How to Eat an Elephant: Not Just Another Post About Women’s Roles in the Church

by Lauren Smelser White I suspect that a strong contingency of Tokens blog readers are members of Churches of Christ, and that those of you who aren’t are still more or less familiar with our “family dynamics” when it comes to gender roles in our congregations and schools.

But what you all may not know is that Church of Christ colleges are graduating more women than ever with degrees in Bible, Theology, and Ministry. Claire Davidson Frederick headed up a session at this summer’s lectureship at Lipscomb University specifically for the sake of considering the implications of that fact—her thought-provoking prompts for discussion were: “What does the future hold for women who feel called to ministry and leadership in Churches of Christ? Will we intentionally create space in local churches for their gifts to be used, or are we educating girls in Church of Christ colleges for them simply to leave Churches of Christ?”

You also may not know that there are some well-organized and committed groups out there who advocate for robust support and inclusion of women’s voices in Churches of Christ, most notably the initiatives called “gal328.org,” “Women in Ministry Network,” and “1voice4change.” Also this summer, at the CoC-run Christian Scholars’ Conference, leaders from these groups convened a session titled “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Strategies for Social Change Within the Churches of Christ.” Jeff Baker opened with some compelling remarks (…whatever your position on the topic), including his statement that the session’s conveners aim to tackle the “injustice [that] remains (and even thrives) broadly within our tradition,” a tradition which—“with very few exceptions—has unjustly silenced and excluded women and girls from full participation and flourishing in the Church[es] of Christ.” Baker concluded firmly that this exclusion “is unscriptural and contrary to the will of God and a full vision of the church.”

Whether or not you’re a Church of Christ member this is all quite a bit to chew on, isn’t it? In this post I aim to bite into the elephant, weighing in on how Church of Christ-ers might process the mounting tensions surrounding gender roles in our fellowship and the intentionality that cannot be sacrificed moving forward (again, whatever your position).

As an important aside, I should say that although I write with the Church of Christ context in mind, such reflections are hardly limited to the concerns of my faith tradition. They are, I believe, relevant conversation points for all Christians who wrestle with authentic submission to God’s truth as given to us through Scripture and experiential wisdom. I should also say that, after dedicating a considerable amount of study to this issue, I agree with Baker that the exclusion of females from full participation is unscriptural and contrary to God’s will for the church. The most helpful resource I’ve run across on the topic is Carroll D. Osburn’s Women In the Church: Reclaiming the Ideal. I’d challenge all of you to get your hands on a copy of it and read it, cover to cover, before making up your mind on this issue.

Provincial wisdom warrants eating an elephant one bite at a time, so this means that I’ll try to keep things manageable by entering the conversation by way of Frederick’s question about whether Churches of Christ will create space for female leadership. I’ll first consider two major pros of our reading women’s exclusion in terms of systemic injustice, as Baker invites us to do in his remarks (which you can find here). I’ll then consider two cons that could sneak in if we read the situation primarily this way.

PROS: If we interpret female exclusion in light of structural injustice, we may be more likely to…

(a) …consider how our assumptions about women’s capacities for leadership are culturally-influenced.

As anyone who’s read Virginia Woolf or watched Mad Men would tell you, workplace conditions for women have come a long way in the past 100 years. And yet, for all of our progress, consider the fact that the average woman in 2013 still only makes 77 cents to the average man’s dollar. Certainly, some of that wage gap reflects the fact that women tend to make different life choices than men; but a woman still makes less than a man does on average even when she doesn’t leave the workplace to raise children…even when she goes into one of those higher-paying job fields like science or tech…even when she and a man are both right out of college, competing for jobs with the same qualifications.

Couldn’t this discrepancy say something important about our culture’s socialization of and, therefore, expectations for men and women, believing men better suited for bread-winning (read: leadership roles) and women better suited for care-giving (read: supporting roles)? Wouldn’t we be rather naïve to think that those expectations don’t permeate our churches? Shouldn’t we work diligently to make sure that those expectations aren’t defining Christian disciples’ sense of spiritual gifts and vocation? This brings me to my next point: If we interpret female exclusion in light of structural injustice, we may be more likely to…

(b) …consider the messages we give our children and the ways those messages could affect their self-perception.

Granted, there are more women than ever graduating from Church of Christ institutions with theological training; but there are still even more of them who would say that they have no desire for leadership when men would. I’ve heard folks point to this discrepancy as evidence that the women who do have such desires have been fed false messages by a feminist-y society.

For what it’s worth, I’m a walking testament to the opposite being the case. I grew up in a home that valued education, both parents holding terminal degrees and telling me that I could pursue the same. I also grew up in a familial, congregational, and scholastic context that believed that a woman’s scriptural role was silent acceptance of male leadership in the church—when I was 22, if you’d asked me what I hoped to do vocationally I would’ve said “teach,” but I wouldn’t have dreamed of that involving church-related work. When I first went to a Church of Christ where women led during the worship service, prompting my own deep study of the matter, I was 23 years old, already pursuing a master’s degree in English. It wasn’t until I was nearly 28 that I actually began to take myself seriously as a producer of theological thought…and it was a rocky transition in many respects.

We believe the messages we’re given growing up—for a long time, anyway. At 31, I’m living into but also reorienting my parents’ expectations by pursuing a terminal degree in Theological Studies, a degree I’d love to use in service to the church’s doctrinal discernment. I’m profoundly grateful for a family who encouraged me to see myself as a lifelong learner, and for solid training in the field of English, which I love (and which sparked my theological curiosity). But I’ve often wished I had realized sooner that I had a heart for Theological Studies.

If females are as able as males to be discerners of the Word and producers of theological knowledge but aren’t as often choosing such a path, couldn’t it be that they haven’t been taught to see themselves that way? Shouldn’t we work diligently to make sure that our expectations aren’t defining our children’s sense of spiritual gifts and vocation?

CONS: If we think about this issue primarily in terms of structural injustice, we are likely to…

(a) …begin to believe that this is an issue of leadership distribution rather than an issue of gifts-based vocation.

If our churches are going to attend to their role in shaping the socialization of and expectations for men and women, boys and girls, I think they must be careful that they don’t start believing that an increase of women in leadership positions is itself a sign of gospel vision. Women and men alike should only work in congregational leadership because they believe it is what God has gifted and so called them to do, so as to contribute to the body of Christ which, after all, isn’t ever touted in Scripture as a democracy (…which is a tough pill especially for us “low church” folks to swallow).

The key, I think, isn’t going to be insisting that women see themselves as theological leaders; the key is going to be insisting that they see themselves as needing to be—because they are capable of being—as theologically responsible as are men. Simply making sure that females are seen and heard as often as are males (and vice versa) could do a lot of good, but it also could gloss over the real multitude of spiritual vocations in local church contexts. That discernment is simply too mysterious a thing to be a numbers game.

This discernment talk brings me to my final point: If we think about this issue primarily in terms of structural injustice, we are likely to…

(b) …begin to believe that this is about experiential verification rather than an issue of discernible truth.

During a recent Wednesday evening class, during which we were discussing women’s roles in the church, a young woman shared a story about how she had grown up understanding that women couldn’t serve as congregational leaders but had recently been part of a small community church in which she was asked to take a leadership role. Her experience had been intensely positive, to the point that she no longer believed that it was God’s will that women not be leaders in churches. A young man in the group raised his hand and said, exasperated: “I’m sure that experience made you feel good, but what about doing what the Bible tells us to?”

What I found troubling about his response was not that the young woman’s experience didn’t pluck at this guy’s heartstrings—it was that he considered rational reflection upon her experience to be utterly separate from rational reflection upon scriptural mandates. Ironically, I think we are in danger of similar assumptions if we privilege personal experience over and above scriptural discernment. Stories like the young lady’s above can stir hearts, but I also think that we can and should mine them for their truth-value, just as we do in scriptural exegesis. That will provide an anchor for changes we make moving forward in a way that personal experience simply cannot.

In conclusion, I hope my reader is left mulling over the fact that there very likely is some social inequity at play in congregations that resist re-examining stances excluding females from full participation. But I also hope the reader is left with the sense that we should tread lightly with affirmative-action-esque stances. I still want to trust that when Scripture-honoring Christians engage issues afresh for the sake of seeking God’s liberating truth, they will discover deep-rooted truths that set all persons free to live into their God-given talents.

But, admittedly, that’ll be hard on most everyone, because there aren’t going to be lots of big answers all at once. In my experience, it’s a lot like learning to eat an elephant.

Lauren Smelser White is a Tokens Blog contributer and a Ph.D. student in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Lauren’s work at Vanderbilt focuses on the transfiguration of desire in the event of Christian revelation and the self-offering activities that sustain cruciform faith. She is also a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice, which seeks to form groundbreaking scholars who connect their academic work to the practice of ministry and will be outstanding teachers of people preparing for ministry.

[You can read Lauren's previous post, "Thoughts from a Southern Church Lady," by clicking here.]