This one has been sitting in my drafts folder for month, just because I haven’t been able to carve out the time to finish it off. But it’s worth touching on, for the sake of completeness and for because it is an important issue. So here is an attempt to touch on the issues raised in Episode 4 around women in church leadership.
Women, representation and wisdom
In the podcast, good concerns are raise around how a church leadership structure that doesn’t involve women at every level of decision making misses out on important wisdom and safeguards. Women often have different experiences and concerns that they bring to decision-making. If men make plans and decisions without women, their plans will often be lopsided or clumsy or damaging because they may not have considered certain things.
This episode raises the issues of different kinds of abuse in church cultures, and suggests that these things could have been significantly reduced if more women were involved in leadership: a claim that is also made in the Australian Royal Commission into institutional abuse. It’s difficult to know how to substantiate this claim. Showing direct cause and effect relationships in complex situations is not at all straightforward. The bluntly simplistic assertion: ‘the problem was male-only leadership, the solution is mixed leadership’ is of course naïve. I suspect power corrupts and compromises us no matter what our sex is, or what representation of sexes is involved in power structures.
But a more representative power structure will avoid many extremes. In many cases, more women, with their often different set of experiences (including experiences of power imbalance) and priorities (including concerns for caring and nurture, not merely success in tasks and mission outcomes) will slow down and balance out reckless, thoughtless and downright terrible plans and decisions. But it will hardly remove the problem of power abuses.
Certainly the evident failures of many church leadership cultures should make us eager to be willing to try lots of things that might improve. And more representative leadership is well worth investing in, not only to ‘fix a problem’ but also for other benefits it will bring. Don’t mishear me, I’m largely on board with a lot of the push for figuring out how to get more diversity and representation into church leadership. But I’m also convinced that the Scriptures reserve the role of eldership of the church to men and give men a place of ‘head’ in marriage and family.
My concern here is that we should not to give a proposed strategy the status of immovable moral demand. Moreover, the flow of thought in this episode suggests that unless such representation is absolutely universal in scope you are wrong and complicit in church abuse. That is overstating the case. There are many ways to ensure women are heard and empowered and included that don’t require ordained women’s ministers and 50/50 splits in every leadership committee. Healthy but conservative church cultures can do a good job of listening to women across the church and genuinely incorporating their insights into plans and decisions often without formal leadership roles. By contrast I have no doubt that progressive church cultures can develop their own ruthless corporate ministry culture that tramples over some women (and some men) who do not fit the agenda of the staff and leadership, even if that leadership has gender parity.
It is overly simplistic and ideological to insist on one particular practical outworking of these concerns. Especially if it overturns what the Bible actually says.
The Bible vs Reason and Experience
One of the saddest and most revealing aspects of this episode was how honest AJ and Leah Smith are about how they have problems with what they think the Bible is saying. The honesty is impressive. At several points they more or less say “This is what the Bible seems to be saying… but… well… yeah… I’m not sure if I want to obey that anymore.”
This is the tone of the whole series, not only for AJ and Leah Smith, but also for the podcast host, Eric Mennel (as is seen in the extraordinary final episode): a bit of weariness with formal Christian institutions and teachings because of practical and personal discomfort and dissonance. There is a sense of: ‘I used to believe this, but that made things hard, and clashed with other things I think and feel… so now I don’t believe it anymore’.
Now I know there are many devout Christians who seek to honour the Scriptures as God’s word and have reached a different conclusion about the Bible’s teaching on the roles of men and women in the home and the church. But at the point of recording this episode, that’s not where the Smiths seems to be. One wonders if after the fact they might find a theology to match their hunches and intuitions. And while I realise that sometimes we arrive at true and genuine convictions through indirect routes (what begins as an intuitive dissonance can lead me on a journey to clarify my convictions)… I also think sometimes we do compromise convictions through this process (I adjust what I believe to suit my preferences).
Leaving aside any attempts to analyse or spiritually diagnose AJ and Leah, this raises an important issue for us all: will I trust God and his word even if in the moment it is very hard to square this with my intellectual questions, intuitive discomfort and practical struggles? Can I sit in an unresolved place of asking and searching, but also trusting and submitting? Can I even say “Look, at the moment, I don’t know WHY God says it that way, but I trust God is good”?
This kind of thoughtful faith should move conservative Christians to review and reform our faith and practice, within the bounds and under the light of God’s word. Yes, we should rethink how our church power structures sideline women and excuse ungodly behaviour. But how can we strive to address these things within the framework of God’s word?