Gender and Christianity has been in the news the last couple of weeks. Specifically the role of women in church leadership. After telling wildly popular evangelical bible teacher Beth Moore to “go home,” influential fundamentalist preacher John MacArthur clarified his thoughts on women in church leadership. He warned that “empowering women makes weak men” and “weak men make everybody vulnerable to danger.”
Wait a second. Studies around the world show that empowering women is the key to developing economies, family well-being, better nutrition, and equal rights. So how could this move be anti-male, anti-social or anti-Christian?
When you take the long view of religious development, I believe MacArthur has it exactly backwards. Rather than derail Christianity, the full participation of women in all aspects of Creation is the fulfillment of the Christian impulse. A look at Judaism reveals why.
Judaism is built on the power of distinctions. The creation stories exemplify the distinctions between the first six days and the other days of the week; between the sun, moon and stars; between plants and animals; and between humans and God. The evening prayer in Judaism plays on those themes by glorifying the distinctions between night and day, and between sleep and activity. Havdalah, the blessing that ends the Sabbath, lauds the differences between holy and secular, and between Sabbath and the rest of the days of the week. Ancient Jewish prayers even prompt men to pray with thanksgiving that they were not made a woman, a gentile or a slave. Distinctions matter in Judaism.
Christianity goes in a decidedly different direction. Rather than playing on distinctions and dualities, Paul has a vision of integration. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Indeed, women play a major role in the Gospels.
This theme of unity and integration is further celebrated in the New Testament. Consider the story of Pentecost. When the Spirit comes, all hear a unifying message in their own language. This unity is celebrated as people share in a common life, a common purse, and a common purpose. Finally, we see in Revelation 7:9-10 that all tribes, peoples and languages have a common trajectory—unity within the oneness of God.
So what’s with the stink about gender distinctions? Truth be told, MacArthur isn’t the only one who forgets the integrative impulse in Christianity. Mainline Christian churches have their own version of his call for strong women leaders to “go home.” Women are called the “B word” and sent packing in more ways than one.
I wonder if the focus on gender isn’t indicative of deeper problems in the church. Like decline in worship, influence, and imagination. Todd Anderson, a District Superintendent in the West Ohio Conference, recently told me, “The church is only in decline where the status quo is enforced.” He should know. Every District Superintendent is painfully aware of how the status quo stifles new life. That’s why Todd is working across state lines, district lines, and conference lines to create new, experimental ministries. And they’re bearing fruit.
Decline is not a Christian value. The status quo is not a Christian value. Women preaching, turning things upside down, is. That’s what lets new life in.
Interestingly even Judaism itself has moved toward integration. While distinctions still matter, female clergy are beginning to be ordained in the orthodox world. Even transgender clergy are being welcomed.
Bottom line: if empowered women are threatening some men, perhaps those men need to deepen their own sense of self, rather than seek to bring women down a peg.