A few months ago, I saw a pastor’s response to a question on Instagram and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. In summary, a follower asked why there was a shortage of strong male leaders and the pastor responded that it was because women were trying to be men.* Women apparently prevent the men from being what they are supposed to be.
I have a short allowance for responses like that, but they are common so I typically brush them off and move on with my life. This one has stuck with me. Answers like this affect both women and men. Answers like this discourage women and excuse men. I talk to women all the time about the messages they receive from the church and I’m raising boys and that’s not the message anyone need. This grieves me deeply on both sides.
Men are not going to stand before God and get by blaming women for their not following Jesus. That’s actually a very familiar story, isn’t it? It goes all the way back to the first sin: it’s the woman’s fault. But we are responsible for ourselves. For all that we want to say that men are the “most responsible,” somehow we excuse them for being responsible for themselves. Other people cannot prevent you from following God. That is not to lessen the impact that the people around us have on our lives, of course. But ultimately, we can partner with the work of the Spirit in our lives regardless of what anyone else is doing. A man is not prevented from following Jesus by the caliber of the women around him. It is the weird (impossible) path to growth to insist that the people around you slow down or sit down so that you look better.
Women bear responsibility for their own lives. They will also stand before God to give an account and I shudder to think of being responsible for telling them to hold back where God is beckoning “come.” This lands us back at quibbling over “biblical womanhood” instead of practicing discipleship. Does this reflect Christ? That’s the metric. All a response like this does is make women second-guess everything God is asking them to do and be. You can’t find a man to date? Maybe you are trying to be a man! Women, if you’re reading this, and you think you are surrounded by immature or irresponsible men (I know that it happens; I’m not denying that), do not think that shrinking back makes him step forward. It does not. Your walk with God, your passion for the life God has called you to, does not keep anyone else from walking with God.
Other people around you following Jesus makes you a better follower of Jesus. It might also show you where you need to grow. It might remind you that you need other people. It might reveal that you are not the “best” at a task or a skill or a position. That is ok. We need reality. We need to care more about God’s work flourishing than our own ego being satisfied. Surround yourself, as much as you can, with men and women who are maturing in their faith, in their emotions, in their thinking. Don’t run away from that so that you can stand out.
We aren’t called to be “strong leaders.” We are called to be faithful followers. God values what the world despises; I think about Moses. None of us would have chosen Moses. Paul sent the book of Romans to the church with Phoebe; most of the church still wouldn’t do that. Jesus called people to “follow Him” and then told them if they wanted to lead, they would be like the lowest servant who was tasked with washing feet. I do believe that we all lead with our lives; other people watch how we talk and love and spend our money. But the idea that we are all called to lead or be the person in charge or make the decisions is damaging. Each and every one of us is called to be a disciple. We, both women and men, are to walk as Jesus walked. If we put our energy into following Jesus, these other things will work themselves out. I’m afraid that instead we are directing men and women both away from following Jesus.
Chances are, if we are called to lead in one area, it will be after years of faithful following. It should be after years of faithful following, even if that’s not typical in Christian circles. If we are leading, we still need to be faithfully following. If we lead in one area, we need the leadership of others in other areas. We are not the pinnacle. We are called to be strong in the Lord, to be maturing in our faith and our understanding of who God is and we can do that regardless of whether everyone is looking at us or even if we think that someone else is stepping outside the bounds of where they should be. We are also called to be surrendered, to be humble, to be gracious and gentle. That is the evidence of maturity in our faith.
I want men to commit to being disciples. I want women to commit to being disciples. This is not a zero-sum game where only one can happen. That’s not the economics of the kingdom of God. If we think it is, maybe we are aiming for the wrong target. We need each other to follow God wholeheartedly, not hold back.
*Especially in the church (which was where this answer was directed), this answer is so vague that it can mean anything the reader wants. He is not referring to literally changing one’s body to be a man. So what does it mean? This can be used to tell women not to take certain positions, to go back home, not to disciple people, not to speak up, not to fill in the gaps when you see them. All of those answers have had their own cultural moment and sometimes still have a moment in the church. If we want to make a valid critique, we need clarity.