In my last column I raised four critical questions for Christian complementarians and suggested that these helped show the inadequacy of that approach to gender roles. In this column I want to turn my attention left instead of right.
I want to ask those who embrace egalitarianism why there is so little actual progress in opening doors to women in ministry. And I want to suggest that the same question can be raised to all kinds of white Christians in relation to racial integration in church life.
What these two issues have in common is that in both cases there is a stated commitment to the norm. Egalitarians state a commitment to the full equality of women and full access for women to all ministry roles. Racial equality and racial reconciliation are stated goals for all mainstream white Christian leaders and predominantly white denominations in America.
If this is the case, why then is there so little progress? Why do so few women occupy the pulpits of supposedly egalitarian churches? Why do women who are sent from egalitarian churches to study in egalitarian seminaries still, in many cases, have so little hope of occupying senior leadership roles in those very same egalitarian churches?
Why do our many stated commitments to racial reconciliation, equality and inclusiveness end up amounting to so little real progress? Why are churches still overwhelmingly monoracial rather than integrated? Why is it exceedingly rare to see black staff ministers in predominantly white churches, and vice-versa?
How many racial and ethnic minorities lead our Baptist and/or evangelical seminaries, parachurch organizations, and colleges? Why are black Christian brothers and sisters still able to point out obvious patterns of racial inequity in the way whites run Christian institutions, patterns we white people somehow aren¡¦t able to see on our own?
The short answer is this: Getting a conviction right means little unless the conviction is implemented through a purposeful change in practices. On the frontiers of gender and racial integration¡Xas in the Christian life as a whole¡Xbelieving right is merely the starting point.
I noticed this theme in an odd place recently — Clement of Alexandria. In his Exhortation to the Heathen, this 4th century church leader wrote, Falsehood is not dissipated by the bare presentation of the truth, but by the practical improvement of the truth it is ejected and put to flight.
I would restate Clement this way: Only as we implement a preferred alternative is an inferior approach displaced.
One might describe true racial and gender integration precisely as frontier territory in which we are constantly forced to blaze new trails through uncharted land. Such trailblazing requires action, not just thought. And because it is so much easier to think our way to a new conviction than to act our way to a new reality, many times we never blaze those new trails at all.
This is because humans are embodied and contextual creatures. We are shaped by the often deeply beloved patterns, practices and habits in which we have been embedded all of our lives. These are enshrined in our memories and written on our hearts. They go deeper than cognition.
It seems that the only way these deep patterns and practices can be altered is under pressure. Even if we say we now believe in a new approach, we apparently must be pressured to live out what we say we believe by those who will not accept the status quo any longer.
This is why, for example, neither women nor African-Americans were granted their rights in this country by gracious white-male largesse. These rights were asked for, pleaded for and finally demanded in a process lasting many decades.
The same process is required in our churches. Continuous pressure from our marginalized ones must galvanize well-intentioned but recalcitrant (white male) people and institutions into action. Meanwhile, at least some of those white males privileged by current patterns must leverage and sometimes even sacrifice their power to help the disempowered gain real access to positions of leadership in our historically white Christian institutions.
It helps to have some goals in mind. How about these for starters?
— A quadrupling of the number of female staff ministers and a doubling of the number of female senior pastors within 10 years.
— A quadrupling of the number of churches and Christian organizations with racially integrated staffs and a doubling of the number of such groups with executive leadership provided by non-whites.
We would need to construct a number of incremental goals to get to these larger goals, and then find creative strategies likely to move us toward those goals.
Construct may be exactly the right word. A more just future must be constructed, not just affirmed. That's one thing we learn on the frontiers of integration.
— David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University.