"we let women lead…"

blog we let women leadi had to squeeze this post in while it was fresh in my mind, and it just might be my shortest blog post ever, yeah!

on friday night at the voca femina denver share party (glorious!) i was talking to a wise and lovely friend who reminded me of something i also absolutely can’t stand when it comes to the conversation about women and church–when men (and women, too) say “well, we let women lead…”

“we let women…”

i’m sure many of you have heard–or said–some variation of this (i have said and heard both in all kinds of shapes & forms over the years): “we let women lead”,  “they let me lead”, “it’s so great that my church lets women lead.” “our church let a woman speak this weekend, isn’t that cool?” 

i completely get the victory that happens when women are somehow freed, and that always makes me happy.

but these statements also make me cringe.

like really cringe.

and unfortunately they are so common that we accept them as progress, as something good.

but when people say it like this, it is revealing to what is going on underneath–and the telling assumptions that exist.

it tells a story that we often want to minimize–a story where men hold all of the power to “allow or permit” women to do or not do certain things.

a story where patriarchal systems & structures & influences trump the fullness of God’s spirit-at-work-in-women’s-lives.

it’s a story that we’ve accepted as okay somehow.

and it’s not okay.

the story of God is a story of freedom. of dignity being restored instead of stripped. of being empowered instead of shamed.  of   equality instead of oppression. of breaking down barriers instead of building them.  of loosening chains instead of tightening them.  of creating the kingdom of heaven on earth  here, now instead of perpetuating historical injustices.

men do not give women freedom.

and when they do, with statements like “we let women lead”, it does not heal the deep grooves of patriarchy but actually magnifies them.

women, i know it’s so easy to get sucked into and i have so been there, but i really hope we can resist celebrating someone “letting us” do what we have already been empowered to do.

we’ve got to change this jacked up language. 

yeah, i hope we can keep remembering that men, women, and systems ultimately do not give women freedom.

God does.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

63 Comments

  • Kathy, this is so true! One of the saddest things about a male dominated Church is that women’s influence as God’s image bearers is often missing and other times so managed the impact is dulled. Your point calls us to take personal responsibility for living our lives fully while encouraging others to do the same.

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    • “so managed the impact is dulled….” now that’s a great line. thanks, deb. yes, it is our responsibility to live fully and encourage others to do the same. i’m so glad i know you!

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  • Kathy – I so get what you are saying. Words matter. In this case, “we let women lead..” the operative word “let” – says so much about the person’s mindset.

    I would wonder if it doesn’t indicate they are still under the bondage of patriarchy? thinking they need permission from the leader to use their God given talents? It is a way of keeping us small and “in our place” – maintaining the status quo.
    I am so grateful for the model of equality you and Karl Wheeler are sharing with the Church.
    You are on the leading edge of the birth of a new church (or perhaps a re-birth of the model given to us by Jesus)

    One definition of leader that I like – is a leader’s role is to open space and call forth and nurture the gifts of the people…then the leader can stand on the sidelines and celebrate with them.

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  • THANK YOU! This is exactly what so many people don’t ‘get’ about awoman’s position in what is, essentially, a man’s world, not God’s world.

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  • So true. Loved this.
    This is OFF TOPIC- sorry:):
    Do you know of any websites or articles that talk about “preaching prayers”? I can’t seem to find any. You know, those prayers that are less like prayers and more like evangelizing? The prayers that tell GOD what to do and who needs help….like; “And we pray oh god that you would help little Jimmy who just broke up with his wife- may he know the right thing to do because your word says that divorce is a sin. And God we thank you for the Godly example of our father. That he taught us how to ask you into our hearts so that we will go to heaven instead of hell. May we always follow your ways and our father…”That type of thing…except worse….We have been getting that a lot from one side of the family. Actually it is usually the men on one side. The men usually always are asked to pray. Because they know we do not go to church and my hubby and I both feel they are targeting our children through prayer. It’s pure manipulation. In one way we feel compassion because we used to be in that kind of thinking. They honestly believe they are praying sincerely and pure of heart. They honestly believe that if they are witnessing during prayer that at least they may save the little ones from eternal fire and give them a sense of what is right and wrong… But on the other side it is insulting, disrespectful and def not a prayer. Is not prayer supposed to be sacred? I wish I could find articles on preaching prayer and the damage it does. Especially the manipulation and obvious controlling aspect of it all. I almost puked in prayer the other day and had to stop myself from snorting. My hubby felt the same and almost said something. We knew what was going on…but as soon as one tries to have an honest conversation about it the innocent facade comes up and bible verses…or “how dare you criticize my genuine prayer.” Very very frustrating. Once they went into hellfire with my five, seven and nine year old because they know we do not teach our children that way. It’s a direct disrespect. If we were Muslim or Jewish and pushed our prayers and ways on their kids it would be labelled as crossing the line but when a christian does it, it’s evangelizing for the greater kingdom. Do they not see the hypocrisy? (sorry I have nowhere else to vent on this issue:)

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    • Sorry Kathy for veering off topic with you Kmarie, but I’ll weigh in on this.
      There are some standard, time honored forms of prayer that Christians use. They are-
      Prayer of Supplication
      Prayer of Intercession
      Prayer of Faith
      Prayer of Agreement
      Prayer of Praise and Thanksgiving
      Prayer of Contemplation
      .
      As you point out, other forms are very popular in some circles. These include
      .
      prayer of pure manipulation
      prayer of abject shame, and
      prayer of arrogant certitude.
      .
      They are not accepted forms of prayer. and they fail to be included as accepted forms of prayer, not because they are not old enough or not shown in the bible- they fail the test because they are rude and mean spirited and not prayer at all. Interestingly that kind is also old, just like “I thank you God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else”. I suppose it is biblical in that way as well. 🙂
      Me, I like to stick with the time honored classics on the first list above. When someone throws one from the second list, it is hard to argue one out of that kind of thing- cause if they pray that way, I hardly expect they could do interpersonal communication any better- I’d just expect more of the same or worse, sorry.

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    • thanks for sharing & oh i can think of so many things to say about those preaching prayers. i don’t have any great links but i think it all goes back to safe people/safe communities stuff. it’s definitely a sign that should be listened to. have you seen that post?

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      • No I haven’t but I typed in the title and can’t find it. Is it called safe people and safe communities? I would like to read it:) Thanks.
        Sage: thanks for the thoughts. You made me smile.

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  • The jacked up language probably reveals the jacked up thinking behind it. Those guys are so full of themselves! On this topic I see myself not as cynical, but as realistic.

    While some may choose to remain within those systems and work to change them, our experience has been that most of them have no intention of changing. They only pay lip service to real change, and “let” minor change occur to give the appearance that they are making a transition to major change. Unfortunately, the major change usually never happens.

    My wife and I chose to completely step out of those systems. We understand those systems, but rue the cost to us of gaining that understanding, and rue the cost to the body of Christ that those systems have been and continue to be.

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    • i so agree with you that underneath it is jacked up thinking and unless really, really, really core theology changes about it, nothing will ultimately change.

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  • Good insights, I will be on the lookout for such language, you have raised my awareness. Thanks.

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    • thanks for taking time to share. in writing this i recalled how many times i was unaware of this language. i remember thinking how happy i was when they “let me” lead different things along the way and how subtle it all can be. tuning into it does shift our awareness.

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  • I realized recently that all these years in my struggle with being a woman in the church, I’ve been waiting for permission to be who I am. Now to walk forward into all God has. Scary & exciting!

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  • Hi Flaherty, it would be great to talk about the substance of the issue. But the way it is presented is also very important. This isn’t my blog, but Kathy has drawn the line on saying no personal attacks, and that is very right to do. This post of yours is a little more nuanced than the last one, though still insulting to me as a man. If you could restrain yourself from writing like a Troll it could be an interesting conversation. If not, you only serve to embarrass yourself and weaken your position by the way you treat people here. The style you bring as a patriarchal man- does it reflect the Image of God? Does it mirror the qualities of love that Christ taught us to bring in our relations with one another? Is this the way you treat the women in your life? If you want to have a respectful conversation about patriarchy on this thread it could be interesting. I actually have time to do that this week. If you can’t, this is not the place to be. It’s up to Kathy, and she has the authority here.

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  • BOOM. yes. This reminds me of a quote from my j-school prof talking about freedom of the press – “If your rights are endowed, given, by your Creator, your freedom cannot be given to you by man. Only taken.”

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  • Kathy, your posts are uplifting, honest and inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and insights. Here’s to the day when women in leadership is the norm and is not even questioned. Our freedom and our calling is in Christ alone.

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    • yes, may that day come sooner rather than later! that’s my hope & prayer. thanks for sharing.

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  • I cringe at that “let lead” language. My church mandates that leadership (church governance) alternates male-female each year (we are a Congregational church). Our deacons are both male and female, 50-50 split, and only serve three-year terms. We don’t have any “elders”. We are not under the authority of any denominational hierarchy. We are gathered under the authority of Christ and Christ alone. We have women on our pastoral staff and really don’t think anything of it … until we compare what Congregational churches have been doing since the Pilgrims landed with what the rest of Christendom is doing. The rest of God’s Kingdom needs to get with the program, IMHO.

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  • YES. this language rings similarly to “giving voice to the voiceless.” no. people have voices, people have gifts. we may amplify voices/encourage giftedness (or stand in the way, refusing to listen/learn), but leadership/voice is not something that trickles down from benevolent power to grateful underlings. this language matters. thanks, kathy.

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    • suzannah, i am so glad you shared “giving voice to the voiceless”, too. no one is voiceless! the voices have just been stifled & silenced. so good! thanks.

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    • hey suzannah, while i was here responding to a few comments i wanted to let you know i will remember what you said for a long time about the voice to the voiceless thought. it’s really lingered.

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  • But you left your manifesto with all of us hanging, by saying some cliche
    about how God saves us all, instead of going in depth about this
    messed-up way of thinking that dominates most Christian denominations.
    Frankly I’m disappointed.

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  • I totally get the cringe factor here, but at the same time we all LET people lead us. Followers make the choice to follow and therefore have the power to allow someone to lead. And, if you want to get into the messy topic of “biblical” marriage, a submissive wife is only submissive if she LETS her husband lead her. I don’t think this is about men or the church having the power to give a woman freedom to lead, I think it’s about men and the church ceasing to cling to power and letting go of their desire to withhold it from women. And really, that’s what we want. We want them to let go, to realize that the power struggle is silly and petty. We want them to step back and LET us lead, not because they have the power to do so, but because they are turning their back on power to do so.

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    • i hear you and get the distinction, and of course my hope is that more and more space is created for letting go of power on behalf of others, but i am just pointing out the ickiness of the language in my opinion.

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  • Kathy, Excellent insight! Do you suggest another way to put it? Instead of “our church lets women lead” maybe “our church supports female church leadership.” Any ideas?

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    • thanks, rachel. i did realize after i posted it that i didn’t offer any good suggestions, did i? ha ha. another friend brought this up, too, and what you said is right along the lines of what i would suggest. i am sure there are a lot of other possibilities and maybe others have ideas, too.

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  • I like the discussion about words, and needing a new language. I also wanted to weigh in, as a woman who has been a pastor and in church leadership. I have found that churches who “let” women lead, often do it conditionally. Mainly, you can lead as long as you can make it appear like you are not, so as not to offend. I often wonder how I ended up with so many offensive gifts. But, on to what I would really like to say. When women have been gifted by God to do His good work, and men and women in the church stifle those gifts, men have to carry the full load. This means men are carrying the full burden….burdens they were not completely equipped to carry alone. I believe God created us to work together. When men are free to use their gifts and women are “allowed” to use THEIR gifts, a balance is struck. There is a degeneration that occurs when the load is unbalanced as I am sure many have noticed within the structure of churches as a whole. Freedom for women, is not just freedom for women. Freedom for women is also freedom, and abounding respect, for men.

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  • Thank you. So wonderfully put! I no longer hold back because of womanhood but I must say others hold back on accepting me. I do not have the physical strength of some men but then again some men don’t have the nurturing heart that God bestowed on a woman. He mad each unique and with leadership skills of their own. No apologies for that! Thank you Jesus!

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  • I got to this old post via a post on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, so please excuse the untimeliness of this comment.

    Maybe it is just because I am Baptist, or maybe because I am male, but comments like “we let women lead”, ”they let me lead”, “it’s so great that my church lets women lead,” or “our church let a woman speak this weekend, isn’t that cool?” do not seem (necessarily) offensive. In Southern Baptist churches, every male pastor who leads does so because the church “let him lead.” There is no church hierarchy above the pastoral level and most Baptist churches are congregational. This is a church organizational issue. In fact I have often heard phrases like “they let Pastor Steve speak this morning” or “they let a former soldier speak last Sunday” when the people to whom they referred were male. So there are not necessarily any of the telling assumptions cited above in this language. I can only wish that this kind of comment were said more often about women in SBC churches.

    But unfortunately, as a practical matter, men do hold all (or most) of the power in far too many churches, especially in the SBC which is my denomination. Ultimately Jesus gives freedom. But the kind of freedom he gives may be found even in someone who is a slave. This freedom allowed some women to be free in Him even when subjugated in their homes by their husbands and not even allowed to be educated or vote or pursue a career of their choosing. But the freedom Christ gives does not necessarily result in a position of authority in a church or in a woman leading a church. For that to happen, some of the men who do hold the power must be convinced that it is God’s will for them to lay it down in favor of others whom God has called. More importantly, congregations who vote on the policies of the churches must be convinced that God has allowed women to serve in the same way he has allowed men. There is “no Jew nor Greek, no slave not free, no male and female” in the body of Christ. The church must be won over to this understanding so that all of the people who have been called and equipped to serve in leading her may do so.

    Maybe it is due to “deep grooves of patriarchy” on my part, but this post comes across a bit like “ain’t no man gonna TELL me what to do with his jacked up patriarchal language.” That seems a somewhat counter-productive to accomplishing what many of us would like to see happen in the Church. For both male or female, Jesus’s words are relevant. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. […] For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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    • thanks for taking time to share your perspective; i do understand that some would prefer softer language, and of course i know i can come off rather harsh, but when we’re talking about gender inequality it will always rock the boat. i am a full proponent of mutual submission and men and women sharing power together, not one over the other but side by side as equals, as leaders, as partners, as friends. i urge you to remember so many verses have been used to keep women subjugated, and it’s very hard for many to believe in the passions and gifts God has given them because it feels like we’re not being “humble” enough. real equality requires deep humility on both sides. i also think that systems have far too much control over who does what and that we need to change our language to better reflect the ways of the kingdom.

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  • If we are to get upset about this then equally we are to get upset about when anyone uses the “let”. As in “let me finish” or “I’ll let you go”, “let me ask you a question” etc.

    Yes it is annoying but istn’ it better focussing on the fact that women get to lead?

    I hear your objection and the gravity of the feeling that you expereince when you hear that Kathy. At the same time I could equally complain about what goes on in the church with language towards men. Seems to me that the idea of mutual submission and power sharing means being attentive to both. Is there going to be a time when we can get past the war of the sexes in church? Seems to me that society does better outside of the church than inside it in this regard.

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  • I think God releases men and women to lead. I think that we, as the church, should also release men and women to lead.

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      • Hi Dale

        Thanks for that comment. You are absolutely right that I need to read the Bible.

        I wonder if you have misinterpreted my comment. It was responding to the notion that churches are characterised by what they let people do, particularly women in this case.

        My point was that I do not see this pattern of behaviour from God in the Bible. I.E. God is not known for what he lets people do, but rather what He inspires and empowers them to do. A good example of this in my mind is in John Ch4 when Jesus releases a woman from the consequences of her sin and the restrictions of a sinful culture, freeing her to lead her entire village to Him.

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        • I am sorry if I misunderstood you Andrew,
          Perhaps you can help me understand you better by answering this:
          Do you support women in ministry in a public gathering over men ?

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  • Of course once you ignore Biblical commands that very clearly forbid women to lead in public worship, anything goes.

    1Timothy 2:12-14 God does not let women lead.

    If you have compromised in this area may I encourage you to seek the Lord and abide in His Word ?

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  • 1Ti 2:12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

    1Ti 2:13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve;

    1Ti 2:14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor……God

    Reply

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