Brotopia: breaking up the church’s boys club

Last year, Emily Chang published Brotopia, about the boys club running the tech industry in Silicone Valley. But if there is a truly entrenched brotopia anywhere it would be in the church, and specifically in the clergy.

Many men have voiced their support for women in leadership in the church. Sadly, even those male allies calling for the breaking up of the church’s boys club can sound a bit hollow when they belong to teams comprising all men, attend conferences at which only men speak, sit on all-male committees, worship in churches with only men on the staff, and only read books written by men.

One of the important ways male leaders will break up the boys club in our churches is to model change in their own lives and ministries. That means submitting to the leadership and insights of women.

Are we learning from women?

Are we being led by women?

Are we modelling a more inclusive stance on gender in the church?

Here are some suggestions for ways that men who wish to affirm the role of women as teachers and leaders might do that:

1. Invite a woman to be your mentor

If we are serious about affirming the role of women in our churches then one small but important step could be to invite a woman leader to be your mentor, coach or spiritual guide (I’ll use the term ‘mentor’ as a cover-all term here). When influential male leaders refer to their mentor with the feminine pronoun it has extraordinary weight. By inviting a mature, godly female leader to be your mentor you normalize the idea of female leadership and focus on what she has taught you, not whether she should be able to teach in the first place.

Some have expressed concern about mixed gender mentoring, fearing that an intimacy might develop that leads to unhealthy attachment or sexual impropriety. I prefer to assume that the modelling of good, healthy mentoring relationships across the genders is more important than buying into anxiety about the presence of women in your life.

Having said that, there are nonetheless reasonable concerns about propriety in mixed gender mentoring relationships. For these reasons we should consider the following: not meeting alone or behind closed doors; gaining the approval of your spouse and your pastor or spiritual leaders; delimiting the areas of discussion to avoid sexual issues; addressing any attraction to the person quickly and decisively; staying accountable. But with some simple, common-sense limits in place there is no reason the church can’t model what healthy cross-gender mentoring can look like.

2. Quote regularly from female authors

When was the last time you heard a preacher quote from a women theologian or writer? How often do you read scholarly articles that draw on the work of female theologians? If male leaders are going to model their affirmation of female leadership, they need to not only submit to their teaching but disclose such submission by liberally quoting those female teachers whose work has shaped them. And citing the quips of Dorothy Sayers doesn’t count because I’m not referring to the odd witticism that can be found on the Internet. Unless we are reading and seriously engaging with women as writers and theologians how can we say we affirm their role as teachers?

3. Abandon the inaccurate rhetoric about churches being feminized places

“The stallions hang out in bars; the geldings hang out in church,” says David Murrow in his influential book, Why Men Hate Going to Church. Murrow’s book touched off a storm of articles and blog posts complaining about the so-called feminization of church.

Murrow’s argument, put simply, was that women are relational, nurturing and peace-loving, whereas men are goal-driven, competitive and adventurous. He says women thrive when secure, and men thrive when challenged. No proof of this is offered other than the author’s observation, but on that basis Murrow concludes that men hate going to church because it presents “feminine values and preferences” like love and emotions and touchy-feely stuff like repairing relationships.

This dialectic between soft/hard, emotional/logical, relational/practical, male/female, gets more mileage in church circles than it deserves. We can all think of men who confirm the stereotypes. But we can just as easily think of men who shatter the distinction. Also, many women are highly competitive, primarily left-brained and logical, and more focused on outcomes than feelings.

By presenting culturally determined stereotypes as biblical teaching, we find ourselves on very thin ice. A church that teaches and embodies love, relationships, emotions, kindness and charity is not a feminized community. It makes no sense to suggest that prayer is a feminine activity, but apologetics and evangelism are male ones. The Bible doesn’t even hint that this is so, and therefore neither should we.

Furthermore, among American evangelical churches, 57 percent of members are women (regularly rounded up by Driscoll to 60 percent). That’s within a reasonable range of a 50-50 split to not cause the alarm many are sounding. Also, bear in mind that 93 percent of senior pastors in America are men, according to evangelical pollster George Barna. This hardly seems like a female takeover.

Nonetheless, in her book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity, visiting Biola scholar, Nancy Pearcey still suggests there is cause for concern. She says industrialization forced men to seek work away from home, in factories and offices, which created a split between the public and private spheres of life. The public sphere became secularized through the new values of competition and self-interest, and the private sphere came to represent the old values of nurturing and religion. Pearcey concludes religion came to be seen as for women and children and not as relevant to the “real” world of business, politics and academia.

What the church needs are more congregations comprised of people who shatter the stereotypes. By arguing for one type or another we alienate the less preferable, which leads to us bearing a false witness about the power of the Gospel to unite all people as brothers and sisters in Christ.

4. Handle Gender Differences Very Lightly

Sometimes it’s fun to caricature people with stereotypes. After all, they’re called stereotypes because a lot of people fit them. But, surely we as Christians must affirm our belief that all human beings are fearfully and wonderfully made, that we are rich, complex, deep and in many respects unfathomable creatures. The attempt to box people in with simplistic descriptions is a form of objectification that we should all resist.

Likewise, with gender stereotypes. By and large, I have found very little benefit in stereotyping men or women in certain categories, especially in pastoral ministry. I’ve worked with many men who are highly sensitive, intuitive and nurturing. I have also worked with women who are competitive, logical and goal-oriented. I suggest we take people as we find them, seeing every person as worthy of our attention and consideration as we would like for ourselves.

Furthermore, I think American readers need to be cautious about not foisting American cultural sensibilities on to their understanding of gender and then insisting on its primacy. As a non-American who doesn’t live in the US, I find some of the gender stereotypes commonly assumed by Americans to be glaring. In an interview several years ago for Relevant Magazine, Mark Driscoll said,

“In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”

Maybe Driscoll misspoke on this one, but it’s hard to understand why he finds himself unable to worship a guy he could beat up when Jesus was, in effect, crucified by us! He is the Suffering Servant, the Lamb of God, and rather than carrying a sword with “a commitment to make someone bleed,” in fact, the Jesus of the Gospels willingly chose to suffer and die for his enemies rather than use his power against them. Furthermore, he commands his followers to do the same (see e.g. Mt 5:43-45; Lk 6:27-36).

In fact, Jesus makes loving enemies and refusing all violence compulsory for his followers. Loving enemies like Jesus commands (and like the rest of the NT teaches, e.g. Rom. 12: 14, 17-21; 1 Pet 2:21-23) requires that we harness and control our sinful impulses to resort to vengeance and violence rather than indulging them.

I recognize that Revelation (to which Driscoll was referring) depicts the risen Christ as king and conqueror, but he is the most unlikely, grace-filled, peacable king ever imagined. Not the American stereotype of the tattooed, weapon-wielding, cage-fighter many want to make him.

5. Promote and Encourage Female Leaders

Personally, I’ve made it my concern to promote female speakers, sometimes inviting a female colleague or intern to share a conference speaking session with me. A couple of years ago, I co-authored a book with a young emerging female writer. I attend a church with a female senior pastor and a female associate pastor.

It might sound patronizing to suggest that men should be responsible for creating this space for women’s voices, but until churches and Christian conferences start offering such opportunities it might be incumbent upon those of us whose voices are already respected to fashion such partnerships. It is also our responsibility to ensure that women are offered places on teams, committees and think-tanks so that their insights and contributions are able to be adequately made. This will involve a concerted effort from those of us who currently exercise influence in this field.

Women are exceptional leaders and teachers and we are poorer for the lack of their voice in our midst.

[An unexpurgated version of this article appears as “Submitting to Her Voice” in Felicity Dale’s Black Swan Effect]

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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8 thoughts on “Brotopia: breaking up the church’s boys club

  1. Thank you Mike. Sincerely. Deeply. Profoundly. Thank you.

  2. Being doing all those and more all my life…

  3. Written as a true champion of women in ministry. I cannot thank you enough for point one; for all the times where my male colleagues seemed more interested in my non- ministerial husband than myself. Whether intended or not, my side-lining caused me to lose heart on a regular basis.

  4. Thank you so much for this article. So much wisdom. It is only through tackling your points that change will happen. Being a woman in ministry is not for the faint-hearted. Thank you.

  5. Invite a Woman to be your mentor. Considering healthy guidelines or restraints: Some men could ask their own mothers, if they have the right relationship. (John and Charles Wesley highly revered their mom Susannah. She was their closest confidant and counselor as they sought to follow God in the revival that swept England.) Scripture gives no statute of limitations on honoring parents. If mom or aunt or other relative is not a good fit, choose a godly older woman with a reputation for radiating God’s love and wisdom.
    Every church has a fair group of godly older women. Many would be honored to share some of their wisdom.

  6. This is hilarious – at a time in history when few boys bond with their fathers and learn about life entirely from the point of view of their mothers, and then later settle in on their wives or girlfriends as not only their best friend, but ONLY friend in life (less they wind up sleeping on the couch), you are advising men to seek out female mentors?

    1. I think that the vast majority of wives and mothers would advise any man to spend more time mentoring and disciplining their sons. Historically the focus has been on men mentoring men to put work above family and achieve, achieve, achieve things based on profit and financial success. I see this in my husband’s father, even though his mother died and his dad was left to care for five children (absently, while working two businesses). The book ‘Even in our darkness’ by John Deere has been really helpful for my husband recently. So yes, mentoring of men by women is vital more now than ever.

  7. This was like breathing in a fresh wind after being in a dry desert. I often think if a church was really wise they would try to avoid the major pitfalls we’ve seen in the downfall of church leaders and ministries through the years. The primary one being ye olde time patriarchy. Where there is no equality there is an abuse of power and evil of every kind.

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