The two ends of the evangelical debate on the role of women in leadership were on display yesterday with the publication of Project 3:28's report on gender balance at major Christian conferences and former Chelsea footballer and TV pundit Gavin Peacock's tweets about the role of women.
Project 3:28's research into the number of female platform speakers was authored by Natalie Collins and is the second annual survey of this nature. This meant it was possible to compare and contrast the data with 2013. This year's top 10 conferences for gender balance are: (the numbers is brackets represent the percentage of male:female platform speakers).
- (Joint) Church and Media Conference, Baptist Assembly (50/50)
- Youthwork Summit (54/46)
- Youthwork Conference (57.5/42.5)
- (Joint) Greenbelt, Detling (60/40)
- Spring Harvest (62.5/37.5)
- Christian New Media Conference (62/38)
- Faith Camp (61/39)
- New Wine (63/37)
- Soul Survivor (64/36)
- New Horizon (65/35)
Collins' motivation for the study is simple, yet provocative: 66 per cent of UK church attenders are women, but only 34 per cent of conference speakers are. There are a number of factors that influence this, and theology is an important but, interestingly, not a controlling factor.
Of the top 10 conferences in the list only those in first place managed to get an equal ratio and yet most, if not all, have a theological position that supports and encourages female speakers. Soul Survivor, for example, makes a clear theological stance to encourage women in leadership but only managed a speaker ratio of one third women. Collins does commend Soul Survivor for creating a zone that encourages new speakers, of which a substantial number were women.
Overall the trend is up and gender balance is improving but there is still a long way to go. But why do we have this imbalance at all? Aside from theology, there are historical, practical, cyclical and financial reasons for the continued shortfall in female speakers.
Historically some of the conferences have come from evangelical backgrounds that used to hold a male only position on speakers, so there has been a dearth of gifted, trained and experienced women speakers. Perhaps not enough energy has been put into investing into female speakers to change this.
On the practical side Jenny Baker speaks about the lack of mentoring opportunities for women to be trained up by gifted male speakers because of a desire to protect moral boundaries and not develop inappropriate relationships. Also there is the challenge of trying to bring other kinds of diversity into the speaking line up – ethnic and national diversity for example, or generational diversity. Other conferences seek a balance of "professional Christian speakers" and those who are leaders in business, media and arts. Availability is a further criteria – many conferences take place during weekends and school holidays and for all sorts of reasons women, both inside and outside of the church, are more likely to be the primary carer for children.
The current imbalance of women speakers has a cyclical effect – because there are fewer recognized and available women speakers, there is a smaller pool to for planning teams to fish from. With fewer opportunities for women to speak, their gifts, reputation and confidence may not get the same opportunities to develop. Lastly, there is the financial pressure on conference organisers. In the current climate, it is less risky to organize an event with a well-known and trusted speaker who will attract a crowd, than take a punt on someone less well-known.
When speaker selection becomes a balancing act of various diverse elements, the aim of presenting a gender balance may not be as high a priority as it should be.
This is where Project 3:28's list becomes so helpful. In the challenging task of balancing budgets, scheduling, speaker availability and topic selection, conferences who support women speakers are being reminded to hold true to their theological position and empower women to use their gifts to encourage, challenge and equip the church.
I don't think the list will change anyone's theological position. But it should encourage those who say they support women speakers to make sure they are doing everything they can. Even those conferences that don't believe women should teach or lead might be inspired to elevate women to the highest responsibilities that their theologies do allow.
For some it's flogging a horse that's long since died, but as Gavin Peacock's tweets caused such a stir yesterday I think it's worth briefly looking at evangelical theology around women in leading/teaching roles before we move on to the tweets themselves.
Broadly speaking, most within the evangelical church community hold one of these positions: complimentarianism and egalitarianism. Both approaches affirm the equality of worth of men and women as equally made in the image of God, but differ in their understanding of the roles available to men and women in the church, home and society. Both sides argue that their case has scriptural support.
Between these two broad categories there is a spectrum of positions. Some complementarians, for example, believe that women should not be allowed to take any leadership role in the church, or in society, and even in their home should recognize the leadership of men. At the other end of the scale, egalitarians actively encourage women to take up leadership and teaching roles in the church, home and society. Some complementarians permit women to teach the Bible, but not to take a leadership position in the governance of the church. Some egalitarians believe a woman can lead and teach but that husbands have the final word at home.
As in all significant debates within the breadth of the evangelical community clear (and not so clear) biblical arguments are intertwined with historic tradition, cultural pressures, and emotional pulls. On both sides, those that hold the opposing view are often demonized as either liberal, fundamentalist or even non-Christian.
So I will leave you to imagine the furious response and debate when Chelsea, QPR and Newcastle United player and TV commentator Gavin Peacock, who is now pastor at Calvary Grace Church of Calgary, tweeted this:
Husbands: one of your primary duties in loving your wife is to feed her with the Word of God daily.— Gavin Peacock (@GPeacock8) January 6, 2015
Wives: one of the primary ways you are to respect your husband is by gladly submitting to and encouraging his leadership.— Gavin Peacock (@GPeacock8) January 6, 2015
God's divine design for marriage in male headship and female submission is complementary not competitive.— Gavin Peacock (@GPeacock8) January 6, 2015
The 144 character limit of Twitter can make nuanced theological discussion difficult, but as you can see Peacock presents classical elements of the complementarian teaching as it relates to roles of men and women in the home. Not all complementarians would agree with him but Peacocks's articulation is along the lines made popular by American evangelical leaders such as John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller.
Peacock has posted a blog in response to the coverage arguing that he holds this view because of his convictions of the inerrancy of the word of God. He implies that those that take a different view to him on gender roles do so because of a sinful rebellion against God's authority and relativistic approach to truth. He sadly leaves little room for an alternative evangelical approach that also recognizes the trustworthiness of scripture and a belief in objective truth and yet believes that women can take leadership roles in the church and home. He sadly doesn't recognize that sometimes submission in a marriage can be dangerously abused.
"The main issue is not marriage or manhood or womanhood," he writes. "The main issue is that people need to get right with a holy God and find their identity in Jesus. He is the only way to God, salvation and personal happiness. With the main focus right, the rest of life can be lived in accordance to his Word, because what he says is good for us. It gives purpose and meaning to everything."
I share Peacock's conviction here – his heartbeat seems to be to want his readers to come to a living relationship with Jesus. This must be what unites us, whatever our different understandings on gender roles. But by not leaving any room for Christian differences on this issue, my fear is that Peacock may inadvertently obscure the gospel by implying that his approach to gender roles is a prerequisite to living faith.
As we focus in on the grace that has been offered to us, perhaps this will help us conduct our debates and discussions around the issue of gender balance more graciously, commending the faith to onlookers.
Dr Krish Kandiah is President of London School of Theology.