The Perfect Storm

In the previous post, Alastair brought up an important point about how internal gender dynamics and levels of confidence play into the question of whether male leadership see women as “usurpers.”  I need a bit more time to weigh the veracity and significance of what he wrote, but I wanted to add this additional thought.

Just as men relate differently to each other in terms of authority and “cutting each other down to size” (to compensate for the tendency to overconfidence), women, in my experience, tend to affirm each other to compensate for the lack of confidence that we, as a group, suffer from. This makes for a perfect storm when men and women relate in context of authority and leadership. A woman will expect reception, affirmation, and encouragement because that is what she would naturally do herself. A man may be predisposed to do the exact opposite–to challenge her in order to force her (like he does other men) to prove the value of her ideas. This further exacerbates the problem of female lack of confidence.To my mind, both men and women share in resolving this, but the one in place of privilege (in this case greater authority) has the responsibility to compensate for it. The burden rests on the male pastor to make sure that a woman’s ideas are received; it is not her responsibility to fight to be heard, although she might find that she has to.

As an aside, I would tend to disagree that the conflict Wilkin’s describes is not related to where a man derives his sense of authority. Alastair may be right that men do not consciously identify their maleness as source of pastoral authority, but in a context that is heavily shaped by gender roles, it is inevitable that it will shape him sub-consciously. I have had many conversations with friends and co-congregants about the nature of authority in the church and too often the answer has come down to “Because I’m a man.”

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Pastor-splaining and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

I wanted to pick up on some of the points that Hannah Anderson made. She wrote:

It seems to me that the question under the question is this: Where does a man in pastoral leadership derive his sense of authority? Does he see it as stemming more from his maleness or from his office?

I wonder whether this is suggesting a degree of self-conscious reflection on the part of many male pastors—and on the part of men in general—that simply doesn’t exist. One can have a very strong sense of one’s own authority without ever having reflected upon where it comes from. One’s sense of authority probably has more to do with the typical ways that people have responded to one’s words than it does to a considered sense of the grounds that would justify such a response (this also suggests that the way that other people act around a person may perhaps be the most crucial element for their development of a sense of their own authority).

The connection between maleness and authority in such situations may not be a theological or theoretical one at all. Rather, it may be one that arises fairly organically from certain heavily gendered dynamics. It may also depend more upon the functioning of a particular sort of male personality than upon the valuation of men over women.

A key factor here, I believe, is (over-)confidence. People fairly naturally respond to confident persons, leading such confident persons naturally to develop a sense of their own authority and naturally to be propelled into positions of formal leadership. Men, as a general rule, and for a variety of different reasons, both social and biological, have considerably higher confidence levels than women.

Confidence can be a great thing and is an important factor of leadership. However, this is only the case when it is accompanied by other aspects of competence. By itself, it just makes people susceptible to acute forms of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Given the different confidence levels between men and women, the converse of the challenge of putting forward highly gifted but self-doubting women is the challenge of pushing back over-confident yet utterly unqualified men. Male groups are often very good at policing the over-confident in their ranks. One way in which this is typically achieved is by highly combative interactions, which force men to reveal the actual level of their strengths, leading them to adjust their confidence to more realistic levels.

I suspect that one of the problems underlying the issues that Jen Wilkin identifies in her post is that the operation of the processes that check the over-confident is limited in many evangelical churches. Pastors in such churches are not kept in their place by the criticism of pastoral peers, because their affiliations are optional, rather than institutional and they are typically big fish in small ponds. They are used to relating to their congregations primarily in the one-way conversation of the sermon, where the authoritative pastor speaks and the congregation listens. The result is often personality cult ministries, which run on the overblown confidence and charisma of the unchallenged big man at their heart. Of course, such a pastor’s confidence isn’t matched by competence, so he will often become overly aggressive/defensive when questioned—his authority is a brittle one.

Women often complain about the phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’, where a man explains something to a hearer, typically a woman, in a manner oblivious to the fact that she knows much more about the subject than he does. This phenomenon is one caused by a mismatch between confidence levels and reality and probably has more to do with men’s proneness to overconfidence than to an explicitly sexist dynamic (men habitually mansplain to men too). Having been at the receiving end of ‘pastor-splaining’ more times than I wish to count, I suggest that the dynamic is the same. The solution probably is in part institutional, in forms of ecclesiology that hold pastors in non-optional relations with pastoral peers, who can cut them down to size when they get distorted notions of themselves.

Can Authority Be Taken Away?

Great conversation, everyone! I think the best place for me to start is with Bronwyn’s question.

Is it really possible in practice to ask questions about men, women and authority in the church and “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, when deep in your heart you believe that anything other than your position actually would amount to usurping?

This is an excellent question, and it gets right at the heart of Wilkin’s piece, I think, and at the heart of much of the struggle in the church with regards to women in ordained leadership. For many, the answer would be “No, you cannot banish the usurper.”

I disagree, and I think we not only can banish the usurper, but that it is our Christian imperative to do so, regardless of our beliefs surrounding the legitimacy of the ordination of women. My reasons for this are both rooted in Hannah A.’s question and in a first century worldview that has continued to impede the church.

Hannah A. asked:

It seems to me that the question under the question is this: Where does a man in pastoral leadership derive his sense of authority? Does he see it as stemming more from his maleness or from his office?

And it gets right to the heart of it, but I’d like to take it a step further. Pastoral authority comes neither from one’s gender, nor from one’s office, but ultimately from God. If God has given one authority, no one will be capable of usurping it. “The Usurper” is code language for anxiety about the relationship between men and women in the church, an anxiety rooted in the idea that women are capable of taking authority away from men in office. If we believe that God is the one who gives authority, we will not be afraid that others can take that authority away.

From my perspective, this anxiety is rooted in a first century worldview of “limited goods.” Basically, this worldview contends that there is a limited supply of authority, and if one person is given authority, someone else must have lost authority. I do not think authority is limited in this way since it is given by God, who does not operate within our human limitations.

Graham made an excellent point when he said:

But even if authority comes from the office regardless of gender, a challenge can still be threatening. In egalitarian congregations, laity, or educated/trained but non-ordained persons can still play the role of child, seductress or usurper.

And as Alastair stated in his response, often times there are power dynamics at play in conversations where “the Usurper” is present. But the hope in Wilkin’s piece (if I’m reading her correctly) is that we will not fall prey to the temptation of seeing men and women as enemies who are engaged in a battle for authority. If we believe that authority comes from God and cannot be taken away by others, we will effectively banish the usurper and begin working together as the body of Christ.

Taking it case-by-case

Is it really possible in practice to ask questions about men, women and authority in the church and “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, when deep in your heart you believe that anything other than your position actually would amount to usurping?

In answer to Bronwyn’s question, I do think we should aim to ask questions and address practical ways that the threat of usurption can be banished in male pastoral relationships with his women members. Alastair raises one question that places some responsibility on women and that is to consider ways in which one can treat their pastor and the pastoral office with respect even while disagreeing with him. I will list a couple more factors to consider below. Even though asking these kinds of questions and having this conversation will not ensure that the dynamics between a male pastor and the women in his congregation will change in every situation/context, I hope that it would in some.

This leads to a problem I see with Wilkin’s piece. The issue regarding the problems that exist between male pastoral leadership and women, specifically women in ministry, is reduced to three fears or “ghosts” that haunt men in position. To be sure, I do not doubt that there are men who allow, in part, these ghosts to dictate the way they interact with the women in their churches. However, I don’t think the issue is as simplistic as three ghosts.

Perhaps, as Alastair asks, the reason why male pastors act a certain way toward women is because a particular woman or women have treated him and/or his office in disrespectful ways. Perhaps his behavior toward women is influenced by his personality, past experiences, or a particular interpretation of Scripture, to name a few. Perhaps, like Hannah suggests, it is because his identity and authority stem from his gender and therefore the opposite gender will pose a threat simply because of the gender. Perhaps it is due in part to something that a particular woman has done to cause distrust in the relationship. Given the nature of our humanity, the reasons behind our behavior cannot be reduced to just one. Therefore, our response in addressing this issue will need to be formulated from a more complex perspective.

I think Wilkin’s piece is helpful in addressing possible fears felt by male pastors, and I hope that her piece causes male ministers who read it to do some serious self-examination. For these ghosts (or fears or attitudes) only can be changed through the grace of the Holy Spirit and self-examination.

Again going back to Bronwyn’s question, I sense an assumption (or should I call it a ghost) held by women (myself included!) that projects a certain belief onto the pastor, that is no matter what I say or do he will consider it usurption. Perhaps it is not a projection but a description of an experienced reality, or perhaps it is unfounded. However, it is good to remember that when there are strained relationships between a male pastor and a woman that it should be handled case-by-case, and the only way we can break down barriers will depend on prayer, the people involved and their willingness to come to the table to dialogue and self-examine in a spirit of humility and grace.

Which Authority: My 2 Cents

I am inclined to echo Hannah A’s question:

It seems to me that the question under the question is this: Where does a man in pastoral leadership derive his sense of authority? Does he see it as stemming more from his maleness or from his office?

If the relationship between pastor and maleness is like thumbs and fingers (all thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs) then a female challenge of any kind is a double insult, since she isn’t a pastor, and disqualified from becoming so. But can’t a challenge from a male be depicted the same way? Does the usuper role still apply to male members of the laity?

But even if authority comes from the office regardless of gender, a challenge can still be threatening. In egalitarian congregations, laity, or educated/trained but non-ordained persons can still play the role of child, seductress or usurper.

I would also echo the concerns about pastoral authority and ecclesiastical tradition. I am part of a denomination in which the rigour of the ordination process has been challenged by some. Also, the “authority” of the office of Pastor is somewhat limited in many contexts. Baptists lean heavily towards congregational governance, and tend towards a preference for consensus than leadership. This is of course a double edged sword. We also have had ordination open to women since 1947. Of course, local church autonomy means views on gender roles are non-binding (i.e. individual congregations and pastors can be complementarian if they choose, without consequence). In some of our congregations the office of pastor in invested with considerable authority. In others, not so much (I even had a colleague who was ordained, but not allowed to attend deacons’ meetings).

I admit I struggled with the article (as I do with much of TGC’s material). The whole tone and content of it seemed completely foreign and strange to me. The whole notion of women as a threat was something I just didn’t (and still don’t fully) know what to make of. I wonder how common this is in other traditions and congregations?

Which Authority?

I appreciate Alastair’s highlighting the question of authority and reminding us that we all–male and female–must relate to church leadership with deference to their positions. I’d like to take this insight and marry it to Brownyn’s original question of

Is it really possible in practice to ask questions about men, women and authority in the church and “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, when deep in your heart you believe that anything other than your position actually would amount to usurping?

It seems to me that the question under the question is this: Where does a man in pastoral leadership derive his sense of authority? Does he see it as stemming more from his maleness or from his office?

If the answer is the former, a pastor will, albeit unintentionally, engage the female members of his congregation differently from the way he engages the male members of his congregation, leading to the abuses that Wilkin notes. This will happen because he will need to protect the boundaries of gender as a means of protecting his own pastoral authority.

This problem will most likely occur, not in conservative denominations across the board, but in those that do not have a strong ecclesiastical framework for ordination and/or definition of pastoral office. If any man (as opposed to woman) can sense a “call” or put himself up for leadership without a rigorous process of examination of his pastoral gifts, the effect is that his maleness has become a major component of his qualification.  In such a context, authority has become deeply invested in gender rather than gender being one of many qualifications for a specific office that is itself endued with authority. And in such cases, women will be seen as an intrinsic threat to pastoral authority.

Respecting authority while disagreeing with those who hold it

Thanks for introducing this subject, Bronwyn!

You asked:

Is it really possible in practice to ask questions about men, women and authority in the church and “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, when deep in your heart you believe that anything other than your position actually would amount to usurping?

I think that it is important to remember that Wilkin’s remarks are particularly focused upon interactions with pastors and men in Church leadership. There is an asymmetry in such conversations that probably ought to be recognized at the outset: one party within the conversation has been formally charged with overseeing and giving account for the spiritual wellbeing of a congregation—a task for which the maintenance of orthodox teaching is a crucial dimension—while the other typically has not. The concern about usurpation primarily arises when this difference isn’t honoured in the way that questioning is handled.

In answering this question, perhaps we need to reflect more generally upon how we demonstrate respect for persons in authority over us and don’t undermine their office, while expressing disagreement with their positions.

Of Female Ghosts and Haunted Churches – {Bronwyn Lea}

Imagine for a minute that you have just finished the first course of a delicious meal at a family dinner. Seated around the table are your siblings and cousins: those of whom it is true that blood is thicker than water. You love them. You enjoy their company. You are all in on the old family joke about crazy Uncle Bill and his wild habit of trying to ride reindeer every winter. Also, sometimes they drive you crazy. You are all living in different places and phases of life, and sometimes opinions around the table can get heated. Especially on the favorite sticky topics.

But it’s okay. Because you’re family, and love keeps a tight rein on making sure that frustration doesn’t lead to fighting.

This blog, at Passing the Salt Shaker, is that kind of table. We are family, getting together to chew the fat. In particular, we want to talk about the sticky topics surrounding men and women in the church, and how this works out in our faith and practice. We know we will disagree. But we also know we are family.

We are inviting you, gentle reader, to pull up a chair at the table and listen in. We want to talk openly and honestly about these topics, we want to press deeper into Scripture and grow in love and Christ-likeness through these discussions. And the reason we are doing it in public, on a blog, is that we want the world to know that it is possible for families to have heated discussions and still not break fellowship.

Who’s seated at the table? Some of the faces may be familiar. You can read a little more about each of us in our introductions: Hannah Anderson, Graham Ware, April Fiet, Alastair Roberts, Hannah Malcolm, Kristen Padilla and myself. The faces at the table may change, and we’ll have some guests for dinner too, but the idea is this: someone will raise a topic for discussion – something we’ve read or been thinking about… and then we’ll take turns to “pass the salt” along the table, each contributing some thoughts.

None of us is claiming to be experts on the topic. But we’re all interested in the discussion and sticking around at the family table to talk about it.

Being the extrovert that I am, I came to the table itching to talk about Jen Wilkin’s article 3 Female Ghosts That Haunt The Church, which was published by The Gospel Coalition last week. In it, Wilkin warns men in ministry (and those in earshot) to be careful of three pitfalls in dealings with women: treating them as Usurpers, Temptresses, or Children. Each of these, says Wilkin, stems from a fear that women are trying to take authority illegimitately, wield sexual power over you, or are unable to fully follow what you’re saying. She writes:

When fear governs our interactions, both genders drift into role-playing that subverts our ability to interact as equals. In the un-haunted church ,where love trumps fear, women are viewed (and view themselves) as allies rather than antagonists, sisters rather than seductresses, co-laborers rather than children.

In a way, I found it somewhat surprising that The Gospel Coalition, being as staunchly complementarian in its views as it is, published this piece. I was very grateful that they did, though: it seems to me that if women were regarded as contributors rather than conspirators, and as equals rather than as children, a great number of the complaints about patriarchy and abuse would disappear. So much of the mud slinging in this debate happens because we have assumed the worst of our listeners before we even started talking. A space of mutual trust and respect is a bedrock for any healthy relationship, and of course it should be so within the Family of God.

Women have often not been treated with trust and respect, and I think in this article Wilkin offers an insightful diagnosis (the “this might be your ghost if you’ve done the following…” suggestions are particularly revealing) and appeal  (to pursue women trustingly, rather than to “permit” them participation begrudgingly, as she has written of elsewhere.)

When faced with a woman like Wilkin, who is clearly not a usurper (she is a firm complementarian), a temptress or a child, I can see how a man with firm biblical convictions about the ‘place’ of women might let his guard down. My question, however, is this: what if the woman asking the questions doesn’t agree about the place women should hold in the church?

What if, not intending to be a usurper, but from an honest enquiry into what Scripture means, she has questions about whether God might be calling her to teach, or even to preach? What if, having searched the Scriptures, she has come to different conclusions and wants to know whether it’s okay for her (or not even for herself, for another woman whose wisdom and godliness she admires) to teach the Sunday School class, or to officiate communion.

In other words, if there were a real challenge to his viewpoint. Would he, as Wilkin suggests, be able to “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, or would she be considered a real, live usurper just for having asked the question and holding a different view point?

My own experience is as someone who fully believes that women are of great worth and dignity as God’s children and equally responsible and gifted for the word of ministry, but who also believes that the bible speaks to men and women differently in certain parts of the Bible. I am, to put myself in the proverbial pigeonhole, a “soft complementarian”.

The difficulty for me comes in knowing what that actually means in practice. What does that mean in my marriage (my immediate family), and what does that mean in the church (the family of God)? How, in practice, does this work out in the ways I work and serve alongside the men in my church: me, a sister and mother, shoulder to shoulder with the brothers and fathers in God’s household?

I read literature to see how others are working this out in practice, and some of it makes my skin crawl. I am neither Betty Crocker nor Betty Friedan. I am not the bake-cookies-for-Jesus type, but when I ask questions of what I should do with teaching and speaking and writing gifts, I read both complementarian and egalitarian believers whom I respect and love as brothers and sisters in the faith, and am often horrified at how quickly the egalitarian women are dismissed as usurpers, just for having asked the question. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth to be made to feel like a guilty complementarian just for having respect for egalitarian questions.

Indeed, I’ve been taken aside and given a gentle talking to on more than one occasion for asking “presumptuous questions”.

Is it really possible in practice to ask questions about men, women and authority in the church and “banish the ghost of the Usurper”, when deep in your heart you believe that anything other than your position actually would amount to usurping?

So, brethren around the table, I’m passing the salt.