Women’s and Men’s Ministries in Churches are Problematic

by John Ellis

History tells me to tread lightly here. But I’m going to ignore history and put on my adult-sized stomping boots. So, if you ask me what I think of women’s and men’s ministries, I’ll say, “I don’t like them and believe they do not belong in the church.” Often – not always – the desire and motives behind having segregated gender ministries in our churches reveal acceptance and adherence to complementarianism’s bad anthropology. Going a step further, after I sent her the first draft of this introductory paragraph, my friend Kelly helpfully pointed out to me that women’s ministries often do not even have an anthropology of women but reduce women instead to a caste system of roles. Sadly, my wife can anecdotally confirm the truth of Kelly’s statement, as can many other women. Gender segregated ministries also serve to chip away at the unity Christians have in Jesus – males and females, Jews and Greeks. The painful truth is that women’s ministries are the consequence of women being marginalized in complementarian spaces. And women’s ministries are unwitting accomplices in their own marginalization.

I do want to make clear that I am not opposed to women getting together to study the Bible, likewise for men. Nor do I think gendered retreats are necessarily wrong, although I tend to be skeptical of them[1]. Throughout the life of a church, there will be moments that call for appropriate, sensitively done gender segregation. But that segregation should be rare and not a dominant rhythm in the life of a church. What I’m opposed to is long term, institutionalized gender segregation within churches.

Institutionalized segregation undergirds (if not creates) oppressive hierarchies in any communities in which it exists. It marginalizes one or more groups in favor of the artificially selected dominant group. And segregation begets segregation. Segregation not only undergirds/creates oppressive hierarchies within the whole, but within each set/group further oppressive hierarchies form. This is evident in gender segregated ministries in churches. Certain types of men are feted and elevated. Certain types of women are feted and elevated within their allowed spaces. When the assumption that two groups are so vastly ontologically different that they require segregation for the benefit of the whole, those assumed differences are then elevated within the disparate sets. If men are *this*, then only *this* type of man can be the top-dog (or in the inner circle of the top-dog) of not only the set’s hierarchy but the larger community’s hierarchy. If *this* is what biblical womanhood is, then only *this* type of woman is allowed to stake a claim at the top of the set’s hierarchy, furthering marginalizing many of the women in the church.

I’ve written several articles excoriating the artificial gender distinctives that white evangelicals have adopted. Because I’ve already written in length about it, I won’t do so here. If you’re curious what I have to say, those articles are easily found on this blog. For the purpose of this article’s thesis, I want to point out the historical philosophical misogyny that has played a large role in the unbiblical distinction held by many white evangelicals between what it means to image God as a male versus what it means to image God as a female.

In contrast to many of the great Mesoamerican civilizations, the magnificent kingdoms of Africa before Western colonization devasted the African continent, and various people groups, including the Scandinavian pagans, who viewed women with great respect and elevated them, Western culture has been steeped in an anti-female misogyny from its beginning. It’s no secret that Western culture has been highly influenced by the ancient Greek philosophers, with Aristotle arguably occupying the top-spot. His influence is owed, in no small part, to the oversized influence the Thomism of the Roman Catholic Church has had over the formation of Western culture, not to mention Saint Augustine’s largely negative view of women (his mother aside) that mirrors much of Aristotle’s views on women. Plato, the one ancient Greek philosopher who has the right to challenge Aristotle’s perch at the top of the West’s mountain of influence, had a low view of women, too. As did Kant, who while not a Greek philosopher is one of the most impactful post-Reformation thinkers in Western thought and development. My point? The list of anti-female beliefs and arguments among the great thinkers of the West is long and prestigious. For his part, Aristotle believed that women were unformed, incomplete, and imperfect men. Males, for Aristotle, represented the full flowering of humanity, while women were considered mediocre representations, at best. This sentiment is reflected in Aquinas’ hylomorphism. Like his philosophical ancestor Aristotle, the scholastic theologian and Church doctor believed that women are defective. While Saint Augustine’s views evolved somewhat over his life, he went so far as to claim that women aren’t made in the image of God. I could go on.

The history of Western thought, as well as Western theology, is replete with vile views and beliefs about women. Views and beliefs that denigrate women and that have been used in the patriarchal subjugation of those made fully in the image of God. While not nearly as explicitly misogynistic (although sometimes they are, and increasingly so), perspectives on women in white evangelical spaces (especially complementarian circles) still largely reflect the sinful disdain for women articulated by many of the men responsible for the philosophical and theological formation of both Western culture and the white churches within that culture. Two of the more predominant ways that this misogyny is currently demonstrated is via the bifurcation – to the point of divorce – of so-called masculine and feminine traits as well as the entrenched opposition to centering female perspectives and platforming their voices within gender integrated spaces. Those two things are related.

In complete opposition to the prevailing perspective of women (and men) by many conservative white evangelicals, the Bible unequivocally claims that men and women are both made in the image of God. Both equally so and not complimentarily so. Theologian John Walton has done a lot of heavy historical and theological lifting in helping us recover a better understanding of what being made in God’s image means. For too long, being made in God’s image has been viewed as a hierarchy of traits: humans exhibit traits like empathy, reason, community, language, etc., and this is predominantly believed to be what differentiates humans as God’s image bearers from the rest of the animal kingdom that is not made in the image of God. There’s a lot more I could say about this because it’s wrong (nonsensically so), but what’s important for my thesis, I believe, is Dr. Walton’s work in unveiling that ancient Mesopotamian cultures believed kings were made in the image of the various gods and deities. Being made in the image of a god (or the one true God), “is not as a physical likeness but related to power and prerogative.”[2] Being made in the image of God means humans – males and females equally – were made and designed to rule as God’s vice-regents. Gordon Wenham adds, “Whereas Egyptian writers often spoke of kings as being in God’s image, they never referred to other people in this way. It appears that the OT has democratized this old idea, it affirms that not just kings, but every man and woman, bears God’s image and is his representative on earth [emphasis added].”[3]

It’s important to note that in Dr. Walton’s explanation, the concept of relationship is embedded. In their book God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenant, Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum helpfully add to the overall discussion of what it means to be made in God’s image. They expound:

“Given the normal meanings of ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ in the cultural and linguistic setting of the Old Testament and the ancient Near East, ‘likeness’ specifies a relationship between God and humans such that adam can be described as the son of God, and ‘image’ describes a relationship between God and humans such that adam can be described as a servant king. Although both terms specify the divine-human relationship, the first focuses on the human in relation to God and the second focuses on the human in relation to the world. These would be understood to be relationships characterized by faithfulness and loyal love, and obedience and trust – exactly the character of relationships specified by covenants after the Fall. In this sense the divine image entails a covenant relationship between God and humans on the one hand, and between humans and the world on the other.”[4]

So, not only are we – males and females – intended to serve as God’s vice-regents, we’re intended to do so within relationships. Firstly, in a right relationship with our Creator and secondly, in a right relationship with our neighbors. Kingdom ethics, as revealed and taught by King Jesus, offer a challenge to much of the status quo understanding of who our neighbor is and what being a “good” neighbor looks like. For followers of King Jesus, we are to go so far as to view our enemies as our neighbor. In Kingdom ethics, there is no hierarchal distinction between the rich and the poor nor between male and female. Kingdom ethics eschew power and domination for ethics of love and self-sacrifice for the glory of God and the flourishing of our neighbors – all of our neighbors. Rebelling against this, complementarianism is about power and dominance – men exercise the “power” part of imaging God and women exercise the eternal submission of the Son (for the record, ESS is heretical). And to enable and retain this power, males and females are bifurcated into so-called complementarian spheres: males are protectors and females are nurturers; males exhibit strength and women exhibit gentleness; males express authority and women express submission. But this bifurcation is unbiblical in both its anthropology and ethics.

In Romans 8:29, the Apostle Paul reveals that all followers of King Jesus are being made more and more like Jesus. This applies as fully to women as it does to men – AS FULLY. Furthermore, women aren’t made into the image of Jesus in ways that men are not, and vice-versa. All of us – men and women alike – are called to be like Jesus holistically and to reflect the fruit of the Spirit. We’re called to love and serve. We’re called to submit to each other. Men are called to be gentle and kind, not just women. Women are called to be bold and courageous in the preaching of Christ crucified, not just men. All of us are called to surrender whatever rights we believe we have for the sake of others. And we’re all called to proclaim Christ’s death until he returns, to unbelievers and to each other.

The New Testament (and the Old Testament, too, for that matter) doesn’t just leave anthropology and ethics in the abstract. Jesus frequently centered and platformed women, as did the Apostle Paul. And they both did so in gender integrated spaces. Jesus and Paul did this because they understood (an understatement, especially for Jesus, I realize) that women are as equally made in the image of God as men are, and not in some socially constructed complementary bifurcation designed to scaffold and protect men’s power. In opposition, gender segregated ministries communicate the long-held Western belief that women are less than men as well as revealing the belief that women are made in God’s image differently then men are. The Bible refutes both.

One of the ways that women’s ministries (and men’s) catechize us into an unbiblical anthropology is via the overt adoption and implementation of socially constructed gender roles and traits. For example, contra the makeup of most women’s and men’s ministries, women and men do not need to study the Bible differently from each other as a group. Individually, sure, in some instances and to a degree, but women do not need Bible studies designed for women. Doing so reinforces the misogynistic belief that women are less rational then men, among other harmful and untrue stereotypes. Similarly, men’s ministries often reinforce a definition of masculinity that excludes some men. Whatever differences (non-biological differences) that exist between women and men are differences of degree and not ontological differences. Not to mention, many of those differences of degree are shaped by nurture (culture) and not nature. For example, the belief that women are better nurturers than men has been upended by recent research (if the Bible’s command to fathers to nurture their children isn’t sufficient enough evidence for you). For generations, it was believed that moms bond with babies in ways that fathers do not. For many fathers, that’s been true. But it’s been true by way of socially constructed gender expectations and not nature (not the way God designed and made us). Men have been taught to not bond with their infant children. If fathers set aside the harmful gender roles and instead would engage in things like skin-on-skin time with their infants as well as take part in the nurturing activities like feeding and bathing, they would develop as strong as a bond with their children as the mom does. Recent research shows that men who engage in those nurturing activities produce hormonal responses similar to women, including the hormone estradiol, which is commonly believed, albeit incorrectly, to be a female hormone. God designed fathers to bond with their children like mothers do. Culturally constructed gender stereotypes rebel against God in this area and serve to undermine the flourishing of families.

The desire for segregated gender ministries reflects the belief that women and men image God differently somehow and need discipling that caters to those differences. In doing so, the caste hierarchies pointed out by my friend Kelly naturally develop. So, in this segregated world, if *this* culturally constructed expectation is the best example of biblical womanhood, then women who don’t conform to *this* are further marginalized. This is born out in the fact that most women’s ministries (and every women’s ministry I’ve personally witnessed) center stay-at-home moms to the exclusion of other women. Women’s ministries tend to communicate that *this* type of woman is the type of woman most welcomed and valued in the church. The role of wife and mother are all-important; it’s the overriding identity and telos for women. The role of unmarried and childless is, at best, patronized and still demeaned. The role of a working mother is pitied and seen as a reflection of the consequences of the Fall and Sin’s Curse. Women who don’t like tea parties, sewing, and stereotypical “feminine” activities are viewed as projects, at best. At worst, those women are viewed as threats.

Some of the pushback, of course, will be that a woman’s ministry does not have to center a specific type of woman. Maybe that’s true in theory, but I’m skeptical that it can be true in praxis. Frankly, I’m skeptical because the very notion of the need for gender segregated ministries is predicated on complementarian ontological distinctions between men and women. It reflects the belief that there is a barrier to true fellowship, including discipleship, between the genders. It reflects the belief that men and women are so different as image bearers that they grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ better when they’re separated. Our unity in Christ refutes this.

All of us bring different perspectives of varying degrees to the table, this is true. Our personalities, our histories, our current circumstances, and even our gender provide insights and questions that others need to hear. While gender stereotypes may be a social construct (and they largely are, for the record), their consequences are still very real. While my wife is the intellectual equal (and often superior) to the men in her career field, she’s had to endure and battle levels of misogyny throughout her career. Because of this, she has a valuable perspective on the workplace that should be platformed and heeded. However, her valuable perspective isn’t an ontological necessity of her womanhood; it’s an ethical accident owing to the poor view of women that still exists in the professional world. Likewise, if the segregation of genders is a dominant rhythm in the life of a church, we not only reinforce contrabiblical perspectives on gender, we lose wonderful opportunities to learn from those whose experiences and perspectives are different than ours. And we’re able to learn from those who differ from us precisely because our unity in Christ means we share the same Spirit. We need to hear from each other so that we help each other grow in Christlikeness. Men need the voice of women, and women need the voice of men. Churches that have rhythms that are dominated by gender segregated ministries are depriving the church body from experiencing the full fellowship of the saints as well as the fullness of iron sharpening iron.

Gender segregated ministries exist because of the belief that women are lesser than men. I understand and empathize with the impulse women feel to steer into gender segregated ministries. For many women, their churches do not provide them a space otherwise. But the solution isn’t concession. Doing so, collapsing into a woman’s ministry, is a retreat that concedes that misogyny is correct; it furthers your own marginalization. And it adds to the lack of unity in the church. There are several moving parts to this, I recognize. Firstly, if you’re in a church that full-on embraces the complementarian hierarchies, it’s highly likely that you need to find a new church. For women, the leadership in that church is probably not safe for you. For men, the leadership of that church is serving to reinforce the sin of pride and lust for power/domination that exists in your heart because it exists in all our hearts (men and women). You, too, should probably find a new church. For those who are members of churches who are legitimately wrestling with this issue, here’s an important question: Do you know the heart of your pastors? Be honest, and this can be hard sometimes, even though your church at large may not affirm women the way the Bible teaches, are your pastors working towards that end? Change often happens slower than we wish. But if you genuinely believe that your pastors value women and desire to center and platform them but are working against long-standing beliefs and traditions, patience may be a virtue. Pray for your pastors. Encourage your pastors. Do what you can (men and women) to center and platform women within your own life and sphere of influence – e.g. community/small group, Sunday school class, Bible study, etc.. Be willing (especially men) to engage in hard, yet loving, conversations with those in your church family who have fallen captive to the self-serving teachings of complementarianism. But whatever you do, don’t surrender by advocating for gender segregated ministries. In doing so, you’re helping provide the false cover for those who would silence women in the church. You’re giving those people the opportunity to point out that women do have a space in the church. But what they refuse to acknowledge or care about is that it’s a lesser space. Don’t be a participant in your own marginalization. And don’t be a participant in a system that pits women against women by creating a caste system of roles. No matter how hard you fight against it, any surrender to the misogynistic beliefs of complementarians will result in establishing hierarchies within the women in your church that will be hard to dismantle.

One final thing, and a question that’s probably weighing on many, what about Titus 2?

In literature, context is always king. Titus was ministering on the very wealthy island of Crete. The women of Crete were known for sexual dalliances during the day owing to their privileged reality that they were rich enough to not be needed to work in the family business, whatever that might be. Instead of staying home and helping their family in the work, the women of Crete at the time were known for flitting from house to house and engaging in orgies. That context is very important to understanding Paul’s admonition.

While I don’t believe the Christian women of Crete were engaging in sexual sin (based on his track record, I’m pretty sure that Paul would’ve called them out for it, if so), they had the luxury of lots of free time like their unbelieving peers. Instead of participating in the work of the family – the business, not homemaking, to be clear – they were guilty of wasting the day in flitting from house to house, engaging in gossip and fruitless/pointless inanities. Paul is writing into this context. As I wrote at towards the beginning of this article, I believe that there are times when it’s appropriate for gender segregated discipling in the life of the church. I believe it is helpful (and commanded by Scripture) for women to get together with other women to study the Bible. What I’m opposed to is long-term, institutionalized gender segregation in churches. That creates two churches, at the least, within one church. The overall program of the church should be striving for an integrated unity that allows for specific, targeted discipling that recognizes fluctuating circumstances. Gender segregated ministries are an obstacle to that happening because it reduces gender to the predominant social construct, and it serves as an antagonist to the unity in Christ we’re called to. Paul’s admonitions in Titus 2 can be obeyed without bowing before the idols of complementarianism.

Our primary identity is that of being made in God’s image. That’s equally and fully true for both women and men. Beyond that are questions of relationship. First and foremost, are we in Christ? Secondly, are we in a relationship of service to others in ways that fully affirms their full daughtership or sonship? Gender segregated ministries in churches place obstacles to our ability to correctly live out the second question because it denies the full glorious truth of our unity in Christ because it reduces us to and cages us within the individualistic social constructs of complementarian gender identities.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Any specific perspectives I would have on gender segregated retreats would be based off the specific topic and motive for having the retreat. In my experience, though, most women’s and men’s retreats serve to reinforce the unbiblical gender stereotypes that have infected white American evangelicalism. In doing so, they increase the marginalization of those women and men who don’t check off enough of the “appropriate” gender expression boxes.

[2] John Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 130.

[3] Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987), 31.

[4] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenant (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 79.

One thought on “Women’s and Men’s Ministries in Churches are Problematic

  1. Say it louder for the folks in the back! From my personal experience, gender segregation in church spaces also interferes with men’s full participation as parents.

    My husband and I work alternating schedules and split the work of raising and homeschooling our kids. We’ve been turned away more than once from “moms only” parenting or homeschooling groups in churches. The church-based homeschool co-op we attend now has over 50 families and maybe 2 or 3 men, including my husband, who participate. The group praises them for being “such involved dads” but does not support them. The weekly Bible study and numerous social activities are all explicitly women only. It is pretty isolating for my husband. This is one of many reasons we’re looking at a secular homeschooling group for next school year.

    I am well aware my family’s arrangement is not typical, but my husband is not some kind of endangered species. I find it ironic that conservative Christian mores trumpet the importance of “strong fathers” but don’t know what to do with men who actually spend a lot of time caregiving.

    Liked by 1 person

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