In this week’s What If… series I write about the issue of women and the pulpit. In the world of Christian culture, most churches are male-centered in leadership and preaching. What if that changed? What if women were in the pulpit, too, leading and teaching in congregations the world over? Let’s talk about that!
The first time I heard a woman give a message from behind a pulpit I had been a Christian for about three years. Up to that time, I had only heard men preach and had only seen men pastor. Of course I had seen women minister in women’s ministries and Sunday school, the side ministries if I may call it that. But I never saw a woman along side the men in churchwide public leadership or teaching. I had to leave America – and the church – before I did.
I had moved to Hong Kong to serve Jesus in Youth With a Mission. My training school was meant to be co-led by a husband and wife team. The husband became quite sick and was bedridden during most of our training. His wife led us, all on her own, week after week. She shared many times and exercised spiritual leadership and authority with no observable hindrance. I was in awe. I had never seen a woman lead like this. I didn’t think too much about it, and thought of her as a YWAM leader. She was not a pastor so this helped me accept her leadership. I was an evangelical Christian young woman and accepting a woman as pastor would have been like trying to let a grade school kid drive my car. It just didn’t seem right or proper or even safe.
From that time on my world got rocked over and over again as I saw many women with tremendous leadership and pastoral gifting. They were not debating their call. They were doing it. One such woman was legendary Jackie Pullinger, a British missionary who had landed in Hong Kong in the sixties and attained a high level profile. She had managed to penetrate one of Southeast Asia’s most dangerous urban areas: The Walled City. A lawless, gang-ridden part of Hong Kong that was exempt from local authorities due to a technicality in land usage. Jackie established a ministry there and began to help provide rehab housing for heroin addicts who were desperate for Jesus to heal them.
What if women were free to move in and out of the pulpit without a No Girls Allowed gate barring them?
She writes in her book, Chasing the Dragon, that she discovered that women workers were more effective than men workers. The agitated addict withdrawing from heroin could become violent and were known to hit male workers. But they would restrain themselves from striking out at female workers. This is how many women became not only rehab ministers but also spiritual ministers in the work Jackie did around Hong Kong. There was no male/female divide in who the Holy Spirit would empower to serve and save the lost.…or preach the word or disciple the addict. The work of God was free, unhindered by social constructs that many have corseted the Bible with.
It gets me thinking. What if women the world over were free to preach and minister like the women in Jackie’s ministry were? What if women were free to move in and out of the pulpit without a No Girls Allowed gate barring them?
Here’s an excerpt from my book Unladylike: Resisting the Injustice of Inequality in the Church:
I once prayed with a young woman who had secretly felt a deep call to the pastorate, but she had no mental framework to accommodate such a desire. People she loved and respected had taught her that girls do not grow up to be pastors. Not with overt sermons in her moderate church, but by the nature of the face of her church — exclusive male leadership and Bible teaching her entire life that exalted male power, as well as the glaring omission of women teaching from the Sunday pulpit — these were the unspoken yet powerful messages she soaked into her little girl heart over and over again, so that by the time adolescence came and with it the inspiration to teach and preach, she had nowhere to go with her sense of calling, except the rails of shame and guilt for having such a desire.
The polite oppression of her identity as female was a velvet-lined cell that offered her comfort if she remained in the status quo of traditionalism. What she did not know was that liberation into her full humanity and feminine power was not anti-biblical nor anti-God, and not even anti-church or anti-man. No, the only thing it threatened was anti-traditionalism for without a doubt the force of a woman’s willing subservience in the world of church is her commitment to uphold the system of tradition that put her there in the first place.
What she did not know was that liberation into her full humanity and feminine power was not anti-biblical nor anti-God, and not even anti-church or anti-man.
What if young women like the one in this excerpt had total freedom to pursue the call on their lives, full access to bloom in their gift and flourish within the church behind or in front of the pulpit? What would the church look like if women (on a global scale!) did not hold women back?
I want to offer three traits I think we would see in greater measure if women were in fair collaboration with our brothers in every realm of ministry and spiritual leadership, pulpit included :
- Churches would be more nurturing and hospitable. It is a no-brainer that women are naturally good at building relationships and welcoming home the forgotten son and daughter. We are gatherers. Jesus used shepherding metaphors in some of his storytelling about the mission of the church. Women are natural shepherds. There would be a greater level of shepherding and relational nurturing even women were truly let loose in the upper echalons of church government.
- Issues of marriage, family and domestic crisis would be addressed frequently. I once heard a marriage counselor lament that pastors did so little to address marital issues from the pulpit. “They say they can’t because then their phone would ring off the hook. They are not equipped to help,” she reported. I think, however, that if women were more involved in pulpit ministry and church leadership on a wide scale, that it would become ingrained in our faith communities to be sure to know how to address family/marriage crisis. These are the relationships that matter most to women (and men) and women know how important it is for faith communities to address them head on. Family matters would become more central, I imagine, if women were commonly possessing leadership roles.
- More Parties. This is what I think. Women love to hang out and talk surrounded by family, friends and FOOD! Rather than just put women in charge of organizing the next potluck or catering the next pastor’s conference, what if women were PASTORS and leaders and in their churches and were able to lead party gatherings for the benefit of all? I like to think that if women were more abundant in leadership, the body of Christ would party a whole lot more.
So those are my thoughts. I’m a dreamer. I want to dream what the church can become when women and men are in true partnership behind and beyond the pulpit. I didn’t even take time to write here about how Bible teaching could be affected or the Sunday service. Wow. Imagine those changesd!
These are just some of my ideas. What are some of yours? How do you think church would look different if women were behind the pulpit?