When I wrote the first part of what is now becoming a series, I intended for it to generate discussion and responses. To some degree, it has done that. Nearly all of the responses I’ve received directly have been quite positive, by the way, with a few exceptions of course. However, from what I sense and hear about, I think one of the responses has been, not surprisingly, similar to responses generated by my articles addressing another type of systemic issue, that of unconscious racial prejudice. So, how are the responses similar? Avoidance, with the hope that the discussions will simply die down quickly and disappear. They won’t. Our younger generations (and many of their parents, by the way) simply won’t let that happen.
One of my advisors for this article is a very impressive young woman who just began her college career in an Ivy League school. She gave me this feedback: “My one suggestion would be to possibly include some of the positive reactions you received to the first article. I think many people don’t understand how big of a deal it was to so many women for you to say those things. I think it could help some of the older generation understand how deeply our hearts yearn for change and how strong our desires for validation are.” (I will let her speak for all the others – and there have been many.) What that in mind, I will do my best to keep all prejudices and biases of which we are generally unaware (unless we are the object of them) exposed on a consistent basis, at least the ones most pertinent to church life. They are hurting individuals within our fellowship and they are a hindrance to our effectiveness in reaching the lost. If we address them and change what needs changing, they can be a genuine catalyst for growth.
In this article, due to the length of material I want to ultimately include, I am going to limit my observations to the main things I am seeing, hearing and hearing about in response to addressing this topic. By far, the biggest needs to explore further fall within two basic areas. They will each be explored in two separate articles in the near future. One is the identity and relationship of leadership roles and authority. We are yet a long way from understanding this topic, and unless we understand the finer points of this one, we will not be able to make the needed progress in the realm of women leadership.
The other most pressing topic is that of understanding the importance of the cultural settings in place when the NT was written, and from there, what those cultural scenarios were and how they influenced the content we are reading 2000 years later. I made a statement in my first article that I believed was very fundamental, but I now view it as even more important to our continuing discussion. Here’s the statement: “The real estate world tells us that the three most important things in their realm are location, location and location. Similarly, the world of proper hermeneutics tells us that the three most important things in biblical interpretation are context, context and context.”
In that upcoming article on contextual considerations, I will include quotes from highly respected biblical scholars that will at least get us closer to seeing why and how these issues demand our attention. Prior to sharing those, we will have to deal with the topic of simplistic, flawed approaches to biblical interpretation that selectively choose which contextual issues to seriously consider and which to ignore. These fall within the realm of explicit and implicit sexist biases – which I will now take a moment to define more broadly.
In my first article, I described “systemic” in this way as it related especially to racial issues: “Calling anything systemic simply means that it so stamped in our psyche that we have it without being aware of it. In that sense it is somewhat like carrying a virus or having something embedded in our DNA string that may be unseen – until it becomes seen.” My good friend and wordsmith par excellence, Tom Jones, offered an observation regarding my use of terminology. He pointed out that technically, systemic refers to something system-wide (our whole society in this case), whereas “implicit bias” more accurately describes unconscious biases, expectations, or tendencies that exist within an individual. Of course, biases accompanied by ill-will or self-aware prejudices fall into the realm of explicit (intended) bias whereas the unconscious type are implicit.
To say that racism is systemic is to say that it is found throughout our system – in business, in education, in criminal justice, basically everywhere so that a person is affected it by it wherever they turn – not simply that it is something people are doing unconsciously or without awareness. However, I believe that we can for the sake of simplicity tie systemic and implicit bias together and legitimately say that that implicit bias is systemic in our society. It is in that sense that I have used the term systemic and will continue to do so, including in my references to gender bias and sexism. But for those who might aware of and interested in more technically accurate terminology, I include this brief explanation. With that now clarified, let’s move to the more practical examinations and applications toward which this present article is aimed.
Responses and Concerns Prompted by Our Discussion
Several things have become more obvious through the responses and questions I have received after teaching on and writing about male/female role relationships. One already mentioned is that we are indeed painfully unaware of cultural contexts of the first century in which the books of the New Testament were written. Some of that lack of awareness is simply due to not yet being exposed to its importance and its content. However, some of that lack is related to a faulty approach to hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) – and in some cases, that flawed approach is deliberately chosen to apparently avoid having our traditional interpretations questioned. Due to underlying explicit and implicit gender biases, males can be curiously disturbed by delving into this area. That issue I will address in much more detail in a later article, for it is a scary one and a dangerous one. All I can figure out is that somehow it threatens our manhood and brings the insecurities out of our carefully locked and guarded emotional closets.
A second area of awareness based on responses that I have received is that far too many of us seem almost incapable (at this point) of considering any type of leadership role without reading a worldly concept of authority into it. In my book, “Dynamic Leadership,” my first chapter was devoted to trying to help us distinguish roles and functions from positions and offices. Whether that had much effect I don’t know, but I do know that our worldly concepts are nearly impossible to shed, no matter what Jesus said and demonstrated about them. Our years in the world, with all of our experiences therein, established and reinforced our views of leadership and authority.
Then, in our earlier history as a church movement, we were led by a Navy Admiral’s son. In his attempts to tie his work in Boston to the so-called beginning of our movement, he prided himself in establishing what he (and then we) called “ordered” discipleship partner relationships. These were purposely designed to replace those previously called “prayer partners” relationships. The latter type provided a very reasonable approach to helping implement the many “one another/each other” directives in the New Testament. The former type provided Satan with an opportunity to promote the abuse of authority through these “one-over-another” relationship pairings.
In my opinion, this authoritarian approach to discipling ended up almost being the death knell of discipling, or nearly so. To me, this is beyond sad, for the biblical concept of discipling is what drew me into this movement in the first place, and a concept without which I do not believe that the evangelism of the world can be accomplished. The decline (near-demise?) of true discipling and our falling growth rate have tracked together, say what you want. Unbiblical, damaging discipleship (and the resultant absence of the right kind) is not the only thing on the list of what has negatively affected our growth, but I would put it at the top of the list – and almost everything else on that list is inseparably tied to the sins and failures of leadership. We must develop a much better understanding of Golden Rule leadership if we are to reverse some trends that badly need reversing. When we do broaden this understanding, the women’s role is going to end up inseparably connected to it.
A third area that has become more apparent is that far too many of us are lazy – and careless as a result. We don’t like to dig into deeper issues. We don’t even like to read anything that is not quickly and easily understood. Our younger generations raised in the electronic age can be especially guilty of this, although many of them are indeed avid readers and students – in and out of classrooms. Others of their peers don’t read much unless forced to in school or jobs – they love Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other forms of social media platforms. They can handle a reasonably short You Tube video addressing serious topics, but if the time length indicator registers more than 10 minutes, they will hit the start arrow button reluctantly, if at all. The idea of digging into more technical writing almost causes them to hyper-ventilate. Because of that widespread tendency, I have been encouraged to put more and more of my writing into those briefer and more visual formats. While I’m willing to do at least some of that, complex issues cannot be understood without deeper study, and that includes reading slowly, carefully and even somewhat extensively at the very least.
If we are not willing to do that, we will simply scan what others have said until we find something with which we agree and latch on to it without expending the intellectual and emotional energy of studying for ourselves. Trust me, some have already stopped reading this article when it spread onto a second page! But based on passages like 2 Timothy 2:15, we can’t please God without being willing to pay the price demanded for learning spiritual truths, especially the more complex ones. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” Since we are going to be judged by God’s Word, we had better be studying it – seriously! “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day” (John 12:48).
One dear sister in my own age category, a very accomplished student and teacher of the Bible, said something to this effect about my article. “I agree with what you have written, but my fear is that women especially will quickly buy into it just because you have said it and not as a result of their own study.” I couldn’t agree more and that thought disturbs me greatly. We cannot just follow what others have said, no matter how much we may like them or respect them. God is calling us all to be Bereans. “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). Please follow that example when reading what I and others say or write.
A fourth area brought to the surface by discussion our topic is how quickly we want to jump past principles directly to applications. This is closely related to area #3. Our attention spans are shot to pieces. If we don’t have ADD or ADDA or ADHD, we act like we do. Just give us the bottom line, Man, and let’s get on with it! What I said under Area #3 is certainly quite applicable here also.
Here is why I make this a separate, though related, category. One of the most frequent questions asked of me after my first article was published concerned specific roles that I thought women could serve in. So, Gordon, are you saying that women can be appointed as elders or evangelists; that they can lead churches? Those questions will have to be addressed in time but starting off the discussion by asking them is disturbing. We are dealing with a very sensitive area involving some interpretative complexities. The principles simply must receive our attention first, for without understanding them, how can we make applications that are biblically allowable and practically helpful?
Basically, all I said in my first article is that we needed to restudy the whole topic and that in my judgment, women were too limited and not utilized as fully as they deserved to be and as the church needed them to be. Some assumed that I was opening Pandora’s Box to anything and everything that the religious world was already practicing. Within that “some” were those saying “Amen!” and those saying “Oh, NO!” Let’s stop assuming and jumping to convulsions, and begin studying and talking. And let’s put a governor on our emotions, be they giddy excitement or red-faced anger.
A fifth type of response demonstrated just how resistant some are to the idea of expanding (again) the involvement of our sisters in more public church participation, and how that resistance is most often age-related. We did once expand their involvement, as mentioned in my first article, but now seem even more reluctant to consider doing so again. Although I have received some surprisingly strong encouragement from those in our older generations, all of the negative responses have come from those over 50 (maybe 60). Hence, my oft-repeated statement (to the chagrin of some) that some who were once new wine, willing to break old wineskins, have unknowingly become old wineskins themselves. If you find yourself thinking “Amen” when you read that, you are not one of them; if you find yourself feeling defensive, you are. Figure it out.
As a young minister in the Mainline Churches of Christ, I was often very frustrated with some of our older ministers and our lack of direction in churches. I appreciated what they had done in their years of service and I learned many things from them. But I saw the ineffectiveness of the then-current status quo and just couldn’t act as though I were oblivious to it. I was viewed by not a few as something of a rebel, but I was not a rebel without a cause. This drive to be a part of something where great things happened led me to leave my former church association (in which I was pretty well established) and become a part of what I then called the “Discipling Movement.” There were a few others of my age and background who followed a similar path but not many. Those who did were still young inside no matter what their wrinkles may have been on the outside.
We find ourselves in a similar situation today in our movement of churches. Our younger members are not going to be content with just “doing church” in the way that many of the older generation are. They want to change the world. Our young men and young women want to change the world. They are trying hard to be appreciative of all that we older ones have done in the past and remain respectful toward us, but they are not talking very openly about what they are really feeling about our status quo. I feel for them and I’m concerned about where they are going to end up if we don’t get back to a mission aimed at changing the world far more than we are now changing it. I am loath to think that they may feel the necessity of leaving our fellowship as I left mine when I was young, but I know that some already have. Therefore, I am going to begin quoting more of the responses I receive from the those in Generations X, Y and Z. I am also going to begin publishing some of their own writing containing their honest-to-God beliefs and feelings that we need to hear and seriously consider. So, enough editorializing! I feel better – on that point at least!
A Disturbance in the Force!
I close with a great quote I just saw in a Facebook post by my dear friend, Steve Hiddleson. It strikes a great note for ending a potentially disturbing article!
“The kind of teaching that I have been giving has disturbed some people. I am not going to apologize at all, because, necessarily, if I have been traveling along thinking I am all right and there comes a man of God and tells me that there is yet much land to be possessed, it will disturb me. That is the preliminary twinge that comes to the soul that wants to know God. Whenever the Word of God hits us, it disturbs us. So don’t be disturbed by the disturbance. Remember that it is quite normal. God has to jar us loose.”
Watch for the next article! It’s a’coming soon!