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Why Women Can’t Lead in Your Church

women leaders in the church

As I have watched the scandal unfold at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary over the past few weeks I have been struck by the underlying tone of men’s treatment of women, especially women leaders, in the church world. It is a world where often men lead and women follow, a patriarchy that feeds how women are often treated in churches, Bible colleges and seminaries across the country. Under this system the church is deprived of desperately needed leaders, and women are scarred for life. To understand how this feels, read this excellent post by Beth Moore describing how she has been treated by men in the church. Treating women leaders like second-class citizens in the church has to end. 

I know what I’m talking about. For 36 years of ministry I have often sat around tables with men paying service to the value of women leaders while dismissing their opinions and undermining their leadership. I’ve also seen up close the damage this ubiquitous attitude does to the two most important women in my life; my wife and my daughter. Although my wife is an incredible leader and thinker, I’ve seen her struggle to overcome chauvinism in the church world again and again. (I am thankful she works for an organization, The ReThink Group, that considers gender irrelevant to leadership.) I have seen my daughter, who has amazing musical and technical gifts, struggle to break into the informal boys’ clubs at churches where she’s served. I also know what I’m talking about because I too have been guilty of not championing women leaders. 

The women in our families and the mission of our churches are too important to continue to go along with the status quo. It is time to make significant strides to engage all of the gifts in our congregations, regardless of gender. To change a system as ingrained as patriarchy, however, will take courage and it will take work. To avoid the change that is needed we often hide behind time-worn excuses.

We hide behind theology

Some hide behind the theology of complementarianism, which says that women and men have different but complementary roles in life. The challenge is at times this stance can limit what leadership roles are available to women in the church. My goal isn’t to argue theology, but to challenge the idea that God limits leadership based on gender. I understand believing the Apostle Paul reserves certain roles for men, but I don’t see how you can read the list of women leaders in Romans 16 and not see that Paul believed women were qualified for most other roles in the church.

Others hide in their egalitarianism, the belief that men and women are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. While in these circles a woman theoretically can preach, hold the office of elder and be called a pastor, she is often still excluded from the table where decisions are made. I have found that chauvinism isn’t bound by theology.

We hide behind the possibility of temptation

This argument says we have to build walls around the women we work with to avoid the temptation of sexual sin. The walls we build include never being alone in a room with a woman, never mentoring a woman and never discussing anything personal with a woman. Unfortunately, these walls have proved ineffective based on the number of men who followed this protocol and were still caught in an affair with a co-worker. What these walls are very effective at is limiting the leadership of women. Limiting access to other leaders is death to collaboration, growth and advancement.

Here’s what I wonder about walls; if they are effective at combating temptation, why don’t we build similar walls to prevent other sins? Shouldn’t I limit my access to men who tempt me to anger? Shouldn’t I refuse to meet alone with men who spark envy? Surely I should never share anything personal with a man who may cause me to boast.

James says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed BY HIS OWN DESIRE” (James 1:14 ESV). If meeting in a room alone with a woman causes me to drop trou I’m pretty sure walls aren’t my answer. The answer to dealing with sexual temptation is a deep spiritual walk and honest accountability. Walls are just avoiding the real issue.

We hide behind tradition

Some of us cower behind the flimsy excuse, “People in my church just aren’t ready for women leading.” I remember when people weren’t ready for drums in the church, pastors who didn’t wear suits and lyrics projected on screens rather than printed in hymnbooks. Its funny how willing we were to challenge those preconceived notions, but we aren’t ready to stand up for our sisters who are gifted and called to lead.

Changing the prevailing patriarchy in your church will be difficult and it will take courage. If you are up for the task here are five suggestions that I believe can make a significant difference:

Creating a culture where women can lead

Seek input from women leaders on your staff and in your church

A group of men sitting around a table will not change the culture of your church when it comes to women in leadership. The first step is to seek to understand what it is like to be woman leader in your culture, and the only way to learn is to ask. I understand this is a scary proposition because you might not like what you hear, but “we are not as those who shrink back.” Here are three questions you should ask:

  1. Does our church encourage and develop women leaders?
  2. What is the most challenging part of being a woman and leading on our team?
  3. What do we need to change to improve our culture for women leaders?