Gender and Service: A Simple Test

Last week I posted about issues related to gender and power in the church arguing that men are "lording over" women in the church and that this is sinful given Jesus' prohibition (e.g., Matthew 20.25-28). Rather than debating proper "gender roles"--whatever those might be--I argued that the only "role" in the church is that of servanthood.

Now the response you often hear in response to an argument like mine is that when men take charge in the church that this is a form of service and servanthood. Being the leaders is how men serve the church. And if this is the case then men aren't lording over by being Lords they are, rather, being servants.

That's an impressive bit of rhetorical derring-do. So allow me to respond.

Here's a simple and easy test to determine if you are actually talking about service or lording over:
A Simple Test of Service:
An activity in the church is truly an act of service if, in principle, every Christian can participate in it.
Basically, if you are excluding people from locations of service then you aren't talking about service, you're talking about power.

Let's take this test out for a test-drive and see how it does:
Case #1:
I'd like to sew some new curtains for the church offices.

Wow, you don't see guys sew curtains very much but, sure, knock yourself out. You are good at that.

Case #2:
I'd like to be the church handy-man. I'm good with carpentry, electrical work, plumbing and generally knocking stuff down with sledge hammers.

Wow, you don't often see girls doing that sort of stuff but, sure, knock yourself out. You are good at that.

Case #3:
I have an M.Div. degree and was the best preacher in my graduate homiletics class. I'd like to fill in as a guest preacher when we need one as a service to the church.

No, you can't do that because you're a woman. Even though you are good at that.
Personally, I think this test does a great job showing that the emperor has no clothes with the whole "leadership is an act of service" response. To be sure, leadership is an act of service but it's not an act of service if Holy Spirit-filled Christians are excluded from it.

Which brings me back to the point I made last week. I really don't think this issue is about gender roles. I don't care if you are man who stays at home or if you are woman who is a high-powered CEO. I don't care if you are a man who is a pastry chef or if you are a woman who is a Marine. I don't care if you are a man who works to provide for his family or if you are a stay at home Mom who loves to cook meals everyday for her family. I don't see how any of this--the ways you configure your life and the lives of your marriages and families--has anything to do with the only role we are called to perform in the Kingdom: service.

And to my point today, it's only service if it's universally available to every Christian filled with the Holy Ghost. It's not service if people are being excluded from participation. If you have one group in the church shutting off avenues of service to fellow Christians then we aren't talking about service, we are talking about lording over.

And if Jesus is to believed--let's call a spade a spade--that's a sin.

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38 thoughts on “Gender and Service: A Simple Test”

  1. Churches also play a sort of shell game with titles and duties between the genders. That is just as bad as what you are describing. I posted it here:

  2. This is great ... and all apologies if my posts made you linger longer here than you would have liked. I think the examples really help clarify the discussion, and I agree that if I saw those three things happen in a single church (as they often do), I'd be on pretty firm ground in looking at their gender bias as a form of arbitrary, discriminatory, sexist control. And it would make me angry, and I would devote myself to changing that state of affairs.

    To my original point about the language of power: I think the first and second examples are all about power. The volunteers are exercising power in the church by shaping how things happen. The people who design and place the curtains often have a kind of decision making power, on the spot, that would be the envy of many committees. And in the second case: the handy-woman is quite literally in charge of the (electrical) power in the church. They are making use of their capacity to do things to do things, and so (presumably) bettering the church. And arbitrary control has not been used to stop them, and so weaken the church and them. The third case is all about a loss of power for the church, through the exercise of arbitrary control. As I would use the language, it isn't about power, but about control, disempowerment, weakness, for both the woman and her church. Does it matter after all to use this word in the opposite way that you do? It's not something I would argue over. Simply something I'd point out, in the hope that you find it useful. Perhaps even empowering, if you choose to pick it up.

    On the question that developed, of whether this analysis of power is adequate or not: I think the examples do a lot to flesh out a fuller image of a church. In a church where things are relatively open like this, where cooperation and freedom are the norm, where the door is wide for people who want to exercise service-power, then the third example leaps out. It grates. And I think that in such a church, this is an example of how power begets power. In a Catholic Church, by comparison, you generally couldn't just volunteer to sew curtains or be the handywoman, and since the exercise of control is much more complete. In that case, the particular exercise of control in the case of gender discrimination is more obscure, and the examples here don't serve to illustrate that gender discrimination, as opposed to some other form of control, is what is operative here. Still, in that case, the arguments offered for an all-male priesthood serve to indict the institution of eschewing legitimate power, and choosing the feebleness of control, even more. I'm particularly disgusted by the main argument that you often here, which is this: "Priests must image Christ in the mass. Therefore, women can't do it." In this group, at least, I don't think this argument even merits a serious response. And yet, this is the primary argument on offer. I think that this sort of argument makes it particularly clear that naked, unjustified, control is being exercised. So my desire for a deeper analysis of the workings of control, and even of power, is in part motivated by my desire to see "lording over" challenged in contexts in which these examples aren't as useful, but in which the shared mission of challenging "lording over" must move forward by other means.

  3. Wonderful post. I truly hope that many Christians in the South who call themselves progressive take to heart and honestly consider what you say. What I mean is that there are Christians, especially of the CoC, who call themselves progressive simply because they have changed their minds regarding baptism, instrumental music, and eternal security, yet still let their cultural borders be their theological lines of separation, which actually affects how they look at gender, race and sexual identity.

    I realize that many of them are still on a journey and will continue to grow. I was where they are myself many years ago. My prayer is that voices like yours will penetrate those areas where the idea of being hard and unyielding is still seen as faithfulness so that meekness and tenderness be recognize as the true strength of God's child.

  4. I wonder how many of these problems could be solved if no church ever formed a corporation. I understand the legal reasons why, but it seems that be 'turning' the church into a corporation we help lock those roles into place.

  5. Hi Richard - I think that your litmus test is a good one but I don't think that it can be the only one.

    I would propose a second that says this:

    An activity in the church is truly an act of service if it is an act of self-denial and not an act of self-actualization.

    A true leadership position is a burden placed freely upon someone's shoulders by those being served. Leadership is not a job that can be demanded for oneself by appeal to ability, equality, or anything else.

    As a church we need to be careful not to tell women that they have the right to demand to lead, but rather to each be the voices in the congregation willing to empower them.

    Also, on a bit of a side note, I think its important to point out that those who should be leaders are not those with the proper skills or resume, but those who are characterized by meekness and humility, those who are most content to stand outside the spotlight and serve invisibly are probably the ones who should be placed into the spotlight.

  6. Bravo Richard!! Highland brags about gender inclusion happening in 2000. But gender inclusion and gender equality are two different things. Inclusion given by male elders of the church is an allowing paradigm. Equality means everything done in and by the Body of Christ is universally available to all.....women elders, women prophets, women preachers, women priests....
    Jeanenne Nichols

  7. When I was in Bible College, there was a woman in my preaching class. The final for the class was to present a sermon to the rest of the class. When the woman got up to give hers, my professor wouldn't call it a sermon. He called it a speech. So freaking ridiculous. Oh, and her "speech" was better than 95% of the sermons that were given.

  8. Frankly, I'm completely shocked she was allowed to give a "speech" at all. In my day, it was a pitched battle to be allowed to have an entirely separate "Religious Speaking for Women" class. I mean, even between ourselves, just as the ladies, we couldn't call it preaching... So hey--that's "progress."

  9. In our context, though, it's often seen as grasping for power or "self-actualization" for women to point out that they have abilities or desires to serve in unorthodox ways. Just offering to do so, however humbly, is seen as self-serving rather than other-serving. So I'd suggest that the burden on shifting this is not on women seeking to serve, but on those who cannot hear their offer to serve as the same kind of sincere service they take for granted in men.

    Read Ann Evankovich's essay on for a great example of this. Or take a look at the commentary on brotherhood on Naomi Walter's call to serve at Stamford CofC.

  10. Thank you Richard,

    As an Episcopal clergyperson for 38 years, I have seen my church evolve on this issue-- much too slowly and still incomplete; but the results are stunning and glorious.

    Along with their male colleagues, Women apostles, Women prophets, Women evangelists, Women pastors and Women teachers are equipping the saints for the work of service (ministry), building up the body of Christ. This reflects the meaning of incarnation-- God became flesh in Jesus, not just a man, a human. Alleluia!

  11. Richard--I do still think it's a bit of hyperbole to say that it's not about gender roles. Even in your examples, Case #2 is acceptable because even if it stretches the stereotype that a woman can't be a handyman (love how our language helps us out with stereotype reinforcement, right?!), it's not a breaking with stereotype that violates current church practices--specifically, fixing stuff is a non-public, behind-the-scenes, non-leadership role. So we can stretch there. We can't, however, as easily stretch in Case #3, because that is where gender roles and stereotypes are actively enforced.

    You know I agree (as I commented on the previous post) that this is, absolutely, about the exercise of exclusive power, but I think it's helpful to consistently acknowledge that it's this same exercise of power constructing and enforcing notions of gender, nature and roles rather than separate and rhetorically oppose them.

    But there's more than one way to skin a cat, and the more approaches, topics, and conversations the better!

    A final afterthought: it's a lot easier and more likely to be received for a man to point out this is about power than for me or another woman to do so. Thanks for taking such a strong and clear stand here.

  12. Very much agree with your analysis. My aim here is pretty narrow. This isn't any sort of an exhaustive test or analysis that can be widely applied. Mainly I'm just trying to deflate a common rebuttal that men lead and that's their form of service. My argument is that if it's truly a form of service is seems a bit strange to prohibit others from serving. We don't prohibit people from service. So in my mind those prohibitions are extraordinarily diagnostic showing that we aren't talking about service but about power and lording over.

  13. "An activity in the church is truly an act of service if it is an act of self-denial and not an act of self-actualization.

    A true leadership position is a burden placed freely upon someone's shoulders by those being served. Leadership is not a job that can be demanded for oneself by appeal to ability, equality, or anything else."

    I love these two lines. Thank you for that.

  14. Richard, I believe your point is true in many ways--both women and men are called to serve in charity and the Spirit has poured out an abundance of gifts without regard to their sex. The history of Christianity is full of examples of great women and men of faith sharing the Gospel in a range of ways. However, it strikes me that our Lord did not choose to send women when He appeared after His resurrection in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), though clearly women were ever present and actively involved in His earthly ministry. Every instance of His fuller explanation of His parables--preparing them to be teachers of His Gospel--or accounts of healing in His name include only male disciples. Given how fundamentally Christ differed from so many understandings during His earthly life, why would we think He would bother to adhere to certain "gender roles" as you called them unless there is a reason we are not seeing?

    Second, if we want to discuss any kind of "priestly" position in continuity from the faith of Abraham (or even looking around at every human culture I've ever studied as a professional Classicist and amateur Indophile), blood sacrifices are offered by men as a balance to the sacrifice of childbirth women can make. Women already serve the community in such a profound, life-giving in a way men can never serve; priesthood balances that equation to grant men deeper participation in sanctifying that life.

    Of course, if you don't identify preaching with "priesthood" of some sort, then of course women should be involved.

    On the other hand, there is a serious danger in confusing the equal dignity of various gifts with equal distribution of all gifts. No one has fully all the gifts of the Spirit except God and they are His to give as He sees fit. We would not hold that "universally available" for any position we think important. There are restrictions for who can be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, etc., which relate to education and qualifications, things which can be adapted to either sex. If you think ministry as servanthood requires the motivation of the Spirit and specific education & qualifications, then certainly it can include both. If you think ministry is more than this, and concretely related to what Jesus began during His ministry, your litmus test is insufficient on a number of counts.

    Besides, servanthood at large is accessible to all. And I believe if you look around at your community, you will see that women are already doing most of the serving (literally) even without being in positions of authority. The burden of the male sex is to catch up with what the women are already doing to sustain the community you gentlemen *think* you are running. You may recall how the sinful woman washed Christ's feet without invitation, but Jesus Himself had to teach the male disciples to wash each others' feet this by His own humble example.

    As a woman, I actually find it somewhat insulting to imply that the certain gifts God has given me are not sufficient in some way to serve Him simply because I do not have the vocation of the ministry. I can MAKE a Christian, God-willing; you menfolk can only help convert one. :)

  15. I'm posting these all over...great series...I appreciate your voice in this area!

  16. I am new to this blog, so forgive me if this response is too narrow, but a significant struggle for me with gender and power in the Episcopal Church are the male priests who still hold on to the title "Father." First, it is an antiquated descriptor of a priest's relationship with the parishioners. Second, what does it encourage? Women priests being called "Mother!" Not on your life! I know that Rev. was never meant to be a title but rather a descriptor, but if we think of those people who feel compelled to use a title with our names, let's get rid of the old dogma and use a term that is universally understood, and respectful to our congregations and our colleagues.

  17. Sorry, Richard, just don't see it. The fact that we usually let people serve when they ask doesn't mean that, when we don't, we are lording it over them. IMHO, in some service settings (more than you might think) there should be a discernment process that shows, not just that the person is gifted/ "qualified" in terms of skill, but that the person is the right fit for that service situation. I understand that in your culture there is no possible reason for thinking "fit includes gender" except sheer "lording over." But this does not prove anything--it is rather circular. Jesus said "Don't lord it over"--he didn't say "every human must have unrestricted access to every service role." You still haven't shown why you are translating Jesus' words into your access-to-roles paradigm.

  18. Oh, the name game. My favorite. I was voted in as a teacher by my Southern Baptist church, but I didn't realize until I left that position that my official title was "helper," although I traded teaching with my male coteacher.

  19. Let me make this point more concrete. Let's say a woman (I could cite you examples) says "I think it is appropriate/ Scriptural/ whatever for women not to be allowed to preach. The women in this congregation (not just the men) voted not to allow men to preach. But we have real mechanisms that make us pretty sure that the preacher is serving us, not lording it over us."

    It seems to me that all you can say is, "Well, in my subculture, any role that is not open to every Christian is not a service at all, it is a form of lording it over." I don't think you can show--either by logic or by Scripture--that this woman is deceived, and that she is (without knowing it) being lorded over.

  20. When did democracy become the scriptural method for determining policy, procedure, practice or power in church? Isn't voting a measure of what most people want, rather than what God wants?

    We can vote all we want ... it's going to reflect what we want to happen and want to believe. Safety in numbers. Majority rules.

    But the majority is not always right - certainly not by virtue of being the majority.

    Now to respond directly: Whatever one person believes is right yet excludes another from any aspect of fellowship or participation, is a mistaken belief. That, as I understand it, is Dr. Beck's point.

    It's true with regard to preferred seating (James), preferred gifts (1 Corinthians), preferred ethnicity, class, race or gender (Galatians, Romans, Hebrews, oh heck just about any epistle and every gospel).

  21. I just had to say that Ann Evankovich Fleming is my best friend. We have walked this journey in the church together...hard but so great to have a friend by my side. Love that JTB brought up her article.

  22. At least churches who hold a hard line are up front about it. These name game churches are deceitful and manipulative in their practice. Bold people need to address it.

  23. The leaders of so many sacred institutions perpetuate what is in effect a cabal of misogyny. Good and holy but blinkered men who struggle with the issue..... and procrastinate. What has their Encounter with Jesus meant to them? What century are they living in? Somewhere in this world at least one 'honor' killing will have been committed today, newborn infants abandoned because of their gender, and women targeted in countless atrocities and rapes. Tribes 'lord it over' tribes and men 'lord it over' women....the natural response and conditioning of fearful humanity.
    Elements within the Church may do it reluctantly and delicately, but they are sadly perpetuating the darkness nonetheless

  24. OK. If Beck's point is that he has made a new rule, "No Christian should ever exclude another from any aspect of participation"--fine. I kind of like this rule. But this rule is not in Scripture. There is no evidence that when Jesus said, "Don't lord it over," what Jesus really meant was, "never exclude anyone from any aspect of participation."

    I actually kinda like Beck's Rule. I just hate Beck's assumption that disobeying Beck's Rule is the same as disobeying Jesus. I use the example of women who vote not to allow a woman preacher, not to pretend that democracy makes it right, but to press the point that many people do not think they are being "lorded over" simply because Beck's Rule is violated. Many people do not think that making a decision, as a community, that God wants them to handle things a certain way is the same thing as having one person (the leader) lord it over everyone else. Maybe they're wrong, and they're being "lorded over" without knowing it. But I'd want some evidence.

    BTW, I see this same thing often on this blog (and in progressive theology generally, of which this blog is a good example). People put forward pretty good assumptions--e.g., the assumption that nobody should ever exclude anybody from any service. But they then make this leap and say, "And by the way, without presenting any evidence that my assumption is ever in Scripture, I'll assume that it is obvious to everyone that if you don't accept my assumption, you are lording it over. And lording it over is sin. So disagreeing with me is sin."

  25. I'm not sure putting forward assumptions can be avoided. I think everyone would agree, given Jesus' prohibition, that "lording over," whatever that might be, is a sin. Or, at least, something that "misses the mark" of Jesus' Kingdom ideal.

    So far, so good. But knowing this doesn't tell us much about what "lording over" is or is not. And this seems to be something we need to get to the bottom of. Jesus said not to do this sort of thing so there is some keen interest here in figuring out what "lording over" might be. We should be trying to define this, which will, of necessity, involve some making of assumptions.

    So the best I can do is to set forth those assumptions, to say this is what I think is involved in lording over. People can disagree with those assumptions, but they would, of course, need to set their own assumptions out there. There is no assumption-free discussion of lording over.

  26. "IMHO, in some service settings (more than you might think) there should be a discernment process that shows, not just that the person is gifted/ "qualified" in terms of skill, but that the person is the right fit for that service situation."

    I, and most egalitarians I know (I suspect even Richard?) would agree with this statement. Of course there should be discernment regarding who serves in what role? Is anyone here (or anywhere) suggesting otherwise? There are any number of factors that should determine the best person to server as pastor/teacher (for example). What I believe, and what I hear Richard saying, is that using a candidate's gender (or race, class, etc.) to categorically include or exclude them from the service role is wrong...and when all male leadership categorically exclude women (despite other relevant factors that help determine "fitness") from specific roles (specifically leadership) it qualifies as "lording over". Now, one may accept this scenario as "ok" and even biblical, many do. But others of us do not think it is "ok" or "biblical".

    Can I/we think of specific example in which it might be inappropriate for a woman to serve as pastor/teacher (sure)? Sure. If the job is for men's ministry, she is a lousy communicator, she has sub-par interpersonal skills and/or she lacks desired theological/biblical training. However, shouldn't these disqualify a man as well (except for men's ministry)? Unfortunately, I suspect most of us have experienced or heard about situations in which gender (read: being male) was the primary if not the sole criteria used to determine fitness for a service role. Many of us assume, based on Scripture, that this practice has no place in God's Kingdom and by extension, His church.

  27. Fine, Richard. I guess I would want to push the question of "how would we know this is lording it over." Hence my anecdote--for all the faults of "democracy," we do not usually associate a decision that most women vote for an exercise in "lording it over" women.

    I don't fault your assumptions. I think you may be right. I guess I just want to spend more time asking the question, "Is this really what Jesus meant?" and less time telling people they are sinning for not doing what Jesus meant! And sometimes your assumption resembles your conclusion so closely ("I assume that gender-restricted leadership structures are oppressive, and therefore I conclude that gender-restricted leadership structures are sin") that the whole thing seems circular.

  28. Question for Richard: if this response had been written by a man, would it be an example of "lording it over" women? For that matter, even though it is written by a woman, is it an example of "lording it over" women anyway? It seems to fit your criteria for what constitutes "lording it over," and I want to make sure I understand those criteria. More to the point, I want to know if you think that some instances of gender-restrictions, or some motives for gender-restriction, are sin--or if all instances of gender restriction, even if (as here) they are presented by a woman and seem to honor women, are sin.

  29. Your vision is lovely, but it seems fit very poorly with reality. While there are burdens that go with leadership, the power that comes with leadership provides more than commensurate pleasures. This is perhaps clearer in African American Christianity, where pastors live out the community's dignity, than among white Christianity, where pastors more frequently live out the community's humility.

    Additionally, it is incredibly rare, at least in my tradition, for a person to get ordained without asking for it and sticking with the process even when it's hard and painful. The best actors might be able to make it seem like they aren't pursuing leadership, but that's just a facade and I see no reason to reward (self)deception.

  30. The test seems poorly formed because service roles are only open to those with the ability to do the work. While the biggest piece of that is the functional capacity, some roles have a significant relational component. If the community isn't prepared to receive one's service one cannot serve them.

    Those who aren't prepared to receive the fruit of another's labor may still be guilty of serious sin, but it may not be the sin of lording over others. It may be the more serious offense of telling God what God can and can't do.

  31. Feminism has left most men in this country terrified at being tarred as a sexist and has reduced many of them to indecisive ninnies, quailing at the thought of disapproval at the hands of a shrewish, entitled American woman.

    Please continue the endless discussion, which will likely end in quotas and entitlements for the women involved at the expense of the men in church. If so, you'll fit right in.

  32. The only problem with an approach some churches take to "service roles only open to those with the ability to do the work" is that throughout Scripture God called people to perform certain tasks that they neither wanted to do nor had the gifts to do, but they were able to do them because the Holy Spirit empowered them to and God's glory was revealed.

    While stereotyping gender roles is certainly a poor way to decide ministry/service roles, I believe giftedness can also be another for the reasons cited above. We need to do better at teaching people to be looking and listening for the Spirit's call. We may even need to sometimes pay less attention to our own desires, wishes, wants, and bibliolatry, to hear God calling us to a ministry that we are neither gifted to do or want to do and then see how He uses his mighty hand to work through us to bless others.

  33. It is true that we are often poor judges of our abilities and for a remarkable number of jobs showing up consistently will get you 80% of the way to excellence, but it is rare for an ability to suddenly appear when it hasn't shown up under previous testing and an antipathy for some particular type of work is more often a sign that one is not called there as it is a sign of resistance to a call. The only way through, as far as I can see, is to listen attentively for God and to one's heart and to refrain from quickly saying no when asked to take up a task.

  34. But remember, you can't make a Christian on your will need a little help! :)

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