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The rules about what women can and cannot do are dizzying.
As I've read up on the church's opinion of women, I've started to get the sinking feeling that women in these discussions are no longer being treated fully as people, but have become a problem for the church. Think about it. How many times have you heard that someone - an actor, an organization, your church - has a "woman problem"?
The topic of women in ministry should instill a sense of excitement and promise; we should look forward to what God has in store for half the church. Instead, this topic is fraught with controversy. We delay other ministries while we debate what to do with women, and we often prevent them from growing and living fully within their calling because we've added layers of expectation for women that, frankly, aren't always present in our expectations for men.
Despite what we say we believe about equality, the church tends to focus its (not always biblical) prescriptions for behavior on the female half of the congregation. Although we can hope that someday Christians worldwide will settle on one shared code of conduct (which, most conveniently, we hope will be the one we already align with), the truth is that we're going to keep disagreeing. So while we continue to wrestle with the role of women, I don't believe that we should ever disagree about the value of women.
Because we rarely face issues more honestly than when they're in front of us, this starts in our local churches.
Here are some telltale signs that the women in your church are being undervalued.
1. Women are unwelcome or unheard at important church meetings.
If voting on the direction of the church with just half the church represented is your idea of a thorough decision making process, the unrepresented half will start to feel like subpar members. Including all members in these meetings doesn't automatically guarantee fairness, however. Female friends of mine in male-centric church meetings have confessed to leaking their ideas to their husbands before meetings so that their husbands can share them instead. Unfortunately, the ideas that had been so easily dismissed when they came out of a woman's mouth were more readily accepted when a man said them.
It pains me to think of all the women who've been shut down and ignored - and all their ideas lost. Besides being plainly unfair, we drastically limit ourselves when we tune women out.
2. You have no idea what strengths the women in your congregation have.
Women are too often informed of - not asked - what their gifts are. These "gifts" often have less to do with each woman being a uniquely equipped child of God and more to do with her leaders' definition of classically feminine traits. While men might have more freedom to express their unique set of gifts (and that's a wonderful thing), the list of service options for women in the church tends to be much shorter. The more that everyone is respected and known as an individual, the more vibrant and healthy a church can be.
3. There is no discipleship training, formal or informal, set in place for women.
Regardless of who's on the payroll in your home church, everyone in the congregation should have the ability to serve and grow. If everyone can easily point out the male leaders (and their protégés) but can't name the female leaders on the ground, this could be a sign that there's a gross imbalance of influence within the church.
4. The only time you celebrate women are in their roles as wives and mothers.
To be clear, we should celebrate marriage and family and the superhuman abilities of parents to love, nurture, and function without sleep. I salute you. It's a wonderful thing to find yourself safe and at home with people who love you, but this sense of belonging isn't the exclusive territory of blood relatives.
Further, many people accomplish lots of amazing things besides getting married and raising babies, and we shouldn't constantly remind them that, someday when they accomplish something that we decide is really significant, we'll finally honor them. First homes and new apartments, cross country moves and coming home, artistic accomplishments and athletic feats, job promotions and acceptance into schools - our lives are full of cause for celebration.
5. The teachings that are geared toward women are watered-down versions of what's taught to men.
In too many congregations, men get together for intense, in-depth, multi-week studies of the Bible, and women get together once in a while to eat tiny sandwiches and talk about how the Christian walk is sort of like shoe shopping.
I have no personal vendetta against tiny sandwiches (I just wish they were bigger) or traditionally feminine pastimes, but I'd like to see our expectations for women expand to reflect our true abilities. Just like we can handle math and science and marathons, we can handle the book of Romans. Let's not sell ourselves short by believing that we'll never know - or need to know - the Lord as well as our male friends and colleagues do.
6. The burden of purity is shouldered by the women.
This imbalance sneaks into Christian teaching through countless avenues, but the most widely accepted lecture on this seems to be the question of modesty.
In high school, I read a tall stack of books that introduced me to extra-biblical dating rules and taught me that the way men viewed me was my responsibility. Although the books seemed innocuous enough, I grew to hate my body for simply existing. But because this hatred was misconstrued from the outside as humility and modesty, I was praised for being such a good example.
This is not just my story; so many women grew up into this form of self-hatred and believed that they were all the holier for it. It's a hard thing to shake loose, and we could use some help. Teachers who expound on the virtue of modesty need to clarify that, although we should all dress in ways that are appropriate to each occasion and we should seek to honor ourselves and one another in all ways, no one is ever responsible for another person's thoughts or behavior.
7. Your church has figured out that putting female faces on your staff webpage is a good PR strategy.
Since much of the movement toward gender equality comes from outside the church, the local church tends to drift behind the rest of culture. Although I'd call this particular instance a good move, my fear is that if female leadership were to fall out of vogue, those new female leaders, no matter how gifted, might get the boot.
Pushing women to the foreground of the ministry just because it's edgy is just a well-disguised way of using people. The only empowerment that lasts is the kind that's grounded in solid theology and a desire to see everyone reach her (and his) potential.
8. It's been a while since you set aside your agenda and simply listened.
Ask someone close to you when she's felt least valued by the church. Does she feel like anyone cares about her growth? How long has it been since anyone has seen or acknowledged the work that she does? Summon a little empathy.
Add female authors to your reading list, listen to podcasts on gender inequality, and familiarize yourself with current debates in the public square, even if you think you'll disagree. Reexamine biblical passages that led you to the ideals that you hold for women, and face any inconsistencies about which biblical commands you take as prescriptive and literal and which you take as descriptive and bound to the culture in which they were addressed. A fresh perspective can reinforce the beliefs you have or challenge the weaknesses in them.
It's all too tempting to set ourselves against a faceless issue. People are a lot easier to dismiss when they don't seem fully like people to us. The more distance we can manage to put between their problems and our beliefs about their problems, the more we tend to turn them into caricatures, as embodiments of the essence of our disagreement - not as fellow human beings and definitely not as family.
When Jesus invited the first women into ministry, it was not as an afterthought or as good PR (at the time, it was the opposite of good PR). It was subversive and counter-cultural. And even though he was addressing a widespread problem, I have to believe that he saw and responded to the humanity in each woman, as a loved and gifted individual, welcoming her into grace and freedom.
The church would be wise to do the same.
Emily Maust Wood is a freelance editor and fitness coach. She lives with her husband and shelter dogs, collects old books and broken things, and worries about where her running shoes come from. Charmed by the idea of restoring an old home, she chronicles the adventure at lacorbeille.wordpress.com.
Publication date: June 9, 2015