'Long journey' ahead for evangelical women seeking greater equality in the Church

Amanda Jackson(Photo: Rise Consultation)

Women hoping for equal recognition and opportunity alongside men in the Church should be prepared for a "long journey", the head of the World Evangelical Alliance's Women's Commission has said.

Amanda Jackson said that listening was key to changing hearts and minds, and that men and women in the Church with differing views on gender equality should focus on areas of consensus in order to move forward.

On Tuesday, the General Assembly of the World Evangelical Alliance, meeting near Jakarta, Indonesia, affirmed a statement recognising that Church "communities and leadership structures have not always been encouraging, freeing or even safe for women and girls, who are each valued and loved by God".

It continues: "We acknowledge that the pathways for women to serve as leaders in the global Church are limited, and this has prevented many from contributing to the Church in this way.

"We acknowledge that the Church has deeply hurt many women and girls, and not heard or acknowledged their pain. We acknowledge that violence, in all its forms, towards women is perpetrated not only outside the Church, but also inside."

It ends with a call to "equip women and girls to take up leadership positions in the Church and wider society, including training and development, making the most of innovative resources."

"We call on men and women of the global Church to act so that women, men, girls and boys can all embrace their spiritual giftings to strengthen the work of the Church, and Her witness to the glory of God," it reads.

The statement was affirmed unanimously by delegates of the General Assembly, with no abstentions. The result, however, is not binding on the WEA.

Mrs Jackson welcomed the outcome of the vote and said that while it was easy to focus on areas of disagreement, she wanted the intentions of the statement to be embraced by the WEA family in a spirit of togetherness.

"We can always find words and terms we don't like," she said. "But let's find the things we can agree on and can go forward together on."

She expressed the hope that men would not feel threatened by the aims of the statement.

"I don't want them to think that this is a document about women wanting power or wanting to take over from men. It's not some feminist diatribe," she said.

In terms of how the WEA might respond to the calls outlined in the statement, she said she wanted to see a listening process to hear the experiences of women in the Church.

"I meet so many men who are very good, thoughtful, servant-hearted men and leaders, but who will say something like: I thought I understood what it's like to be a woman, but I don't," she said.

"If you start with Bible verses and theological positions, it's not going to help. Listening to the stories of women, listening to their experiences, is really vital because out of that comes a desire to take steps forward."

The General Assembly drew some criticism from female delegates who felt that there was not enough representation among the speakers during the weeklong gathering.

On Sunday, some expressed disappointment when elections to the WEA's International Council resulted in only three women being appointed out of a total of 15 seats. 

Addressing the frustrations expressed by female delegates, Mrs Jackson said: "I share their frustration. You can't not notice it. The roles that the women were given [during the General Assembly] were mainly the 'light, chat show host type' roles, not the spiritual roles. The men won't see that; they'll think they're doing great."

The frustrations extend not only to the lack of diversity and representation during the General Assembly, but the leadership structures of the national alliances worldwide, which are predominantly led by men.

Mrs Jackson said: "They say the right things and they are taking steps, but there's a long way to go."

She suggested that the persecuted Church was a positive model when it came to the empowerment of women.

"When I visit churches in places where there's persecution, there's a lot more willingness to try something radical and see women in leadership, because they have to; because you can't go out and proclaim the Gospel freely, so you do it in the home, where the women will talk about their faith," she said.

"I met one older woman in Uzbekistan recently who set up over 80 churches among the Tatar people in her lifetime, a first generation Christian just going for the Lord because no one had told her she couldn't.

"In the Middle East, in Indonesia, anywhere the Church is young, there are women out there at the forefront, just using their gifting. And it would be a tragedy if they were told, oh you're not allowed to do that."

She said she hoped that by the time the next WEA General Assembly comes round in another 10 years, that female representation "will be much less of an issue".

"I'd like it not to be an issue at all, that it would be something that people wouldn't even comment on," she said.

"I pray that in 10 years' time, young women would come here and be delighted at being involved and listened to; that young men would not feel threatened in any way; and that there would be this real sense that we are together and complement each other in the best way according to our gifting," she said.

The Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, Bishop Efraim Tendero, said he believed there was "enough in terms of balance" among speakers at the General Assembly, although he conceded that this was less the case among delegates.

He said: "Part of that is because this is a gathering of leaders from national and regional alliances, many of whom are male.  But we are trying to encourage more women in leadership, including in national alliances."