Lynne Hybels

Monday, November 18, 2013

Evangelicals and Gender Equality

by Lynne and Bill Hybels

Recent twitter conversations about gender equality (or lack thereof) in evangelical churches reminded me of an article Bill and I wrote some years ago. This article first appeared as a chapter in How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals, ed. Alan Johnson, 2010. In alternate sections of writing, Bill and I highlight our respective experiences related to the role of women in life and ministry.  I hope it will add a helpful voice to the conversation.

Bill: 

When I dropped out of college and traded my business major for a volunteer position as a youth pastor, I was long on ministry passion and short on theological training. All I knew was that young people in the early 70s were staying away from church in droves and missing out on what I believed to be the key to life—here and in eternity. I wanted to present the gospel of Jesus in ways high school kids would listen to and understand and respond to. 

I went where God seemed to be leading—to a conservative, evangelical church in suburban Chicago—and shaped a ministry with a small group of students who were committed to reaching their friends who were far from God. The students were gifted and creative and the ministry grew rapidly. Within a few months, the intimate gathering that began in the church basement had to move upstairs into the sanctuary to accommodate the hundreds of students who were finding a spiritual home in what we called “Son City.” In order to maintain the sense of community that marked the original group, we broke the students into teams according to high school districts. Each team had two student leaders—one male, one female. We chose students who were committed Christians, respected by their peers and who exhibited clear leadership skills. Our approach to leadership was pragmatic; it seemed obvious that we needed male leaders for the guys to relate to and female leaders for the girls to relate to. In actual experience, it was easier to find high school girls who were spiritually mature and skilled in leadership than it was to find guys. From a practical standpoint, it would have been unthinkable not to allow girls to lead.

In 1975, the high school youth ministry “birthed” a church for adults called Willow Creek Community Church. Many of the original student leaders from Son City, by then college students, became the leaders in the new church. Echoing the pattern established during the student ministry years, young men and women served in every ministry throughout the church.  I have to confess that at that point I was not absolutely convinced theologically that including women in leadership was the right thing to do, but neither was I convinced that it was prohibited. It seemed appropriate, therefore, to maintain this pragmatic approach we had established in Son City.   

In the early years of our church, the Willow Creek elders and I were content to proceed on this path, with an open mind theologically and with careful observation of how the Holy Spirit seemed to be operating in our midst. However, the increasing visibility of Willow in secular and Christian media forced us to define and articulate our position. Questions began pouring in about why we “allowed” women in leadership. Did we have a rational defense for our position? In response, we commissioned our elders to do an intensive, eighteen-month scriptural study of the issue of women in leadership. I did not feel it was right to sideline the women whom God seemed to be using while we did this study, so we pursued a parallel track of study and continued observation of how God worked among us through the leadership efforts of both men and women. 

Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian, a Wheaton College professor and Willow Creek elder, led the study. The conclusions of the study were published in 1985 in Bilezikian’s book, Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says about a Woman’s Place in Church and Family. In summary, we concluded that before the Fall, men and women related to each other as co-regents, both bearing the image of God and called to join together in caring for the world he had created. Both men and women were responsible to fulfill their ministries of service for God’s glory in the manner God had gifted them and to the degree to which they had been apportioned faith. Tragically, in the Fall, this cooperative relationship between men and women was deeply wounded. We believe God’s gracious plan for redemption is that everything that was broken through sin—including the relationship between men and women—might be restored to the beauty that existed during the first days of Creation. 

Many devout, intelligent Christians disagree with our conclusions. There will come a day when we will all find out the degree to which we have veered from God’s perfect wisdom, in this issue and many others. Until then, I hold this position humbly, yet firmly. I am willing to take the risk of encouraging women to do what I believe scriptures ask of them—to make themselves fully available to the full range of spiritual gifts. 

As a result of that eighteen-month study, we adopted non-gender-based giftedness as one of Willow’s core values.  By the time we took this stand officially, we had hired some male staff members who claimed they were willing to honor women in leadership, but in daily practice they subtly used their influence to denigrate women in leadership positions. Our elders ultimately decided that staff members who could not wholeheartedly serve under women leaders would have to find another place to minister. That decision was necessary to preserve the unity and harmony of our staff. 

Over the last three decades I have had the pleasure of standing on a church stage and introducing women teachers, knowing that the congregation was about to hear a message inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit. I’ve sat in elder meetings and listened while godly women brought wisdom and discernment to bear on complex issues of church discipline. I’ve bounced ideas back and forth with gifted businesswomen who provided thoughtful perspectives on the fiduciary matters of the church. I’ve listened to church members tell stories of transformation that occurred as they sat under the pastoral care of female small group leaders. I’ve watched women and men stand side by side as they served communion and collected the offering and led worship. 

I’ve seen the sparkle in the eyes of young women as they ponder the various models of godly women they see in our church: faithful wives, devoted mothers, committed friends, grandmothers, single women, businesswomen, stay-at-home moms, professional ministers, active volunteers—women of all ages, marital status and race who use their gifts of hospitality, administration, mercy, encouragement, faith, teaching, leadership—whatever. These are women who know the challenge and joy of making themselves wholly available to God. Women who take their life and their gifts seriously. Women who pray earnestly to discern God’s direction. Women who challenge themselves to learn and grow and equip themselves so they can respond faithfully to God’s calling. 

When I speak at conferences around the world, I am grieved by how often I hear women say, with tears in their eyes, “I can’t find a place to use my gifts in my church. What should I do?” Many of these women have tried for years to fit into the roles traditionally available to women, but they’ve felt frustrated and ineffective. What’s wrong with me? they wonder as they watch other women serve joyfully year after year. Eventually, women like these often give up on the church and commit themselves to volunteer leadership roles in the community or challenging positions in the marketplace. This is a massive and tragic loss to the local church and to the kingdom of God around the world. 

At this point in my life, I can’t imagine doing senior leadership in a church without the full participation of women at every level. I wouldn’t want to make important decisions without the world and life view that women offer. You learn something by being a mom that you don’t learn by being a dad. You experience something as a little girl growing up in church that you don’t experience as a little boy. As church leadership teams, we need to view the church family from the perspective of both genders. We need the cross-pollination of ideas that can shape better ideas for the future. I don’t know how we can do this unless we have both women and men serving in every area of our ministry. 

Lynne: 

While Bill and the Willow elders were exploring the theological issues related to women in leadership and determining how best to live out non-gender-based giftedness in the daily life of the church, I was feeling quite removed from the whole issue. I had never wanted to lead or teach—in the church or anywhere else. I went to college to become a social worker, but I was happy to give up a career in social work to become a pastor’s wife. I believed then, as I do now, that Christians have the extraordinary privilege of being part of God’s plan to redeem and restore everything that’s been broken by sin in God’s beautiful world. That includes fighting for justice for the poor and freedom for the oppressed. I dreamed of being part of a church that responded to the very real problems in our community and in the world. As a young woman of twenty-three, I had no clue what my gifts and strengths were, or how I could most effectively engage in God’s redemptive plan, but I had plenty of commitment. I was willing to do whatever God asked, whatever was needed.

When we first started Willow, I participated in the music ministry, playing the flute in our band, and I loved that. I also wrote articles in church publications. I was a young mom so I started a ministry for other young moms.

But as the church grew and Bill got busier, I had to pick up virtually all of the time-consuming practicalities of keeping a home and family going, which left me little time for anything else. And there were more miscellaneous demands that began to come my way—people to see, calls to make, meetings to schedule, gatherings to plan. Eventually, my life became focused on household chores, secretarial tasks, administrative details and entertaining.

For some women, that would have been a dream life. But I increasingly found myself hating life. And I really didn’t know why. I concluded I was just a selfish, demanding person who was not willing to do what God had asked me to do. I tried to change my attitude, but I grew increasingly miserable. The more unhappy I became the more guilty I felt and the more I confessed my sin. For years I was convinced that I was a really bad Christian. Finally I went to see a Christian counselor, hoping she could help me develop a more godly attitude. 

Shortly after starting counseling, my counselor asked me why I looked at the world through Bill’s eyes. “I don’t,” I said, and then spent the next year proving that I did. For months I could not answer the counselor’s questions without voicing Bill’s perceptions, values, insights and opinions. It would have been comic if it weren’t so sad. I knew far more about Bill than I knew about myself. I knew his gifts and temperament, his strengths and weaknesses, his needs and desires, his passion and calling, his dreams, his recreational interests, his long-range goals, his preferred spiritual disciplines. But I knew none of that about myself. 

There were many reasons why that was true. Certainly, a main one was that Bill’s ministry was so demanding and so fruitful that I gradually slid into believing that my life couldn’t possibly matter as much as his did. What was important was to keep Bill going, to make his life manageable and facilitate his ministry. 

Bill didn’t ask for that, but it’s what I perceived as right. I grew up in a time and place in which the underlying attitude was that a woman’s highest calling was to support her husband. If she didn’t have a husband, there was probably some other man somewhere who needed her help or her service. 

I would never have voiced that perspective—and certainly that was not the message I heard at Willow—but I’ve since discovered that mindsets we adopt as children can impact our behavior long after our adult minds have repudiated them. While I wouldn’t have said that my life didn’t matter, I ended up living as if it didn’t. 

I want to clarify something here. It wasn’t that I wanted a full-time career or ministry outside the home. I celebrate women who are able to do that, but with Bill’s work and travel schedule, even in a best-case scenario, that wouldn’t have been realistic for us—and that was truly okay with me. However, I couldn’t shake the longing I had to discover and use my true gifts consistently in some way.

Now and then I got involved in some form of ministry I really loved. I served in our first ministry partnerships in Chicago, and went on some of our first serving trips to Latin America. I lived in an affluent suburb, but sitting in a squalid shanty town in Mexico passing out canned peaches to little barefoot kids was really where I felt most at home and most alive. 

But whenever my involvement in ministry inconvenienced Bill or the kids, or in any way kept me from living up to other people’s expectations—which it always did—then I would withdraw, back out, quit. And when I felt frustrated or angry about having to do that, I would confess my sin and my demanding spirit. 

I thought that was the right thing to do. I thought that denying my gifts and passions was part of what it meant to “die to self,” as scripture asks us to do. I didn’t realize there is a difference between dying to self-will and to sin, and dying to the self that God created and called me to be. 

It’s true we need to live according to the ebb and flow of seasons, and our movement between ministry within the home and beyond it must shift according to those seasons. I think that’s true for both men and women, both fathers and mothers. And yes, there is a necessary sacrifice—a suffering even—that is part of the life of every servant of Jesus. We need to ask for grace and strength to endure those things. 

But, if year after year our lives are consumed with what we’ve not been gifted or impassioned to do, and we never have a chance to slide into the sweet spot of giving out of true self, we will pay a higher price in ministry than God is probably asking us to pay. 

As my counselor helped me look more honestly at my natural abilities and spiritual gifts, I realized why I was so frustrated. By nature, I am not a task-oriented person; I am not good at handling details or complexity; and I do not have one shred of the gifts of administration, helps, or hospitality. So for years, in deference to the goal of supporting Bill, I had shaped a life around gifts I didn’t have and I completely neglected the ones I did have.

My true gifts are encouragement, mercy and discernment, so I would much rather deal with people than with tasks. My passion is to lift up those who are oppressed, which is why I always gravitated to Willow’s ministries with the poor. I also loved dealing with words and ideas and felt called to write, but writing requires time and solitude, neither of which I had. 

Obviously, at that point I should have made changes in my life, but I didn’t. Oh, I made half-hearted stabs at it—I talked to Bill and the kids about our need to handle responsibilities at home more equitably. I repeatedly considered getting administrative help for the church-related details that took so much of my time. But I didn’t do it. 

I just couldn’t bring myself to make the choices necessary to do that. Again, old mindsets die hard. It was years before I learned to value myself enough to believe that God’s call on my life was something I had to take seriously. It took me years to realize it wasn’t a sin to inconvenience other people—even my husband!

What’s so sad is that when women fail to take their lives seriously, nobody wins. 

Bill didn’t win. He married me, in part, because he saw in me a level of confidence, competence and energy for life and ministry that he resonated with and fell in love with. But decades of denying my true gifts and passions drained me of the very vitality he was initially drawn to and left me feeling incompetent and insecure—not at all the person he had hoped to share his life with. So he didn’t win. 

Our kids didn’t win. They got a devoted, conscientious mother, who picked up after them and made sure they got their homework done. They got a mother who adored them, prayed for them, always wanted the best for them. But they didn’t get a happy mother. They didn’t get a fun mother. They didn’t get to see, up close and personal, a woman fully alive in God. 

My son needed to see that. But even more, my daughter needed to see that. She needed to see me operating out of strength and passion, and I couldn’t give her that. Fortunately, there were other women in her life who modeled that for her. And I am grateful that as I have chosen to lean into my own true life, I am now able to give her something I couldn’t give her before. But if I had it to do over, I would not have waited so long. I would not have robbed her of the model of an authentically alive mother. 

I also have to say my church did not win. Yes, my church needed Bill, and his gifts and his passion. He is an extraordinary pastor, and I never wanted to hinder what he could offer to our church. But our church needed me too, not because I am anything special, but just because that’s where God put me, and he put me there for a reason. There was a perspective and a dream—there were words and influence—that I believe God wanted me to offer to my church. But I didn’t show up. I didn’t value what I had to offer enough to actually offer it. 

Most women I know are really good at giving. And we should be good at giving. We follow in the way of a Savior who gave himself for the world. But Jesus didn’t give himself indiscriminately; he didn’t give people everything they wanted. Jesus knew his calling from the Father; he knew the unique shape of the redemptive gift he was to give to the world. I believe that too many women give bits and pieces of themselves away, indiscriminately, for years and years, and never have the time or energy to discern their unique calling from God, never have the time or energy to play the redemptive role they are gifted and impassioned to play. The result is a lot of good-hearted, devout Christian women who are exhausted and depressed. 

Bill: 

It’s not easy for me to read Lynne’s words. There I was, committed to creating a church environment in which women were free to use their God-given gifts, and yet my own wife was frustrated to the point of despair. Obviously, Lynne had internal issues related her to old mindsets. But I certainly didn’t make it easy for her to break out of the old pattern and make new choices. Everything about my lifestyle supported the traditional model of marriage and pushed her into a subordinate role. 

Starting a church proved to be far harder than I had anticipated, so I was insanely busy, and the level of responsibility I carried at a young age produced continual and extreme stress. Anytime Lynne asked me to do even a small thing to help her, I felt burdened and impatient. The fact that I was earning an income to support our family, while her efforts at home as well as in ministry were always unpaid, contributed to devaluing her work. And, of course, because of my visible ministry, I was applauded and honored. Lynne heard again and again how powerfully God was using me. “It’s a good thing Bill has you serving him behind the scenes,” was a comment that repeatedly made her ask, What’s wrong with me? Why am I not content? 

Clearly, freeing women to live out their God-given calling means more than simply rethinking theological views of women in leadership. It means valuing the contributions of all women, whatever their gifts. And clearly, it has implications for marriage. It means that a husband and a wife each bring their dreams, their passions and their gifts to the table and say, “How can we shape a life together that will honor the calling that we each feel from God?” Doing that requires mutual respect and mutual compromise and is extremely challenging. But God will be glorified when husbands and wives work together to honor and develop each other’s gifts and callings.

I love watching my children’s generation deal with this in ways Lynne and I couldn’t even imagine when we were newly married. My daughter is a writer and my son-in-law is a musician; they are both committed to their sons, committed to ministry and committed to helping one another nurture and use their creative gifts. The negotiations that make their marriage work are complex, but the result is an authentic sense of partnership in parenthood, homemaking, personal development and ministry. 

The reality is that it’s easy to talk about this, but when it comes to execution and implementation, usually the guy just gets his way and the woman’s ministry gets squished. We men have to make arrangements and agreements in marriage to make it work for both spouses. 

Lynne: 

I am writing this section of this chapter in a hotel room in a country in the Middle East where women, as I was told by a young man last night, “exist primarily for the amusement of men.” The Christian husband who spoke in those terms, did so as a lament, grieved by the pain his young wife experienced growing up, and by the pain pervasive in the lives of his countrywomen. I’m certainly not equating the role of women in Western evangelical churches with the plight of women in countries where they are viewed solely as objects for men’s pleasure. But being in this environment heightens my sensitivity to any situation in which women are not valued for the fullness of who they are, and are not encouraged to take seriously the full range of their potential contribution to the work of God in this desperately needy world. 

Earlier this week I sat at a long table with thirty young women who feel called to begin a ministry for poor women in the rural villages in their country. “We feel strongly that God is calling us to do this,” they said, “but we are so afraid. We’ve never been taught how to start a ministry or how to lead. But we can’t say no to God! Can you help us?” Interestingly, it was a male church leader who challenged these young women to start this ministry. “They’re such strong, godly, gifted young women,” he told me. “But we [church leaders] have never encouraged them, never challenged them, never inspired them. God has convicted me about this. We’ve been wrong. Our church needs these women. Our country needs these women. We need to empower them to lead.” 

Several days after meeting with the young women, I offered the morning message at a church in the same country. I didn’t ask to do that. Truth be told, I tried to get out of it; I agreed to do it only because of my deep respect and affection for the dear pastor of that church, who works against great odds to teach and model the love of Jesus in a very difficult situation. I decided do anything—even stand in front of his congregation and speak through an interpreter—to encourage this incredible servant of God in his ministry. I stood before him and his congregation humbly, overwhelmed by the responsibility of providing a biblical word of encouragement. 

Some time ago I attended a meeting of American church leaders gathered to discuss the decline of indigenous Christian churches in the Holy Land. I was one of few women in the room and had agreed to attend the group merely as a listener and learner. But I was not allowed to remain silent; because of recent meetings I had enjoyed with Arab Christians in Jordan, Egypt and the West Bank, my opinion was sought. Fighting the sense of intimidation I felt in a room filled with male scholars, I reminded myself of early Christian women like Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe and the unnamed women described in Romans and Philippians who labored beside Paul as missionaries for the early church. In a male-dominated culture, the gospel of Jesus freed them—and the spirit of God called them—to speak and lead and serve in order to help spread the Kingdom of God on earth. In their spirit of obedience, I sat in that gathering of men and spoke the truth of what I’d recently seen and heard, describing the plight of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East. I didn’t seek the position of leadership and influence that I have, and I certainly don’t feel adequate to it, but I believe I must be faithful and diligent in using it as God seems to be leading. 

Bill: 

It’s ironic that in many ways Lynne and I are reversing roles. While I am logging less miles on airplanes than at any point during my adult life, Lynne is racking up frequent flyer miles with a vengeance. While I feel increasingly called to devote the majority of my time to the Willow home front, Lynne’s opportunities are taking her well beyond the walls of Willow and beyond the borders of the US. 

Through Lynne, I’ve had the opportunity to learn two important lessons. First, that women who are freed and challenged and empowered to develop their gifts and pursue the passion planted in them by God do not become less loving wives or less devoted parents. On the contrary, they bring a greater level of joy and energy to every dimension of life. I can honestly say that now, during Lynne’s most intense and authentic ministry involvement, she is also offering her very best self as a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter and friend. I only regret that I did not help her discover this way of life years ago. 

The second thing I’ve learned is that women are the greatest untapped resource in the world (to quote Lynne!). While it’s dangerous to divide men and woman into different categories of leadership based on gender differences, I do think that in the broad sweep women tend to be very good in collaboration and inclusiveness. They tend to look at leadership as a team sport and invite people into the process of shaping a vision. Women—broad strokes again—tend to breathe life into an organization through encouragement and celebration of small victories along the way. How desperately every organization on earth—from churches to schools to businesses to governments—need those qualities represented in leadership today. 

This places a heavy burden on those of us responsible for developing leaders and creating leadership teams. I want to end this chapter with four practical suggestions for how we can do that.

1. We need to be proactive about adding women to leadership teams. Generally speaking, it’s easier to find qualified men because men have been given more opportunities to develop the necessary skills and experience. More men than women have been put in the leadership development pipeline. So naturally, when it comes time to reach for an emerging leader, there will likely be ten potential men for every woman who’s been adequately prepared. This means we must be driven by values as opposed to expediency. If we just go for the quick, easy hire we’re going to perpetuate this gender inequality indefinitely. This isn’t about tokenism. This is about getting the best leadership team for the organization. Part of that means having the broader perspective that gender diversity brings. Women who are new to leadership and/or teaching may require more coaching from senior leadership, but providing this coaching is a small price to pay for the benefits godly, gifted women bring to leadership and teaching teams. 

2. We need to be very intentional in choosing the first woman (or women) we invite into significant roles. In the early days of the student ministry, we were so blessed to have extraordinary young women with stellar character, relational maturity and strong leadership gifts. They weren’t banner-wavers and they weren’t trying to shove anything into anyone’s face. All they wanted to do was serve God with the gifts that God had given them. I very carefully selected the young women I felt would be most trustworthy with additional responsibility; I observed their leadership and then I added responsibilities when it seemed appropriate. I wanted to make sure I set them up to win because I knew people were watching them very carefully. I knew they were carrying the weight of paradigm-breakers. 

I once talked with a pastor who went through a lengthy study process and became convinced that he needed to take a non-gendered view of giftedness and open the arena of leadership to women. Unfortunately, he didn’t apply the level of due diligence to his hiring process that he had applied to his study process. The first woman he chose to put in a leadership position turned out to be an unwise choice. Although she appeared to qualify in terms of giftedness and spiritual commitment, in practice she was emotionally immature, exhibited limited relational intelligence and operated with an intimidating level of aggressive behavior. While some people were quick to say, “See, that’s what happens when you put a woman in leadership,” I don’t believe it was a theological problem or a gender issue. It was a matter of character and immaturity. 

3.  When we see women who are obviously not living up to their potential, we need to challenge them.  I’ve seen many women “play small”—hold back in meetings or turn down responsibilities—because they don’t want to be perceived as ambitious or power hungry. Whether that flows from false humility, fear, or pride, it’s not right. It’s wasteful to the Kingdom. If this were just about a corporation making a little less money because women aren’t using their skills and abilities adequately, that wouldn’t upset me.  But we’re trying to change the world! In the church, anytime anyone—male or female—shrinks back from doing what God is calling them to do, the Kingdom is losing. I grieve that loss from a Kingdom perspective. Women need to be given the freedom to show up, and they need to have the courage to show up. 

4. We need to commit ourselves to diligent study on this issue. Dealing with difficult issues is a matter of integrity. It’s worth it to wrestle with these issues because so much is at stake. Many gifted women turn to the academic world, to the corporate world, to the arts world, because the church does not give them the opportunity to serve as fully as they believe God has both gifted and called them. 

If you ultimately land on a more limited view of the role of women in church life, are you at least giving women every possible opportunity within the bounds of your theological framework? To the extent that you can, are you cheering them on in their life and ministry? 

Lynne: 

Some years ago I spoke at a conference in Germany.  For four days 180 Christian women leaders from all over Europe, many from Eastern European countries, gathered together to encourage one another in their various ministries. 

Day after day I was humbled by these women and by their stories. The week started with a pastor’s wife from Serbia telling us what it is like to minister in a setting where every night when you go to bed, you say to your husband and children, “I’ll see you in the morning, or I’ll see you in heaven.”  She said prayer takes on a whole new meaning when you’re lying in bed listening to bombs fall.  One evening two women from countries then at war with one another, publicly and personally apologized for the devastation created by their respective militaries and prayed together for their national leaders and for victims of war from both countries.   

All week long I heard similar stories from women in Rumania and Russia and Albania—inspiring stories of women pushing back the forces of evil—through heading up networks of prayer groups and neighborhood Bible studies, working in counseling centers, publishing Bibles, starting small businesses to assist single mothers. You name it, they were doing it.

The last day of the conference was an outreach event open to any women in Europe. The women who had planned this outreach had virtually no experience in conference planning; they just sensed this call from God to try to impact the women of their country. A year earlier, when they had called me to ask if I would speak at the closing event, they said, “We’re hoping for 2,000 women.” 

In the months following, they periodically sent me update faxes.  As the months went on, the conference registrations grew from 2000 to 4000 to 6000 to 8000.  They said, “We don’t know what’s going on.  We can’t figure this out.” They ultimately ended up in the largest facility in the center of the banking district of Frankfurt, with 10,000 women! 

One particularly poignant moment was when one woman from each of the 30 countries represented at the conference walked down the middle aisle of that huge conference center carrying the flag of her country. They all walked up on the stage and planted these flags around the foot of a gigantic cross, then knelt together in prayer.  

When it was my turn to speak, I began by saying that the thing I love about women is their intrinsic drive to break down barriers.  With political leaders more concerned about personal ambition than the common good, corporate leaders captive to greed, and countries across the globe at war—here were 10,000 women saying, “There is another way.  And it starts with us together at the foot of the cross.”  

I spoke that day about our need as women to break through the fears that keep us from living out the adventure that God has in mind for us, that keep us from becoming the difference-makers he intends us to be.  I ended with the story of Esther, that Old Testament heroine who literally put her life on the line to follow her call from God.  When she wavered because of her fear, a wise person challenged her with these words, “How do you know that you have not been created for such a time as this?”  

I believe that is a powerful call to women today.  This world needs us to show up with the fullness of what we have to offer.  It needs our strength. It needs our vulnerability. It needs our gifts.  It needs our compassion.  It needs our prayers.  It needs our action.  It needs our humility. It needs our leadership. 

May our churches become places where men and women alike receive the challenge, the encouragement, and the equipping necessary to be faithful agents of God’s redemptive plan.  



  









24 comments:

  1. Wow, thank you both so much for this incredible gift. How amazing to have your perspectives outlined so clearly here, I have learnt so much and feel so inspired. May God continue to lead and bless your ministries in the years to come!

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  2. Sarah is right, you have give Christian women an incredible gift here. THANK YOU!

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  3. Lynne and Bill
    Thank you for this. I've been at Willow for nearly 30 years, and I'm so thankful for the position we hold on this issue. My daughter has grown up believing it's "normal" to use her leadership gifts. I've had so many opportunities to use mine. Lynne, it's amazing to see the ways that, as you've unleashed your true gifts, you are changing the world! Thank you both for your faithful ministry!

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  4. Lynne and Bill: Well done. Thank you for your leadership and vulnerability.

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  5. I have the book this comes from, but never got around to reading it until now. Powerful testimony! I'm looking forward to sharing this with my Wheaton students.

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  6. It's kind of a long story how I made my way over here, but I'm so glad I did. I'm a military wife with young kids, navigating some of these very issues. Thank you so much for sharing this!

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  7. Women do have a powerful role to play in the church, but there is also structure in the Church that God has set up. Unfortunately, the modern feminist movement and society in general has crept into the Church and many in it are adopting the world's practices. That's why homosexuality is starting to be allowed in the Church. Let's get Biblical or up with the times. Can't have it both ways.

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    1. Exactly! Saying "Both men and women were responsible to fulfill their ministries of service for God’s glory in the manner God had gifted them and to the degree to which they had been apportioned faith." does not mean that there are no differences in roles between women and men. Pointing to great women in the Bible also does not mean that women are to lead men. Women are wonderful and are to be used in ministry. The main thing is that the Apostle Paul says they are not to exercise authority over or to teach men. If you don't agree with one part of the Bible, you reject all of it.

      Liberal Christians are pointing to society to justify their points. Shouldn't we as Christians look to the WORD OF GOD first? North American Christians (me included) do not treasure this gift enough.

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    2. "If you don't agree with one part of the Bible, you reject all of it." That's rubbish.

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    3. The problem with that argument is that a lot of research, scholarship, thought and prayer has been put into the matter of how to understand the bible's teachings on gender roles. Early on, Willow Creek commissioned a deep study, lasting 18 months and involving significant resources into looking into the issue. Their scholarship as well as the scholarship by many, many others - including many Evangelicals - has been available for a couple of decades now. There is no way for a person to credibly claim that gendered roles is just being faithful to scripture without addressing the critiques of the old way of doing things. Which is what supporters of the status quo cannot and will not do. At some point, they always revert to "what the bible says", as if the other side was unaware of what the bible says.

      The problem with the argument that religious roles reflect some wisdom of God's is that the claim is quite easy to disprove. The placing of men over women has been practiced by nearly all religions and all cultures for as long back in time as we can trace. Dynamics in remaining tribal peoples show that this practice probably dates back to before the beginning of what we call civilization. By definition, placing women under men is a human practice. The way that people do things. But in scripture, God says, "as high as the heavens are above the earth, so our my ways above the ways of men." God's ways are not only better than the ways of man. They are actually the opposite of how men do things.

      Really, what are the odds that the one thing which nearly all humans through out human history and across culture and religion agreed on is right? Out of everything people get wrong, this is the one thing everyone got right - that men should be over women? Really?

      The truth is that patriarchy is as common as dirt among human beings. And yet, there was this man 2000 years ago whose life and teachings started undermining this humanity wide consensus that men should be over women. It wasn't something he ever addressed directly. But there was this one line - "neither male or female, but all one in Christ Jesus." And a few women whose names got recorded because of their involvement in promoting and living out "The Way". And that was all it took.

      Do you really think it's a coincidence that the places where women first gained (mostly) full freedom and equality are the places where Christianity has the deepest roots? The equality of women isn't an attack on Christianity from without. It's an attack on the ways of men that was planted for us 2000 years ago coming to fruition. Without Christianity, there is no feminism. I personally think it demonstrates to the world the true power of Christ to see what his entry into the flow of human history has wrought. The one thing that all humanity could agree on. The thing which demonstrated the way of man more than anything else. That one thing - the idea that men should be over women - is all but dead in the parts of the world where worship of him took root. Do you really think it's all a coincidence? Do you really think that the one thing all mankind has agreed on happens to be the one thing we've gotten right? Despite the bad fruit it has always created?

      So, because you can find verses which can be read as affirming that placing men over women is the one thing which humans have all done which is actually pleasing to God, and then willfully ignoring the reams of scholarship your brothers and sisters in Christ have produced regarding scripture, you then want to declare yourself the faithful, biblical one because you are just being faithful to God. That doesn't look faithful. It does

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  8. Thank you for your words, both of you. This was so encouraging to me. I loved how you shared that when you are a mother, using your gifts and serving in those gifts does not make you less of a wife or mother - in fact, it can make you more of one as you find joy in serving. I want to share this with everyone I know!

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  9. Lynne and Bill, thank you so much for this. I believe that so many women gifted in areas of teaching, preaching, leadership, etc. have to take their marbles and go play some place else because the church just doesn't know what to do with them. Business leader - fine. Non-profit leader fine. Para-church leader - fine. But not in the church. I believe all of this and still, I am looking for a book that addresses the issue from a robust theological perspective. I appreciate your reference to God's intent in creation and the reality that we are one day going to see the complete reverse of the curse. If the "not yet" has broken through, shouldn't we work to advance God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? Any suggestions for a book that address the theological issues more deeply? Thanks so much!

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  10. Hi Cindy. You could start with Gilbert Bilezikian's book, Beyond Sex Roles. Also check the resource page on the website for the Christians for Biblical Equality.

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    1. Lynne, thank you so much for replying! I'll check out the book and the resource page. And thanks again for sharing your experience. I so appreciate that.

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  11. Bill and Lynne thanks for sharing your conviction and experience on this subject. I sense the Holy Spirit is urging áll hands on deck for the coming Kingdom!

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  12. I think what you have written here is amazing and I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    Rev. Stanley M. Horton Th.d Professor Emeritus Assemblies of God Theological Seminary

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  13. Lynne (and Bill) -

    The national influence of Willow Creek on this issue has had a profound impact on my life. I am fortunate to serve alongside a Senior Pastor who opens the doors to service for the best-equipped, right people for the right season - as God sends them whether male or female. The culture at our growing church is healthy and functional, based on trust and mutual respect that cuts across every ministry effort. It allows us to serve with freedom and passion, and it allows Jesus to be glorified. Serving in such an atmosphere of trust and respect has helped me submit my life more fully to Christ, and the mutual submission on our team has impacted countless families (including my own).

    I'm so grateful for your commitment to working through the messy stuff, and VERY thankful for this post. It's not always easy to enter the fray of conflict, but your words here are needed.

    Many thanks to you and Bill for working it out with fear and trembling. Thanks for sharing the raw beauty of your journey with such vulnerability. Your words matter.

    all the best -

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  14. This chapter impacted me when I read the book. I read it in the months prior to my ordination in the Wesleyan Church. Thank you for sharing your story. I'm inspired!

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  15. Thank you for your honesty and encouragement in sharing your journey in this. My husband and I, and our church, are on a similar journey in this, but we still have a long way to travel. I enjoy writing and have just started writing about our journey, and some of its highs and lows, in a blog - http://garetkeyongod.wordpress.com/

    Thanks again

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  17. Having worked at two different churches, I'm sad to say I'm well-acquainted with the dynamics described here. I experienced no small amount of frustration and self-doubt as a result of my work with the church. I have found my place on a college faculty (which, interestingly, seems much more welcoming to women with a bent for leadership). But I continue to believe that evangelicals can change, and I am hopeful that we will continue to do so.
    The ideas in this post connect (of course) with Nancy Beach's discussion of women in ministry. Her book was deeply encouraging to me, as is much of what you have to say here.

    http://shadowwonder.blogspot.com/2011/11/not-afraid-to-be-thankful.html

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  18. Lynne and Bill wrote a very moving article. However, I was very sad that they never gave the feminist movement any credit for saving their marriage. Evangelicals often think feminism is evil, but the truth is that it is often very healing. Without feminism (in both its Christian and secular forms), Lynn and Bill would have continued to be miserable.

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  19. "... we had hired some male staff members who claimed they were willing to honor women in leadership, but in daily practice they subtly used their influence to denigrate women in leadership positions."

    That's exactly what I encountered in a church where I was the sole female elder for 2.5 years--male elders serving beside me who quietly (and not so quietly) denigrated and disrespected me. I ultimately ended up leaving that church. Unfortunately, there were not male counterparts who were willing to stick up for me or at the very least, chastise the men with the issue.

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  20. This is a remarkable chapter - honest, insightful, encouraging and real. I took a similar journey to Lynne's, ending up in seminary at age 44 and in my first paid pastoral position at age 52. I am stunned and sadden to see so much negative talk about women in leadership as I have entered into the blogging world in retirement. This beautiful post speaks powerfully to the truths that Bilezikian and your staff worked so hard to discern. Thank you, thank you.

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