Pastor, you are meant to help women grow spiritually. Male eldership has got to work for women. How is that done?
There is a prevailing cultural current which can make it quite difficult. Many men have proved sinful leaders and much in the climate of our society encourages women to view all men with suspicion—from Metropolitan policemen who have raped women, to some church leaders who are abusers of various kinds. How can male church leaders regain the trust of women?
It is a conundrum. But it won’t be regained by secretive leadership or a leadership which dominates a church—which never listens and basically rules the church through fear. This is not the way of Christ.
My own experience is that often in conservative evangelical churches there are good women who recognise and do not question the fact that the Bible teaches male leadership. However, these faithful women, because of their acquiescence, are taken for granted by leaders and not well served.
The headline with which to start is, of course, Christ-like, servant leadership. ‘Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all’ (Mark 10:44). Notice that word ‘all’. Does the leadership of your church see itself as there to serve all—including, or especially including, the women of the church? Or is the eldership there to serve the organisation and reputation of the church or individuals? Elders should think about how the women of their congregations are faring. Are they thriving spiritually?
What does an eldership / male church leadership that is good for women look like?
Let me suggest a few things.
First, there must be total sexual purity—that cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Paul tells Timothy that a leader is to treat ‘older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity’ (1 Tim 5:2).
But given complete sexual purity that is not enough. Pastor you must love the women of your church as sisters and mothers in the Lord—and let them know that you love them. The New Testament tells us that the Lord Jesus loved Martha and Mary (and Lazarus) (Jn 11:5). The apostle John loved the chosen lady and her children (2 Jn 1). You let the women know that you love them by giving them attention and appreciation and seeking to bring them to radiance as Christians—to an enjoyable walk with Christ. Christian maturity for women is too often equated with being bland and mouse-like. But the NT speaks of people ‘aglow with the Spirit’ (Rom 12:11). Priscilla, for example, was obviously a woman who made an impact for Christ. In marriage, a wife is content to be submissive to her husband if she knows that he loves her and will work for the best for her—as Christ loves the church. Just so, for the women of the church to support and be content with male leadership, they need to know not only that male eldership is Scriptural (they know that). But they need to feel that, in the appropriate way, they can thrive—that they are loved and appreciated and honoured by the leadership.
A positive vision of womanhood
Secondly, we live in a world which for all its denigration of men, is very male-oriented. The message out there is ‘The only worthwhile stuff is male stuff’. So, for example, ‘liberation’ for women is frequently equated with being able to do what men do. For some at least, that goes to the extreme of wanting to knock the living daylights out of each other in the Olympic boxing ring, fight on the front line in the armed forces, etc. Are we losing proper femininity?
If we wish to gain or regain the trust of Christian women, we need to articulate a biblical view of womanhood which says that womanhood is good, challenging and exciting. It is part of the ‘very good’ which God declared at the completion of creation (Gen 1:31). Being a good Christian woman does not mean simply keeping quiet and making the tea. Strong, gifted and intelligent women are brilliant. Men are not to feel threatened by them but to celebrate them. The apostle Paul was unashamed to acknowledge his own debt to various women. Many had supported him and worked hard alongside him (Rom 16:12; Phil 4:3). He says of the mother of Rufus in Rome that ‘she ‘has been a mother to me too’ (Rom 16:13). Women as well as men are disoriented today. We need to let the Bible teach godly womanhood (Prov 31 etc.).
Thirdly, for male leaders to regain the trust of our married sisters we need to preach and exemplify a Christ-like servant headship for marriage. We need from the pulpit to let them know that we are on their side. We do not endorse the attitudes of Christian husbands who no longer love or cherish their wives and treat them with indifference. ‘Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church’ says Ephesians 5:25. Yes, Jesus’ great act of love was at the cross, but has his love for the church diminished since then? No. So, what are you doing as a pastor when you fail to challenge Christian marriages where a man neglects his wife for his job or other things or even for the church? Christ presents the church to himself as a radiant church. But I see so many married women in churches who are so much less than radiant. I know that every family has troubles to contend with, and every wife feels those troubles. But is there an underlying joy that is saying to the world, ‘yes, but I know my husband really loves me and is there for me’?
Fourthly, for male leadership to work for the women of the church, male leaders need to find ways of listening to the women and taking what they say seriously. These women are made in the image of God with just as good a brain as yours if not better. They are part of the body of Christ. Yes, Adam went wrong listening to Eve, but that is not meant to set the pattern of how we view all that women have to say. Abraham is told to listen to Sarah (Gen 21:12); as Barak listened to Deborah there was victory, (Jdg 4:4-9); David listened to Nabal’s wife Abigail and was blessed by doing so (1 Sam 25:20-35). And in the book of Proverbs Wisdom is personified in female terms (Prov 9:1, etc). And yet we may rarely listen to the wisdom of our sisters in the church.
Is there a forum for this in your church whereby women are listened to—especially single women? Or is the atmosphere of the church meeting such that no woman would have the courage to speak up? Indeed, is the church meeting just an exercise in rubber stamping? I’m not saying that male leaders always have to do as the women suggest. However, God made women differently and to think differently from men for a purpose—and we need the help they can give. And don’t forget, very often, women, especially the older women of the church, pray for the church more than the elders do. Aren’t they worth listening to?
Recognising gifted women
Fifthly, for male leadership to work for women we need to cultivate women’s gifts and abilities and use them in the church. From Luke 8:1-3, we know that Jesus and his disciples had a group of women who helped their ministry. Some of these were present at the cross and were witnesses of the resurrection. It seems clear that women like these had a crucial part to play in the early church as deacons / deaconesses in the early church (Rom 16:1; 1 Tim 3:11). They helped the church and its leadership.
Yes, eldership in the churches is to be male. But just as it was not good for Adam to be alone (Gen 2:18)—he could not attain all he was meant to be without Eve—so a church leadership which ignores women and their gifts will stunt a church. Engaging with the women of the church will not only keep us from laying ourselves open to the accusation of being patronising—treating women as if they were a nuisance to be tolerated—but will actually enhance the ministry of the church. And when you have a good team spirit between men and women in a church, you are showing the world how things ought to be.
Male leadership which is servant-like and transparent, which is caring and accessible and not manipulative, is where we must begin if we want to regain the trust of women and make male leadership work for women.
This might require a revolution in your church. But, let me ask you, is your style of leadership more to do with what makes you feel comfortable and in control than what is actually biblical? Our truest obedience to Christ is seen where his ways cut directly across our own natural skills and tendencies. Male leadership must enable all people to grow and is about leading through love and sacrifice—like Jesus.
 I have even known of elders who are afraid to express their views because of other elders.