Exploring Gender

Why Does Gender Discrepancy Persist in Worship?


Few places in our culture are more segregated in terms of gender equality than many churches. The progress of women’s leadership in business, politics, education, and nearly every strata of society seems to outpace the progress of the church as a whole. While some churches wholeheartedly affirm the role of women in full leadership, others cordon off certain leadership positions.

This is the fifth installment in the “Segregating Worship Series,” and you can read my articles about Worship Segregation here, Music Style Segregation here, Racial Segregation here, and Economic Segregation here.

While not intended to disrespect churches who feel bound by conscience and their view of Scripture to make such a distinction, the subject of gender equality in our church’s worship should be regularly revisited. As we look toward the future, the role of women will continue to shift, and women will assume more powerful positions in all strata of leadership.

Whether some churches choose to re-visit and update their stance on women’s leadership or not, the shift in culture’s acceptance of women’s roles will ultimately cause churches who do not accept women in leadership to reconsider their positions.

Worthy of note is the inconsistency with which churches affirm women. Many are happy for women to teach children or to teach adults but hesitant for them to speak in a proclamatory way in a worship gathering. Others affirm women in leadership within the church staff but fall short in giving them the title of minister, relegating them to titles such as “director” or “coordinator.”

In terms of music, I have known churches who affirmed a woman’s working with the choir and rehearsing and leading them but didn’t allow her to lead the full congregation. Others have been content with a woman leading from the organ or piano bench but squeamish about a woman leading while standing in front of others. Still other churches allow women to lead (even preach and proclaim) in overseas missions posts and even allow these same women to share about their experiences in a full congregational gathering, yet they retreat at the point of calling the presentation a sermon or referring to the delivery as preaching. All the while, in nearly every church and denomination, there are women who teach (perhaps even with dozens of highly publicized videos) in a way not different from any preacher, yet they are relegated to some parallel track in terms of full congregational access to leadership.

While many other levels of worship segregation have all but dissipated, why does gender discrepancy persist so long? While churches from the liturgical leaning perspective have been more open and affirming to women and churches in the charismatic stream have fully embraced women (and even find them among their founders), churches between these poles have hesitated.

Why such a hesitation among those in the middle? Why have churches with more formal worship styles had a greater representation of women worship leaders than churches with guitar-led services? What can we do to begin to diminish these gaps? Regardless of where our churches lie along the spectrum of acceptance of women in leadership, what roles should we play?

Assess Traditions Likely all of us are more strongly impacted by tradition than we realize or acknowledge. Even college students with whom I work are keenly shaped by the practices of their relatively young lives, and they can be resistant to considering alternative options. Learning to ask good questions is the starting point. How old is the tradition? Where did it originate? Is it still valid? How could/should it be altered. Are the premises on which the tradition was constructed valid?

Analyze Power Analyzing power begins with us. Each of us holds power, and power is an inevitable component of every relationship. We readily submit to power each day, and power is continually shifting from one person to another. When power becomes stagnant and ceases to shift and be exchanged, power becomes coercive and suppressive. What powers drive and control us? How readily do we submit to the powers of others? How willing are we to share power? Are we insecure with our own power?

Explore Stereotypes All of us are shaped by stereotypical behaviors, and over time, we begin to believe that stereotypes are true when in fact they may be bogus. In the past, some perceived women to be weak, frail, needy, and content in behind-the-scenes responsibilities. As we read such a list, we readily acknowledge the flawed thinking in such stereotypes. However, failure to ponder intentionally the stereotypes that surround us causes us to be deceived by misinformation from the past.

Acknowledge Fears All change is fearful, and even early adopters can be initially apprehensive to change. However, feeding our fears with misinformation prolongs our darkness and keeps us imprisoned. Often our fears are not based on truth, and they are only emotional responses fed by long-held perceptions. Conceding that our fears are “ours” and that we hold the power to explore their passionate control over us can be liberating.

Think Theologically While our concern for the role of women in leadership may be biblical, it may not be Jesus-like. Certainly scripture can be read to exclude women from leadership in the church; however, the model of Jesus affirms full engagement of women in open discussion of God, and Jesus defied the conventions of his day regarding the role of women by the way in which he esteemed and related to women. Viewing the Bible in terms of its foundational principles can help us to look deeper into its meaning.

Explore New Models Whatever our church’s current practice, we all have much to learn by exploring the practices of other congregations and learning from them. What models for including women have been created and are being used by other congregations? How have they moved from their past to their present position?

Take the Lead When in a situation in which women are not affirmed appropriately, men must take the lead. In instances of unequal power, the less powerful person is unable to advocate for him/herself. Those who have power and position must advocate for those who deserve an equal seat at the table.

Be Prepared Women who believe they are called to serve the church in leadership must be prepared and ready when the time comes. For many of us, our leadership was discovered and affirmed when we were able to step into a position to fill-in for someone initially for a limited time. The church and its schools and seminaries must intentionally prepare women for leadership roles in order for women to be ready to move forward as positions and responsibilities become available.

Begin Where You Are All progress starts somewhere, and we must not fail to intentionally step toward a new reality even when where we currently find ourselves is a long way from where we might like to be. I serve in a church that is completely inclusive of women in leadership roles. Friends who visit our church’s worship are often not as surprised by the reality that a woman may be proclaiming from the pulpit as they are that women help to receive the offering, greet guests, read scripture, lead in prayer, and assist with the Lord’s Supper. Similarly, encouraging girls to play guitar and participate in youth led worship prepares them for future leadership.

Do you have an opinion about gender discrepancy? Please leave a comment below.

© 2013 Creator Magazine All Rights Reserved

7 Responses

  1. Paul Neeley
    Paul Neeley January 6, 2014 at 11:06 pm |

    Thanks so much for writing and publishing this article! These truths are still so needed. I’m reviewing a 2013 book which says upfront that women cannot be worship leaders… thereby cutting out half the human race, without giving rational reasons or scriptures that are convincing. It’s appalling … so glad for this essay!

    1. Vern Sanders
      Vern Sanders January 7, 2014 at 5:27 am |

      What’s the title of the book Paul? Send me your review when you are done…I’d like to see it (and perhaps you could summarize it here in the comments…)

      You may also want to read this article, which addresses the some of the same issues:

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  3. Glenn
    Glenn January 7, 2014 at 12:30 pm |

    The only thing more over estimated than being an Elder Pastor to a bunch of stubborn sheep and children in adult bodies is natural childbirth. You just think you can do it. Speak to those men who have lived and served this role for many years and ask them just how “qualified” they feel. They will readily tell God to give it to the women or anyone else who wants it. Why should men have all the suffering?

    So who is this bad guy putting a cork in the bottle of “success” for women in ministry everywhere?
    The scripture says that GOD– prohibits women from leading the church as Elder, Bishop, and Presbytery. Why?
    To use the same scriptures, there are these reasons given to us:
    The order of creation–Adam, then Eve. The entrance of sin into the world–Eve, then Adam. (I Timothy 2:11-14)
    Not because Jesus or the Apostles were male. Not because men authored the bible.
    Not because men are deemed superior. Not because women are deemed inferior.
    So God is the bad guy after all?
    We can debate this, bash it, de-bunk it, disqualify it, cover it, cut it out, or any other diminishing action.
    And we do. Then we wait to see if God will remain silent or take sides. And he does as we recreate him around
    Dr. Imallwize, PhD. DMin. ThD. OmyMe, because the good doctor believes the way we do.
    We recreate God around Rev. Getbackinyourplace and women resume slave status.
    We trust that maybe, just maybe God is protecting us from ourselves yet once again while we clamor and beg to be ruled by Kings–while we (men and women) pride-fully compete and elevate ourselves around symbols and empty titles with higher pay scales.
    For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends. (II Corinthians 10:18)

    Apart from the restricted Eldership position of congregational leadership, and the clear admonition for women not to usurp,
    (take over a position by force) authority, women have numerous roles, including teaching, praying and ministering (diakonos),
    music and worship leadership. To find a good minister, select the ones doing it effectively without a title. (I Timothy 5:22)
    But aren’t women equally talented and capable? I would say NO. They are most often MORE talented and capable.
    World War II was a lost cause without women. Our homes and churches are lifeless without women.
    If God said anywhere that “Capable” was THE requirement for service, men can just stay at home.
    The list is quite long of things that women do naturally and most often, much better than men.
    In fact, if we had no bible or any other role divining assignment, personally I might just prefer women do all the work!
    In actuality, “INCAPABLE” is the requirement for service to God. (John 15:1-5) I’m not hearing that sermon much lately.

    But then there is the fact that women don’t sing bass in the octave of men. It simply speaks to design.
    Also true is that women share other not-so-good tendencies that make their leadership as improbable as men. Both men and women need to be in amazement that God would use any of us, at any time, for any reason. “My friends, we should not all try to become teachers. In fact, teachers will be judged more strictly than others. All of us do many wrong things. But if you can control your tongue, you are mature and able to control your whole body.” (James 3:1-2)

    Now then, while we worrisomely stare at the frothy waves in the sea of discrimination, we are oblivious to the slow leak of absenteeism in the bottom of the boat. While we are fussing about who gets to lead the band, the low brass section is deciding to stay at home and write their own score. The church can easily become women and children who just give up on the men. As this happens, men become even more disenfranchised with attending the church of soft cushiony seats-tissue provided-romantic ballad Jesus music-30 minute lecture of pretty stories. Generations of this imbalance will emasculate the few remaining men we have right out of there. The average attendance in USA now is 60% women 40% men. 25% of married women attend without their husbands.

    As “we look to the future”, I suggest we let the world shift all it wants and needs. It is going to anyhow.
    It is the job of the world to tell us when, why and how we can be successful and happy—right? Corporate America is our shining example of church order, right? Oh yes, and Christian men and women follow this Pied Piper with abandon; even while the Secular world acknowledges this ploy and lie.
    “My theory is that over the past 40 years, as American society exited the “Father Knows Best” or “Leave It To Beaver” mentality of the 50′s and 60′s, we seem to have increasingly equated success and fulfillment with jobs, career advancement, position title, bank accounts, and other symbols of success. If you were one of those statistical women who took on job, career or economic goals as your “symbols” of success, you just might have wound up sacrificing what mattered most in hopes of greener pastures at the other end of job, career or economic goals. What if you won the race to the top: a better job, increased paycheck, more “toys” than the boys?
    Did you bargain for all that comes with it? Did you anticipate the sacrifices you would have to make to get there?
    How are those trades looking now? Russell Bishop Huff Post The Blog “Women are Unhappy? And You’re Surprised?” 2009

    The distinguishing character of Elder, Deacon, Bishop, Presbytery, Priest, Pastor, Minister is SERVANTHOOD.
    Re-read Philippians chapter 2. Being like Jesus can actually be stifling to career advancement.
    You seen any long lines of people waiting to join ranks with the servants lately? Me neither. GWH 1-7-2014

    1. Vern Sanders
      Vern Sanders January 7, 2014 at 1:59 pm |


      I actually have a woman in my choir who, naturally, sings bass. She often sings an octave BELOW the rest of the men. Plus she knew Honus Wagner (, which makes her incredibly special as far as I’m concerned…

    2. Steve
      Steve January 7, 2014 at 3:18 pm |

      Dr. Bradley, your quote, “while our concern for the role of women in leadership may be Biblical, it may not be Jesus-like…” I believe that they are exactly the same. Jesus is the Word made flesh. John 1 makes that abundantly clear. I also take my hat off to Glenn for his profound take on this issue. Thank you for allowing this input.

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