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Women in the Local Church: A Conversation

Today we are hosting a conversation with Lore Ferguson, writer and speaker. This conversation centers on how the local church can make, mature, and multiply stronger women disciples.

Gospel-Centered Discipleship: There are many opinions about what Christian women need most in and from the church. In your opinion, what’s the greatest need for women from the church?

Lore Ferguson: What women need most is the same as what men need most—to understand and see the power and effects of the gospel made clear in their lives. I think we often think of the men as the gospel proclaimers and the women as the gospel enactors. Men teach and preach, women serve and build. Even if we wouldn’t draw such clear distinctions with our words, it is the way the local church seems to function. In the same way the gospel is for all people, though, the effects of the gospel are for all people all the way through.

GCD: Pastors have not always honored or considered the needs of women in the church. How can pastors grow in their understanding of the needs and meeting the needs of women in the church?

Lore: Ask us! Whenever my pastor is asked by another man how to lead his wife, my pastor says, “I know how to lead my wife. You ask your wife how to lead her!” It’s the same with us. Keep an open dialogue with the women in your local church (not just the wives of your pastors/elders). Many pastors seem to have similar personalities and marry women with similar personalities/giftings, which enables them to minister well to women of the same personalities. But the local church is made up of every personality and gifting. Ask women—aside from your wives—how you can serve them and help them flourish.

GCD:

What are the biggest hurts for women in our churches that we are overlooking and missing?

Lore: Every woman is different, so my answer here might not be helpful in the sense that it might reflect more what’s going on in my heart than in the average woman’s heart. I think there seems to be a universal desire for us to be loved and cherished as an essential part of the body. This includes being heard and not having to fight for a voice, but recognized as someone who has an equal and distinct voice (the essence of complementarianism). We understand the distinct part, and feel that often, but we don’t feel the equal part quite as much.

GCD: As a follow up to that, I’ve heard from women that they desire a voice on the front end of the decision process as opposed to hearing about it after the fact and being asked for feedback. How would you recommend pastors change their approach in decision making to include a broader range of voices and specifically women?

Lore: If the approach is that they’re asking women’s input after the decision, or the only women they’re asking on the front end are their wives, I’d just say invite more women into the front end fact-finding mission. I regularly have men from my church seek me out for thoughts on how we minister to women in different contexts. In no way do I assume I’m part of the final decision making process, but I hope and pray my words are considered as a part of the water that ship sails on. As I say further down, a woman’s role is to help, but sometimes we’re better helpers on the front end of things.

GCD: One of the biggest conversations in the church has to do with women’s roles and opportunity in the church. Many women feel there isn’t a role for them in the church, yet when someone reads how Paul praises women’s involvement in the church, we can’t help but ask—How did we get here? Why is our experience of church seemingly different than Paul’s?

Lore: There seems to be a lot of fear in some complementarian churches. Fear of the messiness of life on life, fear of sexual brokenness, or fear of being seen as a place where the women wear the pants (whatever that means). What that results in is the staff can become a Good Ole Boys Club instead of a place where we see, value, employ, and utilize the gifts of women in an equal measure. I don’t mean women are given equal authority—eldership in the local church is clearly for men, but the disparity in staffing and investment in women does not reflect the equality we say we believe.

GCD: From the outsider’s eye, there seems to be a rise in women bloggers, women’s books, ministries, and bible studies. How have these helped in empowering women? In discipling women? And what are the dangers of these in relation to discipleship in the church?

Lore: In regard to empowering women, the internet/publishing world has empowered every voice, so I don’t know that we’re moved the conversation that far forward as a whole. For every woman who speaks out, there’s another voice speaking against her. I’m not sure the quantity has helped the quality. I do think that all the voices might have harmed the discipleship of women because it’s taken discipleship out of the local context and made it global. Women are getting their theology, encouragement, teaching, etc. from blogs and books in an unprecedented way. Meanwhile face to face engagement within the local church has suffered.

GCD: In this conversation, there seem to be polar extremes of complementarianism and egalitarianism. Have those terms clouded the conversation or helped the conversation in empowering women?

Lore: They’ve done both. Whenever we have terminology for something, it helps make the conversation more clear. The problem is when our experience differs from the actual definition, and I think the complementarianism/egalitarianism debate is a cesspool for disparate experiences and definitions. We’re talking past one another most of the time instead of really sitting down and understanding culture, context, history, and how the Bible speaks to all people for all situations.

GCD: Women on staff at complementarian churches are the minority and, when they are, they are rarely in roles beyond children and women. How can complementarian churches seek to empower women better in staff roles?

Lore: Hire them! The benefit of elder led churches is you have men whose responsibilities include shepherding and discipling men. We would think it was foolish if that wasn’t a qualification for an elder, but we don’t have women in those official roles (or if we do, they’re in charge of “women’s ministry” which is a fuzzy, unhelpful term). We need women whose job it is to disciple and shepherd women. Not necessarily lead women’s events, organize meals, or teach VBS or kids church. We need women who will walk faithfully with women in discipline, holiness, Bible study, teaching, etc. One thing to note is that I’m speaking from the context of larger more urban churches with more resources, you’re going to be able to hire more women. In a smaller church where hiring more women isn’t possible for various reasons, it should just be on the minds of the leaders there that they’re going to need an extra measure of intentionality in making sure their women are shephered and are discipling.

GCD: I’ve heard many women express a lack of discipleship while they watch men experience it. How does this happen? How is it fixed?

Lore: I don’t think the lack of discipleship is a distinctly female issue. Discipleship is going to be hard no matter our context or gender, otherwise we wouldn’t have needed to be told to do it so emphatically by Christ. Men experience a lack of discipleship too, but I think what happens is, especially in complementarian contexts, men are more visible, so we see the resources being poured into them in a more visible way. If there is a lack though, this is how it happens: many women only know how to contextualize the gospel in one situation or life-season, i.e., their marriage or home. The result of that is you have single women and empty-nest women who don’t have specific people within the sphere of their influence with whom they’re walking in discipleship. But it secondly happens when the local church doesn’t prioritize the discipleship of women. It’s fixed by prioritizing it in your staffing and ministry paradigm.

GCD: How have you heard gifted, godly, and strong women express their desire to serve the church and their elders?

Lore: In every way and every day. Women were uniquely designed to be helpers, so we see possibility in every situation. We’re not just helpers in the sense that we come alongside what’s already happening, though, we’re also helpers in the sense that we see things men just don’t see. That’s actually a beautiful thing! We don’t want to do the same thing as the men do, or overtake their God-given roles. We do desire to play our equal and distinct part though.

GCD: There seems to be an unnecessary awkwardness in male and female relationships. Many fear inappropriate relationships. How does the gospel free us from this fear and empower our relationships?

Lore: All through the New Testament Paul uses shockingly inclusive language to refer to the church, familial language. It’s not shocking to us because we’ve used it for two thousand years, but to the early church, calling one another brother and sister and father and son without the blood bond would have been shocking. In the western church we’re very accustomed to holding the opposite gender at arms length—which actually provides more room for fear than if we drew our brothers and sisters close and engaged in the messiness of family. There is righteous wisdom when it comes to avoiding sin, or the appearance of evil, but there’s also so much we miss out on when we hold our brothers and sisters away from us and don’t engage their distinctiveness from us. The gospel is marked by hospitality, by being drawn close to God (who is the most holy of us all!). By drawing us near, He is saying, “Your soiled self doesn’t sully me. I will engage that and cover it and love you all the more through it.” I say embrace that awkwardness, press through it, hug generously, listen fearlessly, counsel wisely, and live as though you’ll give an account for every action. My lead pastor does this better than almost any man I know. He simply isn’t afraid of women and always draws near to us. As much as he’s able and it’s appropriate, he closes the gap.

GCD: What levels of leadership and responsibility can a woman have in the church without encroaching on a pastoral role?

Lore: This is a tough one partially because I think it does depend on the pastor(s). If you have strong and humble men leading, men who will listen and lead well, a woman has a lot of freedom within those bounds. But if you have timid and/or young immature men leading, there’s going to need to be more restraint by the women. As far as biblically and theologically, that’s an issue for the local church elders to navigate.

GCD: A misconception seems to exist that complementarian and strong, gifted, and godly women don’t go together. In this misconception, egalitarianism seems to draw the strong women. How can complementarianism strengthen women?

Lore: By majoring on the majors. We believe that women are equal and distinct, but too often we only feel our distinctiveness, our otherness. If we believe women are equal, then we have to begin to treat them as such. And—forgive me for encouraging men to be like Sarah—but we have to do it without fearing what is frightening (I Pt. 3:6). It will be messy or difficult—but so is gardening, child-rearing, and building a house, and we know we don’t do those things in vain.

GCD: Men can be taught, encouraged, and impacted by the gifts and lives of women. This seems lost in opportunities given to them to teach class, lead mixed small groups, and even in everyday church relationships. How do we move away from this gap?

Lore: Again, I think it needs to be reflected in staffing/ministry paradigm. We don’t need wide here; we need deep. By that, I mean we don’t need a huge women’s ministry. We don’t need more conferences or retreats, etc. We need to staff women who will go deep with few, disciple them in a long-suffering, difficult way, so those they disciple are empowered to do the work of the ministry. The more we are building healthy, discipled women, the more confident those women will be in engaging men in right and biblical ways, and the more happy they’ll be to submit to God’s good design for them as equal, distinct image bearers.

GCD: Paul highlights many women as “partners” with him in the gospel. It is safe to say that women don’t often feel that way. What would a great partnership look like to build the church without compromising a complementarian approach?

Lore: If complementarian churches would gather and staff an equal amount of women as men, I think they’d be surprised at how effective the ministry of their local church would be. We seem to assume a church with strong leadership means a church with more men on staff, but staff isn’t eldership. Our elders/pastors ought to be men, but we should have a clearly reflected equality throughout the rest of our ministerial staff. In the same way as a marriage in which there is a clear partnership is effective, the local church that reflects this equality would thrive. And I don’t mean it would thrive in the sense that it would grow leaps and bounds (though I think it would), but their people would thrive under the firm, godly, nurturing, gentle, wise unification of their male and female leaders.

Lore Ferguson is a writer whose deepest desire is to adorn the gospel in everything she says and does. She lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and is a covenant member at The Village Church. Lore writes regularly at Sayable.net, and you can follow her on Twitter @loreferguson.