Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Where Is the Voice of the Evangelical Woman?

I love the story in Luke 10 where Jesus affirmed Mary’s presence at his feet rather than in the kitchen with Martha. Mary was treated as an equal among the male disciples. I imagine her participating boldly in the theological discussions ensuing from Jesus’ teachings.

But Martha was not to be outdone by her sister. In the story of her brother’s death (John 11) Martha also entered into a theological discussion with the Rabbi. She was well versed in messianic prophecy and resurrection theology and Jesus engaged her fully as he did men like Nicodemus.

The space at Jesus’ feet had no gender restrictions.

The title of this post is adapted from another post by Leslie Keeney, “Where Is the Voice of the Evangelical Academic Woman?” She asks why theologically inclined women are not participating in conversations taking place on theology blogs or academic blog tours.

Keeney offers five possible reasons:
  1. Women don’t like the spotlight and shy away from self-promotion.
  2. Women avoid verbal confrontation and expressions of ideas that may invite criticism.
  3. Women are more comfortable in an all-female environment and avoid sharing power with men.
  4. Women are fed up with the “old boys’ club” and have given up trying the change the power structure.
  5. Women think about and discuss theology differently than men. Keeney implies women therefore are not understood, valued or included.

I found this list of reasons why women are not speaking up in the academia applicable to why women are not speaking up in churches, more specifically evangelical churches that limit women to certain roles.  However there are a few differences between the two arenas.

Keeney recognizes there is more freedom for women in academia to pursue studies and teaching positions where it is “theoretically a level playing field.” That is not the case for evangelical women who believe they are called to non-traditional roles in the church. Men dominate the high ground of leadership and circle wagons around the pulpit.

Also many make a distinction between church and educational institutions that teach the Bible. Therefore certain passages in Scripture like 1 Timothy 2:12 are not applied in the classroom. That distinction permits men to learn from a female professor while they resist teaching from a gifted female teacher in the church.

Lastly academic women who do not comment on blogs or participate in public theological discussions are still able to do what they have been called to do – teach and encourage discussion in their classrooms. Not true in the church. Not speaking up results in the perpetuation of traditional thinking and practices. If women do not voice their objections or challenge the system, then men, in general, will continue to dismiss or marginalize them.

I know that this is not true of all men or all churches. There are men who recognize women’s giftedness and who speak up for women, advocating for their inclusion. There are male pastors and elders who have rejected the traditional views of women and have embraced a full partnership with them. I am grateful for these men, including my husband.

But there are not enough of them. And I know there are many women who are silencing themselves.

However, lately I am hearing a rising chorus of voices. Gifted voices. Intelligent voices. Passionate voices. Female voices that do not have to sound male to be heard. Confident voices that do not shrink back when accused of not being “biblical.”

Keeney believes “there has to be a middle ground for women who are called to storm the gates with intelligence, grace, and love.” Though she is referring to women in the academia, her statement is also true for women sitting in pews.

Most of the women I know who are in the pews have these qualities but they hesitate to “storm the gates” for one main reason. They lack the confidence to voice their objections to hierarchical structures because they have not been encouraged to learn theology or to engage in theological discussions. Many do not know there are alternative readings of Scripture that allow more freedom for women than what has been granted in male dominated leadership. In order to challenge the traditional structures, an increasing number of women are realizing the need to study what Scripture has to say about their place in the church.

There is a woman in Portland who is committed to equipping women to speak up. Her name is Pam Hogeweide, the author of Unladylike: Resisting the Injustice of Inequality in the Church.  She hosts  “theology camps” where women can learn what the Bible has to say to them. Pam is taking a proactive role in helping women find their voices.  What would happen if theology camps for women popped up across the nation? I believe increasingly informed female voices will make a significant difference in the church.

So I say to evangelical women in the church…
  1. Speaking up and declaring what you believe God has given you in terms of gifting and calling is not self-promotion. It is obedience to Christ.
  2. Offering a different perspective and idea or confronting hurtful attitudes is not criticism. It is speaking the truth in love. 
  3. Sharing power with men or partnering with them in kingdom work is not creating sexual temptation or weak men. It is fulfilling the mandate of Genesis 1:27-28 to rule together as co-image bearers of God.
  4. Challenging the power structure or old boys’ club is not rebellion. It is living the kingdom principle of equality and mutual submission.
  5. Thinking about and discussing theology from a woman’s perspective is not heresy.  It is a deepening of our understanding of who God is and how he works.

Where is the voice of the evangelical woman? It is rising slowly above the din of debate, above the walls of exclusion.

It is a voice of intelligence, grace and love.


  1. Amen. I pray that this happens more and more.

    I would add one observation. As women become more theologically conversant, as they discover "alternative readings of Scripture that allow more freedom for women than what has been granted in male dominated leadership"... many of them will probably find the traditional interpretations of Scripture to still be compelling.

    There is a danger that women who are convinced of a fully egalitarian interpretation of the Bible will have a hard time accepting that other intelligent, informed women remain convinced of an interpretation that excludes women from church leadership.

    We see this in other spheres. In the abortion debates, for instance, there is a similar dynamic. Many women feel that abortion advocacy is a key front in the battle for the freedom of women against the oppression of men. When they come across organizations of women that are opposed to abortion, they tend to dismiss them, or even insult them as being still under the influence of old ways of thinking, or under male control.

    As women find their voices, it will be important that they have the freedom to voice even the traditional views, without being ostracized or belittled by women who believe in a more egalitarian system.

    Not all non-egalitarian church systems "dismiss and marginalize" women. Not everyone who holds non-egalitarian views is oppressing women.

    It is important that we have a vibrant theological discussion about these issues in the church, and that women have an equal voice in that discussion. But it is also important that we be careful about our language, avoiding pejorative terminology as much as possible, so that the discussion can be truly open.

    I earnestly desire to see this discussion take place more in our churches. Honestly, I don't know where I will end up. I've never held strong views on the issue of women in church leadership, basically going along with the flow, finding neither side of the debate fully compelling. I would love to see the issue explored more fully and openly, and I would love to hear more voices enter the discussion.


    1. Thank you, Mark, for your support for a discussion in the church. I believe such a discussion can be healthy, healing and empowering no matter what side you take if it is agreed that the intent is to UNDERSTAND, not CHANGE people's beliefs. However I also believe that since most evangelical churches are complementarian and that this view of women has been the predominant view for ages, there is probably a segment of the female population in those churches (if they haven't already left) who are silent but not in agreement with the complementarian view. Some have left their churches but many remain, feeling grief but not knowing that the view is being challenged greatly within the evangelical camp. The challenge is substantive and becoming more compelling. I wanted my post to be an encouragement to those women that they are not alone and that they have good reason to embrace their egalitarian leanings. I accept that there are differing positions on this issue. Like you I just want more dialogue.

  2. Thank you for this post! As a Christian woman in higher education, I am struggling with the lack of acceptance both in the Church and academia. I find that in academia I am accepted as a woman thinker and leader, but not as a Christian. In the Church I have found that I am accepted as a fellow believer, but not as a thinking woman with leadership gifts. In spite of this, I am encouraged by the growing call for woman's voice in the Church. I pray that God will guide us and will present us with opportunities to speak the truth in love, both in the Church and in academia!

    1. I would imagine that it's easier to handle not being accepted as a Christian in your secular context than it is to handle not being accepted as a thinking female leader in your sacred context. How tragic! I was talking to a friend who believes an earthquake is happening in the church. Let's pray the shaking moves men and women closer together in a partnership God intended from creation. Thanks for your comment!

    2. Kate your voice is one that needs to be heard. An educated, passionate voice that asks wonderful thought provoking questions to an audience far beyond the one you currently have. Questions that we as a Church worldwide need to find better ways of answering. Some have yet to be answered at all.

      Praying for God to continue to give you wisdom and the ways to share that wisdom with all who need to hear.

      Thank you for who you are, for your heart and for the woman that you are! A one sided view or voice, be it a man's or a woman's alone, is deprived of perspective.

    3. Allen,

      Beautiful words of affirmation and empowerment. Thank you for encouraging Kate!

  3. In thinking about why I sometimes find myself silent on the issue of women in the church, or on other issues of importance, I find it has less to do with theology, or lack of confidence, and more to do with the way women who don't fit the common mold so quickly suffer personal attack. Even in secular politics, women who dare to speak their mind find themselves accused of being strident, unfeminine, "sluts," or worse. Women who have chosen the path of acquiescence are often threatened by women who speak up, and use gossip as an avenue to force conformity. Men who like to hear themselves talk can make life hard for those who object to being constantly shut down or interrupted. There was good theological encouragement of women in the late sixties and early seventies. And here we are, decades later. Yes, there are plenty of women who have left the church, and plenty more who have gone deep underground. I'm not sure theology camps will be the answer. And I'm not sure we'll hear the voice of intelligence, grace and love until we're also willing to acknowledge the voice of grief, anger, and great discouragement.

    1. Thank you, Carol. You are right that the road to equality in the church is not as simple as gaining theological/biblical competency. I should qualify my suggestion as being a beginning and not a final solution.

      That road is fraught with emotional land mines, including the ones you expose: 1) UnChristlike personal attacks that come from so called "godly men" or leaders in the church. 2) Misuse of gender stereotypes and misapplication of "biblical" personality types to women. 3) Mistreatment of women by other women. 4) Inability to listen well or engage in thoughtful, respectful dialogue.

      I want to address these as well. Your comment was a reminder that gaining equality is more than intellectual argument - the more difficult barriers has to do with the heart and the impact of the fall on relationships.

      Amen to your last sentence - so important! I am grateful for the women who paved the way for the current debate within evangelical circles. They suffered greatly and many still do today for speaking truth. I'm hoping that if more women (and men, my husband reminded me) speak up including ones who "fit the common mold" then the men who hold the power in hierarchical structures will be more inclined to listen. Hearing the voice of grief, anger and discouragement means hearing our stories and I believe those stories are beginning to be told. I am hopeful.

      And I hope those who have silenced themselves will take courage to speak out once more. There are more and more sisters and brothers who are stepping up and alongside those who have pioneered the road toward freedom for women.

      Thank you again for adding your voice!

    2. Mrs Congdon,

      Thank you for speaking and writing well on this issue. I'm at the end of a radical awakening to these ideas and stepping boldly into a new kind of freedom that as a woman of God, I had never imagined. Jesus' love is expanding rapidly in my life, and I'm grateful for the woman before me who are doing the tough and glorious work of making sure equality is found in the church.

      I'm sorry I wasn't able to take one of your classes at SoT in the 3 years I've been attending the church you did/do. I'm sure they were excellent! I hope you're able to continue teaching, whichever community you join.

      I'd love the chance to talk to you about the practical implications of equality in that church, specifically as a young single woman, as I wrestle with whether or not to stay. Maybe you'd be up for that?

      Oh, and thank you for teaching me about clouds! That's basically the only thing I remember from Middle School Science Bowl, but it's pretty applicable in the NW. :)

      -Emily M

    3. Hi, Emily! Wow! I got to the last paragraph and just about flipped. I'm wracking my old brain for the one who were involved in the Science Quiz Bowl. I'm coming up with your last name but I don't want to post it here in case you want to remain anonymous (and I may have the wrong Emily). Email me at and yes, I'd love to talk to you about what you are wrestling through.