Women in Religious Leadership
Is the Church Worthy of Women Leaders?
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation Women in Religious Leadership. Read other perspectives here.
I have been asked to discuss the subject of women in church leadership. While I am a male clergy, I have very strong feelings on this subject. I have watched some of the best and brightest clergy I know get chewed up and spit out by the church simply because they are strong women. Instead of making a case that women are worthy to be leaders and would make a contribution in the church, I want to put the shoe on the right foot and ask, "Is the church worthy of strong women leaders?"
A Barnes Group study of women clergy found they are more educated than their male counterparts, but receive smaller salaries and serve smaller congregations. Only 10 percent of women serve as senior pastors. What is even more disturbing is a statistic from within my own Presbyterian denomination showing that only 11 percent of female clergy move from their first call to serve another church. In other words, the attrition rate for women in my supposedly liberal denomination is 89 percent. Before we recruit more women and send them into an abusive church, I feel we have an ethical obligation to ask what is wrong with the church when it comes to female leadership?
It is easy to see misogyny in many conservative churches. Women are told to be silent, to cover their heads, and to obey their husbands. Liberals love to quote conservatives like Pat Robertson:
The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.
It is easy for liberals to criticize conservatives, but the local church where I serve recently presented an overture to the ruling body of our Texas region requesting that congregations like ours be allowed to use nonsexist language in all aspects of our life together. To no one's surprise the motion was voted down, which makes it clear that, to most of the churches in our area, sexism is an essential church tenet.
I would say that a "liberal" denomination that invites women into leadership but insists on protecting sexism is setting women up for abuse. What else but abuse can result from calling the essential mystery of the universe a male? What else but abuse can happen when women are invited into a structure that was designed by and for men? When someone is called a "woman clergy" is it not obvious that the template for ordained clergy is masculine?
And if we honestly scan the history of Catholic and Protestant theology we find not a benign oversight of women in leadership, but an active fear and hatred of women:
And do you not know that you are Eve? God's sentence hangs still over all your sex and his punishment weighs down upon you... Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die... Woman, you are the gate to hell. ~ Tertullian
What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman... ~ Saint Augustine
As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten... ~ Thomas Aquinas
The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes. ~ Martin Luther
Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise. Be content to be a private, insignificant person, known and loved by God and me. ~ John Wesley, writing to his wife
Whereas conservatives tend to leave the poisonous tree of misogyny unpruned, liberal churches pluck the most poisonous and embarrassing of the poisonous berries off, while insisting on keeping the tree of patriarchy largely intact.
While superficially inviting women into leadership, the church is very careful to keep gender lines clear. And make no mistake, issues like women in church leadership, abortion, and gay rights are about keeping the gender lines clear and women in their place. Before we recruit another woman into church leadership, I believe we need to ask a question: "Why is the church eating up and spitting out so many women?"
If the church is not willing to go through a radical reformation that brings feminist voices in at the ground level so that every hymn, ritual, and creed is changed to treat genders as equal, I would sadly answer our question by saying women are worthy to be leaders in the church, but the church is not worthy of them.
Jim Rigby is pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. Jim works on issues of racial, gender and economic justice. His writings can be found on jimrigby.org.