Rise in Strength

Sixty women leaders from 18 nations gathered in Amsterdam in June to celebrate the gifting, service and leadership of women in the Church across the globe. They mourned the injustices women suffer and called on Christians to take steps to honour women’s leadership in family, church and community.
Women are leaders. They lead businesses, families, law firms, theological colleges and charities. They are writers and counsellors, mothers and mentors. They also lead in churches in various ways, using the gifts and natural talents given by God.
During three days of ideas, worship, networking and united determination to speak for women across the globe, key ideas emerged. I want to share some of those ideas, to demonstrate the beauty and the burden of being born a girl in our world.

1. We love our calling despite setbacks: Before the consultation we surveyed 500 women (496 to be precise) to seek their insights. The survey highlighted that we think that sexism in the Church (57%) and cultural obstacles to women in leadership (50%) are the biggest hurdles to women being able to follow their calling.
The women at this consultation were mostly over 50 and established in leadership – they had pioneered projects, set up ventures and earned high educational standards; but they still wanted to talk about the setbacks they had to overcome and were concerned that young women still experienced the same obstacles.
The strongest social concerns were about poverty (52%), faith-based or gender-based violence (46%), marriage and family pressures (39%), and social media pressures on girls and teens (38%). Is the Church active in addressing these issues?

2. We need numbers: It’s often said that women make up 60% of the Church (and more in some places like Nepal or rural Europe). But we don’t know for sure because there are few global statistics on the number of women who are Christians or their roles. Barna research tells us that women are leaving church in the USA, but we only have anecdotal evidence for women becoming Christians or the number of women who lead churches. Good data will help us know how women and men experience church. After all, the closest disciples of Jesus (120) counted their new members at Pentecost (3000). Numbers would help us understand how women are contributing and where.

3. We recognise the truth of The Bible: over 180 women are mentioned by name in the Bible and many more who are significant are not named. Too little is taught about the contribution of women to the flourishing of faith. We are conscious that Bible teaching about the role and leadership of women can divide Christians but God’s character is to value men and women equally. And there are many examples from the Gospels and the early Church that show women leading church groups, teaching, giving financial support and having roles like prophets and apostles.

4. We value each other: The event was unusual because we did not have any ‘main’ speakers – 32 women had roles in presentations or leading some aspect of our time and that was a strong signal to us all that no-one was more special than anyone else. Kay Arthur, whose Precept ministry has 11 million books in print (!), showed gracious humility in all our discussions. Other women are successful business entrepreneurs, or work with the most vulnerable women in war-torn areas. God sees and values all. If only all leadership in the Church was as wise and humble as the women gathered in Amsterdam. It is not easy: we all want recognition for what we do, a bit of praise, especially if we are volunteers or low paid. This group of dedicated and professional women were willing to acknowledge each other’s giftings and achievements without jealousy and that is a moment to celebrate.

5. We have influence: Our influence in terms of day-to-day contact and leadership is around 3300 people, an average of 55 per woman, which sounds good but not spectacular. But when we added the next layers of influence – emails, books, social media, radio, TV, our Boards, and friends, we got to 5 billion! That’s the reach of TV and radio as well as having some big denominations present. You might say, ‘Hang on a minute, that sounds like overclaiming’. And the quick survey we did in the room was not meant to be scientific. But if we take only 10% of that figure, the women gathered in Amsterdam reach a potential 500 million people. This gathering in Amsterdam, sponsored by the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and the Lausanne Movement is a significant step to heeding the insights of women.

6. We united in our prophetic voice: Gender inequality continues to be a barrier that diminishes the effective witness of the Church to the transforming power of the Gospel. Views on theological hot issues like headship or women pastors varied but all of us acknowledged the pain when women’s voices are silenced, single women are ignored, girls are seen as second class and when the Church has tolerated abuse. Such behaviour has harmed the gospel message.

7. We had one mind in the Call to All Christians: We know that that Jesus came that we may all have life and have it in all its fullness. and that Jesus called, accepted, healed and restored women. We committed to sharing and demonstrating this Good News, women and men together empowered by the Holy Spirit. And we called on the Church to take notice of the cries and concerns of women and girls so that we can be honest when we say, Jesus transforms individuals and communities.

You can read the full text of the Call at http://www.worldevangelicals.org/wc/
In my next blog, I’ll be looking at how the Church could respond to the Call to action.

Here is the full text of the Call to All Christians, just in case it is slow getting online:
We, sixty international women leaders[1], met at the Rise in Strength consultation in Amsterdam, June 2019, to celebrate the contribution of Christian women to the work of God in the world.
We gathered from diverse backgrounds, recognising the changing context in which we find ourselves.
We were united in our conviction that gender inequality continues to be a barrier that diminishes the effective witness of the Church to the transforming power of the Gospel.
We affirm that Jesus came that we may all have life and have it in all its fullness[2]. This Gospel transforms lives; the Bible affirms that Jesus called, accepted, healed and restored women. We commit to sharing and demonstrating this Good News; women and men[3] continue to be compelled by God’s grace and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit[4].
We affirm the theological approach of the Lausanne Movement’s Cape Town Commitment as a foundation for our Call to all Christians: “That all of us, men and women, married and single are responsible to employ God’s gifts for the benefit of others as stewards of God’s grace and for the praise and glory of Christ. [We] are also responsible to enable all God’s people to exercise all the gifts that God has given for all the areas of service to which God calls the Church.” [5]
We are compelled, building on this Biblical foundation, to broaden our awareness, increase our attentiveness, and commit to specific actions to restore God’s intention for all people.
AWARENESS
We recognise that our communities and leadership structures have not always been encouraging, freeing or even safe for women and girls, who are each valued and loved by God.
We acknowledge that the pathways for women to serve as leaders in the global Church are limited, and this has prevented many from contributing to the Church in this way.
We acknowledge that the Church has deeply hurt many women and girls, and not heard or acknowledged their pain.
We acknowledge that violence, in all its forms, towards women is perpetrated not only outside the Church, but also inside.
ATTENTIVENESS
We recognize that the global Church has too often ignored the voices of women in its communities.
We commit to being attentive to these voices, including experiences, perspectives, joys and suffering.
We commit to being attentive to women and girls among the most vulnerable populations and regions of the world, especially those living in extreme poverty, or with disability, those endangered by human trafficking, persecuted for their faith, denied education and legal rights – and so at greatest risk of gender-based violence and discrimination.
We commit to discerning the spiritual gifts of all women and girls, so as to draw upon resources God has given for the full health and strength of the whole Church, wherever it manifests across every sector of our society.
ACTION
We must all act to:
Engage in a positive dialogue, mourning and repenting of mistakes and the pain we have caused, and seeking reconciliation; believing this is a first step to making our communities more empowered in Christ and safer places for women, girls, men and boys.
Celebrate the strength, courage, gifts and work of women in churches around the globe.
Work in unity to address the issues which concern us regarding the most vulnerable populations, especially those in extreme poverty and facing persecution for their faith.
Consecrate our gifts and opportunities to further strengthen, grow and mature our local churches and the global Church, in imitation of Christ’s example of Servant leadership.
Commit to collaboration between women and men.[6]
Equip women and girls to take up leadership positions in the Church and wider society, including training and development, making the most of innovative resources .
We call on men and women of the global Church to act so that women, men, girls and boys can all embrace their spiritual giftings to strengthen the work of the Church, and Her witness to the glory of God.

[1] 64 women from 18 nations participated in the consultation
[2] (John 10.10b)
[3] (Gen 1.26-8, 2.23)
[4] (Acts 1.8)
[5] https://www.lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment#capetown, p.6
[6] Eph 5.21, John 17.21-3

An Open Wound

Another week of revelations about abuse and cover-up in the Church. Pope Francis visits Ireland last week and the topic on everyone’s lips was unfortunately sexual abuse. Everyone who admired Willow Creek Church in Chicago, which has influenced thinking about effective church growth for a generation of evangelicals, has been stunned by allegations of sexual harassment

I try to be deliberate and positive in my blogs because there is so much vitriol online. However, it makes me angry and very sad that Christian leaders – overwhelmingly men – are willing to compromise the character of God whom they say they serve, to satisfy their own desires for power and then lie to protect their jobs, their colleagues or their power.

The stories are so frequent and so widespread – an investigation into sex abuse by the Church in Australia said that 7% of all Australian RC priests were involved in sex abuse in the last 60 years – that the worldwide church should be contrite, and sorrowful, and determined to change poisonous practices.

But there are still excuses and still a tendency by male pastors and some of their followers (both male and female) to blame the victims. It happens across denominations and across nations.

Here are some ‘excuses’ we might hear that need to be exposed as lies.

EXCUSE: The victims are too pretty, too needy or too easy to seduce and therefore somehow it is not the man’s fault.

I have heard this argument from a number of men. Women who come to pastors for counsel or prayer may be needy and vulnerable but ‘pastoral’ care means discerning wise action and taking steps as a shepherd and leader to be both caring and careful.

Men, especially leaders in the church should be strong enough to walk away or call for female back-up if they feel tempted. It’s a good reason for having male and female leadership of all ages so that there can be accountability and support.

EXCUSE: Women and children who have suffered abuse should stay quiet to protect the church from scandal.

A number of women who have come forward about historical abuse have said they felt explicit or implicit pressure to be silent about what happened.

In the case of Willow Creek, Hybel’s assistant, who has accused her former pastor of fondling, inappropriate touching and more, says she felt enormous loyalty to the church ad the leadership and did not want to wreck reputations. (The church leadership initially backed Hybels when he denied allegations but has since apologised for its initial inaction.)

Since when is it the role of a victim to protect the powerful? It is the job of those with authority in the Church to protect their flock and anyone who has been exploited by a church leader or in a Christian institution.

If there has been criminal activity, the police should be involved. The Church cannot think it can quietly push aside serious allegations of any sort – financial, sexual or violent misconduct.

Churches, especially those with powerful and charismatic leaders, need to examine their governance and accountability.

EXCUSE: Women should quietly forgive – their submissive attitude will lead the perpetrator back to God.

This argument is especially used when the abuse is within marriage. If there is no sign of repentance, no genuine change, can a woman stay in a destructive situation that threatens her wellbeing and that of her children?

If it was your daughter being abused, would you ever say, “You just need to submit more, forgive more?” In some cultures there may seem to be no way out, but the Church exists to transform cultural practices to reflect more of God’s values.

That means releasing men to be loving and servant hearted and releasing women to be the same.

EXCUSE: Some women are dangerous – they have a ‘Jezebel spirit’.

Women are not always innocent and some do tell lies about abuse or deliberately try to provoke a man. Their wrong behaviour should be called out just as much as bad behaviour by men. Jezebel is the archetype of the wicked woman – the wife of King Ahab who encouraged the worship of Baal and clashed with Elijah and Elisha. She was cruel and unjust.

She was definitely a bad woman.

But is there a Jezebel spirit? Surely a number of Judah and Israel’s kings were just as cruel, vicious and ungodly. Why do we hear so much about Jezebel’s evil?

Maybe because Bible commentators (overwhelmingly male) want to believe in the purity and goodness of women and anyone outside that model must be totally evil, evil that is very often seen in sexual terms. Whereas Biblical men are allowed to be imperfect – indeed we celebrate the humanity of heroes like King David, Abraham and Peter, the church (and the Jewish leadership in Jesus’ day) is less forgiving of weakness in women.

Recently in the US, a pastor who admitted to his church that he had strayed as a youth pastor twenty years before, was given a standing ovation for being open and honest.  I understand the need to forgive but his action was criminal (the girl was only 17) and it seems there has been no justice for her (she was told to stay quiet by two pastors at the church).

So I plead for women to speak out about abuse, and for male leaders to champion truth and justice rather than shuffling their feet or thinking that the whole issue has got a bit out of control (another excuse!)

Pray for wisdom and humility for church leaders who must respond to abuse allegations. We do not want people to be wrongly accused but we do not want victims to be ignored.

Pray for the Church to be truly repentant. The Pope talked in Dublin this weekend of ongoing abuse being an “open wound”. He went on, “I beg the Lord’s forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many others in God’s family.”