where are the women?

The Nines, a whitewashed, uber-masculine Christian leadership conference featuring just three female speakers (among more than hundred) had folks buzzing last week, particularly after popular author Rachel Held Evans engaged the organizer on Twitter about the lack of female voices. Later, Christianity Today characterized her as having a "meltdown" and gave organizer Todd Rhodes a few hundred words to explain that there were so few women (and people of color, presumably) because their theme was "what's working in churches."


They then gave female speaker Christine Caine--who I've no doubt is a lovely person--another several hundred words to suggest that a lack of female accomplishment and God's will may account for the dearth of women in recognizable positions of Christian leadership:

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve leaders at conferences like The Nines, and I think the very fact that some one like me is included as a speaker in leadership conferences all over the world suggests that the church is very willing to hear from women as well as men…. 
The discussion over women's representation over conferences like The Nines is a valid one, and I think as more women step out and accomplish things empowered by the Holy Spirit then they will have something to contribute to helping leaders grow. 
I think you actually have to build something that is producing fruit whatever gender you are if you want to help others do the same. Your gender should not be what determines whether you speak at a conference, your gifts and fruit should be. I truly believe that if God has called you to do something, then God makes a way for you to do it... 
We have some work to do, but I think the medium is the message, and the fact that I am there lets women, minorities, and young people know that they can get there if there is where God wants them to be.

This is what is called internalized sexism. Having made it within an evangelicalism that frequently expresses itself as a boys' club, Caine seems to suggest that if her female peers had something to contribute, they'd be at that podium with her. To her credit, Caine later speaks of "holding open as many doors for young women as I can," but her set-up strengthens the locks on others by denying exclusionary or patriarchal factors at play in platform building and Christian leadership development practices.

Caine is clearly an accomplished and godly woman. Having someone like her as mentor would be a tremendous asset to anyone in ministry, male or female, and I applaud her for looking out for and grooming younger leaders coming up behind her, but we can't pretend that many of these metaphorical doors aren't bolted shut to women, people of color, LGBTQ Christians, and more.

Christianity Today glosses over the systemic injustices breeding the inequalities we see plainly with our eyes, brushing them under the rug and worse, implying they are sanctioned by God. Life isn't a meritocracy, exclusively rewarding those who work the hardest and those on whom God's favor rests. Those are hallmarks of the health-and-wealth prosperity gospel, not the the Kingdom of God, which as Jesus demonstrated is good news for the least, the last, and the lost.

Better Than Some!

This hasn't exactly been the Best Week Ever for women in evangelicalism, but it's got to be better on the progressive side of things, right?
Whenever I point out sexism within evangelicalism, men inevitably tell me that I should join the Mainline or perhaps a church like Roger Olsen's, where there's not even a hint patriarchyWhen I critique patriarchal strongholds in the emergent/progressive church, others try to shut me down with reminders that, "They're on our side", "He means well", or "X is so much worse", like somehow it's only okay to push back against conservative or fundamentalist expressions of Christianity.

But that's ridiculous. Inequality is systemic, and all of us--particularly leaders--should be able to meet a considerably higher standard than "We're better than Mark Driscoll on gender." It's not second-guessing anyone's motives to shine a light our praxis and ask, "Is this really the best we can do?" "Progressive" should never be a static label to wear but a shared commitment to actual Kingdom-oriented progress measurable in word and deed.

Some conservative Christians have entire theologies explaining why women shouldn't lead, so I don't expect anything different from their speaker rosters. I disagree but honestly, I respect when they put their cards on the table.

But progressive Christians whose theologies fully affirm women in leadership and who consider themselves to be LGBTQ affirming and wholly committed to racial justice cannot compare our record on women, LGBTQ equality, or race to The Gospel Coalition's. If we know better, we should be doing a lot better, not resting on fixed positions or past laurels. We can't be defined by what we're not, particularly when pushed on our own lack of representation and diversity, progressives may not react all that differently from conservatives. We shuffle our feet, mumble something reminiscent of "Bootstraps," and insist we tried our best or that it may not be practical to do it differently. (Or we cry my personal favorite, identity politics.)
Either all things are being made new among us, or they aren't. Are we incarnating Christ and reflecting resurrection in our ministries, or do we mirror the empire's deathly halls of protected power?

Diversity, equality, and justice have little to do with how good anyone's intentions are. Most of us generally mean well, and we still perpetuate oppression across theological and political spectrums. Sin manifests in our lives and systems despite our best intentions, and if we're honest, even our intentions aren't always so pure, because we're frequently lazy and selfish. (Just me?) It is absolutely a beneficial community practice to assume positive intent in one another, but good intent won't cover (or atone for) a multitude of personal or social sins--or erase the power dynamics at play when people of certain races, genders, or sexual orientations are marginalized in overt and subtle ways. (We exclude others, too, like those considered to be less sure, strong, educated, beautiful, married, wealthy, healthy, or righteous.)

Love covers, yes--and it does the work!--but good intentions alone are pretty useless, particularly conceived as a sort of "get out of jail free" card excusing us from taking responsibility for oppressive, marginalizing action or apathetic complacency. The questions that matter most are not, "What was the intent?" or "Do they believe X?" but "How well are we walking this out?" and "What steps can we practically take to do this better?"

A popular eighties cartoon professed that knowing is half the battle, but knowing is just a baby step out the door. Knowing better stuff rarely made me more like Jesus, and neither kindness nor shalom has much to do with simply knowing the right thing.

Walking it out is the hard and hallowed, messy part--the worthy work of cultivating something better, nourishing it together, and helping justice to roll down and flourish among us.


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