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Gender and Power in the Church

Gender and Power in the Church

3 Ways The Church Can Empower Women and Minorities

by Scot McKnight


I went off to a fundamentalist Christian college, where I bumped into a book by the famed fundamentalist John R. Rice. His book? Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives and Women Preachers. In the event that some don’t know, this man was vehemently opposed to women preachers! Evidently, such a take on women’s roles in society at my fundamentalist college pertained only to the church because I had a brilliant Western Literature teacher named Diana Portfleet, who had a keen perception of theology and church history, but she did not teach Bible or theology. When I was in seminary in the mid 1970s, I do not recall women in church ministries being a theological issue of intense discussion either when I was in college or, as a graduate student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. This says as much as about church location (the Midwest) as it does about me. I was in a world where women didn’t do those things. I was in a world where power was used to empower the powerful.

Later, during my doctoral days in England this issue came up in a variety of ways, and while my recollection is that I was a quiet traditionalist with more than a willingness to think about the problems, my own intellectual interests were about other topics. I was focused on gospel studies and how Judaism worked.

But one day riding my bicycle in Cambridge, England, I observed that the person riding a bicycle next to me was none other than Professor Morna Hooker, the great Methodist New Testament scholar at Cambridge University.

In an odd sort of way my heart was strangely warmed. After exchanging pleasantries and fighting off the temptation to engage in nonstop prattle with her as we rode together across Cambridge, something occurred to me that opened my own window more. I realized how much I had learned from Morna Hooker’s exquisite and insightful scholarship in the past year or two. Her articles on methods of scholarship had altered my mind significantly.

Put differently, she had been my teacher. Another way of saying it is this: her power empowered me to know more than I would otherwise have known.

Most importantly, this moment of bicycle riding with her drove me to the conclusion that anyone who thinks it is wrong for a woman to teach, which is the world I grew up in, can be consistent with that point of view only if they refuse to read and learn from women scholars. This means not reading their books lest they become teachers.

Since my early doctoral days I have learned from and listened to many women: from Elizabeth Achtemeier, a great Bible scholar, to Katya Covrett, one of the most influential women in all of Evangelicalism due to her strategic location at Zondervan, to Sonia Bodi, for many years the chair of humanities and senior librarian at North Park University, to Karen Walker Freeburg, former Vice President and interim President at Northern Seminary. And I could go on.

A former student of mine, a female who is now a teaching pastor at a multi-campus site in the Midwest, once told me this story. Though it took a long time for her church to acknowledge her preaching and teaching skills in a public and official sort of way (which means, calling her “Pastor”), it did not take the congregants as long.

Once after preaching in one of the locations, an elderly gentleman approached her and said, “I was against you becoming a pastor but after listening to you preach I have to say I was wrong. You’re every bit the pastor and preacher the men are.”

Here’s my point: Things aren’t going to change until male leaders both create space for female leaders to occupy space behind the pulpit on Sunday mornings and until male leaders publicly and vocally support females as leaders. It is in occupying the powerful space of the pulpit that resistant males (and females) will encounter the giftedness of women for preaching and pastoring.

I did not always believe this. When I was a young professor I began to advocate for women as pastors and for ordination to senior pastoral roles in leadership but I was rebuffed by a feminist who told me: “We don’t need males to be our advocates. We can do this ourselves.” I succumbed to her argument, but we were both mistaken. But I succumbed for a long time. For too long.

My experience in the church has taught me that males have power, and their power is invisible to them and their power is normal reality to them. What they experience as normal is experienced by women who believe they are called to pastoral leadership as suppression and silencing.

Nothing will happen for women being empowered until those in power make room for those without power. I emphasize that this power is invisible, and I emphasize that it is rare when the disempowered can make the case for their empowerment and the empowerment actually occur. That is, males don’t know their power and don’t think their power is actually power and so aren’t aware that their power of privilege and voice is at the same time a disempowering, dis-privileging and silencing of the voice, leadership, and giftedness of women. They don’t see that their power is overpowering or that the disempowered are often unempowered because they aren’t granted the power.

What then are males to do? I suggest these:

1. Become Aware of Your Power

First, males, especially white males, need to become aware of their privileged power to do what they believe they are called to do and to be able to do so without anyone calling into question their opportunity. (But that said, this principle applies to every believer with power, without exception.)

Which is to say, when I was a high school senior and sensed the Lord calling me into some kind of ministry – missionary, pastor, professor – it never once dawned on me that my gender could be my restriction. It didn’t dawn on me because it wasn’t going to happen. As a white male I had no gender bias against me.

At Northern Seminary I have seen the look on males faces when they realize that every woman in the class, many of whom are more gifted than the males in the room, has experienced suppression of her voice by males in power and privilege.

Some women are at seminaries or Christian colleges or in churches where the very thought of claiming to be gifted to lead and preach would receive serious blowback. Until males know their world and the world of women, they will not take the first step needed to change.

2. Surrender Your Power

Second, a cruciform way of life, and I refer here to the fine books by Michael Gorman, is one that surrenders power in order to empower others.

It is my belief that male leaders today need to become cruciform with their privilege and power. This isn’t about tokenism in which a pastor boldly invites a woman to preach the Sunday morning sermon. It’s more than that. At least these elements frame what I mean by cruciformity in this context:

(1) the pastor comes to know his white male privilege and power as a reality;
(2) the pastor intentionally teaches, preaches, and begins to embody both disempowerment of white male privilege and power;
(3) the pastor intentionally creates a power vacuum that is filled with alternative voices, and in this context I am talking about women.

So let’s just say the pastor intentionally creates a 50% power vacuum on the elder/deacon board and in positions of leadership that he moves to fill with women. Let’s be more cruciform: let’s do basic demographics of our community and intentionally work to ensure that each demographic is empowered. Let’s put it at 50-50 on male-female and then mix into that male-female balance an adequate representation of minorities in the church community or the community in which we live. Hence, if your community is 25% minority a cruciform leader will strive for a minimum of 25%+ empowerment of minorities.

3. Publicly Affirm Women And Minorities

Third, a cruciform way of life in the church will prompt leaders publicly to affirm women and minorities.

This should be accomplished in at least three ways: (1) in telling stories in sermons and teaching settings of women and minorities. Have you ever noticed how male-oriented our stories are? (2) In speaking publicly about the fine work and giftedness of women and minorities in our churches. (3) In embodying this vision in public settings so that the church always knows there are women and minority leaders.

My granddaughter, Finley, is growing up in a church where both males and females are public presences of leadership. She will not hear that women can’t do such things until some complementarian seeks to enlighten her with his perspective. By the grace of God Finley will be able to say, “Oh really? You should come to my church and hear Amanda preach!”


This guest post was prepared by Scot McKnight and the opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Janay Garrick (though it’s likely that they do). 


Scot McKnight, whose Sunday School teachers can't believe he is a Bible professor, is now a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author or editor of some sixty books, is the Julius R. Mantey Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL. Scot and Kris love to travel, walk and garden.


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You're Egalitarian? You're Fired.

You're Egalitarian? You're Fired.