Brian Howell on church leadership, gender, and culture
People everywhere place a great deal of importance on these biological differences; however, the specific expression of that importance is driven not by biology; but by culture. . . . [R]eactions within the church to the roles of men and women in leadership must be understood as embedded in the cultural context in which they occur. The very notion of a “head pastor” is a culturally-specific—and even a theologically-specific—innovation related to the Protestant and American heritage of evangelicalism. In some denominations, the pastor has become a combination of CEO, president, and Chief Development Officer. Some are discomfited to think of a woman there, not because of any particular theological commitment, but because it just does not seem right. The pastor is a person who tells you what to do, the decider, the disciplinarian. It is no fluke that in the Western tradition we have called this person “father.” In images of the shepherd, we like to see a man carrying a sheep (preferably a big heavy one) back to the fold. Even as some come to be convinced by the theological and scriptural arguments in favor of egalitarianism, they may find themselves held back only by the cultural connotations of these images and ideas of the leader as “father.” . . .
The metaphor of the family is a powerful one in Scripture and in the church. Most families in the United States operate on a fairly distinct division of gendered labor. I admit that in my home, I do the taxes, load the car, clean the gutters, and mow the lawn—or I did until our daughter turned eleven and involuntarily took that over. My wife does more laundry than I do, makes Halloween costumes for the kids, and arranges their dentist appointments. It is no surprise that in the church, women often get the job of organizing the nursery while men manage the finances; our families often run very similarly.
Other families, however, have other cultural traditions. Indonesian families do not trust men with money. Men are too easily swayed by their emotions, they say. Men are full of passion and behave erratically. Women are more stable, better able to think rationally and handle money or business transactions. In this case, it would be the women of the church who are more likely to sit on the finance committee. Perhaps men would be selected for arranging the entertainment at the church’s anniversary celebration.
I do not say all this to argue that some cultures are better than others. What an understanding of culture’s influence should do is put gross generalizations about the nature of men and women out of reach. Moreover, it challenges us to think about how and why we value particular attributes connected to these gender stereotypes. So often we believe that we are reacting to Scripture or that the powerful feelings we have about particular gender activities are our created nature. Rather, we need to realize that we are exhibiting the cultural context in which we live. —Brian Howell, in E-Quality