The Churches of Christ are in the midst of change. Many of our congregations are moving away from our legalistic, sectarian roots in the direction of grace and ecumenical partnership. But change is hard. As much as we long for change, and indeed can’t avoid it, change never happens without discomfort and struggle. My interest and research lies in the area of change regarding women in the church. Any congregation that is moving in the direction of grace and ecumenical partnership is invariably exploring questions of gender. And while this topic is broad and has far reaching implications, one of the first and most fundamental questions has to do with women’s participation in the church, specifically in the worship service. Are women required by God to be silent in the worship service?
This question is first and foremost an exegetical question. How do we interpret the passages that appear to command silence from women? Many churches have been working hard to answer those questions and there are wonderful resources available to help in this process. As communities who are committed to following the Bible as faithfully as possible, we will never make significant and lasting changes without making sense of these passages.
But we are fooling ourselves if we claim that our resistance to change is only scriptural. Organizational change is hard even if we believe it is right. And there is nothing more frustrating for a group of elders who have spent months, maybe years, engaging in an open-hearted exploration of God’s will for women in the church, only to find that some of the strongest opposition comes from women themselves. After all of the time and effort they have invested, they expect the women in their congregation to be overjoyed and jump at the chance to participate, but this often does not happen. The church leaders are left puzzled and wondering what to do next.
The truth is, many women are resistant to change for a multitude of reasons. In an effort to help us understand one another and move more productively through change, I have outlined some of these below.
1) There is comfort in routine and ritual. One of the reasons we come to church every Sunday is because we know what to expect. The ritual of the Sunday worship service grounds us and centers us in the midst of a world that is more unpredictable that we would prefer. Thus it makes sense that we want church to be the same from week to week.
2) When gender roles change in the church, women step into positions and practices that differ significantly from those of their mothers and grandmothers. Thus many women are being asked to do things in church that they never thought they would do! They never imagined leading a public prayer in church, even less speaking during communion or preaching a sermon. They never saw women do this and they never thought it would even be an option. Thus the invitation itself can be very disorienting.
3) Not only is it disorienting, it often provokes a complicated emotional reaction. A woman may think, “If traditional female roles were good enough for my mother and my grandmother and my great grandmother, why do I think they aren’t good enough for me?” She may feel shame for seeking to be “in the spotlight” or guilt for not being satisfied with the status quo, like the women who went before her.
4) When male elders have spent time studying the Bible and wrestling with a biblical view of women, women who are traditionally prohibited from being elders have not been part of this important process. Therefore, the women have not been on the journey as long and have not traveled as far. They often need time read, learn, and study on their own, or with a group, to make sense of the biblical passages that appear to restrict women.
5) More than just studying the restrictive passages, however, women need to be convinced that these changes are ones that God wants. It is one thing to believe that God will allow changes to be made. It is something very different to believe that God is actually in favor of the changes — that these changes in fact line up with God’s will! Christian women do not want to disobey God. Christian women, like Christian men, have committed their lives to obeying God, to following God wherever God may lead. Thus women will not be ready to change their practices unless they truly believe that it is God who is calling them to do so. They must wrestle with some big questions — questions about the nature of the gospel, the mission of the church, and the unique gifts God’s spirit has given to each of us as individuals.
6) When I was a child in the 1970s it was common for churches to have classes for boys to learn how to lead singing, word public prayers, teach, and preach. The girls were not included in these classes thus the girls missed out on this educational opportunity. Women in churches with traditional gender roles have not had many opportunities to learn the very practical skills needed to lead in a public worship gathering. It can be quite intimidating to learn something totally new as an adult.
7) Finally, consider the following quote from Jerry Seinfeld: “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Jerry is on to something pretty important here. We all know that public speaking can be quite intimidating even without emotional and religious baggage, so it should not surprise us at all when a woman declines the invitation to speak in church.
Change is hard. But I believe that making changes in the direction of gender equality and the inclusion of women’s voices is of utmost importance. Be encouraged and keep going! Study and pray and search and listen! Whether you are a leader who is struggling with decisions for a congregation, or a woman who is being asked to step into a brand new role, take courage. The road may be long and difficult but it is well worth the struggle.