The class was packed. Over sixty students listening to our professor in varying degrees of participation. Laptops filled about a third of the desks, and while some people listened closely, a number of others had already tuned the class out, sending emails or playing around on facebook. I watched them from a spot near the back, trying to stay calm. This graduate course in leadership had helped me in many ways, introduced me to a number of great tools and ideas I would use in the future, but today the focus would be different. For me, at least. Highly emotional and highly controversial.
"Okay, so what did you like about the textbooks we studied?" Dr. Magnus asked.
A few people responded, the class alternately nodding and nodding off. Of the three textbooks we'd been asked to read, one of them, Being Leaders by Aubrey Malphurs, had set my teeth on edge. It had confirmed my worst fears about the evangelical world, and at times, it was almost too much to handle. Mark had listened patiently when my rants on reading Malphurs had left me emotionally exhausted and discouraged. How could anyone even believe what this 'respected' leader had written? Why weren't my classmates more upset?
"All right. So what didn't we like about the textbooks?" Dr. Magnus looked at me as my hand shot up and merely sighed.
"Go ahead, Steve."
With that, I proceeded to deliver a four-minute rant about Malphurs' book, a work that not only implied limitations on Christian leadership, but essentially stated that men were more qualified to lead than women. It was this last idea, so visible in his text, that had set me off.
When the class ended, one of the women thanked me for what I'd said. I thanked her, my mind still absorbed and frustrated by the apathy of the class. I understood all too well the dangers of apathy. That which we refused to consciously reject we unconsciously embraced. I sighed and thought about my paper.
In one of our essays for the course, we'd been asked to interact (academically) with our textbooks. I'd broken the rules, and instead written a zero star movie review of Malphurs' work. Here is a portion of what I wrote.
"...Being Leaders is a wonderful text on leadership, but only if read as satire. Malphurs' hyper-Calvinistic, modernistic, misogynistic viewpoint is so stifling and discouraging it is nearly impossible to wade through the endless sea of haughty missives to find anything useful. His 'tools' at the back of the book are exclusive, narrow and insulting (especially to women) which arouses nothing in the reader but a passionate distaste for not only Malphurs' ideas of leadership, but for the Christian publishers and other readers who found the book so helpful. It was so disturbing at times, that only when I focused on the book as if it was written as a satirical diatribe on what leadership should NOT be that I was able to continue. Harsh? Perhaps. But then, perhaps we should reconsider publishing a text that believes women to be nothing more than house wives who should teach Sunday school and 'love their children', with apparently no intellectual capabilities whatsoever..."
Needless to say, my professor was not impressed. That review would result in my lowest grade on a paper the entire year. Now, thinking back, I stand by what I've written, my mark be damned. This idea that men should be the spiritual leader (in both the church and relationships) inherently exacerbates the idea that women should not and that men are not only different, but better. It is a gender-based ideal, and one that the church must reject. Being a man no more qualifies me for being a leader than being a teacher or journalist. Much has been written about the dearth of leadership in the church, but when we are basing our choices on physiological differences, (dare I say the word) then what do we expect?
As passionately as I will argue for the equality of women within the church, understand that this has been a long process for me. Growing up in a traditional home and being educated in a conservative environment did much to prolong my own ideas of inequality, though I didn't see them that way. I have heard and used the "Trinity argument" - i.e. women are not less, just different, just like Jesus and God the Father and the Holy Spirit. I have heard and used the "moderate evangelical" argument - i.e. "yes, men are to lead, but they are to lead by serving."
What I've seen, however, reveals otherwise. That as long as people believe they should be leaders as a matter of entitlement (born a man, not a woman), we are destined to have bad leaders promulgate their prejudice like a subtle poison.
And the real tragedy... all of this is done in the name of Christ.
The biggest argument an evangelical will hear/use is the Apostle Paul's statement about a woman NOT having authourity over a man. I won't drag into hermeneutics here, because it gets a bit boring, even if it's informative. What I will say is that hegemony always seeks to sustain itself. It is the nature of power. Paradoxically, this very thing is the most compelling aspect of Jesus, this idea of a God who forsook power to become one of us. If hegemony is found in the male, or the white male, then the natural tendency of the white male will be to sustain and excuse itself.
Christians often quote the New Testament, tell others that we 'literally' accept the Bible, (even though this is impossible) and denote that as our benchmark for not allowing women the right to lead within the church.
That (phallic) argument is fallacy.
If you accept the Bible literally, why are women not wearing hats in your church? Why do you reject that verse but accept Paul's comment about the family? And if you are actually making women wear hats, (Lord help you all) then why don't you have slaves? Didn't Paul tell the slaves to submit?
You see, we all accept and reject certain verses. This sounds obvious, but it is astounding how many evangelicals actually believe they are 'interpreting' Scripture correctly. I'm not saying that any group is wrong or right, only that we are all wrong a lot. And if that's the case, sometimes we have to allow principle, the principles of scripture, to dictate our beliefs. In this case, as I often do, I think about William Wilberforce. I think about the Christians who rejected his notion of freedom based on two of Paul's letters in the New Testament. I think about the endless debates he had with other "Christians" who somehow thought slavery was acceptable. I also think about the women I've spoken to this past year, those who live in relationships, trapped and tormented by men who believe themselves to following Jesus, and yet who deny their wives the very personhood Jesus sought to grant us by his death on the cross. It is a tragic, horrible picture, and it haunts me.
Should men be spiritual leaders? It is the wrong question. We should all be spiritual leaders. We should all be working to lead and to serve in our lives. And those who lead in the church should be leading based on their giftings, not on their gender. We've all sat under bad leaders. Some were men. Some were women. The truth is that both genders are capable of good and bad leadership, and both genders are capable of producing terrible leaders.
As a church, however, we must get away from this idea that because "the Bible says so" when it comes to leadership, we must get away from the ignorant argument "that's how it is."
My prayer is that this week you will ask yourself some hard questions. Does it bother you if women are in a position of leadership? Do you really believe women are equal to men? Women need to answer these questions too. I have seen too many marriages on the verge of breakdown, heard too many tales of abuse and control, because this question was never addressed.
There is no difference in the potential of men and women, and throughout his ministry, Jesus did nothing but affirm the importance of women in a society that had little or no use for them. Whatever we believe, know that if we are unwilling to bend, if we are unwilling to ask why we believe the things we believe and be honest about it, man or woman, we will never grow into the people God wants us to be.