I wanted to respond to the Sally Morgenthaler article since I first read it, but I have been frustrated with a lack of time to write.
If you have read my blog for any length of time, you may have noticed that this isn’t a topic I bring up often. I will admit that sometimes I feel guilty that, as a representative of the female gender, I have not taken up the cause for inclusion and equality more forcefully.
Before I say anything else, let me be very clear that I respect every woman who has had to and still does fight for this cause, not only for herself but also for others, and for the very real situations in their lives and ministries where they have struggled and persevered.
I wrote this in an e-mail to some friends a couple of months ago:
This isn’t a hot-button issue for me. In saying that, I don’t want to invalidate others who feel strongly about it. Maybe I should care more, but I don’t. Perhaps it’s my age or perhaps a difference in life experiences.
I am not interested in being involved in power structures, regardless of the gender. I also don’t want to be included in groups that don’t want me. There are enough situations and relationships in my life where my participation is valued to keep me busy and content.
I am not interested in focusing my time or attention to fighting for my inclusion. Again, I’m not saying it isn’t important and that someone shouldn’t do it, but my heart isn’t there.
Sally’s article helped me to identify why my personal feelings are conflicted on how I approach this issue. It isn’t because I don’t care about fairness and inclusion of women in ministry. To be honest, I have very firmly established beliefs about equality and mutual submission in the relationships of believers.
However, those beliefs are not specific to the gender issue. They extend to all of our relationships with each other and specifically to how we relate to one another within the church, especially in regard to church government and leadership. My thoughts about leadership and hierarchical church structures overshadow the gender question, and in some ways preclude its importance.
Sally brings up these questions:
“What is it to lead the church in the postmodern context?” and then, more specifically, “What is it for women to lead in the postmodern context?”
The underlying interpretation of these questions in discussion becomes apparent when leadership is reflected upon in terms of servanthood and rulership. If we are actually negotiating for control of power within leadership, something central to understanding the true nature of church leadership is already skewed.
While many talk a good talk about leading as serving, their real beliefs and prejudices sometimes become obvious when the role of women is brought into the picture. There has never been a question about what women are allowed to do in the realm of serving in the church. They have been unhindered in their ministry of service to children, kitchen work, hospitality, janitorial duties, and other less-esteemed roles.
As Sally said, women have been required to be “as organizationally impotent as possible.” In general, the spiritual journey of women is defined by being placed in an inferior status. Women have typically already been required to learn the lessons of descent and marginalization.
The gender issue only becomes important to the discussion when the conversation concerns rulership and government. In that perspective, the true position about leading, whether it is seen as ruling or serving, becomes apparent. Let’s be clear. In that case, the real question is, “who will rule?” I believe that is an invalid question in regard to leadership within the church, regardless of gender.
According to the article, perhaps we are not asking the right questions. Sally said, “Could it be that women have spent so long trying to climb the ladder inside old church and leadership systems that the very questions they’re asking about gender equality, opportunity, and power are stuck?”
Perhaps the real questions go more like this:
What does it mean to seek biblical equality if the Church itself is no longer functioning in biblical ways?
What does it mean for women to pursue the full use of their gifts in the Church if western Christianity has lost its missional purpose?
What does it mean to hitch one’s star to the Christian status quo, especially if that status quo is a narcissistic, capitalistic perversion of the Gospel?
In summary, what does it really mean for a woman to be released into her potential, to be trusted with a ministry role, or to secure a salaried ministry position only to find that, for all her new-found freedom, authority, and seeming equality, she is only rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?
Whether male or female, our questions must ultimately move beyond power and equality to those of ecclesiastical integrity. As important as mutuality is in the kingdom of God, it is quite conceivable to be mutually and equally participating in a failing and misguided enterprise.
For me, this is the most controversial aspect of Sally’s article, way beyond the gender issue. Is this too radical? When I first entered the conversation, this was my impulse. Yet I became convinced that to expect ecclesiological change of this degree was extreme and reactionary. You know, the whole baby/bathwater scenario. How do you feel about her diagnosis of the situation?
She goes on to describe a new conversation that reframes the gender question outside of traditional institutional church systems.
…the focus must move to the people of God dispersed, a displacement more absolute than that of the first century. And in this new landscape of radical dispersion – beyond buildings, beyond programs, beyond pedestal personalities – what leadership qualities are most needed?
What are the practices and gifts of those who minister well within such a context of deconstruction, chaos, and uncertainty?
To be certain, this reframed conversation is not for the faint of heart or closed of mind…traditional gender conversations in the Church – the inclusion of women in essentially male systems – will seem like pre-school banter compared to what it means to shift out of those systems altogether.
Because, in the end, ministry effectiveness in the postmodern turn is not the result of a leader’s gender, but the degree to which they are embedded in the new world, how little their personal identity is tied to power and position, and how clearly they get what needs to happen now that the show is over.
Ultimately what one believes about the dynamics of power and equality in the kingdom will eventually be contextualized in all of their relationships. This will necessitate a radical shift in ecclesiology. Do you see this as being a shift completey out of existing systems?
In conclusion, the real issue isn’t the exclusion of women. It also isn’t the feminization of the church. The ultimate issue is whether we are ready and willing to embody mutual submission in all of our relationships with one another to the degree that we are even willing to address the structural systems of church and the use of power and position within those structures.
Women are in many ways uniquely situated to recognize imbalances of power and the lack of authentic shifts toward inclusion and also to respond to the shift toward more participatory styles of leadership and ministry.
I am very interested in hearing your thoughts and opinions about this, both about the gender issue and about the degree of ecclesiological deconstruction that Sally suggests.