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November 16, 2007

Questions about Sex, Difference, and Leadership

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about sex - specifically, what does a person's sex have to do with how they function in the world? If we could remove everything we learn about being male and female from the cultures that shape us, would there be any significant differences to what it means to be male and female? If there aren't, what does that mean for leadership? And if there are, what does that mean for leadership?

Many of you are going to run straight to your Bibles to answer the question of sex and difference. Sure, the Bible talks a lot about sex. About being created male and female. But it doesn't talk as definitively on it as we might think. If it did, the site you're on wouldn't have pages and pages of blogs with such fierce and passionate debate about the subject.

And that's marvelous - the exchange of viewpoints, interpretations, and insights. After writing for nearly a year on this blog, however, I can't help but wish that exchange would come with more grace and a little less self-righteous, knee-jerk posturing. Generally, there is a polite, conciliatory tone to the conversation. But too often, the responses become accusatory, polarizing, and even abusive. When I read these kinds of responses, I'm reminded of really bad, aggressive driving. We think that because nobody knows who we are online, we can say and do anything. We can hit the "post" key with a force that is the equivalent to flipping someone off. It's blog rage.

Maybe this time around, the tone of the responses can be a bit more elevated. More provisional, wondering, and humble. More about wrestling, musing, and asking new questions than giving the one, right answer.

To that end, here are some questions about sex, difference and leadership that have been on my mind of late.

1. There's a lot of talk these days about the differences between men and women. John Gray talks about men coming from Mars and women coming from Venus. In Wild at Heart, John Eldredge tells us men are made for adventure and women are made for rescuing. No doubt, you have your own reactions to these and other pronouncements of difference. But what do you think? Are men and women really different, or do we just make up these differences in our minds and perpetuate those differences in the way we form our cultures? Other than genitalia, is there any difference in essence? Is there such a thing as a male or female perspective? An orientation to the world?

2. If there is difference, who decides what that is?

3. If there is difference, then why do many men seem to have so many qualities that are popularly associated with female, and vice-versa?

4. Is leadership a gender-neutral word? If not, how is it skewed?

5. There is a philosophy regarding extreme ends of any religious and/or political spectrum that says, the further apart two views seem to be (i.e., extreme right, extreme left), the more they can be looped back together from either end. Translated: the extremities share unspoken similarities with each other.

Apply that philosophy to the extremes of thought about women and leadership. Two views are typically placed 180 degrees from each other: first wave or classic feminism (most influential on women attending college between the mid-1960s to early 1980s):

? There are no differences between men and women in brain wiring, skills, and orientation to the world. Women can and do lead just as well as men, and often better, because they typically have to work harder to get into leadership position. For women to succeed and be recognized as leaders, women need to emphasize the leadership skills that the most successful and influential men use and de-emphasize learned, female behavior that sabotages leadership effectiveness

And religious fundamentalism:

? Women are not created with the ability or right to lead. They are created to support males in their leadership of the planet

What are the unspoken similarities about the nature of leadership that these two views share?

6. Both men and women seem to be questioning old leadership paradigms (leadership as authority, position, command and control, sole visionary, etc.). They are both looking for leadership practices that are more humane (collaborative, relational, organic, and empowering.) By its nature, the old paradigm seemed to call the question of equality and rights. The new paradigm seems to call other questions: Where is the collective energy moving, what is or can be released to serve the process of becoming as an organization, and what are we co-creating?

What might these new questions mean for conversations regarding women and leadership?


Thanks for this post. I am reminded of Dorothy Sayers interacting with a similar theme as she was asked about the possibility of writing detective stories from a "woman's point of view." Her reply "...don't be silly. You might as well ask what is the female angle on an equilateral triangle."

I am a Christian women with women in leadership on my mind alot lately. It might have to do with me being a recent widow and fulfilling both male and female roles and it might be because I am looking for a church home and hitting a brick wall with males wanting to run the church. I have been studying everything I can get my hands on about the subject. I am pouring my heart out to God. I am so fustrated with the whole bent view males have. All I ever hear is "man is the head of the woman" and "usurping the authority of the man". I know this is not what God's original creation plan was and when the fall came, the consequence was male rulership ;and you can see the mess it caused in the old testament. But Jesus came for redemption and to restore the woman. Not only am I having a difficult time with finding a church but where do I stand as a middle age widow woman in the church, I can't seem to find a place that fits me.


Your situation calls for a hug across the miles, so I'm sending one to you. I also want to encourage you as you look to how Jesus engaged and truly loved women. Perhaps those gospel texts that speak to you most might be both place to rest and, as you wrestle with church and hierarchy realities, a way for you to know what would truly be a welcoming place. That you need an embracing, affirming, uplifting community during this time...that is certain. May Jesus be redemption, restoration, renewal, and your greatest hope in these days. And may his sure, unselfish, servant ways help you find a gathering that are not just Christ-namers, but Christ-followers.

Thanks for the great post! As a feminist, a leader, and a follower of Jesus, I've asked all these questions before-- and still not answered most of them very definitively!

I did want to mention, though, that I think you are incorrect to call the 60s-80s "first wave" feminism. First wave feminism was in the late 1800s/early 1900s (i.e., all the right to vote stuff going on at a similar time as/after the abolition movement). I think 60s, etc. was second wave. Today we're living in third wave. At least this is how my women's studies class categorized things last semester. I like to remember that feminism is a lot older than the women some criticize as being bra-burning psychos... although some of them are pretty cool as well. :o)

Linda, I can sympathize. I'm so sorry you're going through that. I've been through my own devestation with church lately, seeing it crumble before my eyes as I realized I didn't believe the hierarchy structure was a valid expression of the church. It has been a difficult journey, and at first I was terrified it also invalidated Christ in my life. I found a place to rest and be honest in a small group outside our church, and of all places, in an Alpha kitchen. Serving, but seeing that Christ can still change lives, and laughing with the crazy people in the kitchen has made a huge difference. And I think outside the church there are huge clues on what the church will look like in the future. Someday it will seem foolish that the church thought women should be sidelined, but for now it's sitting in the first car in town, inviting ridicule while the horses race past. I pray that Christ will give you some great friends at this time of your journey.

As I prepare for my upcoming wedding and ponder about my future role as a wife and possibly mother, I have been wondering about the very questions that you are asking. What is my role, as a woman in this world? There are not roles in the world that so greatly distinguish the different attributes of men and women as in marriage, so what exactly does being one or other mean? First, woman and men were created in equality; in Genesis 1:27, the Bible reads, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Second, we, being in the spiritual image of God, each have roles. God is a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We, like God, have two distinct roles, male and female. We are equal, but we play different roles.

Your question provokes in me a greater question though: Are we male or female in our spiritual essence, like God is Father, Son, or Holy Ghost? Or does our physical, animalistic bodies contain a spirit that is gender neutral? When I see people who are born as hermaphrodites or “intersex,” as they like to refer to themselves, I can’t help but question the spiritual validity of our genders. Are we gender specific in our true, spiritual forms? Having discussed this with my fiancé recently, I’m inclined to think that we may simply be “male” or “female” because of our physical bodies. In the mind of a scientist, our genders are a result of our hormones; without estrogen and testosterone, we cannot physically be male or female. Further, I am of the belief that we will be neither male nor female in the future; Mark 12:25 says, “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” If we are truly gender neutral in our very essence, that is, our spiritual essence, that would explain why women seem just as qualified men to lead, and vice versa.

And yet, throughout this whole discourse, the question about whether or not it is truly a woman’s role to lead is still left unanswered…on Earth, it is true that we do have certain roles…how do we fit in to those roles and fulfill them in a way that glorifies God? What happens if you were born into a gender role that is neither here nor there? I cannot claim to have answers to these questions, so I will leave this to be debated among those more qualified than myself. But I will say this: in my future marriage, I hope that my role will be to support my husband so that he will find fulfillment in using all of the gifts that God has given him, and I hope that will be his role and attitude towards me as well. Perhaps if we stopped over rationalizing the idea of gender for a while, we may come to the conclusion that, if we are in the will of God and encourage one another to be as well, these questions may simply answer themselves.

I've been in the corporate world for more than 20 years. This includes work with small, privately held organizations and global, publicly held companies, across a number of industries. Because of the nature of what I do, I've worked directly with a wide variety of people across all corporate levels, from mid-level managers to CEOs. My experience has been that gender (and even a person’s religious beliefs) tells you nothing about a person's ability or inability to be a good manager or leader, or even about their style of leadership. I have worked with and for men and women who are discerning and intuitive, and who know how to communicate and motivate. I've worked with and for men and women who don't have a clue or are only interested in their own careers. Quite frankly, in my experience the split has been about 50/50 - half the men and half the women have been either good or bad at what they do (or more commonly, good at certain aspects of a position, not so good at other aspects). For that reason I get very impatient with discussions about which gender is better suited to leadership, both because of my own experience and because the whole question is much more complex than generalities can address. Sadly, what is perhaps most telling, is that when this sort of discussion comes up in church groups in which I've been involved, and I share my viewpoint, lay people and pastors who do not have a range of experience with the corporate world express amazement or outright disbelief.

I was raised in a home where my mom was a single mother raising her children. My moms aim was to raise me to be a great husband. A man who cleans house, makes dinner, and irons clothes. But even as my mom married my Stepfather, she still controlled the house. And my stepfather never rose to lead. I know for many women in our nation and in my church they are the ones going to church and being the spiritual leaders. Their husbands sit along the spiritual side lines and much of the time sit along the household sidelines. I am the opposite. By God's will I am the one going to church, teaching my childrens wednesday night program and such. I'm sorry for what I might write because it might anger you and it is not my wish to do so. Now I must ask the question's. What does Ephesians 5:21-33 say about our relationships as husband and wife? And 1Corithinians 11 say about our wives roles in the church? Does this mean women cant be leaders in the church? I think it means they shouldnt be Pastors or elders. I believe they are called to be leaders to other women, support for husbands, and leaders to our children. And husbands to be the leaders in the households and church by being servants of all. Christ put it best "to be first you must be Last" Mark 10:43. And to the Lady who put her self first as a feminist, then a leader, and then a follower of Christ I pray you would read these verses. God Bless you all for your Reverence for God and blessed examples of what all wives should be.

I'm not sure I've studied much on this subject, so my opinion counts for very little. But a couple things about the original article and the responses struck me. It seems (to me) that the author is noted as an "innovator in Christian practices" and several of the posters list themselves as feminist, or someone who has been struggling with this issue for a long time. Is it possible that these people have a deeply held, personal, belief that God did not really mean to make women less than men in a leadership role. Linda wrote - "I know this is not what God's original creation plan was and when the fall came, the consequence was male rulership ;and you can see the mess it caused in the old testament. But Jesus came for redemption and to restore the woman." Where in the NT does it say that Jesus came to restore women? Jesus treated women with respect, more so than the current society. But Jesus did not pick a woman as a disciple. Nor did he free all the slaves that he came across. He did not even speak out, directly or repeatedly, against these practices.

So does the coming of Christ to the Earth suddenly upheave all of societal norms? Did Jesus say the purpose of the Church was to cure societies ills? Or was the purpose of the Church to see Him glorified in the personal lives of His Children, and that message of love and acceptance be carried to hurting individuals everywhere? If our job is to carry that message, should our primary concern be changing the status-quo of women, or how can we most effectively do what God has commanded?

I think that the issue of "women in leadership" is an issue of the heart. If you have to shop around for a church that beleives the way you do on this specific issue....are you really looking for the truth? Or just someone that agrees with your, as of yet, unsupported idea that God could not possibly mean to keep me in such a humble position under a man. Maybe we shouldn't look to change the world as much as ask God to change our hearts to match His vision for the world.


Thanks for your perspectives on definitions of first wave feminism. Yes, it's important to realize just how long these questions, as well as the press into expanded potential for women have been around.

Definitions of waves: it depends on who you talk to. Sort of like what year or years we can calculate the beginning of the Renaissance or Medieval period. I used 1st wave to define the widespread and contemporary usage of that term beginning in the 1950s-60s. The term feminism was around before that, but not in nearly in as culturally saturated a way. If you want to term it fourth, fifth, or sixth wave, that is fine as well. The point I was making is that particular era of feminism - early 60s through early 80s - contained certain understandings of the term that are characteristic of its times and may not reflect current usage.

Again, thanks for making sure that the past is brought into the present.


Sally, you were wondering if there really are differences between the male and female that are not just cultural or a result of nurture what would that mean for leadership? According to new studies being reported there is a definite difference between the male and female brain. Dr. Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California, gives a detailed account of the female brain and some of the differences from the male brain in her book, The Female Brain . Before the invention of such scientific tools as the PET (Position-emission tomography) and the fMRI – functional magnetic resonance imaging scans which allow us to see inside the brain in actual time as the brain is functioning, it was argued that there was no difference between the male and female brain. It was believed that differences were between the way we were nurtured. However, in the last ten years it has been proven that there are a myriad of differences in the male and female brain; not making one more superior or inferior; just different. Women and men can solve the same problems but they use different brain centers to come to the same conclusion. The male or female will process the information more quickly or slowly according to the kind of data.

Neuroscientists have found an unbelievable assortment of structural, chemical, genetic, hormonal and functional brain differences between women and men.”
To name a few:
• In the Brain centers for language and hearing, women have 11 percent more neurons than men.
• Women have 15% more blood flow to the brain.
• The principal hub of both emotion and memory formation – the hippocampus is also larger in the female brains as is the brain circuitry for language and observing emotions in others.
• Women are, on average, better at expressing emotions and remembering the details of emotional events.
• Men have two and a half times the brain space devoted to sexual drive as women have for the emotional memory.
• Men also have larger brain centers for action and aggression.
• Men have larger processors in the core of the most primitive area of the brain, which registers fear and triggers aggression –the amygdala.
• The brain connectors between the emotional center and rational thought are like a country road for the male; for the female they are an eight lane super highway. The male brain generally needs more time to process emotional data into rational data; for the female it is done more quickly.

These are just a few of the differences reported by Dr. Brizendine. Of course, she quickly pointed out that there are always exceptions to the rules according to the varying levels of hormones that washes over the brain at eight weeks in the womb, during toddler years and at puberty. There are “bridge brains” which possess qualities of both genders. We’re probably at just the beginning of understanding how these differences affect different areas of our lives.

I highly recommend reading “The Female Brain” so that women can understand themselves and what is happening in their bodies and brains in the different stages of life. It is well written and easily understood with many stories and illustrations from her medical practice. Her appendix of research is impressive and extensive.


Re: your post:

If Jesus did not come to restore an entire universe - including women - what exactly did Jesus come to do?

And is Jesus really about maintaining a social status quo for the sake of an eschatalogical kingdom (i.e., something in the hereafter)? Is Jesus not concerened about the transformation of life in the here and now? Do issues of justice have no place in Jesus' person and work? This is a very serious claim.

Of course, if you make that claim, you can eliminate the need for justice entirely. Thus, slavery and the subjugation of women are non-issues, even in 2007. And thus, the abolishment of slavery in the U.S. was a mistake. It was supremely anti-biblical, anti-Jesus. I can only imagine how you might overturn the progress women have made in the last few thousand years to be seen and treated as fully and extraordinarily human.

If you are saying these things, then I think you should do the study you admitted you hadn't done. That was perhaps the truest, most helpful thing you wrote. And if you are saying these things, I grieve for every woman who logs on and reads your comments.

1. All too often, conservative Christians (and I am one of them) obsess about gender and gender roles, even to the point of making them idols. They quote many facts and statistics about men and women to justify their stand on controlling women and excluding them from leadership positions. Any non-Christian might look at Christians and think that "wives submit" is the bedrock verse of Christianity. (Of course, the prior verse calls for husbands and wives to submit to one another. These verses are all about having a self-sacrificing love for your spouse and not about authority structures. At least that's what they say when put back into the context of the whole book of Ephesians.)

2. In a time where women were not allowed to learn or testify in court, Jesus chose a woman to be the first preacher (even to men!) and tell that he was risen.

3. We're truly at a turning point in history. In contrast to the past, women over the past few decades, at least in Western society, have made advances in all areas. As I pointed out in a previous post, the current commander of the International Space Station is a woman as was the commander of the most recent space shuttle mission that docked at the station. Non-Christians see women succeeding in society, and then see many Christians taking Bible verses out of context and denying women leadership roles. This view hurts the integrity of the gospel.


I have read many of your blogs and greatly appreciated each and every one of them! This does not mean I agreed with them all but I have found you to be very honest, you are able express your opinions well (especially as opinions) and you come across as extremely intelligent. Above all this, I absolutely LOVE the challenge! You see, you always challenge me to think "outside the box" of my silly little theologies! And my soul greatly appreciates that!
I have attended Bible college and studied probably too much. This tends to result in my flesh being prideful of my knowledge and I can easily use it as tool with which to "fillet" others. What an ego boost that is! Yuck!!!!! So, I am here to tell you that I admire the candor and grace that you use to respond to some of these posts!

Also, when I was in Bible college, I wrote a paper titled When God Made Me, He Must Have Made a Mistake. I wrote it in reaction to what my professor was teaching me about this whole issue. Based on his conclusions, all I could decide was that God must have made a very big mistake when He gave me my personality, my spiritual gifts and my natural strengths since I lean towards pastoral roles and leadership. Needless to say, he wasn't very happy with my paper. And I am still the same mess!

Thankfully, I have learned to walk in grace, confidence and acceptance that I am the woman who He wants me to be! And, I am so glad to read the writings of a sister-in-Christ who is like- minded! (Heck, let's have coffee!)

Thanks for the challenge to grow! Our God is a great big God and someday He will settle all our theological disagreements! Until then, all we have is grace!

Lu Allison

I wish I could have coffee with each of would take two days at Starbucks, at least, wrestling, telling our stories (which I just love to read, by the way ), admitting where we have huge, unanswered questions. Where the hurt and anger is.

Until that can happen, I want to share these thoughts, coffee-house style.

Thanks, Lu Ann, for the profound statement you made oh-so many years ago that I believe many, many women have made and are still making, if we're honest: If God Made Me, He Must Have Made a Mistake. I first said something like that to myself when I was four or five.

Thank you Steve, for your most excellent post and challenge to the church. For such a supportive, street-level, and yet questioning male voice in the mix.

Angela, I have read Brizendine's book, The Female Brain, and love it. Thanks for your excellent summary here. I recommend it to all of you. Increasingly, sciencists are finding biological differences in the sexes. They aren't Grand-Canyon sized, but significant enough to have produce varied and discernable patterns in mental and emotional activity.

Cathy, you have read the signs of the times and challenged our assumptions about Jesus simply ministering to women because he was being nice. Might he have chosen a woman to be the first evangelist because, in that specific situation, he knew her gifts and personality were perfect for the task? What a concept. Maybe NASA and Jesus have something in common. I doubt that one gets to be a commander of a space mission without the necessary skills and wiring. If we as Christians don't think women have leadership abilities, or if we, in some twisted way, think they have them but don't have the OK from God to use them, then don't send them to college. A high school degree may even be too much. How we contradict ourselves.

Jennifer, I thank God for your honest questions about gender as you prepare for getting married. Loved your open spirit, just to put it all out there.

Jason, I'm personally not where you are in interpreting those scriptures. Your stories about your mom inspired me, not to think that she was usurping leadership, but that she was giving it out of her great abilities and calling, and that your strength is a result of that. Maybe nobody should be sidelined in the kingdom. Nobody should be benched.

Jeannette, your statement, "I think outside the church are huge clues as to what the church will look like in the future" was rivieting. Prophetic. Thanks for helping us to look elsewhere for the patterns, the rhythms, the flow of God's kingdom.

Finally, Sarah, that Sayers quote is going up in my office. I'd read it before, but that was many years ago. Thanks. It made me laugh!

A blessed Thanksgiving to you all.

Bravo Sally!

I hope Brett...along with all of us... will take time to reflect, describe, question, and become faithful...instead of letting his belief system to dishonor the enchantment of the magic and mystery of faith in the divine...learning to honor the omni presense of God instead of the misguided thought that there is omni present evil and a belief system that supports evil as god...ergo selective redemption, restoration, and transformation...

My hope is that most men have learned...are learning,,,becoming...more enchanted by the soulmates of life we have called woman

I am posting this long after this line of discussion has closed, but I wanted to add my two cents worth in -- even if it is never read.

Are men and women different? I think they are. Otherwise why would God need to create both genders? Was it just for reproduction reasons? No. There was something "other" than Adam needed -- something to be found in a woman.

Do men and women tend towards different things? Yes. Like a few prior posts said, there are small differences in the brains of men and women that make our wiring different, our aptitudes different and, at times, our interests different.

But God create both male and female and pronounced that it was good. We compliment each other with our differences -- not that there isn't cross over between Genders. But i do not think that those differences were supposed to be a source of power and control as the "women in leadership" debate has, sadly, often turned into.

1 Corinthians 12 etc lists the gifts of the Spirit If there was a difference between who got what gifts, wouldn't that have been a great place for Paul to include it? Paul, is often maligned as being a male chauvinist, and yet gender issues play a very very small role in his writings. In fact, if you look at his history -- Priscilla and Aquilla were his mentors (notice that Priscilla is listed first most of the time in Scripture -- a subtle way of marking a leadership hierarchy). Paul's lists of thanks to his fellow servants of the Gospel include a number of Women -- especially in Romans where they are listed as apostles and deacons. Many scholars believe that the Phillipian church was run by women -- and yet Paul never critiques women's leadership in that context.

So, is it possible, that the texts that talk about women not being allowed to speak or have authority are more involved than meets the eye? I'm not asking for a revision of the Scriptures -- I'm a theologically conservative Christian. I just humbly suggest that we keep the texts of women in leadership in perspective and try to learn, as much as possible, the context those words were spoken into.

At the end of the day -- let him/her who can teach, teach. Let him/her who can preach, preach. Let him/her who can serve, serve. And so on. Let us each use our God given gifts in a way that glorifies the one that gave them to us. We have been endowed with these Gifts, but the Holy Spirit - not to keep hidden because of gender, race or disabilities -- but to use, to multiply and to play our role in the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

I know too much time has elapsed between this article and for people to respond, but here goes anyway.
In a mainline church where the role of the male is in question, there seems to be a sort of role-reversal with women not only assuming leadership, but having to assume leadership (or our church will die.)
I applaud this article, but in closing you mention leadership practices that are more humane (collaborative, relational...)then follow that with "the old paradigm of equality and rights."
But wouldn't "equality" need to be part of the new - collaborative, relational... Wouldn't women first need to know their presence and contributions are not only of value, but also of relevance?
I think stylized leadership needs a happy marriage between models which allow both male and females to celebrate their respective roles while at the same time collaborating on a shared vision.
Here's my fear, if men feel they are relegated to "pack players" then the shrinking percentages of men in church will slip to the danger point.

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