Sometimes I feel like I live in my own little bubble far far away from certain debates and discussions that plague church circles. When I do read some of those discussions through social media, the effect it often has on me is one of experiencing sheer puzzlement. This happened again as I randomly came across and read two articles on social media within a short space of each other. One was called 5 Things Every Married Man should do around Single Women and the other was called Avoid any Hint.
Granted, the articles could apply to both genders but they were written by men and the implication in the content was more around the matter of how men must deal with that pesky, recurring issue of women in their lives. According to the articles, in order to avoid potential problems with women, men should for example, ‘keep eye contact simple and short’, ‘Not go to lunch alone with the opposite sex’, and ‘Keep conversation general and professional’. I was utterly bemused. Is this how most people view the relationship between men and women? Are we as Christian leaders teaching this kind of thing in our churches? Can’t anyone see the problems around thinking in this way? And more importantly; is this the direction that the church wants to go regarding our vision for ministry? Is this the kind of attitude which truly embodies the radical values of the kingdom of God for witness to our world?
I am not necessarily critiquing the authors of the articles or even the specifics of the content of those articles. I am also aware of the statistics around pastors and moral failure in churches and I know that the articles would have been written with the good intention of trying to prevent the continuation of these depressing statistics and to care for leaders.
I just think that we can do better than this. What are the problems with the attitudes sitting in these two articles and others which convey similar ways of thinking?
A premise of fear
The underlying tone in articles like these which focus on the interaction and relationship between men and women, is one of fear. I have a problem with that. I think a good sense of caution is justifiable in any relationship whether it is with the opposite sex or not, but fear is not. It is especially not justified, within a Christian ethic, as a first reaction towards another person. Yet this is what seems to be encouraged through this kind of thinking about interactions between men and women. Our first reaction is encouraged to be fear of the opposite sex, which then leads to over the top protective mechanisms being put into place such as avoiding excessive eye contact. Jesus never seemed to fear women which led him to keep away from them in case he was misconstrued or tempted. Instead we see the opposite. He intentionally spent time alone with a Samaritan woman (John 4). This isn’t mentioned in Scripture but I can imagine he was actually even daring enough to humanise her by looking into her eyes with compassion. That is certainly the sense we get from the story anyway. Jesus also allowed women to sit at his feet (Luke 10:39) and also to touch him in ways that others might have deemed inappropriate (Luke 7:36-38). Jesus did not exhibit a fear towards the opposite sex. Instead he practiced hospitality and welcome openly.
It marginalises women further
I am aware that the cautions and rules in the articles mentioned can apply to both genders. However, many articles like these are written by men and the rules and cautions such as these mentioned are implemented by men who are mostly the ones in positions of power in churches and other institutions. The effect that this has is that it marginalises women further as men exert their power however unintentionally, to isolate women. If men are being told to practice avoiding eye contact or the implication is to be fearful in connecting with women, then women will continually be viewed as the problem to be pushed to the side and will be further isolated from being fully involved in the life and ministry of the church. Less ministry opportunities are given to women in this kind of atmosphere.
Impedes building healthy male/female relationships
The saddest aspect of the kind of attitudes displayed in these articles is that they work against building genuine, healthy interactions and relationships between men and women. Instead of gravitating towards mutuality, respect and friendship, the direction is rather in the opposite towards isolation, fear, segregation and sometimes even hostility and misunderstanding. This stops the whole body of Christ from being released in its fullness for the mission of God in our world.
Is this the direction that the church will go? Is this the best the church can do in embodying the radical values of a kingdom of God? Is there no better way to witness to a world that desperately needs a more inspiring model for good relationship between the genders?
Here are 4 things that ministry leaders can do to help build welcoming relationships between men and women:
Balance the genders on your ministry team
Men and women, because they are different, can learn from one another and complement each other in the way that they use their gifts and presence within the body of Christ. If you are a male leader you can utilise your established power to enable women to use their leadership gifts in the church for the building up of the body.
Learn how to be friends with the opposite sex
Ministry teams thrive on friendship. If you have a ministry team which is balanced in terms of gender then men and women will need to learn to be friends. That means being able to be together without fear. Often it is the case that in ministry contexts women feel isolated because men feel comfortable being friends with one another but not with women. However the problem here is that a lot of the relating, connecting and communicating that is needed for good teams to function, happens in social settings. If women are not being included in this then they are not as easily able to enter into and work in ministry contexts. This is a silent problem that exists in various churches, movements and networks which works to isolate women. It is no wonder then that women are not rising to upper levels of influence and leadership.
If you are fearful ask why
We are humans and are prone to sin. We live in the not yet of the kingdom of God so it’s true that when we relate with someone from the opposite gender we will sometimes experience fear, temptation or dislike. I am not arguing that we should ignore this reality. However when this happens we need to work through that fear more intentionally rather than using the simple practice of avoiding one another. God has blessed us with difference so we can learn from one another and more fully express his reign. We miss out when we simply disengage. It takes effort to work through why you would feel temptation and fear and then deal with that. More honesty and self awareness plus common sense are needed here. However imagine if each gender humanised each other rather than objectified each other by listening to one another and learning how to become friends. We can only move in this direction if we take risks to turn towards one another rather than away from each other. Women also need to take risks and connect with male leaders. This can sometimes be intimidating because men are taught to be fearful of women. Women intuitively realise this fear or hesitation and it stops them from engaging in ministry unhindered.
Keep in mind your new identity in Christ
The fact is however, that we also live in the ‘now’ of the kingdom of God. Fear, avoidance, and misunderstanding are functions that belong to our old nature. We are a new creation in Christ (1 Cor 5:17) and we have been given the power of the Spirit to ‘put to death’ (Romans 8:13) anything that belongs to the old. Why do we live as though we still walk in our old nature? Of course we struggle with the remnants of our old nature, but in every way we are meant to be moving towards the new creation that God has initiated through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Why not start here rather than basing our thinking on attitudes which stem from our old nature and its desires?
God has made us a new creation and together as men and women we reflect the image of God. We need to move towards a fuller expression of the body of Christ for the sake of our world. It starts with the reconciliation of the genders through better interaction between men and women in the church as we serve together. Christ has come to heal any discord, fear and he more than helps us in our weakness.
Will we be bold enough to walk in this renewal of our minds or will we settle for the old ways of fear and avoidance?