An old argument, rooted in an ancient anxiety harbored in the hearts of patriarchal institutions like the 21st-century Church, suggests that if women are put in positions of power then walls will fall down.
Psychologists tell us that walls are important and have a place and purpose in our lives. Walls are critical in the beginning stages of development, creating stability that helps us move from childhood to adulthood. But these are temporary walls and were never designed to last forever. For institutions like the Church, trouble comes when temporary walls are used as structural pillars that in turn discourage and constrain natural growth.
The institution of the Church has outgrown her walls, and she can no longer hold up to the truth of God’s saving work for the world today.
Within many churches, women often begin as wallflowers. Wallflowers watch and wait for their moment to blossom and lead. Wallflowers cling to the very walls that will one day unavoidably fall. The reality is that most people in the Church are wallflowers. But holding the walls of a collapsing institution built centuries ago is exhausting, energy consuming and, quite frankly, foolish work. Congregations cling to walls for security, fearing that if the walls of our faith – in the form of structures that for centuries have safely surrounded the Church – were to fall to pieces, all would be lost, including God.
“The institution of the Church has outgrown her walls, and she can no longer hold up to the truth of God’s saving work for the world today.”
But brave women continue pushing themselves away from walls and wandering in the wilderness of a new world. Once women stopped holding the walls up, the walls stopped holding them back.
Those who continue to voice their worry about women wandering into leadership roles are right. The presence, voices and leadership of women will bring down walls, the false pillars of faith. These walls give the illusion of control, the illusion of comfort and even the illusion of God’s redemptive work.
Today, some churches have courageously let the walls fall. For example, First on Fifth, a Baptist congregation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is tearing down entire buildings as the church restores, reduces, renovates and reimagines God’s saving work in the world. Led by senior pastor Emily Hull McGee, the congregation embarked on a journey of discovery. They concluded that maintaining aging and largely empty facilities was unsustainable financially and a questionable stewardship of resources. They also determined that some of their physical walls were no longer serving the purpose for spiritual growth. Literally and figuratively, walls are coming down, and I’m among those who believe faith will emerge stronger than ever.
Another example is LaTonya McIver Penny, a colleague I have come to know through our participation in “Conversations That Matter: Pastoral Leadership in a Politicized and Polarized America,” a gathering of young Baptist pastors convened by Baptist News Global in 2017 and 2018. LaTonya is senior pastor of New Mount Zion Baptist Church in Roxboro, North Carolina, and founder and leader of Mary’s Grace Incorporated. She is breaking down the walls of exclusion in her church and community by providing workshops on skills and resources needed to effectively serve all children and their families affected by disabilities.
“Resurrection is impossible without death, and our resistance to death is the greatest obstacle to Church growth today.”
When walls fall, ceilings shatter. These are the very ceilings that have kept the Church from looking up and out into the heavens above. The Church has grown cold, forgetting the warmth of sunlight, living in darker spaces, becoming whiter and more fragile. The Church has lost imagination, forgetting how to dream beyond a one dimensional world, imprisoning and paralyzing minds, making it impossible to look out into the universe of divine possibilities.
Ceilings, like walls, limit God’s saving work. This week University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, hosted the second “Nevertheless She Preached” conference, a two-day preaching event envisioned by Kyndall Rae Rothaus, senior pastor of Waco’s Lake Shore Baptist Church. “Nevertheless” is an experience of illumination and divine possibilities, uniting and uplifting the voices of women who are still being pushed to the outer walls of Christian institutions. It is an event that celebrates the ways women are continuing to shatter stained glass ceilings.
When walls fall and ceilings shatter, the Church becomes vulnerable. Vulnerability is the root of resistance against women in ministry. Another fear of women filling positions of power, is that the institution of the Church will be exposed and vulnerable to only God knows what sort of liberal agendas and heretical doctrines. The statement is true, but the underlying fear is a false reality. The presence of women will create exposed spaces, like holes in fences, piercing the structures of false stability. This level of exposure will always lead to hard conversations – conversations the Church has been avoiding for centuries – concerning science, skin color and sexuality.
When did the Church start fearing wounds? It was wounds, after all, that made a way for salvation. Wounds are the path for light to enter the body of Christ’s Church, warming the flesh, touching the heart, piercing the soul. Inviting women into positions of power will not create more wounds but rather illuminate the wounds already present – wounds in need of redemption, wounds that have been festering too long, projecting a false identity that has led to the worship of a broken image of God.
Redemption is the wounded work of the Church and yet the Church has forgotten to live as people of the resurrection. Resurrection is impossible without death, and our resistance to death is the greatest obstacle to Church growth today. Yes, some Christian leaders continue to believe that if women become pastors of churches, the institution of the Church will die. The haunting reality is that if the Church is unwilling to die then the Church is no longer living.