Patriarchy’s Patron Saint or a Woman’s Best Friend?

Rembrandt’s Apostle Paul

If any New Testament writer was inclined to drop F-Bombs, the obvious candidate would be the Apostle Paul. After all, he is the patron saint of patriarchy—right?

Not so fast!

Recall that Paul was minding his own business, following his strategically mapped out second missionary trek in Asia Minor, when the Holy Spirit dramatically and abruptly changed Paul’s GPS settings and diverted him to Europe (Acts 16:6-40).

In the aftermath of that remarkable vision, apostolic expectations must have been riding high when Paul arrived in the city of Philippi. And what did he find there?  Women! No men. Only women!

Is this not the quintessential “feminized” church? It was hardly a recovering Jewish Pharisee’s comfort zone.

Perfect moment for an F-Bomb.

Perhaps we could find it in our hearts to forgive the great apostle if he had muttered an objecting F-Bomb under his breath. But he didn’t. If this meeting was a shocking disappointment or an unpromisingly weak beginning for a church, Paul never let on. Instead, he proceeded to plant the first church in Europe with a team of believing women. Turns out, this church was strong from day one, becoming an indispensable source of solidarity and strength for Paul.

What is more, the Philippian church came to hold a special place in Paul’s heart. Far from lamenting over the “lack of men,” Paul later mused over that first meeting in a letter that is oozing with with deep affection for the Philippian church’s Founding Mothers and their ministry with him.

“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3–5, emphasis added).

My post, “Dropping F-Bombs,” opened an issue that needs further discussion. Why do women tend to outnumber men in the Christian church? What is it about Christianity that tends to draw more women than men? Why do some men stay away?

Eliminating offensive language from the discussion (words like “feminized” and “feminization”) is a step in the right direction that opens the way for deeper, more thoughtful conversation about real issues that concern us all.

So to continue the conversation and turn the discussion in a more constructive direction, let me make some observations regarding women in the church.

First, from the beginning of Christianity, indeed from the ministry of Jesus himself, the Christian gospel has had what Margaret Manning describes as an “ineluctable pull” on women. (See her article, “Good News for Women”).

This goes contrary to the fact that religion in general is under increasing criticism as an oppressor of women. Unfortunately, there’s a good deal of truth in this perception with respect to the Christian church which has been and is still complicit in marginalizing women. But this is not the way it was supposed to be and it wasn’t this way in the beginning. Historically, women have often been the first to respond to the gospel in many places around the globe and tend to be enfolded into the church in higher numbers than men.

This speaks to the unique nature of Christianity and most especially to the pattern Jesus himself established by his radically counter-cultural inclusion of women at the highest levels in his ministry.

It all began with his mother, who was first to put her life on the line for Jesus. She was the first of many to follow him. Jesus included women among his disciples, even among those who traveled with him (Luke 8:1-3). Women sat at his feet (in mixed company) as rabbinical students, engaged publicly with Jesus in deep theological discussions (e.g., the Samaritan woman and Martha of Bethany), stood with him during his crucifixion, witnessed his burial, were the first to proclaim his resurrection, and were crucial eye-witness sources of details about the most important events of Jesus’ life (birth, death, burial, and resurrection) that ultimately were recorded in the gospels.

Jesus could not have been more counter-cutural to the first century patriarchal culture.

The sound of shattering glass as women break through gender barriers is not a modern phenomenon. Jesus was known for empowering women to break through gender barriers in a culture significantly more restrictive than our 21st Century America.

Little wonder women were and are still drawn to him.  

Second, shouldn’t we be asking what God is up to when women (as Paul experienced in Philippi) are often the first to respond to the gospel? Could this possibly be a kingdom strategy instead of a problem? It is a total mystery to me that some of the loudest lamenters over the “feminization of the church” are staunchly Reformed—men like John Piper and Mark Driscoll. These pastors will go to the mat with anyone who challenges their flagship belief in God’s sovereignty in salvation. Their own theology points to the fact that God’s sovereign method of invading cultures and homes with the gospel is often by beginning with women. The evidence is overwhelming. You’d think they’d be the first to notice this and get behind what God is doing instead of demeaning women with F-Bombs and mocking men in the church as “chickified.”

Several years ago, I encountered the male/female ratio imbalance when I spoke at women’s conferences in Japan. At the time, the Japanese church was a mere 3% of the population. Within the 3%, 90% were women. I get why this means more work needs to be done to reach the men of Japan. But instead of recognizing this pattern as a divine strategy and marveling at how God is advancing his work in Japan by beginning with women, missionaries I consulted were wringing their hands over the shortage of men.

What would happen if we recognized this subversive kingdom strategy at work and instead of asking women to hold back, challenged them to live courageously into God’s calling?

Third, women long for a more robust Christianity that not only challenges our minds, but that calls us to kingdom action. This hunger is driven because we know an anorexic spiritual diet will not sustain us in the kinds of battles God is calling us to engage.

My entire ministry has been built on the premise that women want and need to know God in deeper ways and that knowing him comes with kingdom responsibility. We don’t want to play at our Christianity when the gospel calls us to arm ourselves and to stand firm against the Enemy. God doesn’t call his daughters to be spectators, but active participants in his mission for the world. We don’t want to be ill-equipped and added burdens for others who need us to be strong alongside them.

Here’s what blogger Bronwyn Lea says in her post, “What Women Want from the Church”:

“I want to hear about the Jesus who demanded loyalty, who commanded authority from storms, sinners and satanic forces, who said vexing and frustrating and wild things. I want to hear preaching which is not just faithful to His words but to His TONE: of comfort but also of rebuke, of welcome but also of warning. I want to hear His dares, His call to come and die, His challenge to make hard choices. I want the Jesus of the gospels who does not just meet our needs, but who calls us to bold and courageous adventure, to self-sacrifice, to taking risks. I want the Jesus who promises huge rewards for huge sacrifices, who embraces feisty Peter and wayward Mary and touchy-feely John.

I want the Jesus who welcomed the little children, but also the Jesus with eyes like a flame of fire, with feet of burnished bronze and a sharp two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. Whatever that wild imagery means, I want to grapple with it. I want the Jesus who inspires my awe and calls forth my worship: a gospel from The Gospels. That’s the Jesus I want. That’s the Jesus I need: the one who is worthy of the honor, adoration and allegiance of men and women alike.”

What are your thoughts?

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6 Responses to Patriarchy’s Patron Saint or a Woman’s Best Friend?

  1. Anne Lawson says:

    You have caused me to read Acts 16 with new eyes and I can't believe I never put the pieces together to see that the church was started with a group of women only. I'm curious – do you think that Lydia ended up as the pastor of a house church?


  2. Bron is a blogger friend of mine and she is as wonderful a person as she is smart and insightful … great quote and great piece Carolyn!

    I've actually been thinking a ton about this topic, what i'm starting to call, “The Question of Church.” Its not only about women's contributions there (tho' that started it), but also why are men not engaged, etc. Your post came at a great time for all that!

    A few thoughts:

    1. i wonder if part of the reason men don't come is because when you set the church up as a hierarchy, there is only a small amount of room at the top for “leaders” and “authority figures” — yet the message is that men are entitled to be In Charge and those positions carry social capital as well as spiritual authority. Men bathed in the message that they are entitled to lead and be in charge look at the church, realize the top roles are taken, and don't want to be 'rank & file.'

    2. part of the reason we are missing men — and if i'm honest, why the church is losing me, is the lack of incarnation. I mean by that the church has become a place where students listen, not a place where agents act. Many of us don't like to be always passive, and get tired of going to school. The central liturgy of old church has been replaced and thus there is little for the average pew sitter to actually participate in on sunday morning. i wonder what would happen if the entire model for church changed from a handful of people participating (the worship team and preaching pastors) and everyone participated — through taking turns teaching, from sharing in communion, from serving together in the community, etc.


  3. Janet says:

    Such an excellent article Carolyn! Get people to think differently about what God is doing. This is exactly what we need to do, to change hearts and minds. Blessings.


  4. In response to your point about women being more responsive to the gospel, I find this to be true of many categories of people who have been oppressed or marginalized in one way or another. Women, like slaves in eighteenth and nineteenth century America and untouchables in modern India, are more aware of their need and thus are more likely to courageously and humbly turn to the Source of help, despite the obstacles or the cost (like the Syro-Phonecian mother). In a backwards sort of way, the inferior treatment that women have received has prepared them to receive the kingdom in ways that people of social privilege find much more difficult (which lines up with Jesus' comment about it being so difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom). And in one God's characteristically grand reversals, I think women end up with a special advantage within the church, our gender allowing us to more easily relate to Christ as His bride, the identity that all of the church (including the men) will finally culminate in.


  5. Anonymous says:

    Powerful writing and, yes, to this:

    “God doesn't call his daughters to be spectators, but active participants in his mission for the world.”


  6. Jess S. says:

    Great insights, Carolyn! I have also been wondering if women are more likely to the gospel and keep going to church because they experience the full power of the “blessed alliance,” to borrow your term. What I mean is that in churches where only men are allowed to hold leadership positions, the men of the church arguably only experience official teaching from one gender for the rest of their lives, stunting their growth. Women in these churches, however, often benefit from both the teaching of men and from female bible study leaders. This gives women in these situations a much more well-rounded, comprehensive understanding of the Gospel.


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