“I’m learning that my space for ministry is actually quite small,” my friend said, sliding the freshly-brewed cup of tea across the table she had prepared for me with such intimate care. “I don’t need to be anxious about trying to do more than I’ve been given. I am free to tend to the work right in front of me.”
My friend is the mother of two young boys, who occupy most of her daily attention. She is intelligent and creative. On paper, she is “uncredentialed” for ordained ministry, yet oozing with relational presence, sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, and theological insight.
Without question, she is a leader in our community. She embodies Christ’s hospitality as she is present with others, making space for others to be present to themselves and to God.
On the other hand, I am a man with all the right credentials and titles, shaped for theological precision and effective team management in a power-over world. And I’m beginning to recognize that if I want to lead in the way of Jesus, to make space for divine communion and not just “do church” well, then I would do well to lead more like her.
Learning to lead from women might be just what we (men) need to heal our broken imaginations and lead more like Jesus.Learning to lead from women might be just what we (men) need to heal our broken imaginations and lead more like Jesus. Click To Tweet
Doesn’t Scripture Tell Us to “Act Like Men”?
In 1 Corinthians 16:13-14, Paul exhorts the church in Corinth:
Be alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.
Some pastors and theologians prefer that the bit translated above as “be courageous” instead be rendered, “act like men.”
The appropriateness of the rendering, “act like men,” is debatable. From a lexical angle, it’s not wrong to draw attention to the connection between “courage” and the ideas of virtuous character connected particularly to masculinity in Greco-Roman culture. Yet, whether the gender-specific sense is retained in our translation is actually not the point.
The point is that we must hear Paul’s exhortation within the logic of his larger argument to this community in Corinth and in his other letters. He clearly insists that the ways of the world are rendered foolish by the wisdom of the cross. The cruciform, self-giving love of Christ re-centers and defines Paul’s mode of leadership. Conventional understandings of strength are subverted through the weakness of the cross, such that Paul’s way of leading like Jesus is interpreted by some in Corinth as weak and inadequate.
Perhaps those frustrated Corinthians said something like, “Oh, that Paul would lead more like a…man!”
In an earlier letter to the Thessalonians, Paul compares his leadership posture among them to the way a nursing mother cares for her children: tender, relational, and nurturing. Then, a few verses later, Paul compares his leadership posture to a father exhorting his children to mature: encouraging, comforting, and witnessing.
Paul has a vision for one New Humanity being recreated in Christ (not discrete paths into essentialized masculinity or femininity). He envisions a new body whose members, male and female, take on a cruciform identity. Christ, the head, has gathered into his body the full expression of embodied, gendered existence and redeemed those expressions for the building-up of the body in love.
That is why Paul can at once use both feminine and masculine cultural imagery to describe how he is learning to embody leadership in the way of Jesus. Paul’s goal is not ultimately to lead like a “man,” whatever that might have meant in his culture, but rather that he lead like the New Human, Jesus Christ.
Thus, Paul had something to learn from women about leading like Jesus. For Paul leading in the way of Jesus looks like any virtue shaped by cruciform love, whether that characteristic is culturally more masculine or feminine.
So, if we say “act like men” and mean something in the realm of leaning into weakness, refusing coercion, giving of the self so others can flourish, being relational, tender, and gentle, then we’re close to what Paul meant.
The problem is when the charge to “act like men” gets lifted out of Paul’s christological and cruciform vision for leadership and then refracted through a modern, western, and even patriarchal framework to baptize a certain kind of culturally masculine leadership.
This kind of leadership prioritizes the ability to take control over others and exert stoic confidence. It privileges rationality and linear thought and thrives primarily in hierarchical structures where power is a zero-sum game.
What Everyone (But Men Especially) Can Learn From Women
I believe we are in a moment in history in which traditional modes of leadership shaped by patriarchal masculinity (inside and outside the church) are coming unraveled. Both men and women have suffered under an impoverished imagination for leadership in the way of Jesus. The toxicity revealed in the unraveling can be discouraging, but there is also a hope for forging a new way forward in the Spirit.
As we discern the way forward, I think women have something to teach us all about leading in the way of Jesus. By looking to women, we can heal our broken and anemic imaginations for facing the challenges ahead.As we discern the way forward, I think women have something to teach us all about leading in the way of Jesus. By looking to women, we can heal our broken and anemic imaginations for facing the challenges ahead. Click To Tweet
I think it’s time for all of us (but the men especially) to “act like women.”
If leadership in the way of Jesus is…
… about more than getting things done (or motivating others to get things done)
… if it is inherently relational and is about communion all the way through
… if communion requires the ability to calibrate vulnerability, to listen carefully, and speak slowly
… if this can only be accomplished by setting aside our will to overpower and desire to accumulate, dominate, and be in control
… if the challenges ahead require more patient creativity and less knee-jerk reactivity
… then we all need to act like women to lead more like Jesus.
This isn’t just about biology. It’s about how women have learned out of necessity to lead from the margins of power. It’s about recognizing how that creative challenge was birthed from within an embodied female experience to become a unique icon for leading in the way of Jesus that is instructive for everyone.
Yet, in a world in which men (and women) are habitually shaped into leadership systems and postures that are antithetical to the cruciform shape of God’s kingdom, infected with the dehumanizing assumptions of patriarchy, men need to learn to act more like women.
This is about healing our imaginations from the world’s systems and definitions of power. This is about detoxing from our addiction to status, efficiency, and success. This is about making space for communion.