Microphones do not a leader make

churchI want to repeat myself a bit. I think this point gets lost in so many of the discussions about gender: much of the problem stems from an overemphasis on public worship.

We define our churches by that once-a-week gathering of the saints. We define much of the work of the church by what is done during that time. Think about your church’s budget. What percentage goes to providing for that time? I’m talking about salaries, about building costs, about everything involved in allowing us to bring dozens or hundreds of people together. Isn’t that the main thing our church does?

If it is, then our church has little right to exist. Our weekly time together prepares us to go out and do the work of the church. If three hours a week (or five or one) make up the bulk of our Christianity, then something is really, really wrong.

Much of the discussion about men and women in the church comes down to who is going to get to stand up, who is going to get to speak, who is going to get to be seen by everyone else present.

So let me restate my radical views:

  • I don’t think the focus of the early church was a once per week assembly. To be honest, you have to do some piecemeal Bible study to even present a case for a weekly assembly.
  • I don’t think the focus of the church was on gathering hundreds of Christians together in one place. That wasn’t practical in many settings. And if it were the focus, wouldn’t we have more discussion of such in the New Testament?
  • I think a lot of our angst comes from the modern design of assemblies. Not the New Testament example. The modern design. Suddenly stepping up to a microphone implies authority. Where someone telling their story to a gathered group of friends feels like sharing, “giving your testimony” to a crowd seems to place you above them, if only for a moment.

I know that not all of the problems mentioned in gender discussions revolve around public worship. But a high percentage of them do.

I also know that pointing out that problem doesn’t solve it. Fact is, we have large weekly assemblies. We are guided by modernism’s idea of what should be done at such times. And we’ve got to work out how to proceed.

Let’s just recognize that there should be flexibility in how we proceed, with each congregation being given the freedom to work out its own standards and norms. Those who damn other Christians for not being more inclusive of women are running the risk of damning themselves. Those who damn other Christians for allowing women to participate more fall under the same threat of divine judgment.

13 thoughts on “Microphones do not a leader make

  1. Microphones don’t make leaders, but they do tend to affirm whose voices — whose thoughts and ideas — are most important in a group’s makeup.

    Leaders lead. Teachers teach. If someone possesses the spiritual gift of leadership, they’re going to be leading… somewhere, somehow. If someone possesses the gift of teaching, they’re going to be teaching… somewhere, somehow.

    For me, the limitation appears just here: a man with those gifts may practice them at any time, in any setting. There is no Christian setting where a man with those gifts is not authorized to exercise them.

    In many (arguably the majority of) Christian settings, a woman with those gifts may not exercise them.

    You’ve been trying to avoid the concept of limitation, Tim, but we’re up against it again: if we were going to draw a Venn diagram to describe settings where Christian men and women can exercise the spiritual gifts of teaching and leadership, the women’s circle would be completely circumscribed within the much larger circle depicting the men’s opportunities.

    Women have quantitatively fewer settings wherein the traditional understanding of women’s roles authorizes them to teach and/or lead.

    Further, I think I would argue that while a *certain* percentage of problems mentioned in gender discussions revolve around public worship, it is hardly the majority of them. Eliminate them totally, and we still have the more vital issues of whose voices get to participate in congregational decision-making? Do women have a seat at the table when decisions are made about mission support? Benevolence? Doctrinal issues? In most places, the answer is a solid and resounding NO.

    Leaders will lead and teachers will teach, but people won’t stick around forever in groups that say in effect, “Your expression of those gifts isn’t valued here. You can sit quietly here and do what you’re told, and then go do all that somewhere else.”

  2. Preach it, Nick.
    In my first church, I was on staff (church secretary) and I still had very little ability to “be heard”. I was only include in staff meetings after I complained that I had no access to important information (like which of the “ministry staff” were on leave when…) The patriarchal nature of churches sidelines women, especially women like me, whose husbands are not church members.
    And this was a church where women read the Bible in services, prayed “out loud out front” and even acted as the service leader from time to time.

  3. Tim, I think this is an important point, though as you note in the post (and for the reasons Nick points out above), this doesn’t solve everything…I just want to add my affirmation that in a lot of ways, the question of “what do we allow women to do in worship” is a red herring. The important questions, in my estimation, are “who are women in the sight of God? shouldn’t women be who they are in the sight of the church be the same as who they are in the sight of God?” If we, too, are baptized and gifted with the Spirit, adopted children of God and joint-heirs with Christ, ambassadors of good news to the world–then let us be that, in all the ways in which we are capable! The question of what we do or don’t “in the assembly” is a derivative one.

  4. That article blew my mind as well, especially coming from an author who has said that such things as the denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus are not schism-worthy (contra 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 John, one might add).

    If that is where Christian feminism is today… Jen, Wendy, RHE, and others will have a hard time getting me to climb aboard.

  5. Nick, I’m really not very informed about where Christian feminism “is”. Tony Jones can be an abrasive voice and he often writes to shock. I’d really rather read women writing on Christian feminism anyway. We have far too few voices.
    Yes, men can be Christian feminists and I am pleased I have some of them as my friends.

  6. Wendy, that’s where one of my other contrarian impulses rise up. I don’t generally like reading stuff by self-avowed activists for *any* -ism. Maybe that’s just where I’m at right now, but when someone crosses the bridge between wrestling with stuff and becoming a promoter/defender of a particular -ism, it seems that they’ve declared a certain rigidity of worldview that makes it uncomfortable for me to converse with them.

    This especially happens in my head concerning -isms that promote the status of particular groups of people. I wrestle constantly with the conflict I perceive between such -isms and the “Christ must increase, I must decrease…” and “in love, consider others more significant than yourself” mindset of the kingdom.

    Not saying it’s right — just saying that that’s where I am.

  7. Nick, I don’t think any Christian feminists see themselves primarily as feminists but as Christians trying to advocate for kingdom values from a feminist worldview rather than a patriarchal worldview.
    I am not primarily a feminist. I’m a Christian. My views are informed by feminism but also by other philosophical positions. I’m anti racism, I’m an environmentalist, I’m anti nationalism, I’m a pacifist, I’m anti fundamentalism…

  8. I’ve been reading a lot of this blog off and on lately. I’m always interested in discussions surrounding gender and the church, and I thank you, Tim, for taking the time to discuss (rather than “throw-up”) your opinions and interpretations. (And, Nick, I really appreciated your comment about limitations…)

    I agree with Wendy on this one. We have far too few voices. Stories can be powerful. Especially in the church. I’m not quite sure women who say they feel called to preach or those who relay stories of hurt and pain in regards to church patriarchy are doing so because they wish to become the next activist for a movement. I think they do so because they honestly feel that way. Because they want to share with their brothers and sisters. Because they want to share in community. I hope we are making sure we don’t reduce people’s stories to “talking points.” This is why we need a plethora of voices, and why more of those voices need to be female.

    When we engage in community with one another, we are essentially saying that each story, each experience, each interaction has equal value in the Kingdom of God. If this is true, then how does our worship reflect it? How does our community reflect it?

    Mutual submission implies mutuality. You can’t say “mutual submission” and then turn around and tell women, “But you need to mutually submit more.” Or tell men, “You can servant lead, while your women can just be servants.” (I realize that is hyperbole, but at times, it feels like that.)

    Just a few thoughts. Thanks for having the discussion.

  9. hi Tim,

    You can find my response to Tony’s schism post here: http://rudetruth.blogspot.com/2013/11/sexism-and-schism-response-to-tony-jones.html. (The short version is, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone given that I’m working with gal328.org, no, I don’t think schism is the answer.)

    One thing I think Tony’s post does is provide opportunity to point out that a lot of people have left over this, albeit quietly. But they leave reluctantly and usually after years of trying very hard to stick with the church home and family they know and love. If there’s a slow, quiet, de facto schism happening, it’s not because we’re throwing down the gauntlet a la Tony Jones. People leave because they feel forced out, because they’re told over and over until they finally believe it, that there’s no place for them in the CofC–which means the schism, if it’s happening, is actually happening from the other side.

    I think that the issue of participation in worship is one of the most visible places that inequality gets acted out in our church doctrine and practice, and so it inevitably becomes a focal point for discussion. In all honesty, whether or not a church “allows” a woman to speak from the pulpit during worship is only important (in my opinion) insofar as it demonstrates the theology undergirding the practice. In itself–meh. Perhaps I have the luxury of feeling this way because preaching, for me, is an occasional joy and privilege, and not the kind of vocation which feels like, in Jeremiah’s words, a fire shut up in my bones. It’s probably less easy to “meh” when your bones are on fire. So for me, as a theologian by trade, the importance of the act of proclamation by women as well as men is what it says about who men and women are in the sight of God and in the eyes of the church.

    It’s also true, I think, that the most controversial things–in any church or tradition–are the things that mess with how we worship together. Even if it’s only the color of the carpet, if it messes with how we do things in worship, it’s bound to cause a ruckus…

  10. Jen makes the very valid point that people (women and men) are leaving and have left denominations and congregations where women are not equally allowed to serve as they are gifted. They either join churches where they can serve or they just leave the institutional church altogether. Not only are they leaving, but it’s a bad witness to the unchurched, who won’t consider the claims of Christ because of how the church “devalues” women. So, it’s missional issue, especially for anyone under 30.
    When I finally left the institutional church, my husband said he had not liked me joining “a patriarchal body of misogynists who would treat you badly”. Sadly, he was right but it took 10 years for me to realise that.

  11. Tony Jones is not a member of the Church of Christ and has since posted another blog about his use of the word schism. It’s worth a read, especially if fear over a divide has an influence on this issue. Fear is not a great place to start.

    You’ve kind of blown my mind here mixing the gender discussion with missional engagement the way you have. I am a member of a missional church of Christ and God has used our constant and intentional participation in His mission in our neighborhood to break down gender barriers – and age barriers. I agree that we focus too much on worship assemblies. I also think it’s easy to say that and often feel it is a diversion away from the issues of hierarchy and leadership, especially when churches really aren’t that engaged with their communities or as you said, “Doing the work of the church.” I believe we need to leave the comfort of our buildings and join Christ outside of the city gate. The bulk of our resources should be spent there, I agree with that. But, I also know that when we do that, a lot of things in our congregations will change and should change. One of those things, is the microphone, and who should get to use it.

    Tim, if I’m hearing you correctly, you are saying that women are equal in value, but have different roles, and that men are to be the leaders. You are also saying that too much time is spent focusing on worship assemblies and who has the microphone, when it should be focused on doing the work of God outside the assembly. Essentially, the microphone isn’t a big deal. I don’t know you, but I don’t gather from this post or others that you really believe that, otherwise you wouldn’t be posting about this. However, if having the floor, or the mic, is not that important, why not share the hermeneutical and storytelling space with all of the saints in our churches? If church is a place to recharge and prepare for our work with God in the world, why shouldn’t *all* of the laborers have a chance to share and tell their stories?

    My two cents. I think that having the mic *is* important, especially when a church *is* engaged with its community and “doing the work of the church.” Especially when the assembly comes second to our constant and intentional participation in the ministry of reconciliation the other 6 days of the week, outside the walls of the church building. The microphone, during assembly, in a Bible class, or in someone’s home – is important. It is important because now, perhaps more than ever, the church needs storytellers. We and the world that our God loves need Saints gifted with the ability to bridge the grand story of God with the life and missional participation of the church. We need men, women, and children, with one foot in the divine and one foot in the world who can talk about the story we share. The work of the church is important, the assembly is important, and the opportunity to have the microphone is important and should be shared with all participants in the mission of God. Every member of our churches should be encouraged and inspired to speak about what God is up to in our collective lives. If we only hear from one person, if we only hear from our brothers, we are missing out! Our churches need to be open to the activity of God in the world, open to participating in that work, and our assemblies need Open Mics so that these amazing stories can be told and heard by all.

  12. Won’t have time to post before leaving for Chile today. I’ll just point out something that seems to have gotten lost in this post. I’m saying that if a church decides to “give women the microphone,” that doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned the concept of male leadership. (which I know not everyone accepts) I’m also saying that denying women the microphone doesn’t mean a church is completely shutting women out of the work of the church.

    Churches that allow women to participate shouldn’t be shunned by those that don’t. And vice versa.

    I may be able to interact some while traveling. If not… see you next week.

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