Despite the reality that gender issues are trending in culture and on social media, many in the church seem to equate talking about this polemic topic with swimming in a shark tank: too dangerous and not worth the thrill.
My husband and I have been leading long-term healing and discipleship programs in New England area churches for more than 20 years. We frequently—and willingly—jump in that shark tank to discuss gender and other taboo topics. What we hear again and again from participants is, “Why aren’t we talking about gender issues in the church?” We aren’t talking about gender issues in the church because it’s easier not to. Based on what’s happening in our culture on the topic of gender, God is offering us an opportunity to not only engage, but lead this conversation.
There’s potentially more at stake when we discuss gender—directly or indirectly—than any other issue. Remember the conversation about how to communicate summer dress codes for Sunday morning leaders that unraveled before you finished your coffee? Remember how your worship leader pushed back when you suggested that the songs he chose were a bit too feminine? When defensiveness shows up uninvited in your staff meetings or events, what might be happening is that the men and women are feeling threatened in a deep place. At core, we are gendered people. Though we can set aside our political, geographic, or denominational preferences, we cannot separate ourselves from our gender without some level of disintegration. Defensiveness, or protest, becomes a form of protection against this disintegration.
To some degree, this protest is healthy because we shouldn’t try to separate ourselves from our gender. Since we are created in God’s image, gender reveals a component, or essence, of his character. If we reduce gender to plumbing (biology), we miss out on the bigger picture. As a woman, my body’s ability to grow a child inside my womb displays nurture. But nurture is not simply a woman’s thing. It a God thing. Similarly, though men and women have the same number of skeletal muscles, men generally have more muscle mass due to higher levels of testosterone. But strength is not simply a male character trait. It’s part of God’s nature. So when both men and women nurture, when both men and women exhibit physical strength or strength of character, they reveal God’s nature.
Because of this deep and profound truth, conversations which are reductionistic and assume that to be a woman means X and to be a man means Y, have the capacity to create divides—or expand already existing ones. We are complex people, and our God is a big God, yet we often persist in squeezing each other into little, tiny boxes. That can be as innocent as assuming men should be assigned parking lot duty and women should coordinate the after-church brunch. It can also be more consequential and therefore painful. If the woman who has the official role of administrator actually functions as a pastor in her church, but the denomination refuses to honor her with the title (and pay) of a pastor, it’s not only this specific woman who feels the sting of inequality. Gender-based hierarchies create tension. These feelings bubble to the surface when we sit down to have a conversation about anything of consequence.
Obviously, different denominations have varying beliefs about the roles women should have within the church structure. I’m not suggesting that all denominations should become egalitarian simply for the sake of easing tensions. I am suggesting that as leaders, we carry an awareness of how our personal biases about gender impact others and how our personal wounds can manifest in the corporate sphere, particularly if we replicate broken systems.
We carry our biases with us every waking moment—even on Sundays. (If you aren’t aware of those biases, the best way to uncover them is to pay attention to the times when you feel defensive and then bookmark those events.) Some of these biases have formed—and occasionally calcified—around our family systems or areas of unresolved wounds. According to Georgetown University’s Bowen Center for the Study of Family, “Family members so profoundly affect each other's thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same ‘emotional skin’…The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent.” Family systems are unique but also largely impacted by the prevailing culture of their ethnicity. They affect us individually as well as corporately.
For example, some cultures are systemically patriarchal but functionally matriarchal. In these systems, family life is externally geared around what the husband, father, or brother wants or needs with the women playing supportive roles. A woman might comply, but then find creative ways around male domination. (Remember the line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding? “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”) When we grow up in a family system that is not rooted in the gospel, it’s possible that we will perpetuate all manner of brokenness, such as misogyny (the hatred and dishonoring of the feminine) and misandry (the hatred and dishonoring of the masculine) and not even be aware of it.
I grew up in a family system that was rife with misogyny. Masculinity was valued above femininity. I learned early on that expressing feelings or showing vulnerability would cost me. By the time I was a teenager, I had become self-sufficient and prided myself in needing no one. (Essentially, I devalued my feminine characteristics and embraced masculine ones which seemed safer and more acceptable.) I carried these broken values with me when I began leading in church as a young twenty-something. Practically speaking, this translated to my judging and avoiding those who appeared needy or weak.
Discerning and uprooting such broken beliefs is not easy. It requires humility, persistence, and a willingness to be troubled when we sense a disconnect between how Jesus treated others and how we do. In order for me to untangle myself from the misogyny of my family system, I needed to stay in the discomfort caused by certain types of men and women. The discomfort revealed my tendency to avoid men and women whom I perceived to be needy. Once I saw the pattern, I confessed to others and began repenting of my sin.
Our ability to lovingly and objectively dialogue about gender issues will fall short of God’s intention until we regularly confess, repent, and seek transformation as a lifestyle. If we truly want to press into gender (or race) issues, we cannot cut ourselves any slack. Becoming holy and Christlike must be our first and foremost priority. Women, we need to willingly and regularly admit those areas of pain and unforgiveness that we hold against men. We have to release them to the foot of the cross and purpose to love and respect our brothers, in word and deed. And men, you need to explore your thoughts and lifestyle, prayerfully asking the Lord to show you any areas where you dishonor, disregard, or minimize women in your life. The Lord also calls you to a lifestyle of confession, repentance, and a renewed commitment to learn how God wants you to love and honor women.
The core divide in humanity is across the genders. If the way that we’re manifesting the gospel within our churches is not addressing this primary divide, we’re not truly reflecting what the gospel asks us to do—bring reconciliation to the world. The gospel of Jesus Christ has more to offer on the topic of gender than any other source. I believe that God longs for us to lead these conversations, rather than avoid them. Respectful dialogue allows us to understand and trust each other more deeply and thus reflect God more purely. Though the conversations are risky, when they go well, we actually have the opportunity to see each other as the unique men and women God created us to be. That is a risk totally worth taking.
Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days writing about faith, encouraging others as they pursue Jesus, making photographs of beautiful things, and trying to love her family well. You can find more of her Words & Images @dorothygreco.com or follow her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/DorothyGrecoPhotography.