Is (Healthy) Cross-Gendered Ministry Even Possible?

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The spotlight on the abusive practices of high-profile male pastors toward female coworkers has revealed the disturbing truth that the evangelical checklist for staying “above reproach” was not enough to produce a ministry culture with more moral fortitude than the freewheelin’, anything-goes, secular culture of Hollywood.

Indeed, once the #metoo movement struck with a flash, we all knew that #churchtoo would thunder close behind. In some ways, this effect reinforced the commonly held assumption that there is an inherent danger to ministry shared between genders. That’s why for so long we’ve tried to make better boundaries to hedge against the danger.

And if we’re honest, we should name that these boundaries are primarily shaped on the presumption that women, in particular, introduce a dangerous dynamic to male-driven ministry, like a foreign body disrupting the homeostasis.

This functions quite literally. That image of disruption puts language to the feeling I’ve sensed being in rooms with male pastors when a woman enters. (My bold guess is that in some cases the motivation for keeping women out of ministry has more to do with keeping boys-club homeostasis than with theological principles. But I digress.)

What if shared leadership between men and women is not inherently dangerous? I contend that bringing healing to women and men in ministry requires a positive model where women and men working together is actually both possible and desirable.

What if shared leadership between men and women is not inherently dangerous? Click To Tweet

Shared Ministry Looks Like Difference AND Mutuality

The good news is that ministry shared between women and men does not have to be held captive by the presumption of inherent danger. Moving beyond this captivity looks like a positive model characterized by difference and mutuality.

When ministry shared between women and men is characterized by both difference and mutuality—at the same time, not one at the expense of the other—we begin to catch a vision for the possibility of cross-gendered ministry that reflects the one, new humanity in Christ.

Rather than perpetuate broken hierarchies that wound and dehumanize, a model for shared ministry characterized by difference and mutuality can bring healing and hope.

Rather than perpetuate broken hierarchies that wound and dehumanize, a model for shared ministry characterized by difference and mutuality can bring healing and hope. Click To Tweet

3 Things to Keep in Mind As You Cultivate Cross-Gendered Ministry

1. Difference and mutuality is about gender—but it’s not all about gender.

We can challenge the presumption of inherent danger in shared ministry between genders without having to deny that gender is an important dynamic.

To cultivate shared ministry between women and men characterized by difference and mutuality, we must begin not by emphasizing biological distinctions, but by recognizing and respecting embodied personhood in all fleshy dimensions, which includes, but is not limited to, gender.

Gender is one point of contact in the larger effort to be sober-minded and serious about the challenges and possibilities provoked in the encounter between fully differentiated persons (difference), and then to make room for repentance, discovery, and give-and-take (mutuality).

2. Difference without mutuality isn’t really difference.

Recognizing and respecting difference between our embodied selves is crucial, but emphasizing difference without also practicing mutuality turns difference into division. It stokes ideological battles and sows fear. Difference becomes a tool for control over another. This is the danger in many complementarian practices of cross-gendered ministry, which render the word “complementary” functionally meaningless.

When difference is emphasized without mutuality, gender differences tend to be defined over and against the other. In other words, I know I’m a man to the degree that I’m not timid, weak, or effeminate, and you know you’re a woman to the degree that you do not usurp authority or express strong opinions.

Caricatures and grotesque images of gender get writ large, and then these images are put in antagonistic opposition in which a full expression of one becomes an inherent threat to the other. A zero sum game for flourishing is created. There is only room enough for either a masculine or feminine expression of leadership. Moreover, culturally shaped practices of gender get ensconced cosmically. When this happens, little space is left for prophetic critique and repentance.

In other words, without mutuality, difference isn’t actually difference. It’s an ideology that is inherently self-protective and insecure.

The only way that the difference inherent in embodied personhood does not descend into enmity is through mutuality—because mutuality is all about allowing space for the persons to be persons.

Mutuality is open to the way in which an encounter with the other person stretches our existing frameworks of the world (and God) and provokes a posture of repentance, openness to what we do not yet see, and openness to creative possibilities we could not reach on our own.

3. Mutuality without difference isn’t really mutuality.

On the other hand, emphasizing mutuality without difference can re-create the same troubling power dynamics as overt hierarchy—now lodged more subtly in the background.

This happens, for instance, when leadership is “flattened” in the name of equality, often by bringing women into authority, while the language and space for naming difference—and thus the underlying power dynamics—is erased or ignored, as if difference is benign or an illusion.

In other words, in cross-gendered ministry, mutuality without difference is the assumption that we are all the same.

Mutuality without difference ignores the realities of embodied personhood. When that happens, we underestimate the natural “shock” of two embodied egos colliding. Worse, we can unwittingly privilege the perspective of certain bodies over others. This is the danger in many egalitarian practices of cross-gendered ministry, which can disguise destructive power dynamics in politically correct language.

When mutuality is emphasized without difference, we lose space for reckoning with how our bodies and comportment to the world are distinct from one another, however subtle those differences may be.

Without reckoning with difference in an encounter with another person, we run the risk of establishing another hegemony of the Self—I presume that my body and comportment to the world is normative and thus unwittingly (or intentionally) seek to assimilate you into my “normal.”

Without reckoning with difference, mutuality really can be destructive in how we can underestimate the presence of underlying broken power dynamics and sexual dysfunction that has never been addressed, even though we have rearranged gender roles.

In truth, without difference, mutuality isn’t actually mutuality. It’s a way to subtly assimilate others into my existing framework.

It’s a way to evade the hard work of a genuine encounter.

We Need Each Other

In the end, shared ministry characterized by difference and mutuality recognizes that we cannot do this without one another. We need each other.

Men and women are co-bearers with Christ of the divine image and new humanity. Men and women are co-recipients of the Spirit’s indiscriminate outpouring. Ministry shared between men and women does not foremost represent a disruption of (male-centered) homeostasis that must be compensated for, but rather the opening of creative, transformative ministry.

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34 responses to “Three Unmistakable Examples of Gender Politics in the New ESV Translation

  1. Hey Carolyn,

    Firstly, I am very encouraged by your ministry and your care for women in the Church.

    I have some questions. It seems that this argument is actually inclusion vs. exegesis, primarily in your section about adoption into ‘sonship.’ Would that be a correct conclusion?

    Culturally speaking, women would not have had the same rights and importance in society as sons, who would be heirs. The good news of the gospel that we are adopted into ‘sonship’ communicates that God’s plan is to redeem us in ways that aren’t even possible in our own might. He elevates us from our lowly positions. In this proper exegesis, this passage doesn’t exclude women; it’s all the more empowering to women.

    To argue whole-heartedly for a gender neutral Bible translation seems dangerous, sacrificing proper cultural context for a happier and more inclusive text. Doesn’t that effectively demote the Bible from the perfect Word of God to a welcome mat?

    Lastly, given your stance, should not the real necessity be better exegesis given from pulpits and more intentional women leadership in churches? That seems less divisive than this article.

      1. I did and amended my paragraph to match, but the question still stands. Calling motives into question are very valid, but drawing conclusions that the translators (including Wayne Grudem, of whom I’m no fan) care more about the translation of “ass” and “ironically” including powerful statements about women and their adoption into “sonship” read as bitter and divisive.

        1. In fact, just as this article claims that this translation is potentially “dangerous,” isn’t vilifying our brothers and sisters in faith just as equally “dangerous”?

          1. I think ‘vilifying’ is a stretch here. I see someone calling out changes that are problematic, and in the context of recent debates on gender roles and Trinitarian doctrine, circumspect. It is also instructive to see how the translation changes are being lauded in complementarian settings, and how these changes have been put forward as immutable. These changes aren’t neutral, either in motivation or effect, and I don’t think it is too much for someone to point that out.

          2. Right, but the article goes further than pointing out areas of translation that could be problematic. It assumes the motive of the ESV translation, its translators, and those who use the ESV Bible as being anti-women. Additionally, it doesn’t posit, but presents as fact that the empowerment of women in the Biblical context of “sonship” was made only out of an ironic oversight. There is no real call to action on this blog other than to avoid the ESV and its translators. It’s just meant to create an us vs. them mentality. This article is not a debate as much as it is a snarky disapproval. Why else are the shareable quotes programmed into the website the most divisive?

            I would also like to see a quote where the ESV translators have said that they translated the ESV so patriarchy is the central message of the Bible.

          3. The ESV is heralded by CBMW for its faithfulness to a complementarian reading of Scripture ( It is clear to me that the changes that have been made to the translation are in a bid to be faithful to Scripture, but a range of commentators have been highlighting the peculiar way in which this has been done here. Intention alone is not determinative. I have read the article again (and again), and I think characterising it in the way you have is just unfair. The writer is making clear solid disagreement with choices that have been made in the translation of a text, a text which has been presented by its publishers as reliable into perpetuity. The starkness of the tone is commensurate with the seriousness of the subject matter.

            Given your disagreement with the piece, what changes in approach would you suggest the writer had made? Because on my reading, this is quite a measured response to what is a troubling translation.

    1. That is a good response.

      “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” Galatians 4:7

      In Biblical times son-ship was something different than daughter-ship. If the Greek term was “son” than the English should also be “son”. Changing it destroys the credibility of the Bible.

      Additionally, Paul did not speak of us as “brothers and sisters”. He used the term “brothers” in an inclusive manner.

      Quote: “Paul is telling women, Gentiles, and slaves that, in God’s family, they are all sons!”

      Yes, we are neither male nor female. We are sons. We are brothers. Insisting on terms like “brothers and sisters” already creates division and changes the meaning of the Greek text.

  2. Exceptional piece. Thank you. I really appreciate your observation on “sons” in Paul’s writings. I have often made the same point that when Paul says, “you are all sons” he is ironically elevating women to the position of sonship which carried cultural implications; it was a radical move in Paul’s first century cultural world in which sons were the inheritors. I have also often made this point in marriage counseling from 1 Pet. 3:7 – where husbands are to regard their wives as “fellow heirs” or “joint heirs” – which seems to me another radical move toward equality given the cultural setting within which Peter functions.

    1. Good point! We miss the potency of the apostles’ stmts when we divorce them from their cultural context. They made shocking stmts!

  3. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. This is a good heads up on another strange thing Grudem has his hand on. …and one quick edit. The TNIV stands for Today’s New International Version.

  4. If the ESV folks really felt that strongly that men means women and men, why do they stop to explain that men means women and men? If it’s worth explaining, it’s worth translating accurately in the first place so no explanation would be necessary.

    1. And that doesn’t address assumptions people draw when reading the ESV in private without a pastor to clarify. Serious problem!

  5. I am not multi-lingual, not a bible scholar educator, or paster. I am merely a Christian trying to navigate life in a screwed up world, and I use my faith, prayer, and my bible to help me get through the rough spots, of which there are plenty. We have enough problems in the world, and arguments like this only serve to distract.

    Still, it is what it is, and in this particular case, it seems to me that this essentially comes down to 2 questions:
    1. Is the ESV meant to be a literal translation?
    2. What was the actual language used by the original authors, and what did they mean?
    I use the NASB and NET. Colossians 1:2 (NASB) :” To the Saints and faithful brethren in Christ…..”
    NASB is said to be a literal translation. Colossians 1:2 (NET)” to the saints, the faithful brothers and sisters…” and has a translation note that explains that the Greek word used can be used to mean brothers, brothers and sisters, or fellow Christians” In Galatians, both translations say the word “son”…not sons and daughters or children of…. The Scripture4All Hebrew Interlinear Bible Genesis 1:26-27 concludes with “male and female, He created them.” Genesis 3:16 says”…and thy desire [shall be] to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Genesis 3:16 (NASB) “…Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you” (NET) “You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you.” (Has Translation note indicating a meaning of “rule over you”)
    Are these gender inclusive? I don’t know, but it seems to me that the Bible says what it says. Which comes back to the ESV. Is it meant to be a literal translation or not? Cannot have it both ways.

  6. Is there really somebody out there who thinks God has either a penis or a vagina. Until somebody comes up with a better generic pronoun, I think He or Him will suffice. You are still free to visualize God any way you want to.

        1. There was no need to use the descriptives you used. God is called the FATHER by Christ himself and that in fact is a male gender. So as to bring in sexual organs into the conversation is both unnecessary and childish. Obviously you purposely seeking to be offensive to get your point across is more about grandstanding than proving a point. Perhaps you should try to speak as a Christian instead of grandstanding to attempt to show your “intelligence”. If you want to know about the Father then read the bible and how Christ humbles Himself before HIM. Is it obvious now?

          1. Actually Jesus referring to God as the father simply means “He” gave birth to humans with a soul in His image. I don’t have a problem using the male gender for God, but using either sex is probably not accurate. I also think in the culture at the time of Jesus women were at best second class citizens and the use of the male gender simply denoted strength, dominance, and power at that time.
            Even as a kid I always thought there was something wrong with our concept of God. Thinking of God as having a beard dressed in a white robe sitting on a throne in heaven as a “flesh and blood person” just never sat right with me. Many of today’s Christians still cling to some variation of that image which is why use of the male pronoun is so important to them. Having said that, I think whatever image of God you have that you can love you should cling to.

          2. Again the only one blabbering about the sex of God is YOU unnecessarily STILL!!!!!! BTW the bible does give a description of God.

            Daniel 7:9

            I beheld till the thrones were set up, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels, as burning fire.

            You belief doesn’t change the truth of the matter. Please study the bible and not rely on your opinion about what God looks like or HIS GENDER. You’re not as well versed in God’s word as you purport yourself to be eh?

          3. Like I said cling to whatever image of God you can love. If you want to use Daniels dream, good. To me it sounded ore like an alien space ship.

          4. CIG – You are obviously entitled to your opinion on these matters and we value your voice, but these comments of yours are not adding to the conversation in a constructive manner. You are most welcome to engage by asking clarifying questions of the author or other commenters as well as to make a thoughtful case for your vantage point, but additional comments that demean others will be deleted and you may be banned from further comments.

  7. I don’t need “scholars” to tell me about bibles perversions such as the catholic and niv pervisions because we already have “translations” that were written by true “scholars” in the past that were better educated than those “scholars” of today. Let’s be honest there are more apostate churches today than ever in Christian history because they continue to sport new “revelations” that they must rewrite things that don’t need to be rewritten. The problem is that most social carnal christians are to lazy to educate themselves on God’s word and would rather take the word of social carnal “scholars”.

    1. So which version of the bible do you honor as your Christian idol. I have read several versions and I don’t see that the basic message or the teachings of Jesus changes from one to the other.

      How does one educate themselves on God’s word??? I presume by “God’s word” you mean some version of the bible you hold sacred.

      By past scholars are you referring to the Wycliffe (sp) translation.

      1. Well seeing you chose the word “idol” I know you could care less about a rational discussion let alone honor God’s precious word. Obviously you haven’t done much research on the different translations because you miss the differences between the corrupted versions and the better translated versions. BTW my choice is the Geneva version in old English that takes a little education to read and comprehend. Please reread my comment because obviously you’re way off of the context as your claim about the supposed bibles you read and fail to see the differences. BTW I’m well aware on what languages the bible was originally written in. However it was your haughtiness to suppose I didn’t. know.

  8. Thanks so much for this article Carolyn. I find the whole approach to translation by the ESV translators very distressing and it’s great that you are able to bring some clarity. Lord help the church that they continue to affirm gender inequality while the world moves ahead.

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