I sat in front of the mirror as my friend from church snipped away, my curls falling around her boots. Her eyes found mine in my reflection. “How’d you feel about last weekend?”
I exhaled into the otherwise empty salon; I didn’t know, I told her. I attempted to graciously explain what I could—without throwing anyone under the bus—about a situation that left me confused and stinging.
Essentially, church leadership had requested I lead worship at an event; in my mind, I rehearsed the Exodus example of Miriam leading God’s people in song. But the day before, concerns had been raised by a couple of elders as to whether this would be teaching or exercising authority over a man (1 Timothy 2:12).
Six weeks of preparation led to a minimal role. The elders would be examining the role of women leading in the church. They asked if I would wait it out.
Embarrassment and confusion curved my shoulders as my friend snipped and combed. I identified with Angie Ward’s words in I am a Leader: “[Perspectives on women leading in ministry] didn’t really affect my ability to fulfill my calling … They did affect my confidence and sense of self, however, as I began to question whether my leadership bent was a gift or a fatal feminine flaw.”
Moreover, what could I tell my gifted, pensive teenage daughter who was beginning to slot roles for women in the church under “restrictive” and “archaic”? How could she be allowed to shine unfettered in every area but her local church? We’d spoken over and over about God’s goodness in His authority structure. Now she was exhaling a sigh when this came up at the dinner table.
In my desire to adhere to God’s Word, I also know faulty interpretation means the church could be deprived of powerful gifts of half the church population—the historically oppressed side. Not to mention appearing tone-deaf to entire generations after us.
Should women in the church “dream smaller” for the kingdom of God?
Our five-plus years living in Africa delivered CPR to a part of me that wanted to live for something bigger than myself and even my home. Finally, robust work for a visionary female.
Hearing so long about the goodness of sacrifice, I’d felt guilty for any kind of ambition or desire. Desires the kingdom of God asks of me (barring positions Scripture outlines as inappropriate).
I’m guilty of envisioning God as wanting women in the church to be strong, but not too strong. As Jennie Allen writes in Restless, “So many tensions lay on top of my calling because of my gender … I found myself wishing away my calling.”
One teary night, I remember questioning if my own (strong) daughter needed to dream smaller for the kingdom of God.
But this is what I hope to remind both of us.
1. Gifts and gender: Embrace the tension.
Occasionally, in my fear of vanity or deprioritizing my family, I assumed I should banish my (God-given) desires and dreams. Maybe in exchange for a Crock-Pot and other more reasonable undertakings.
Sometimes, we may feel we could perform a males-only task more competently. But just as we’d honor a boss, pursuing ways to come alongside their weaknesses, we can react similarly and with far more ownership in the church.
Because we’re not talking year-end reports here. We’re talking the kingdom of God. Even if we’re not in charge, God made us with specific strengths and passions and circumstances on purpose—just as He made Esther, Abigail, and Lydia.
2. Look at a few good women.
Biblical women like Miriam, Deborah, Jael, or Esther didn’t shy away from bold leadership.
I consider the word used to refer to Eve’s creation as “helper” in Genesis, ezer. In its 21 usages in the Old Testament, 16 refer to God. In nearly every occurrence, ezer refers to a military ally. A military ally isn’t dainty. She doesn’t use her role in the authority structure to hide in passivity, to avoid confrontation or conflict.
The Proverbs 31 woman is decisive and protective, industrious and perceptive, purchasing real-estate, running her own business. She’s a bit of a warrior-woman all on her own: “Strength and dignity are her clothing” (verse 25); “her arms are strong for her tasks” (verse 17, NIV).
In Deborah (Judges 4-5), a “Mother in Israel” (5:7), we witness boldness, courage, “charging the hill” with initiative, confidence, and leadership.
3. Your narrative makes a difference.
In our desires to be “the first woman to do x,” or “someone who leads men,” and other ideas from secular feminism (some to kingdom detriment), we may become divisive rather than unifying—and pro-self or pro-achievement rather than pro-body of Christ or pro-servant.
As the local church and body of Christ, we commit ourselves to a community of people who share the work of reconciling us to God and one another in equality amid diversity. When leadership becomes a competition with members of God’s Body (e.g., men or church leadership)—or “us versus them”—Jesus’ desire that we are one as He and the Father are one (John 17:21) falls to the wayside.
And believing I’m less important because of what tasks I can do flies in the face of God’s vision for His body.
Regarding our femininity, the eye—our perspective and personal narrative—is the lamp of the body (Matthew 6:22-23). One woman chooses to feel empowered by the accountability of running her notes by her church elders. “It offers a safety of, in case I teach something wrong, I’ve got these guys, they’re checking it over, and in their wisdom they will oversee,” she said. “I had a lot of safety net and a lot of room to flourish.”
It’s also vital to not make uncharitable assumptions that our gender influences most ways we’re mistreated. Gently asking questions about others’ motivations rather than assuming they meant harm can save tremendous pain.
We can also forget our lead foot-washer turned leadership on its head, proclaiming the importance of service rather than position or greatness: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them … But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:25-26).
Friends, women in the church can’t pursue strength to dominate, any more than men should.
4. Keep your wounds clean.
The levels of self-blame and hurt around gender can feel profound, particularly as wounds inflicted by church “family.”
Personally, I view my relationship with my local church similar to a marriage. I’ve committed to this body of people—not for what I can get or because they’ve got their act together, but because we choose to honor God together.
We are a body in how we handle conflict. So just taking our kickball and going home isn’t an option. Neither is bitterness, unforgiveness, disunity, grinding a pinkish axe, or allowing gender conflict to become the thing between us.
Remember: As much as Deborah charged the hill, Abigail prevented 400 of David’s men from revenge and battle.
In my personal story, I chose (and still do) to submit to my church leadership. Though I needed to grapple with my pain and disappointment over what happened, unity felt far more pleasing to God than getting to do what I saw as good and right (check out Psalm 133:1 and John 17:11).
And you know what? After our elders and pastors spent months poring through Scripture’s teachings on women leading, I was asked to lead worship. As Paul’s writings emphasize, community is the environment for discernment. Thankfully, they emerged with a plan to include and develop women in our entire congregation.
That won’t always happen. But our personal desires simply can’t take top priority in the church, no matter our gender. God’s kingdom is so much greater.
Courage and leadership, according to Jesus, are not for resume or human clout or representation, but allowing Jesus kingship in the laundry room and the boardroom. As Dave Harvey asserts in Rescuing Ambition, “God’s work in God’s way for God’s glory. Why burn for anything else?”
5. You may need to take initiative with your training and development.
Ward notes, “Nowhere does the Bible teach that either gifts or secondary callings are bestowed according to gender. In fact, women preached, prophesied, and led in both the Old and New Testaments … sometimes over men. … The exercise of calling was sometimes limited by gender, but the fact of calling was not.” She adds, “The Bible is also clear that God is proauthority.”
Because of gender roles, not being invited to your church’s class on preaching when you’ve got a gift of teaching can feel painful. Or perhaps your skills of leadership may not be developed, nurtured, or exercised.
Studies indicate faith-based organizations statistically struggle with a lack of mentorship for women, as well as female self-monitoring to the point women stifle their own opinions. Biola University professor and researcher Leanne Dzubinski also notes some organizations may practice “sanctified sexism”: They justify treating a woman differently, perhaps in the name of chivalry or protection. Yet they make decisions for her, like determining she wouldn’t want a role because she has children to care for.
So you might ask, “If there’s an opportunity in this area, would you mind giving me the chance?”
Yet carrying out the good works God’s prepared in advance for us (Ephesians 2:10) with faithfulness and excellence ultimately falls on us—not whomever we can blame. Pursue personal development for God’s glory, even without invitation.
6. The Church needs full-strength femininity.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg famously stated, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”
But in many situations in the church, women won’t be there.
Even in all-male leadership in churches, it’s not good for men to be alone (Genesis 2:18). That’s one way marriage, as an intimate form of community, affects the community at large. The health of a marriage reverberates into men’s roles and the larger community in which we all live and serve.
Conversely, when women in the church or outside of it grow comfortable in diminished, unbiblical roles in life and home, we hamstring the church and rob culture of God’s beautiful design for gender.
I fully respect God’s created order of men as the heads of their homes (1 Corinthians 11:3) and in the Church (1 Timothy 2:11). Yet I can’t help but wonder if, for example, some decisions would carry more emotional complexity if women were present. Not as elders, but providing valuable input.
Our feminine viewpoints as co-heirs of the grace of life and fellow image-bearers make the church healthier and smarter (Genesis 1:27, 1 Peter 3:7). Just as men support women through men’s unique makeup, God’s creation of us can make us attuned to things men miss, as counterparts “fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). Studies indicate greater diversity hands organizations greater creativity, decision-making, and financial outcomes.
7. Your gender is on purpose and beautiful to God.
The fortitude of biblical female leaders was for God and His purposes—not selfish ambition or conceit (Philippians 2:3-4).
Jen Pollock Michel, in Teach Us to Want, does recall the Tower of Babel as a metaphor:
We are hell-bent on making a name for ourselves. Sinful desire has a cruel way of leading us out of God’s kingdom to Babylon, where we impertinently define good and then demand that God provide it on our terms. Those desires are neither trusting nor surrendered, and they lead us into the land of exile.
When we speak of women being “held back” if they can’t hold exactly the same positions, are we showing our cards about what we see as important in the church?
Perhaps God made us women (and made men, men) so we could shepherd not everyone we can imagine, but certain people in certain contexts. Matthew Spandler-Davison, executive director of an inner-city ministry, comments, “We are training women to be teachers of the Word and to offer pastoral care, particularly in a city context where most women are single.”
If I were a man, I might have trained as a pastor. But God intricately designed paths for me to teach as a writer and speaker far beyond my local congregation.
Will God’s on-purpose calling of each of us be enough? Are His good limits—as shown through the Sabbath, His high view of sex, His boundaries of the sea—to be embraced?
Women leading: It’s not just about the destination
During my haircut that day, my friend brought up the story of the woman washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair (Luke 7:36-50). The woman had uncovered her head in a room full of men—an immodest act in their culture. And then, she cried in front of all of them and absorbed their criticism.
Rather than Jesus reprimanding her impropriety, Jesus praises her. In fact, in a similar story with a different woman, Jesus responds to antagonists, “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:6).
Amidst all the questions my soul asked in the weirdness—Did I want the right thing for the right reasons? Was God, too, wishing I wasn’t asked to lead?—maybe God believed that in both leading worship and the process to get there, I’d done a beautiful thing to Him.
Copyright © 2023 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), empowers parents to creatively engage kids in vibrant spirituality. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.