The Perils of Fence-Sitting:

Why Occupying the Middle Makes Everyone a Loser in the Gender Wars

By: Bonnie B. Fearer

I serve on the pastoral staff of a church with growing pains.* We have a wonderful group of people at our church, and consider ourselves Bible-based, flawed and seeking Jesus. Like all churches, we have much to celebrate and much to continue learning. But we are experiencing growing pains with respect to learning how to live out our egalitarian position. Because I have served in roles that most conservative churches would reserve for men (elder and then associate pastor), I’ve always felt very thankful that we have a policy that allows for women in leadership. But there’s that tricky word that so many egalitarian churches trip over: “allow” — and it is the word I’m convinced has kept some churches –including ours — stuck, straddling the fence on an issue that deserves more biblical answers to straight questions and, ultimately, more commitment to their egalitarian view.

Though likely well-intentioned, egalitarian pastors often seek a middle ground in order to not offend either side too much. No one really wants to invite the attendant possibilities of discord and disunity over an issue that isn’t core theology. For many years (even as a woman in leadership), I held the same view. It just wasn’t a hill worth dying on.

And then, my own experience made me question that view. I began to wonder if the middle-ground-occupation might, over the long haul, create disunity, rather than prevent it. Maybe, after all, this was a hill worth dying on — interestingly, not for the sake of women and attempting to give them a fair shake — but rather from the perspective of healthier, unified church life, which is rooted in holistic biblical interpretation.

Allow me to explain, using some of my own story…

I began ministry believing that our position on women in leadership meant what I thought it meant. I took it at face value that — because we had women elders and pastoral staff, and because we even had a position paper on women in leadership — it meant both men and women would be equally listened to, valued, and developed. I expected collegiality and collaboration. Over the years, I found instead that there were enough conflicting messages, both direct and indirect, that it created a place of dissonance out of which women were expected to work and minister. It was confusing at best, and unhealthy at worst.

Examples of the conflicting messages included a steady stream of required reading by complementarian authors who directly denounced egalitarian views; guests to our staff meetings that included church planters praised for their work but who held to a strict policy of no women in leadership; lead pastors who met for coffee with male staff over twice as often as with the female staff; predictable humor that diminished women’s ministries; and annual all-church retreats with male speakers every year for 34 years — including one year when the speaker was the acting president of the Recovery of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood(!). Added to this was the frustration of being dismissed repeatedly when this confusing dissonance was addressed. The take-away from many of these conversations was that we (women) should “be happy” that our church allows women in leadership, and that there are no other evangelical churches in town that do so.

Our lead pastors are amazing teachers, and they are friends and brothers to me. But they simply had no rubric by which to comprehend a woman’s experience on our staff — and hearing that it wasn’t a great experience made them feel badly about themselves and hence, defensive. It’s a human response, but also a response that’s unsustainable over time. Our lead pastors are in no way unique in their views; many egalitarian churches are struggling with similar issues.

In order to understand what was happening, I turned to Scripture in a new way. Was I missing something? Because our church is reformed in its theology, being a woman in leadership is an anomaly. As a result, I was committed early on to becoming a student of what Scripture has to say about women in ministry. If you come from an evangelical tradition that holds orthodox views, you are familiar with “those” passages that are camped on over and over again to discourage women from any role of leadership and/or authority in a church. The problem I kept running into was threefold:

1. Context was ignored: Each of the verses that complementarians interpret as “timeless instructions for God’s church” was lifted out of their historical/cultural context and applied for every culture and generation. Why then are we free to ignore other commands in Scripture as time/culture-bound and therefore not applicable?

2. Holistic biblical interpretation was ignored and/or contradicted: To lift these verses out of their context, amplify them, and assert their critical importance for church and for life, without addressing the bigger picture of contradicting verses and larger themes in Scripture, is irresponsible biblical interpretation.

3. Common sense was ignored: The questions that annoy most complementarians simply won’t go away for a reason — they are valid questions. If a woman can’t teach men, but can teach children, at what age should she stop teaching male children? Ten? Twelve? Eighteen? Why are allowances made for women to “teach” men if they are female missionaries? Do we simply give it another word, like “sharing,” and call it good? It all just seems hair-splittingly silly. I personally think Paul himself would be grieved by how inappropriately far afield we’ve taken this.

Ultimately, I believe we all have to pull back from the trees and take in the Gospel forest. I look at how Jesus addressed the Pharisees again and again. He directed his wrath, not at the pagans, the sinners, and the lost — but at the “religious” people who were so intent on scrupulous observance of the law that they “strained out the gnat, but swallowed the camel.” They completely missed the point. I believe this debate about women misses the point too. Anyone who lifts up 1 Timothy 2 as “law” needs to meditate on the entire book of Galatians.

I recently read an article by Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was entitled “Evangelicals Won’t Cave,” and while it was ostensibly about gay marriage, he managed to insert three paragraphs blaming the church’s embrace of gay marriage on the “slippery slope of evangelical feminism.” He stated that, while he disagrees with an egalitarian viewpoint, he predicted that our culture would eventually concede to it.

Aside from the fact that it was such a sweeping over-generalization (and markedly offensive too), I took note of one thing: Moore believes we “caved” with respect to allowing women in leadership. For him, this was solely a cultural concession. And maybe, just maybe, this –the notion of cultural concession — is precisely where many egalitarian churches land, and it might be the very thing that keeps them straddling the fence, occupying the middle ground.

When we allow women in leadership as a cultural concession, but not as a result of biblical conviction, everyone loses.

The result of concession is that we make room for women by letting them in, but then keep a safe distance from having to do the hard work of figuring out what that might mean in terms of leadership development, communication sensitivities, advancement, conflict resolution and the like. It forces women to work in a place of dissonance — not sure of their status, and trying to play the game by rules they often don’t understand.

More importantly, a “cultural concession” view of allowing women in leadership affects the larger church over the long term, and the effect is unfortunate. Churches lose when they choose to occupy this middle ground, though this effect is subtler. Again, turning to Jesus and the Pharisees: When Jesus consistently pointed out how idolatry of religious control kept the Pharisees from seeing Him, the Messiah, he was pointing to their binary, categorical world of external rules. In contrast, Jesus calls us into a deeper place where we are called to live by Spirit-driven internal principals that are often contrary to our human nature — dependence over independence, humility over pride, mutual submission over fighting for our rights, forgiveness over receiving justice, giving over receiving. The way fence-sitting on gender roles affects the larger church over time is that we dismiss ourselves from the hard work of reconciliation with one another. We like binary better. We like defined roles, where everybody knows their boundaries, and mutual submission can be diluted. At best, we stunt our own spiritual growth at a leadership level. At worst, we prepare the soil for disunity rather than unity.

So, to egalitarian churches everywhere, out of a desire to bring some good news to the bad news, I humbly propose some action points for us to consider:

1. Identify your fears: Nobody occupies the middle ground out of confidence. Fence-sitting (with respect to egalitarianism/complementarianism) can be defined as either choosing not to choose; or choosing, but being afraid to talk about it. As church leaders and pastors, we are well-advised to identify any area of our ministry that is fear-based. Fear is usually the arrow that points to pride, so let’s just call it out. Are we afraid of disunity? (Do we not prayerful trust God for that?) Are we afraid that angry feminists will rush in and pry the pulpit out of male hands and liberalize the church? (Do we not have the proper safeguards in place for false teaching by both males and females?) Personally, I simply don’t know many women who are aspiring to anything aggressively ambitious in ministry. The women I do know are simply hurt and confused about the confidence in their spiritual callings bumping up against so many closed doors, with weak explanations.

2. Proclaim your stake in the ground: Once you decide your position on women in leadership, make it evident. Go public; be courageous, and be consistent. Those who find offense may leave, but at least everyone will understand the position of the church. I have a friend who went to a large church in town because she loved the worship and teaching. As an accomplished woman who had a seminary degree and was the head of a missions organization, she enjoyed her new church experience for almost a year, until one fateful Sunday when it was announced that there would be a training for home-group leaders — and the training was for men only. She was shocked, and later said to me, “So they were saying that the 19 year-old frat-boy sitting in the pew in front of me is more qualified to lead a small group than I am?” She walked out saddened and frustrated. For her, this announcement came as a complete surprise. No one at this church had ever made any intimation of their stance on women in leadership, nor was it evident in the church’s doctrinal statement on-line. Conversely, one could say that an equally silent egalitarian church that suddenly has a woman preach, might be throwing a similar curveball. Those who don’t agree are taken aback, and the poor woman teaching is thrown into an awkward position if/when she is vocally disapproved of later. Integrity says, be open to your congregation, and educate often.

3. Include biblical teaching to support it: Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t just a little lazy on this point. Yes, it is easy to feel flummoxed by isolated verses, and yes, it is harder to bring in all of the historical context, and yes it may feel overwhelming to look at all of it against the larger backdrop of God’s good plan for his people. However, in the absence of doing that hard work, we run the risk of defaulting to cultural concession regarding women in leadership, rather than biblical conviction. When I’ve taught on this topic, I always use the following simple diagram:


If we look at the epochs of biblical history as God’s perfect creation with men and women as co-image bearers, partnered to steward creation; then that perfect design was stained by our sin, resulting in the curse, out of which we experience enmity between men and women. Then we read throughout Scripture the story of God pursuing us through prophets, kings, judges and the law, culminating in the Great Sacrifice — God sending his Son Jesus to rescue us from the penalty of our sin under the law by going to the cross in our place. The result is that we are, in Him, a new creation, set apart to glorify God, equal and free as a result of his sacrifice. When we choose to live according to the curse, rather than in the freedom and responsibility of living into our new creation status in Christ, then we go backwards. Does this action not diminish the costly sacrifice of Christ? Because of the Cross, we are called to live as new creation people in new creation communities — not as people who return to the curse.

4. Listen to the women on your staff and elders: If you are reading this as an egalitarian, then we agree that Scripture presents a compelling picture of freedom and equality at the foot of the Cross. But that, obviously, does not make us the same. In fact, that’s the beauty of God’s design that he chose men and women to bear His image. That should mean something in how we run our churches. Do we listen — truly listen — to our women in leadership? Their experience of church life is different; their perspectives will be different; and their discernment may be heightened in areas that differ from a man’s. Considering that the membership of most churches is comprised of over 65% women, why would we choose not to listen to the women in our midst?

5. Give them a place at the table: Most women will not clamor for a place of influence in church leadership. Most will wait for it to be offered. Men are different in this way. Women want to be invited. Men will assert their qualifications; women wait to have those qualifications identified and drawn in. This isn’t always true, but it’s mostly true, and we need to be sensitive to it. Most churches have male leadership, which is truly good — as long as the men in leadership are not threatened by a woman’s voice of influence (or dismissive of it), but rather, invite it, and learn from it. Too many male pastors view women in leadership like the children’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and the plotline goes something like: “If you ask a woman her opinion on something, she’ll give her opinion about everything; if you invite her to be involved in something, she’ll try to take over; if you give her a place at the table, she’ll make a grab for the pulpit.” While it would be ridiculous to assert that this is always true, it speaks to a prideful fear that some male pastors really do have. See #4 above. Get to know the women on your staff and elders in the way you get to know the men. You might be surprised that they simply want to use their spiritual gifts, and have no interest in your job whatsoever.

A whole-hearted, public, and ongoing commitment to valuing women in church leadership, for the sake of glorifying God in the fullness of his image, in our churches and in our world, is worth the work. Again, when we glorify God’s full image, it is never concession; it is biblical conviction combined with commitment. All of it is worth it because it requires us to engage in what it means to live as new-creation people, committed to reconciliation, humility, mutual submission and dependence on God to move forward.

The growing pains my own church is experiencing are good pains because of that operative word, “growing.” We have a group of elders that get it, and they are committed to bringing our church to a place of health and wholeness on this topic, and they know it will take time and might get messy. But isn’t that what keeps us on our knees, remembering that it is Jesus who is at the head of his church, and not us?

*This article was written in 2015, but never published anywhere. Full disclosure: I ultimately resigned from my position at the church referenced here, for reasons -in part- involving the content of this article. (The church is now doing well under different leadership, and is committed to the long road of learning what it means to be egalitarian.) Sadly, however, much of the landscape within evangelical churches remains the same for women. If I could write this article over again, I would add the important link between our conversations about women in leadership, and our conversations about race. Both point to issues of privilege; both point to what it really means to make space at the table; both highlight the dangers of mere concession (the easy way out) over the deeper work of reconciliation and respectful understanding.

There are reasons to be hopeful, namely because there’s a growing trend within evangelical Christianity of turning inward and asking tougher questions about leadership health and practices — and examining the history that got us here. I highly recommend any, or all, of the following. None are specifically about women in leadership, but all address the ingredients that make for unhealthy church cultures. The fact that I listed three resources only is not indicative of what’s available; I just chose my top three, but your recommendations can be added in the comments section.

“The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast

“Jesus and John Wayne,” by by Kristin Kobes du Mez, Suzie Althens, et al.,

“When Narcissism Comes to Church,” by Chuck DeGroat,aps,305&sr=8-1

Anything by Carolyn Custis James.



Retired pastor, current spiritual director

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