Women Are a Stumbling Block to Men (and Other Lies Keeping Us Tragically Stuck)

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Permission to speak freely?  

Actually, this is my living room, so I guess I’m giving you permission to tune out if you don’t want to listen to my unfiltered thoughts about something that’s been brewing for a long, long time.  I’m not going to ask for grace; that will be up to you.  I’m not going to disclaim this with lots of “You might feel differently” because, of course you might.  You can be the boss of how much you do or don’t agree with me and I think we can disagree without animosity.  I’m also not going to apologize for ‘uncovering’ a brother in the faith.  Because this isn’t about that - this is about a systemic issue in the Church that’s been festering for years and it needs to be discussed.  Or maybe I just need to vent about it. 

Either way, here goes.  

The current debacle with Bill Hybels and the Willowcreek leadership team is one of the most disheartening situations I’ve seen in recent history. I’m not going to rehash the details extensively, but you can read about it here & here and pretty much everywhere. 

Personal backstory:  As a woman in ministry, Bill Hybels has been a hero to me.  Though I’ve not listened to much of his preaching, his willingness to affirm the role of women in leadership by inviting women onto his teaching teams and into his inner leadership circles was groundbreaking in Evangelicalism. Nancy Beach was one of the first women I followed who was doing what I one day hoped to do.  She did it because she was great at it, but also because Bill Hybels understood and validated the weight of her voice and the strength of her gifting.  He gave her a home on his platform which is a generous thing for any lead pastor to do, but he was not just any pastor.  He was arguably the most influential spiritual leader of that era in Christendom. His ‘yes’ to women reverberated through the halls of churches and publishing houses and ushered women right up onto platforms all over the country.  

In reading these reports, it’s not the severity of the misdeeds committed that is most concerning to me. Some of the accusations are not as serious as others.  What’s most concerning to me - and feels insidious and systemic - is the underlying idea that women, no matter how gifted, how professional or how valuable to an organization or ministry - are still ultimately seen as the reason men fail and fall.  The fact that the team around Hybels has admitted to falsely accusing the women of lying and colluding to destroy an innocent man (and have now retracted and apologized for those statements), in my opinion, is the truly insidious seed at the center of a very bad situation.  

The way this issue was handled, start-to-finish, sends a message to other male leaders that women are dangerous in two ways: They will either use their sexuality to get you to sin, or they will use it to falsely accuse you of sin.  And even a man as egalitarian as Bill Hybels can either 1) Be tempted by the mere presence of women in his home or 2) Be tricked by the presence of women on his team.  See what I’m saying here?  Hybel’s guilt or innocence doesn’t actually change the fact that this situation is a blow to women in ministry and the men who have the power (and responsibility) to put them there. 

"Really, we've long viewed male/male relationships as safe and male/female relationships as dangerous in the Church."

I worry about how this will impact men who truly want to raise up and equip female communicators and leaders.  Because, really, we’ve long viewed male/male relationships as safe and male/female relationships as dangerous in the church. Our church (and I believe our denomination) has a “no male/female meetings behind closed doors” and a “no riding in cars together” rule -  both to avoid the appearance of evil and, I suppose, the opportunity for evil.  In Church culture, women are dangerous just by existing. We don’t worry about men riding in cars together or meeting in offices together or traveling to conferences together.  I'm not arguing to change the rules, but I am begging us to be honest about the fact that these restrictions are driven by both wisdom and fear and therefore make men seem like a safer choice when it comes to staff positions.  It makes them easier to train and mentor. It makes them golfing buddies and not just coworkers.  (This is different, I think, in the secular workforce, because the church prizes sexual purity more than almost ANY. OTHER. THING.  An office affair will not topple a CEO; but it will destroy a pastor's career. )

"Teach your daughter to be brave and kind and wise.  But please don't teach her that her existence is inherently dangerous to the integrity of men." 

As a woman on a mostly-male team, I know exactly how it feels to be on the outside of the inside.  Sometimes it can feel like joining a conversation mid-stream because the men talked about the upcoming series during halftime and they’re already in agreement.  I’m not complaining, I love my team and I love my job, and I love every single man I work with, but I have mostly had to mentor myself - and often to remind myself that I count as much as they do because God says I do. Even though I don’t have a husband and even though I’m not a man, I still matter and my voice is important at the table. 

The other reason this issue is so, so damaging to women is that once again, we’re force-fed the idea that exposing a man’s bad behavior is bad.  If we tell the truth, empires fall - and in our business, souls are at stake.  If we tell the truth, we’ll be forced to defend it and our honor and our ability to meet with men without toppling their integrity. This, dear sisters, ought not be.  This, dear brothers, is killing us and our will to keep fighting just to get to a level playing field.  

So, in the flavor of a Monday Manifesto, let me give you these words that I feel from the depths of my heart about your place in the Kingdom.  Say them to yourself no matter what anyone else says about you. 

  1. I am not responsible to keep a man holy or healthy. I am responsible to listen to the Holy Spirit, to follow Him closely, carefully, but freely.  Psalm 119:165 Great peace have men who love God’s ways; nothing - not even closed office doors - causes them to stumble. (personal paraphrase.) 
  2. I belong at the table.  My voice matters.  My worldview is different than a man’s, but that’s what makes it so necessary in the Church.  Though the table is rife with politics and inequities, I will keep showing up. 
  3. I will be an agent for change. We’re in a messy season in Christendom.  But the season is changing.  This is how it changes.  Through wrestling and talking and praying and some healthy debating.  I will not fear the fight. 
  4. I will be an outspoken supporter of the women around me and the amazing men who intentionally affirm them.  
  5. I will teach my daughter to be brave and kind and wise.  But I will not teach her that she is dangerous to the integrity of men.  

Comments are open and I'd be really interested to know: How have you seen male/female relationships handled within church walls?  Do you think it's the same or different than in another work environment? 

With hope, 

Bo

PS:  Before you comment, let me add (because our She.ology editorial review committee (i.e. Whitney) raised the issue:  This is NOT a problem exclusive to the church and not every church is doing this wrong.  I completely agree with her.   

Author: Bo Stern | www.sheology.co | @bolovesjoe

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