Mike Graham is a husband and dad of two kids. He has a successful personal training business and is a lay elder at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
The role of women in the church is a constant source of debate. Often, the debate focuses on women serving in the roles of deacon(ness) or elder (or pastor). As the world and liberal denominations begin to blur gender and put women in pulpits, conservatives (with great frequency) can overreact. Women are thus pushed to the edges of our central ministries. Their voices are hushed and they are called to follow.
In my marriage, my wife and I are both formed in the image of God and are of equal value and worth. In my God-given role as leader of my family, I almost never make a significant decision without discussing my wife’s thoughts, insights, feelings and fears. The times that I have gone it alone, I look back and wish I had asked for her advice.
In order to reflect Christ, I must put her first and be willing to sacrifice whatever necessary for her and her needs (1 Peter 3:7, Philippians 2:4). Who would know her desires and needs better than her? How can I live out my call to love her as my own body and put her needs above my own without intentional interaction and a pursuit of her mind and heart to help me set direction and make decisions (Ephesians 5:28)? Her wisdom and insight are as valuable as mine in making decisions for our family because she sees things from a different perspective as a female image-bearer of our God. We all have blind spots, and our spouses are uber-aware of our tendencies, weaknesses and woundedness. Part of her role as my wife and sister in Christ is to encourage and challenge me toward Christ in areas where she sees my deficits and vulnerabilities (1 Thessalonians 5:11). We are one flesh in God’s eyes and without her insight and wisdom I am driving my family forward not utilizing the greatest human resource God has given me – my wife.
In the same way, if in the family of God, brothers (including the elders) in the church try to lead the family forward without the wisdom and insight of sisters, then we are making the same mistake. When we are not embracing the gift and blessing of our sisters’ perspectives and thoughts, we are functioning as only half the body of Christ. And in turn, we are openly devaluing the women in our church as equal image-bearers of our Father God who have so much to give for His glory. When their insights, thoughts and feelings are not honored or even noted as the church rumbles forward, we express that they are second-class citizens in the family of God. Trust me, they feel it. And often, out of respect for their authorities that don’t seem to desire their engagement, it causes them to withdraw.
I would suggest and argue that one major way to measure the maturity of a church is by its capacity to listen with compassion and respect to feelings, perspectives and intellects of its women, just as much as its men. At no point is it being suggested that women step outside of their clearly stated biblical scope and take on pastoral or preaching roles in the church (1 Peter 5, Titus 1:5-9). The suggestion is that we radically rethink how to have meaningful engagement, giving sisters a voice that is heard, respected and incorporated into our decision-making (and not just from the pastor’s wife).
Imagine a woman in a church being taught that the men will lead, shepherd and care for her soul; yet many of her greatest needs are not being met, many of her fears are never addressed and she is left to endure with no voice to express her suffering or concern. The shepherds are left unaware of the needs of the sheep; and the sheep suffer. It doesn’t need to be this way. Women can critically review ministries, create ministries and lead ministries. Here are some practical ways that can happen:
- Pastors can determine a potential direction (new ministries, sermon series, growth initiatives…) and then sit down with a group of women (preferably from several stages of life) to discuss and assess these initiatives by listening to their thoughts, concerns and suggestions.
- Women can also be used as a feedback loop for existing initiatives. Are we meeting their needs? Where can we grow? Where are the deficiencies of our existing ministries? Input can be used to improve existing ministries.
- Teams of men and women could be created to pioneer new ministries, to assess existing ministries or to determine the most pressing needs of the church.
- Just as families need both a father and a mother, it would be appropriate in many circumstances for women to function as leaders or co-leaders with men in ministry. Small group ministries, outreach ministries, counseling ministries, and family ministries would all be blessed by having women participating in the leadership structure. As needed, an elder can be given ultimate authority, while all of the wisdom and benefits of having women involved with the direction and implementation of a ministry can be enjoyed by the church. Both male headship and strong female involvement can be incorporated (1 Peter 5; Titus 1:5-9).
- Fill the church with Phoebes (Romans 16:1 “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church in Cenchrea”), Priscillas (Acts 18:26 assisted in explaining the Gospel to Apollos and was considered by Paul to be a co-laborer in Christ Romans 16:3) and Lydias (Acts 16:15 who assisted in Paul’s ministry by helping provide for his needs).
Jesus is our example and model of leadership and headship. Jesus is ever attentive and in tune with his people. He leads with gentleness and awareness. Our interactions and prayers are precious to him and his door is always fully open to all of our thoughts, concerns and prayers. As pastors are called to lead under the headship and example of Christ, they must remember that women are equally a part of the body of Christ and their skills, gifts and wisdom must be incorporated and used in every aspect of growth in the church (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). Men and women are co-laborers in Christ (Romans 16:3).
If men always lead from behind closed doors, then they are not leading like Jesus. When men are not attentive and in tune with the thoughts and concerns of women, they are not reflecting Jesus. If men do not honor, serve, respect and include their sisters, then they are not following Christ’s example of leadership.
Jesus demonstrates our way forward together in ministry. Men must lead sacrificially as they respect, honor, nourish and love their sisters in the church. Success and progress can be measured only by giving women a voice to share their wisdom and experience, a platform to give insights and concerns, and positions to use their gifts and skills in the life of the church.