Where do you find yourself in the conversation on women, equality, leadership, and friendship? We are living in exciting times as the voice and presence of empowered women are beginning to rise in Western Christianity! Clearly, American Christian women are emerging as bold and significant voices within Christianity. This is not the Christianity of the past where women were routinely marginalized.
Female hunger for justice, authority, and presence is breaking new boundaries. Many things once considered taboo for women, are now up for conversation. Women who are following Christ are hungering for human dignity, freedom, justice, shalom, equality, and friendship.
Friendship? Friendship is so significant for women. Here it means more than just female friendship. Do women have the freedom and authority to choose their friendships? Even male friends? Can they choose friendship as a Christ-centered call to love men? Can they choose friendship with men as a deep expression of healing sexism, exploitation, ambivalence, and alienation in our communities?
What may be surprising to you is that male-female friendship is emerging in the conversation for women’s equality in Christian leadership. Two new books espousing equality for women written by and published by evangelicals have devoted chapters to this issue indicating the rising importance of friendship within sexual ethics and social justice in churches. Two books devote a whole chapter each to cross-gender friendship. They both come to drastically different conclusions. One points to what I call differentiated trust in community. The other points to fear and suspicion.
Since I wrote Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions four years ago, I’ve seen four distinct Christian positions come to light among evangelicals. It may come as no surprise there is no clear-cut consensus among Christians regarding women, equality, leadership, and friendship. Many well-meaning evangelicals believe that what they believe is important and right. It points to diversity, difference, different gifts, and a sense of evangelicals following God's call in their particular lives.
But here are the four views that have emerged since I have written my book. I will identify these four postures with their positions on women as pastors and women’s voices in male-female friendship. These views will identify the extent of women’s choices toward freedom, dignity, and authority in personal relationships and in leadership (as wives or singles).
No Women, No Trust
This is a rather popular view among conservatives and the neo-reformed world. Mark Driscoll, D.A. Carson, and a number of other conservatives espouse this. They believe the Bible teaches that only men should be pastors. But they believe more than that. According to this view, men are spiritual leaders in their churches and in their homes. There is no place for mutual trust and engagement between men and women in churches for mutual leadership or in friendships between men and women. Men are the spiritual leaders in their homes.
Friendships between men and women are not to be nurtured. Mark Driscoll speaks for many within this position when he asserted that any spouse who seeks a close friendship with the opposite sex would be guilty of emotional adultery. There were no Bible verses to support that claim but it is a commonly held position among the Christians who hold to this position.
The significant strengths in this view are for men and women who embrace traditional view that men are spiritual leaders in their homes and in their churches. They hold to what they see as wisdom in their safeguards between men and women. They also believe that the Bible clearly teaches women are not to be ordained.
No Women, Moderate Trust
This view too, believes the Bible teaches women should not be ordained as pastors. But they also adhere to what may be called a moderate trust in men and women becoming friends. There are a number complementarian churches who would now ascribe to this position. I think Timothy Keller fits nicely into this category.
As I understand it, this position would embrace relationships between men and women who are not married to each other within what may be called “moderate trust.” Trust opens the door a crack beyond “no relationships.” Could you be vulnerable with an opposite sex friend on staff? Yes, to some extent. Ed Stetzer invited Katie Persinger to describe a position as a middle ground between what she describes as “no relationship” (i.e. no trust above) or unhealthy relationships where emotional and/or physical boundaries are crossed.
The important point here is that men and women are in a “safe environment” (which I take to mean surrounded by other adults or chaperones). As long as there are chaperones around, men and women can choose to be vulnerable to some extent. Open work spaces and shared offices are huge for this position. Both Katie and Ed affirm rules are still into place about not riding alone in a car with the opposite sex, and so on.
As far as I understand her, this would also be the view of Her.meneutics blogger Sharon Hodde Miller. She said she was in full agreement with Katie when she blogged on this with no critical or constructive feedback.
For many women who have only been exposed to the “no relationship” model within churches and fundamentalist colleges, this posture of moderate trust has great strengths. It is life-giving and redemptive for men and women.
Yes Women, Moderate Trust
The next emerging posture out of this growing conversation says yes to women in leadership including the pastorate. This is a huge breakthrough for women who have experienced life in the previous two paradigms. For many evangelical leaders who desire gender equality in churches this is an enormous movement of freedom, giftedness, and authority for women.
However when it comes to women and their authority to choose friendship with men, this posture is not as enthusiastic as it is with affirming women as pastors. Friendship scripts and stories are limited through moderate trust and what might be sensitivity to a sexualized culture and gendered stereotypes.
In this posture, there are wide ranging forms of moderate trust. They may end up moving past one-size-fits-all rules or they may not. One example is found in Halee Gray Scott’s new book Dare Mighty Things where men and women who are married but not to each other have to sign contracts that they will not ride along together in a car, and so on. That’s one form of moderate trust.
But there are other expressions of moderate trust which are not so limited but still fit a modest trust between men and women. This will be more evident when it is seen in the light of differentiated trust. From all my observations churches within the newly formed Missio Alliance fit in this position. I attend a church participating in Missio Alliance and this is where I would put them. Their leaders encourage friendships between men and women to a limited extent. They definitely don't want to rock the boat. For men and women who have experienced Christian community within the above two paradigms, this posture is deeply affirming for women in ministry, life-giving, and redemptive in relationship. There are really, really good strengths to this paradigm.
Yes Women, Differentiated Trust
An emerging fourth paradigm affirms women in ministry and differentiated trust in male-female friendships. This gives women the authority and freedom in Christ to nurture differentiated trust in friendships with men and in their communities, neighborhoods, and cities. Taking on adult responsibility for one self frees women to shape healthy relationships with men as an ongoing practice of differentiated trust. In this paradigm, it is differentiated trust which empowers women to follow Christ wherever he calls them including deep healing relationships of trust and delight between men and women in friendships.
What stands out in this paradigm from the other three is a creative responsibility for self and the other for deep relationships Christ calls us to. Friendship is not an add-on to the fight for justice, equality, beauty, and shalom in the community. It is the embodied relational path through which they are lived and revealed in community.
What stands out as an immediate strength for this path for women is that it appeals to women called by Christ to be trailblazers, pioneers, groundbreakers, innovators, pacesetters, forerunners—or another fitting word—leaders in this unprecedented opportunity of healing between men and women.
The richness of differentiated trust advances the conversation in that a woman not only can own her relational identities as wife (or single) and as an intimate friend in cross-gender friendship, but she can maintain her presence/identity in the presence of other Christian men and women who differ with her (like opposition and difference from well-respected leaders in the above three paradigms).
She courageously stands for friendship and with her male friend(s) in the full view of other eyes watching her from the other three paradigms. These women are called to positive freedom that others in those paradigms can’t see yet. I remember a very gifted (and differentiated) Katie Driver saying in the first Sacred Friendship Gathering that she is a “barrier-buster by nature…I want to boldly go where no one has gone before.” She said to us in this specific context, “We need people willing to break the barriers, go into the promised land of freedom in relationships, and enable others to come behind you into that land. You all are the barrier breakers.”
I think of Kathy Escobar and her calling as a trailblazer for this particular paradigm. Kathy just wrote a post called “rock boats, upset apple carts, ruffle feathers. It’s worth it.” She writes, "Jesus blew the roof off of the old systems & ushered in the new, telling us that despite our humanness, through his spirit, heaven could break through now. and our call as people of the way was to taste it ourselves and then pass it on in any way we could… when i hear about a woman’s calling to lead in a new and brave way, my heart leaps for her. but then i take a big gulp, too, realizing what’s ahead for her.”
What this conversation does is highlight gifted, differentiated women in this growing paradigm like Kathy, Katie, Jonalyn Fincher, Beth Bramstedt, Lilian Calles Barger, Elizabeth Chapin, Natalie Trust, Emily Maynard, Ellen Haroutunian, Heather Goodman, and other women who would not be highlighted by other paradigms for their gifted boldness in trailblazing a new way in this conversation. These are courageous, gifted, differentiated women within the Body of Christ calling us to trust God and love more. For these women, there is no going back to the past.