On October 29, 2012, Cedarville held their semi-monthly question-and-answer session in chapel, with Dr. Brown and Pastor Rohm answering a selection of student questions about the university, Christianity, and more. At the end of this particular chapel, Dr. Brown sent shock waves across Cedarville’s campus with a surprise announcement of his resignation as president, effective at the end of the year. This event was the only thing most students remembered about the chapel, and rightfully so; the transition is certain to be a lengthy and detailed process. Lost in the hubbub, though, was a particular question that captured my attention a few minutes earlier.
A student asked Pastor Rohm and Dr. Brown which character trait they find to be most wanting in contemporary Christian men. Pastor Rohm fielded the question, stating that he found most men to be lacking in the ability and particularly willingness to be a leader. He continued by saying that it’s “not new for me to get up here and say how thankful we are for women who have taken leadership positions because guys haven’t stepped to the plate.”
The latter sentence really caught me off-guard. I don’t intend this as an attack on either Dr. Brown or Pastor Rohm, both of whom have taken strides to help and empower women during their time at Cedarville, but the implication that women are only capable as “backup leaders” to fill in if a capable man is not available is both demeaning and unbiblical. Sadly, this particular statement seems reflective of a widespread attitude on Cedarville’s campus: the mindset that men are “supposed” to lead and women are not. While this attitude is common among evangelical Christians on the whole, Cedarville as an academic institution and a Christ-centered community ought to be at the forefront of challenging oppressive restrictions.
The attitude of male-only leadership subtly begins at the administrational level, with gender restrictions on student leadership positions like chaplain. Women may run for the position of women’s ministry leader (a leader who, as the name suggests, is tasked with handling details of ministry to campus women), but only men may run for the position of chaplain, which comes with the privilege of teaching the campus in chapel throughout the year. The implication is clear: women are qualified to teach women, but only men are qualified to teach both men and women.
This attitude towards women continues within the student body itself, as expressed by many stereotypes about Cedarville students and relationships. For example, many women (especially those in the education or Bible departments) are said to be working towards their “Mrs. degree”- attending college just so they can gain the skills needed to be a good housewife. Others are seeking their “ring by spring”- only attending college to find a man to marry. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these courses of action (although there may be wiser ways to achieve the desired results); the problem comes, as many an annoyed education major can tell you, when these stereotypes are indiscriminately applied to all women. Indeed, though, many women are majoring in education because they wish to lead classrooms or help individuals in poor situations to achieve better standards of living, just as many women are majoring in Bible because they want to lead a church congregation. To assume that women in these positions are training for housewifery is to assume that they’re somehow incapable of desiring more.
The mindset that women are not capable of leadership (or less capable than men) is problematic for a few reasons. First of all, it flies in the face of what Scripture teaches on the subject. Throughout the New Testament, Paul insists that Christians make us of whatever spiritual gifts they’ve been given, without regard for gender (1 Peter 4:10-11, Galatians 3:28). Am I really expected to believe that woman are wholly ungifted as leaders? The talents of the women around me, as well as the talents of countless women leaders throughout history, seem to decry any possibility of that. Indeed, if gender stereotypes are assumed to be true, women often possess some of the most rare characteristics of excellent leaders: empathy and compassion. So then, should women suppress their talents for leadership? It seems that to do so would be for women to shut down a gift that could and should be used for ministry.
The objector will likely point to verses in the Pauline epistles as warrant to limit the leadership roles that women may serve. While the length of this piece does not permit a full examination of relevant verses, suffice it to say that each epistle must be interpreted in the context of its intended audience: a particular church or reader. For example, one commonly cited passage is 1 Corinthians 11, which indicates that a woman’s “head” is her husband. However, the Greek word for “head” (kephale) does not imply authority but rather implies origin (i.e., woman was created from the rib of man). Indeed, the same word is used to describe Christ’s relationship to God in verse 3, but we don’t take it to mean that there is an imbalance of power in the trinity! Another popular passage is 1 Timothy 2:11-15, in which Paul advises Timothy not to allow women to teach. However, 1 Timothy on the whole was written as a personal letter to Timothy in response to a few problems, including false teaching. Since women in Timothy’s culture were almost entirely uneducated, it was likely that they were perpetuating the false teaching in this particular context. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Paul would condemn all women teachers, since in 2 Timothy 4:19 he sends his greetings (and no accusations) to Priscilla and Aquila, female ministers who taught a wayward man in Acts 18:26. While there are other passages of this nature (into which brevity does not allow me to delve), none express universal condemnation of women as leaders when correctly interpreted.
It seems apparent, then, that to limit the role of women is to unnecessarily limit the effectiveness of the body of Christ. How can we maximize our leadership if we automatically halve the pool of available leaders? How can we most effectively serve if all men must be leaders and none servants? Is the body of Christ male or female? I would contend that each individual must use their God-given talents to their fullest ability if we are to live out our call in the Great Commission. Additionally, there is a human cost to the alternative; what type of message does it send if a woman skilled in leadership is told by the community that her talent is unacceptable before God? To tell any individual that use of their gifts for the ministry of Christ is somehow sinful or unwelcome seems asinine, and certainly contrary to Paul’s repeated petition for Christians to encourage and build up one another.
I would like to issue a pair of challenges. To the reader: reconsider your interactions with the women in your life. It’s true that not all women (nor all men) are truly gifted with leadership. But be cautious with your joking and your words. If your sister in Christ is gifted in teaching, encourage her to teach; don’t tear her down by insinuating that her teaching should only take place in the home. And if your brother is not gifted in leadership but rather in service (or any other area), encourage him to practice his gift for the ministry of Christ, rather than shaming him for his shortcomings. And to the administration: consider the ways in which your policies shape the treatment of women on this campus. If the most gifted preacher at Cedarville happens to be a woman, why should she not be chaplain? To deny her the ability to even compete for such a role damages the body by restricting certain members and sends the message that certain talents are unacceptable to God when found in certain individuals. Rather, let us all “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Correction: This article mistakenly cited Priscilla and Aquila as female teachers; in fact, Priscilla was female and Aquila was her male husband.