Thoughts on Gender and Leadership

Thanks to my friend Rob Martin for pointing out an interesting post from J.R. Daniel Kirk at Storied Theology. Kirk is responding to some comments by John Piper in which Piper indicated that Christianity is a masculine religion. I admit that I am unfamiliar with the details of Piper’s description, but the fact that Christ talks about wanting to gather the people of Jerusalem under His wings like a mother hen would gather her chicks (Matt. 23.37, Luke 13.34) makes it seem hard to justify on the surface. This sounds much more like a feminine care and nurture than a masculine display of authority. Kirk looks at the book of Mark to trace how Mark retells the story of the disciples, a collection of males who seem to be the “insiders” in the story, and the women, who seem to reside mostly on the edges and come in and out of the picture, but are never trusted in the inner circle and never specifically empowered to go out and minister.

Kirk points out that it is always the disciples who are clueless as to the point of Jesus’ message. They don’t have enough faith to perform the miracles they are sent out to perform. They tell Jesus that He surely will not die. Peter is rebuked and called Satan! The women in Mark’s narrative fare much better. They are commended for their faith. The widow’s mite is worth more than the rich man’s overflow. The impression that the men are privileged in Scripture and the women are marginalized doesn’t really hold true when we consider the details. The men all run when the time of trial comes, it is the women who remain faithful and follow Him to the foot of the cross (though John’s version places him at the foot of the cross as well).

Here is a taste of the conclusion Kirk draws from the text:

In the story, the disciples do not understand what is entailed in leading the people of God. They think it is about greatness and power rather than service and death.

And so, we have the group represented by Peter. The rock. Is being “the rock” a good thing? In Mark, the rocky soil indicates plants that spring up well, but fall away when danger or persecution arise on account of the word. Mark repeats the language of “falling away” when the disciples scatter, leaving Jesus to die alone.

The Twelve were committed to Jesus, and happy with him–but only as one who came with power. They had no faith in their calling to participate in his way of death. They did not have eyes to see that the ministry of Jesus turned the economy of the world on its head.

Shall we return to the women now?

How are we to assess these women who, in the narrative world, are outsiders, on the margins?

Unlike the disciples who are rebuked for being of little faith, Jesus commends these women as having great faith: “Daughter, go in peace, your faith has made you well.”

Moreover, there is one episode where Jesus ties a human inseparably to the gospel story. It is the episode of the woman who pours out oil over Jesus’ head. This looks to be a royal anointing! But when Jesus defends her he says, “Leave her alone, she has prepared my body beforehand for burial.”

The act of anointing prepares Jesus for burial: Messiahship and death are held together, and here is the only person in the whole story to get it. This is why “wherever the gospel is preached what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”

What does it mean to live at the margins, to be unnamed? How does this compare with being the twelve, the dudes, the insiders?

According to the economy of the world, with its measures of greatness, to be the twelve is to be exemplary, in the place to lead, to exclude others from leadership, to stand close to Jesus and guard the gates of who else can draw near.

And to the extent that we look to Jesus’ selection of them, and the apparent marginalization of the women, as paradigmatic for male leadership in the church, we show ourselves to be people whose minds have not yet been transformed by the very story to which we are appealing.

It is only by agreeing with the disciples’ way of assessing the world that we can see their “insider status” as a true insider status, to be replicated by other men in church history.

Jesus offers another way: You guys don’t get it! It’s the rulers of the Gentiles who lord authority over people. It shall not be so among you.

There is another way. It is the way of the cross.

There is another way. It is the way of the “marginalized” in the worlds eyes lying closest to Jesus in faith and understanding.

Are we really supposed to hold up as our model the “Satan” who denied the gospel of the crucified Christ, and claim that Peter is paradigmatic of the place of men as insiders and faithful leaders in the church?

Or should we not seek out the one who did the good deed for Jesus, holding together Messiah and death from her place at the margins? Should we not seek out the one who sought out Jesus merely to touch the fringe of his garment and learn from her what it means to walk in faith?

The irony of appealing to the boys as insiders is that in so doing we show ourselves to be adopting the boys’ understanding of power, privilege, and leadership in the kingdom.

And this view is roundly rebuked by Jesus in words of dissuasion and the work of the cross.

The economy of the world is not the economy of the Kingdom. The world thrives on power hoarded and protected. The Kingdom is led by a King who serves and sacrifices so that His people may live. To look at Scripture and find justification for a continuance of a “masculine” religion is to fall into an old trap. Leadership in the Kingdom is not about the same things as leadership in the world. It is not about gaining power or privilege, or wielding control. Remember, Paul said that God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and the weak things to shame that which is strong (1 Cor 1.27). We would also do well to recall:

27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; foryou are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.27-28 NASB)

To claim that the Church is supposed to favor one gender ignores this fact. This is not to deny the reality of differences between the genders, but it is to say that these differences must not be used as grounds for subjugation. Verses about female submission only point out that women need to submit, but so do men! We are all to submit to one another in reverence for Christ. These fights for power do nothing to build up the Kingdom of God. Can we please agree to work together to advance the Kingdom, rather than fight for power and authority within the Body of Christ and act as un-Christ-like as many throughout Church history have managed to do?

2 comments on “Thoughts on Gender and Leadership

  1. I like the post and for the most part I agree with what you are saying. One thing that was not real clear to me was authority. I feel as though authority does belong to men, though it looks totally different.

    World: Authority = power, interests of self met first
    Under Christ: Authority = responsibility, service, unselfish love, interest of others met first

    Personally, I think too many men try to shirk their responsibility, and too many women let them in an effort to gain “equality.” More love is possible to be given by one who assumes authority along with its responsibility. Every man should take up their responsibility and make efforts towards inequality in favor of women, as I believe the scriptures direct.

    • I would agree, for the most part. My experience has been that churches that are most outspoken about male leadership seem to be those where the real meaning is male dominance, not service. If the Church was generally characterized by true servant leadership, the debate might look very different. If men spent their time making effort toward inequality in favor of women, as you suggest, this wouldn’t be an issue. From what I’ve heard of Piper’s thoughts, he doesn’t seem mean-spirited toward women, but his ideas of a masculine faith don’t totally mesh with your ideas.

      Thanks for the feedback!

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