Despite recent gains, women remain second-class citizens in most sectors of American society and culture. That is true in the political world and economic arena, and it is also tragically true in the church. Too often, women are denied access to church leadership roles such as preaching, governance, and decision-making. For example, a 2017 study revealed that only 9 percent of Protestant churches have female senior pastors. And while women tend to serve in other capacities in the church in significant numbers, this reality might be shifting. According to Jim Henderson in his book The Resignation of Eve, women are leaving the church in unprecedented numbers, with tragic effects: “This is the resignation of Eve, and it impacts the one group whose loyalty the church can least afford to lose. The people who for the most part run the church, attend church, and pray and serve at significantly higher rates than their male counterparts. Women.”
When it comes to power in the church, then, we are dramatically out of balance. Personally, I have been on a journey of understanding what it looks like for me to empower the women whom God has placed around me. Here are six stages men can choose to progress through as they attempt to raise up women in their contexts.
First, men must accept that the playing field is indeed tilted in our favor. This step may seem simple, but it can be challenging to see the world differently when you’ve been conditioned to see it in a certain way. Until men can understand and accept that they hold the majority of social power, it will be impossible for them to give it away.
So men must start by paying attention. We need to listen, learn, ask questions, and make observations. We should ask Jesus to help us see the world as it really is, even if it’s painful or new. Last year, I challenged a student to spend six months “trying on” the reality that culture worked in his favor as a man. All men would do well to take that challenge.
Second, men must cease being complicit in the systems that marginalize women. In other words, before taking steps to empower their sisters, men must first stop disempowering them. Indeed, to borrow an idea from the world of medicine, “first, do no harm.”
Often this means choosing to abstain from perpetuating negative stereotypes about women. At one point, I worked with a student who was a member of his campus’ football team. He told me how his team’s locker room banter was often flagrantly disparaging toward women. For this student, empowering women began with a commitment to not participate in this misogynistic talk.
Third, made aware of the social bias that runs in their favor, men must walk in solidarity with their sisters. In John 8, we read the story of a woman who was caught in the act of adultery and dragged before Jesus. In fact, the religious elite had engineered the moment in order to trap Jesus. I love Jesus’ response: he defends the woman while calling out her accusers. Standing in solidarity means saying to the women around us, “I see your struggle.”
Fourth, men must lay down power in order to create opportunities for women. Again, Jesus is our guide. John 4 tells the story of Jesus and a Samaritan woman, and their meeting at a well. At the end of their interaction, Jesus opts not to share the gospel message himself; instead, empowered by Jesus, the woman heads down the hill to tell her town about the good news.
Recently, a senior InterVarsity leader tweeted about his choice to forgo accepting an invitation to speak at a conference and instead recommend a female colleague for the position. He shared, “Many male Christian speakers/preachers don’t know any women they think of as more qualified than them. I know so many. I’m blessed. They’re deprived.”
Men, how might God be calling you to lay down your cultural power in favor of women in your life?
Fifth, advocate selectively. Advocacy and empowerment are not the same thing. Advocacy involves stepping in to speak or act on behalf of another person, while empowerment is more about helping them embrace their personal agency. Without question, there are times when men must advocate for women in their contexts. For instance, beyond merely abstaining from negative locker room banter, my football-playing student should speak out, advocating for women by exhorting his teammates to change their behavior.
And yet there can be a downside to advocacy. At times, advocacy can steal another person’s agency. In other words, men need to be wary of jumping in too quickly to advocate, thus robbing women of work that is rightly theirs. As I’ve considered the relationship between advocacy and empowerment, I’ve decided that I should empower always, but advocate selectively. And before I advocate, I try to ask the impacted women for their blessing.
Not long ago, one of the women I work with was feeling dissonance about how she was being treated in our organization, and she mentioned it to me one day over coffee. My first impulse was to send an email on her behalf; I knew the other parties involved and I’m sure my email would have been effective. Instead, I asked my coworker how I could help her engage the organization, and we decided that my best contribution would be to support and provide counsel to her. Her decision to self-advocate ended up being an empowering one for her, and it achieved our desired effect.
Finally, men should celebrate the empowerment experience. There is real and deep joy to be found in empowering others! For years I have invested in a younger female leader in my organization, helping her develop in her gifts and seeking to bless her into greater leadership. Recently, we were together in a meeting, and she used her voice to lead powerfully, influencing our group in godly ways. As I sat and listened to her lead us, I found myself full of joy. All of the work of empowerment was so worth it!
And this makes sense, since empowerment is fundamentally the way of the gospel. Again, Jesus is our example: “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). The cross of Christ is the ultimate example of empowerment, as Jesus laid down his power in order to empower humanity. And the final result is joy.
Our kingdom mission will advance in greater measure as power gets balanced between the genders. We must do better.
Men, join me in choosing to move through these six stages to become someone who empowers women in your context. May God help us to balance power for the sake of God’s kingdom!
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Matt Kirk.