Does 'Complementarian' Equal Anemic Women's Ministry?
In 2007, Amy Simpson wrote "Why I Don't Do Women's Ministry," citing the reasons for her struggle to fit in an essentially shallow church culture. She may have surprised a few readers, but clearly she spoke the heart of a silent, yet critical mass of women in the church.
These are women who want to fulfill the Titus 2 mandate, to mentor and minister to other women, who want to play a significant role in Christian education, but also want to escape the culture of women's ministry that they inherited from their grandmothers. They want a more substantive interaction with the women they lead, because they know that time is a priceless commodity and they want to make the most out of every opportunity. They are tired of women's ministry being the equivalent of event planning, and they want their "relationship with Jesus" to be more than an inner-circle catchphrase that accompanies the obligatory secret hug (because secret handshakes don't exist in women's ministry).
For these women, community encompasses more than fellowship around a meal or taking care of each other in a time of crisis. They want to know Jesus through the Scriptures in the deepest possible way, and they want the tools to do it. They want to think "Christianly" about every area of life, proactively thinking about how to contend with the issues women face instead of reacting to them when they surface.
Through the providence of God, I recently met a young woman on the train-ride home from work. It's amazing who you can meet on the train because of the book they are reading. How many people would you expect to see commuting with Sarah Sumner's Men and Women in the Church? As soon as I saw that, needless to say, a conversation ensued between me and Amanda. It was so thrilling to know I could talk about theology with a woman on my hour-and-a-half ride home.
Amanda is around 22 years old and a student of theology at a local Bible college. She talked to me about how her love for God drives her to want to know more about him and that she believes the church should provide college-level education for people to learn proper methods of biblical interpretation, citing examples of how people fail to rightly divide the word. She pointed out that in the church, there is little education in this area and she would like to contribute to that kind of positive change. Sadly, women's ministry isn't even on her radar. She expressed dread of becoming that woman in church who only talks about cookie recipes and gathers only to do crafts or talk about her kids. She shared with me how she has observed the idealization of the 1950s housewife by the women's ministry culture and how this appeal fails to acknowledge the failures of that culture to the life of the mind of women and the associated abuses during this period of history.
Amanda has yet to figure out what she believes about gender roles in the church, but currently she worships in a complementarian setting without any discomfort (as I do - though I have great respect for those who disagree with this position). But the idea of becoming a leader in women's ministry is beyond the scope of her interest because of the reality of what it means.
Women's ministry has come to be known to younger women as a place where the older women to gather for "a breath of fresh air." The activities have become a retreat from everyday realities instead of source for spiritual maturation that might contribute to actually dealing with those realities. This isn't just my view of things, this is what Amanda sees. And the Amandas of the church today have the unfortunate experience of associating the complementarian perspective with the spiritual anemia among women in the church, and egalitarian as a bolder option.
Holding to a complementarian view of the church and family does not necessitate that women's ministries focus primarily on social activities, discussions how to feed their families, or fill in the blank bible studies. There is room for young women like Amanda who want to bring solid methods of biblical interpretation and theological reflection to women's lives, and we can talk about more theological topics than just biblical womanhood, though we should certainly talk about that as well. We say that our faith is deeply personal, but it cannot be lived vicariously through the faith of our husbands. This is especially important to realize since it is the case that a large segment of women who attend church are without their husband. They cannot wait for them to find Jesus before they sit at his feet to learn.
So for the Amandas in the church today, I encourage you to make yourself known and communicate your desires to minister to women if that is your calling. For those of you who are women's ministry leaders or a team member, take a closer look at the women who are not participating and ask yourself why. Obviously women are incredibly diverse and no women's ministry can meet the needs and interests of every woman, but right now, it serves primarily one woman. There must be a shift in the culture of women's ministry if it is to be a viable resource for women on their spiritual journey.