Several years ago, Carolyn Custis James attended a luncheon held at a Christian college featuring a female keynote speaker. James, herself an award-winning author and respected teacher on leadership and spirituality, was eager to learn from the wisdom and experience of another Christian woman.
But the speaker’s message left her disappointed: “I was shocked because what she was saying was kind of silly,” she said. “It was a cute, watered-down little message that had little substance. It wasn't the kind of message that unearthed deep layers of Scripture or delved into theology.”
“I realized,” she said, “that this was so typical. The version of Christianity that for years has been presented to women is not the version marketed to men; it’s characterized by inspirational messages and fluff. But women, just like men, are faced with all sorts of issues in life — and fluff isn’t going to hold us.”
The belief that women need to be offered a “lighter” version of Scripture, she said, is dismantled when one takes a hard look at the actual text. She pointed out that both the Old and New Testaments are full of strong, courageous women — Esther, Deborah, Ruth, Abigail, and the Marys of Nazareth, for example — who the Apostle Paul says are “meant for our instruction.”
“I wanted to challenge women to take themselves seriously,” she continued. “I began asking, ‘What is the Bible’s message for women? What does it really mean to be a female follower of Jesus in a post-modern world? Are we affirming the whole Church? Are we validating the gifts of the whole Church?’”
The Great Debate
According to James, that experience is symptomatic of a larger problem for women in the Church: Historically, their God-given gifts haven’t been utilized to their full potential within the Body of Christ. One reason for this, she said, is the inability of churches to move beyond the “complementarian vs. egalitarian” debate.
Egalitarians believe there are no biblical gender-based restrictions on ministry in the church, as leadership is determined by the gifting of the Holy Spirit. Conversely, complementarians hold to the belief that Scripture restricts women from serving in church leadership roles, as the Bible establishes male authority over women. Instead, women are called to serve in equally important, but complementary roles to their husbands and to male leaders in the church.
While the evangelical landscape for women has been largely defined by these two viewpoints since the start of the 20th Century, James believes the debate misses the bigger message and prevents women from contributing to God’s kingdom as they were designed to do.
“The debate doesn’t move beyond a discussion of roles and doesn’t answer all of the questions,” she said. “It excludes women out and assumes a certain economic position or stage of life. What about those from different cultures? What about single women? What about little girls?”
James, who has written several books about God’s vision for women, lamented that people are often stuck in a binary way of thinking about women in the church: “You’re either in this camp or that camp, but I’m seeing a weariness in the discussion,” she said. “I think there are deeper questions we need to ask about how the Gospel can transform our relationships, what is our stewardship before God to use the gifts He’s given us.”
Kadi Cole, author of Developing Female Leaders: Navigate the Minefields and Release the Potential of Women in Your Church, told CP that in her experience, churches on both sides of the debate are struggling to help women take on more leadership. After interviewing over 1,200 female ministry leaders from across the globe, she found that while women make up 61% of church congregations, less than 10 percent serve in any sort of leadership role.
“Complementarian churches are finding that women’s leadership is not where they want it to be, whether it’s their children’s ministry, Bible studies, or any other ministry typically led by a woman. They’re realizing they haven't done a good job developing the leadership capacity of those women who are in leadership,” she explained. “And in churches that are full-on egalitarian — there are churches who have ordained women for over 120 years, and they still don't have anyone on their senior or executive leadership teams that are women.”
“The theology piece is an issue obviously, but it's not the main issue in my mind,” she added. “All across the board, we’re missing out on what women can bring to the table and really knowing how to develop and leverage their gifts in the mission that God has called our churches to."
Women’s Roles in the Era of #ChurchToo
The subject of gender differences and their implications for church ministry has risen to the forefront in recent years. Movements like #MeToo and #ChurchToo paired with the public downfall of several prominent church leaders due to sexual impropriety have brought awareness to gross abuses against women in the Church.
Nancy Ortberg, a former teacher at Willow Creek Community Church, author, and CEO of Transforming the Bay with Christ, is one of several women who accused Bill Hybels, a bestselling author and founding pastor of one of America’s largest churches, of pastoral misconduct. She told CP it would be “premature” to say the church has made significant strides as a result of the current climate, but said she’s nevertheless hopeful.
“I think the movement is still so fresh, but I do see churches taking the issue of men and women working together more seriously and what the upsides and downsides are, how do we protect each other and have really good, healthy relationships when we work together,” she said. “I'm hopeful that this very necessary movement that is kind of beginning to work its way through our churches will unfold to new and fresh pathways for women coming out of it.”
Ortberg, who has a seminary degree, expressed hope that someday, the Church will be a community of “many men and women working alongside one another as brothers and sisters in Christ” where the “charges of sexuality are less than the warmth of Christ-like relationships.”
“I hope and pray that women have open-ended opportunities to participate in the leadership of the church,” she said.
How Can We Do Better?
How can men and women, regardless of differences, forge strong relationships and advance the Kingdom of God together? How can churches across denominations be better equipped to disciple women in their midst?
While the answer to these questions varies widely between denominations, James believes unity can be found amid disagreement. Fundamentally, every Christian understands God has gifted all people with spiritual gifts — and every man and woman is a part of one body designed to work together for the glory of God.
“What I’ve found in my study of women in the Bible and relationships in the Bible and God’s vision at creation is that we need each other,” James said. “Men need to realize it’s not a debate or about swinging the pendulum one way or another. It’s for us to do the work God calls us to do in the best possible way. We need to do that work together.”
Thanks to the internet, women are given a voice like never before, James pointed out, as a number of women excluded from ministry have found a voice thanks to blogs.
“They have the opportunity to reach far more people than they ever would within the four walls of a church,” she said.
Ortberg agreed that strides are being made in the right direction, as many seminaries today are doing “really good work” in being radically inclusive of women. The Association of Theological Schools’ data on enrollment shows that women make up 35 percent of total enrollment in 2017–2018, and 29 percent of master of divinity (MDiv) enrollment.
Many churches, too, are embracing the question of women’s roles in all of its messiness and doing the “really hard work,” she added.
“For the most part, I've had really, really positive experiences with men and women working together,” Ortberg was quick to state.
“But when there have been exceptions, I think being able to have open and honest conversations about really difficult things and not to shut women down or dismiss them or make decisions when they’re not in the room — those are a couple of the ways in which we can just get really better.”
Still, James warned against “settling for something that looks like progress, but actually isn’t.”
“It’s not about, ‘Can you make a place at the table for women?’ Because often, when they make a place for a woman, it’s like the box gets checked, like, ‘Okay we’ve taken care of that.’ The conversation doesn’t change when she comes to the table; she’s still marginalized at the table.”
“I think to truly change inside the Church, we’re going to have to look at the bigger picture and grapple with hard issues and make sacrifices and care about each other enough to want to see each other flourish,” she said. “Thankfully, I’m seeing movement in that direction.”
Starting With the Local Church
Women’s perspectives, Ortberg said, are desperately needed when it comes to major issues facing the church. And giving women a voice and equipping them to serve in ministry begins with the local church.
“It’s giving women opportunities just like you would a man and coaching them just like you would anybody else, and giving them feedback that's both encouraging but also challenging,” she said.
“At the end of the day, I think we're really more alike than we are different. Certainly, there are ways in which men and women are different and, we have to pay attention to that. But the essence of each one of us is, we're people and we want to be able to use our gifts and I think churches are richer when men and women work together in community and in leadership.”
James pointed out that in Genesis 1, God creates both male and female to serve Him together as a “Blessed Alliance” — in every sphere of life. Their mission, she pointed out, encompassed “all the earth.”
“God’s blessing rests on this partnership not just in marriage, but in the Church, and everywhere else," she said.
That message is underscored in Genesis 2, where the language used for women is the Hebrew word “ezer,” a powerful military word primarily used in Scripture to describe God as the helper of His people.
“Women are warriors who are called to advance His kingdom no matter where He puts us,” James said. “Our brothers need us, we need to be strong, we need to be thoughtful, we need to be champions for them and they for us. God means for all of us to flourish and use our gifts, regardless of gender.”
“When women flourish, men flourish, too, and Kingdom work is stunted when either moves forward alone,” she added. “We simply can't do the Kingdom work God has called us to do without one another.”