Pursuing Partnership, Part 8: Seeing What They See

 Pursuing Partnership: Men & Women in Ministry

Part 8: Seeing What They See

By Wendy Wilson, Missio Nexus Mission Advisor – Development of Women
Women’s Development Track, Exec Director

Diverse church, diverse mission.  If the Great Commission is a calling to bring redemption in Christ into the diversity of all nations, people groups, cultures, and languages, how do we hope to be effective from where we live, from where we’ve been formed, and from what we see and don’t see? The growing conversation around diversity is an essential part of meeting that challenge to see more completely.  And most of us are grappling with how to bring more diversity into our decision-making teams. While diversity has many aspects, one area that applies to virtually every human setting is gender. We are inspired to pursue the biblical ideal of men and women necessarily working together as co-regents of His creation, and as brothers/sisters and co-heirs in the Body of Christ. . . to bring men and women who are without Christ into His redeeming work in their lives.

An increasing number of studies affirm God’s design by discovering that when men and women work together in strategizing and decision-making they create more effective, sustainable and profitable organizations.  More alternatives are offered, more skill sets are used, and more out-of-the-box thinking occurs from both genders. Also, change accelerates, modernizing old ways; a  preference for collaboration takes hold, a longer and wider time horizon emerges, and a focus on preventing crises develops; financial performance is higher; and improved policies for women and families come to light – work-life balance, health care, child care, equal pay, education, community building, and diminished violence. [1]

So while the topic of men and women serving together has vast tentacles, let’s consider one powerful aspect of what we have to gain by more fully stewarding the diversity of maleness and femaleness together in our gospel efforts: identifying a horrifying reality experienced by over half the population and half the church. Since we all see life based on our own experiences, men and women together bring to bear more fully the Image of God on our understanding of strength and vulnerability as guiding forces in our world for good or evil.  In most cultures globally, men alone hold most power and authority in communities and families. Redeemed men use their strength to redeem power structures – to empower, serve, and protect others. But unfortunately, fallen culture too often promotes misuse of that power so that women experience daily fear and vulnerability in being dependent on those men for permission and provision – husbands, brothers, fathers, bosses, colleagues. Women often see vulnerability in others because they experience it in ways men do not.

Exploited vulnerability is one crucial arena into which we need women to show us what they see as we move toward making the gospel known in any community around the world, moving us all more dependently toward God and His Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.

I recently had a conversation with a mission leader (and his wife) who had oversight of about 600 churches in a region of Africa – a region where wife-beating is common practice and not illegal. When I asked about how they train pastors to address this problem as a way of growing a church that displays redeemed gospel living, he responded that 1) they didn’t have that problem in their churches, and 2) they defer issues of how men and women relate to the local culture. This was a good man who loved God and his wife, and honestly didn’t see the problem.  In that same conversation his wife added that this practice did indeed go on in their area, to his surprise. This was a good woman who loved God and her husband, yet had never explored this rampant issue of abuse with him or her pastor. Good men and women like these don’t intend to ignore such things and are usually horrified by them.  So, to the first point, we need to actively invite women to help us see what over half the population is experiencing in their vulnerability.  To the second point, while we certainly defer to the culture in many issues of practice, violence and assault on dignity of the human being cannot be one of them.

Part of the solution involves dedicated discipleship of believers, and certainly of Christian leaders and pastors, that must address a more complete understanding of the dignity of human beings, especially women. In too many cultures, women are seen as property, large children, or domestic servants rather than God’s Image Bearers, full partners in God’s plan for humanity, and co-heirs with Christ. Jesus Himself and the Apostle Paul, as men, spoke to the male power structures of the day, and brought women as partners into their ministry circles in stunning ways considering cultural norms (for example, Lk 10:38-42, Matt 28:5-7, and Rom 16.)  The redeemed use of strength is a powerful road to making the gospel known and redemption seen.  Pastors and leaders can see and teach the dignity of women thoroughly and help their local bodies identify specific ways that their dignity is violated.

Whereas first-world men and women experience more benevolence in social and legal rights and protections, most of the world’s men and women operate in social structures that heavily benefit the strong and ignore (or oppress) the weak.  Whether at the global or family level, too many women suffer at the hands of men who mistake physical or social strength as a reason to diminish the women who are often literally helpless. In every society, men and women both suffer from the wicked use of strength to violate others – from bullying to domestic violence to slavery.  But women in particular suffer as a result of their gender when, overall, men have misused God-given physical strength that can overpower with intimidation or violence – in every society and in homes in every corner of the world. The gospel sets this strength right (Phil 2). Every form of strength is given to bless and empower others so that a thriving culture of the Kingdom flourishes, represented by the churches that are meant to be local expressions of counter-cultural Kingdom relationships.

We need men and women both to bring their eyes and experiences to what is going on around us in order to reach the world.  For too long and in too many places where the church has had a presence, violence and diminishment of women continues as embedded and even acceptable cultural practice. Women are too often without advocates or access to legal protection from rape and violence, silent and fearful, without access to health care or education, and without economic participation or personal resources, leaving them with few options.  Maternal mortality, aborting or withholding food and other resources from infant/young girls in preference of sons, killing or abandoning widows when their husbands die or cast them out, terrified child brides being sold to much older men, rape as an ongoing vestige of post-war societies, genital mutilation as a form of chastity, domestic violence and inhumane control of women who are subject to the whims of husbands/fathers/brothers, fear of attack or abuse just walking unprotected to work daily, selling women into sexual slavery without any legal recourse, and the horrific list of abuse related to gender goes on.  God’s people are to be characterized by active concern for the plight of the oppressed and helpless (Isaiah 58, Ps 10:17-18, Acts 10:38,1 Thess 5:14-15.) The progress of the gospel has always been most successful when we reach into suffering with the love of Jesus! Women understand vulnerability and recognize it in ways we need to incorporate into our Great Commission efforts.

Women not only recognize more quickly the suffering born of vulnerability, they are also very resourceful in developing ways to address it. We want to actively engage them! We can strengthen our mission efforts by promoting platforms and projects within our missions to address the specific suffering and vision of women, and we can also look for ways to partner with other organizations in our spheres of influence who are doing it.  More candidates are choosing an organization based on its commitment to utilizing, nurturing, and promoting its women in broad and integrated ways. If an organization cannot provide a meaningful place for their particular service, they will choose one that can – or create and found a new one. We want to better capture these important opportunities and resources!

The burden of carrying the redemptive needs of a lost world is too heavy, deep, and wide for our brothers to see or address by leading alone. We need to see what women see as well. What an opportunity for God’s people to lead the way in displaying to the world a radically different kind of caring community that courageously and honestly reaches into these places of vulnerability and strength.  The calling as brothers and sisters in Christ is to be a different kind of people who encourage one another, prefer one another, sacrifice for one another, honor one another, show compassion to one another, advocate for one another – and help each other see and enter the needs of the world.  As mission agencies and churches, bringing gender diversity more fully into our strategic decision-making structures can give us greater vision and effectiveness in seeing what men and women see together, relieving suffering with courage and creativity, and bringing the good news of Christ to bear more fully for transformed lives and communities.

Recommended reading:  Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James.

[1] Tarr-Whelan, Linda. Women Lead the Way. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2009.