men a lot of unnecessary failure or frustration.
Ever since then I have been critical of gendered discussions and ministries that create unnecessary and unhealthy barriers to the Blessed Alliance.
Recently a woman from United Kingdom commented in response to my post “My Vision for Gender Reconciliation.” She is alarmed at the growing influence of the American conservative evangelicals and their impact on church life in the UK. In particular she is concerned with the growing trend to separate the women from the men at leadership conferences or plan women only and men only retreats.
In fact what she perceives is that male leaders are encouraging the exclusion and seclusion of women from conversations as if the issues of women are different from the men. However when she goes to the women-only workshops, the topics apply to both genders and the separation seems to not be necessary. In fact she is alarmed at the growing exclusion of women from the general leadership of the church.
As I consider gender reconciliation I believe the practice of dividing men and women in the church is overdone and exacerbates the misunderstanding and mistrust between them.
Men’s and women’s ministries and separate retreats or conferences have been a part of the American church landscape for many years. However in more recent years I am hearing a rumbling in the church, a questioning of practices that are not relevant to the younger generation and a suspicion of underlying attitudes and belief systems that have supported these practices. It’s time to do some critical thinking and re-evaluation.
We need to evaluate practices in American evangelical churches and refrain from exporting damaging practices to other cultures. I’d like to suggest three questions as we consider how to promote the Blessed Alliance, a life-giving, transformative partnership between men and women in the Kingdom.
- What are the barriers that need to be removed?
- What boundaries are appropriate to keep?
- What beachheads need to be established to move forward with the Blessed Alliance?
Walls dominate the American evangelical church landscape. The task of dismantling them will not be easy.
First on my list are those barriers that separate women from the men and result in the inefficient use of resources, limit the expression of diverse gifts and perpetuate misunderstanding and stereotypes. Gender diversity offers a wider range of perspectives, wisdom, and creativity. It also promotes a deeper sense of unity because women and men are partnering to do the work of the Kingdom.
I know that removing barriers actually makes things a bit messy and requires more work. There’s certainly more potential for conflicts. But I see conflicts as opportunities to love and understand others more deeply, to experience more gospel-centered relationships and to grow in grace and compassion.
There’s certainly the danger of inappropriate sexual attraction. But I believe it’s possible to have cross-gender friendships without sexualizing them. Lusts, like any other sin, can be controlled and overcome through the Spirit’s transformative work. Barriers won’t protect us from sinning anyway. If anything they intensify the sins. It’s easier to indulge in pornography behind the barriers than to actually face a man or woman in community where non-sexual friendships can be encouraged under the watchful eyes of godly shepherds who also can spot the “lustful eyes” (Matthew 5:28).
In her recent blog post titled “alongside” Kathy Escobar wrote this:
There is so much we can’t learn when we’re always segregated, relegated only to be above or below one another, or full of fear. I wish more men and women would bravely dive into the deep end of learning how to live alongside each other as leaders, brothers & sisters, and friends.
Christ came to establish a profoundly redemptive community committed to walking together “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 5:2-3).”
Why do we have barriers in America? These are the two main reasons I get from men in the church:
Men have no control over their sexual impulses when around women. So women can’t be in the same room with them. Or at least prop the door open.
Men have all control in hierarchical structures and authoritative roles of leadership in the church. So women are not needed at the table. Except to lay out the coffee and donuts or take notes.
I can’t quite figure out if men see themselves as weak or as strong. Either way the barriers go up and women are excluded.
Removing barriers means combining resources, pooling ideas and encouraging cross-gender communication. It means a commitment to cross-gender friendships within a community that will work hard against the cultural pressures to sexualize them. Removing barriers means recognizing the presence and work of the Spirit through all the voices of the community so that a woman can speak into the life of a man and a man can speak into the life of a woman with words of reconciliation, healing and affirmation.
Removing barriers will create a new culture within the church where unity and love is a visible and felt reality. The church becomes a witness to a world that wants to belong to such a reality.
I define healthy boundaries as agreed upon lines of demarcation that allow a subset of a community to experience a deeper level of relationship or healing.
- A single mom’s group seeking encouragement and affirmation.
- Women who have suffered abuse from men.
- Men seeking freedom from sex addiction.
Each person’s journey is unique and is marked by seasons of life that can be wonderful or difficult, joyful or painful, healing or damaging. Small communities of identification and solidarity have their place within the larger community of faith but they must be created with care and understood within the larger framework of unity and love.
The boundaries of safety or solidarity must not turn into barriers that keep individuals from intersecting with other members of the community. The healing will be more complete if a woman who fled abuse can someday receive friendship and care from a godly, tender man. Men rally around the single mom and offer practical help around the house or spend time with her children who need spiritual fathers. Those who are gaining freedom from pornography find friendship with the opposite gender in ways that are meaningful and not objectifying.
Boundaries are not barriers. They are lines in the sand that can be erased by the surf when safety is no longer needed, when the seasons change or when healing has happened.
Definition: the beginning point of an assault to capture enemy territory; the initial position or foothold gained that opens the way for further advancement and development.
In American evangelical churches the debate is reigniting concerning women in leadership and ministry. But there has been a significant shift in this debate. Whereas in the past the battle lines were drawn between the conservative and liberal interpretations of the Bible, the current debate is found inside the conservative evangelical camp.
Well-known, respected evangelical scholars are advocating for gender equality in all spheres of the church. Patriarchal and hierarchical structures of leadership are not only seriously questioned but also abandoned in some churches. The number is slowly growing.
A beachhead has been established.
Women are gaining a foothold in seminaries and churches. But the transition to this new understanding of the Blessed Alliance is terribly painful and slow. For now large numbers of women are leaving evangelical churches that refuse to remove the barriers. However these women are having difficulty finding a community that welcomes their voices and their gifts, especially leadership, teaching and preaching. Furthermore Jim Henderson in his book, The Resignation of Eve, identifies other women who have not left physically but have left emotionally and are no longer volunteers or voices in the church.
Additionally the advancement of the Blessed Alliance is stirring up a resistance movement, a push back from conservative forces within evangelicalism. Like Mark Driscoll and John Piper.
As difficult as it is for evangelical women right now, I have hope. I am optimistic that the beachhead will persevere and women one day will be treated equally and will be free to enter the full spectrum of gifts and callings.
For those outside the American culture, like the woman who is watching the reverse happening – the establishment of a conservative beachhead among British evangelical churches – I would encourage your voices to rise in protest, asking for critical reflection on the nature of the changes taking place. Do not allow the leaders to build barriers, to exclude and seclude women. Pay attention to the conversations and call for dialogue that exposes wrong motives and wrong thinking. (From my understanding, British culture has a more healthy view of women. Look at the heroines in British TV or film – they don't have to be young, gorgeous or ninja fighters.)
Any movement toward greater division hurts the church and does not accomplish the reconciliation brought through Christ. The Apostle Paul understood that reconciliation with God meant reconciliation with each other. Not just Jew and Gentile. I believe Paul would have included men and women. Jesus certainly did.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16)
The results of destroying the barrier?
For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit (2:18). And…in him you are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (2:22).
The Blessed Alliance is worth fighting for in order to gain the presence of God.