Society has undergone a massive shift, and traditional gender roles are a thing of the past: young women aspire to the same careers as their male counterparts and nowhere is this more evident than on our university campuses. In 2016 women outnumbered men in 112 out of 180-degree subjects. This gender gap has doubled since 2007. In 2017/18 63% of undergraduate students were female. Although there are fewer women represented in STEM subjects, women are beginning to finding their feet there too. Our campuses are becoming predominately female spaces. These young women will go on to occupy positions in industry, business, politics, media, education, health, and the arts. They will go on to join women who have already risen to the top and in positions of power: Cressida Dick is the head of the Metropolitan Police, Dany Cotton became the head of the London Fire Brigade and Frances O’Grady is the head of the TUC to name a few. Feminism has changed the lives of women, but despite its trailblazing progress, it does not offer women what they need. Christabel Pankhurst, one of the prominent early suffragists, came to that conclusion. After years of campaigning, she realised that she had been trying to establish an impossible human utopia. Consequently, she spent the second half of her life lecturing about her disillusionment with politics and pointing people to her expectation of the return of Christ.
Likewise, today’s generation of women need to hear of the hope that is found in Christ. However, because the culture has shifted, we have two significant problems when it comes to reaching them.
1. How Christianity is perceived
Christianity is frequently viewed through the lens of oppression rather than life-giving liberation. I was at a wedding recently in which the couple made the traditional vows based on Ephesians 5:22-32. The response from the grooms family was explosive. His mother was shocked that her son would collude in what she considered the establishment of an abusive relationship. For her, the word ‘submit’ meant ‘permission to abuse’ which horrified her as she had not brought up her son to disrespect women. She could not see the beauty outlined in the marriage relationship as described by Paul. She is not alone. The West values individual liberty, independence and freedom to think for themselves and discover their authentic self. Many hear the message of the gospel as bringing restrictive and suffocating chains. Secular women, in particular, are suspicious of the Church. They hear Church leaders in the media arguing about women’s roles but what they see is an institutional church which has been guilty of abuse. The scandals in the Catholic Church have been followed by the #metoo campaign which has its church equivalent #churchtoo. They suspect that the bible has an oppressive misogynist view of women and are convinced its message is of no value to them. If they ever hear the gospel publicly proclaimed on campus, it is mainly by male apologists and evangelists, which reinforces that the message is not for them.
We need to address two issues. Women need to hear the gospel proclaimed by women, and we need to show that rather than it being harmful to women, it provides the foundation for restored relationships between men and women. We need men and women working together in evangelism in ways that adorn the gospel and point to a better story!
2. How the Church perceives women’s ministry
Some churches have strict boundaries concerning women’s ministry. The women in ministry I meet agonise about the issue of submission, they long to be godly and frequently feel obligated to keep quiet. As a woman who is happy to speak publicly in a mixed setting, I have been asked if I believe in submission quite aggressively! It is tempting to reply: “yes, but do you believe in gentleness?” It is hard for a Christian woman to put herself forward to speak at an evangelistic event when to do so leads to accusations of being ungodly.
Christian women seeking to reach out with the gospel are not working in a vacuum. It seems that even though twenty-first-century women have broken that infamous glass ceiling in many places simultaneously, many other women struggle with confidence and asserting themselves in the workplace.Most social science research suggests that women are less confident in the workplace than men. This struggle which is well documented in the secular sphere is also experienced by Christian women and further reinforced when they also face accusations that their ministry is not appropriate. Added to this is the problem that some Christian men have when working alongside women in ministry. In America, avoiding one to one contact between the opposite sex in the workplace has become known as ‘the Pence rule’ after the vice presidents practice. Some Churches have adopted this rule. I know of one Church leader who cancels supervision of his female member of staff if he fears there is no one else in the building. What message does that give regarding trust amongst brothers and sisters in Christ? Christian women frequently absorb the idea that their ministry is not considered valuable.
This strange experience has been the reality even for prominent women leaders like Beth Moore as she wrote in her blog
3rd May 2018:
‘As a woman leader in the conservative Evangelical world, I learned early to show constant pronounced deference – not just proper respect which I was glad to show – to male leaders and when placed in situations to serve alongside them, to do so apologetically. I issued disclaimers ad nauseam. I wore flats instead of heels when I knew I’d be serving alongside a man of shorter stature so I wouldn’t be taller than he. I’ve ridden elevators in hotels packed with fellow leaders who were serving at the same event and not been spoken to and, even more awkwardly, in the same vehicles where I was never acknowledged. I’ve been in team meetings where I was either ignored or made fun of, the latter of which I was expected to understand was all in good fun. I am a laugher. I can take jokes and make jokes. I know good fun when I have it, and I also know when I’m being dismissed and ridiculed. I was the elephant in the room with a skirt on.’
In a climate such as this, it is not surprising many gifted Christian women consider that public ministry is not for them. Others of them hold back from expressing themselves or taking initiatives. The message many women hear, albeit subconsciously is that their ministry is not as important as their male counterparts. Underpinning this some Church structures do not provide equal training opportunities for men and women, e.g., women have fewer opportunities to develop public speaking ministries. There are a few reasons for this: one comes from the theological complementarian perspective, i.e., women are not called to lead the Church as the shepherd/pastor so, therefore, the focus is on identifying and training men. The other is more pragmatic in that there are less paid ministry positions for women in the long term. In some places, investing in women’s training is limited because it is felt they may stop ministry if they started a family. If the watching world perceived this, it would confirm the sexism that they believe exists in the Church.
Christian women can, therefore, experience a double whammy both temperamentally and theologically, a double setback: a lack of confidence and a lack of encouragement to engage in ministry.
If we are going to reach out with the gospel in our feminist age, we need Christian women actively engaged in ministry who are equipped in both personal evangelism and some in public proclamation. We need to identify, train and support women to grow to full maturity in Christ and exercise the gifts that they have been given. We must do everything we can to equip them with confidence in the gospel to help them overcome their natural tendency to hold back. We need to adorn the beauty of the gospel in our relationships as Christian men and women partnering together in the works of service to which we are called.
A Way Forward
1. Be committed to developing women in gospel ministry.
All of God’s people are to be taught and equipped for works of service cf. Ephesians 4:11-12 but sadly in some Christian circles there is an unspoken attitude that considers women as less essential to train than men. This limited view of ministry damages the whole Church family because it deprives us of every member exercising their gifts. To reach our post- Christian culture, we need to embrace every member ministry, equipping both men and women to serve in paid and unpaid ministry moving beyond our career orientated ministry structures and engaging in a variety of places, settings, and means. Training Christians to serve Christ and witness for him through all of life and not just in ministry settings is essential. We need women to work in a ‘tentmaking’ capacity as well as paid gospel ministry to reach women in the many and varied contexts in which women live out their lives.
I have never had a formal ministry job. The reason I am engaged in ministry is that a few significant men encouraged me to move beyond my comfort zones and trained me for ministry. I am grateful to God for them. Paul called Titus to teach the older women so they could teach other women. Paul championed women’s ministry, and we need many similar leaders to do the same today.
2. Be serious about what you are training women for
Women need to be equipped in every area of ministry. It will not be appropriate for all women to speak upfront (nor all men), but some can and should be encouraged to. Our culture has changed and to never have women speakers in evangelism is out of step. If we are to be a Jew to the Jew and a Greek to the Greeks (cf. 1 Cor 9:19-22) we need women who can proclaim Christ both in personal evangelism and public evangelism. On our campuses, some women will find listening to the gospel proclaimed by a woman far more comfortable than listening to a man. We know that it is the gospel that has the power for salvation but to get a hearing with some women, we need female speakers. It is helpful to have women speak at evangelistic events and for them to be seen as publicly contending for the gospel. Sending teams of men and women to mission weeks in which some women will be engaged in some public proclamation would be a helpful model. I am aware that this is an area of contention, but we need to carefully examine our consciences on it after all the great commission in Matthew 28:19-20 is not gendered, and both men and women are called to reach others for Christ.
3. Acknowledge the pressures women in ministry face
Most social research points to differences that affect men and women in the workplace. Lewis Goldberg developed a model for understanding personality in five traits, which has been studied concerning gender.Women tend to score more highly on the traits of neuroticism and agreeableness, which is reflected in that more women than men experience anxiety and low self-esteem and women score higher in the traits of empathy and kindness. Men tend to score more highly in assertiveness. The impact of this in the workplace can be considerable; women may lack the confidence to put their ideas forward and be daunted by conflict. Controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson has spoken much about this. These generalisations need to be prefaced with not all women and not all men, however, these differences were reflected in a recent survey conducted by a para-church organisation amongst their staff. These are some issues that emerged:
Women can be very good at working in collaboration, but they struggle to work in isolation and value the opportunity to discuss and process issues in the context of relationships. Women appear to benefit from and utilise supervision. Using Skype could be a helpful tool in modern ministry settings for women to counter some of the natural isolation of the job. However, women appear to be less likely to put forward their views in the team setting. In ministry teams, women’s voices need to be deliberately sought out, encouraged and listened to.
Women appeared to have less confidence in their abilities generally than men. There need to be regular opportunities for feedback as well as identifying and developing skills in the areas in which women lack confidence. These will differ, but the field of public proclamation is one in which many women had the least confidence. There is a need to address this with some separate training for women.
Women are less likely to take risks or to tackle an area of ministry which is new or for which they feel inadequately prepared. Women need to be championed to move out of their comfort zone. Women who are highly conscientious with a tendency to perfectionism fear failure. There needs to be a culture established in supervision and amongst teams of humility which embraces failure and seeks to learn from it. Stories about ‘successful’ missions and events rather than inspiring can intimidate those who are experiencing ministry in an unresponsive setting. Teams are not to be places of competitiveness but to supportive environments to encourage one another to take risks for the sake of Christ and help to keep persevering whatever the situation.
All believers are fragile and weak, both male and female. We fail. When we receive negative feedback, we struggle not to take it personally. When others succeed, rather than rejoicing, we can feel our inadequacies more. We can become overwhelmed by ourselves. Women in ministry tend to be more susceptible to this than men, although it is the experience of both men and women. We need to be sensitive to our vulnerabilities and spur one another on to love and good deeds as brothers and sisters in Christ working shoulder to shoulder together in partnership in the gospel. We are all fellow workers with Christ and need to keep our eyes on Him so that we all serve in the new way of the Spirit.
Therefore let us urge one another on with Paul’s words:
‘Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’ Philippians 3:13-14
3. This issue is addressed extensively by Aimee Byrd in her new book, ‘Why can’t we be friends: avoidance is not purity,’ 2018, P&R Publishing.
4. Beth Moore ‘A letter to my brothers’
6. Yanna J. Weisberg, Colin G. DeYoung,* and Jacob B. Hirsh, ‘Gender Differences in Personality across the Ten Aspects of the Big Five’, August 2011, Frontiers in Psychology
7. Jordan Peterson ‘The difference between men and women
Original blog post available at http://www.karensoole.com/blog/ along with a range of other resources.