on why i still need you to defend me.

So, Friday was International Women’s Day. And on Friday, I read this blog post by Steve Holmes. And then I saw it retweeted by some other men.

I shall declare upfront that I like Steve very much on twitter, and I like his blog, and I really really like this particular post, (and I really like the other men who I saw retweet it) but…

Oh, come on, of course there’s a but, if there wasn’t a but I wouldn’t be writing this post.

Now, listen, the argument is great (and well argued, not gonna try and fight the rhetoric). He lists some amazing women who did amazing things, whose achievements really really should speak for themselves, and their right to be in ministry shouldn’t have to be defended by anyone. I really want to go with him all the way to the conclusion:

But I’m not going to try to illuminate the sun.
And I’m not going to try to dampen the sea.
And I’m not, any longer, going to try to defend the ministry of women in the church.

But I can’t.

I’ve spent a little while trying to work out why something about this declaration of the fact that women don’t need defending doesn’t quite sit right with me. I tried to get at it on Friday when I retweeted the post – but I don’t think I quite did. But it came to me yesterday morning: this blog post reminds me of Ainsley Hayes defending her belief that the USA doesn’t need an Equal Rights Amendment. Watch it below, particularly from 4:40.

I love Ainsley Hayes (and I love how Sorkin created the character as a woman I could both disagree with and engage with and admire all at the same time), and in her final speech on this subject she has me, she absolutely has me. Because she’s right: it is humiliating that women need an amendment to considered equal to men before the law, and Article 14 should cover it. But she’s also wrong – because the same Article 14 doesn’t, in practice, cover it. Not every woman is Ainsley Hayes, they’re not all white, they don’t all come from a well off family, and they can’t all go to law school just to make sure – nor can they all verbally defend themselves as articulately as she does. If we lived in an ideal world, Sam Seaborn wouldn’t need to try and safeguard the ERA for the women of America who aren’t Ainsley Hayes.

And in an ideal world, I’d be able to say, ’You know, I don’t need a man to defend the right of women to be in leadership or in ministry.’ But we don’t live in an ideal world.

Here’s a thing. I am a relatively well educated woman, and a Christian, and in favour of women in leadership – and I had only heard of three of the women in that post (and one of the three was Judith Butler…). I need people to tell me about them, I need people to tell the world about then, and yes, I need people to hold them up as examples of the fact that God uses women in ministry – because we live in a world where that doesn’t happen as often as it should.  And also, I need some of those people to be men. Because, unfortunately, a man has a voice that is more likely to be heard than mine is – or than that of most women is: even if a woman were to have the same public profile as him and be put on the same platform as him. I don’t believe this should be so – but it is so.

Honestly, a man says ’I’m not going to try to defend the ministry of women…’ and I start waving my arms going, ‘No, come back, we’re not there yet, we still need you…’ We need you to defend us, and to promote us – because at the basest level, if it’s just us women doing it for ourselves, someone is going to say, ’Well, of course you’d say that, you’re a woman.’

So, men, I need you to just deal with your feeling that you’re not worthy to defend women like Catherine Booth and Wendy Beech-Ward (women like them do stuff every day that the world tells them they’re not worthy of doing, and they deal with it, so you can)  and not let yourselves go along with the feeling that the question of whether these women are permitted by God to lead and preach is such a stupid question that you can’t defend the ‘yes’ position. Not yet. Because we’re not there yet – we won’t be until people stop asking that question. And until we are there, I need you to pull your weight on this, because in our deeply unbalanced world, you have more weight than me.


  1. Hannah,

    First, thanks for taking the time to respond.

    Second, you are right; over the past two days, as I’ve watched, somewhat open-mouthed, the way this post has spread (500% of the readership of any other post on my blog), I’ve had a growing feeling that something written very quickly after not nearly enough sleep (gotta love that London-Aberdeen ‘sleeper’ service!) was not phrased as well as it might have been, even though lots of people seemed to like it. The verb ‘defend’ was wrong, and the logic does not flow.

    Of course the language of bits of the post was somewhat tongue-in-cheek (Fulcrum republished it with an ‘irony’ tag just to make sure someone didn’t miss it!), but even so, it wasn’t right. I think I should have said ‘justify’ not ‘defend’, but even that might not be quite right. I was reaching for something like Maggi Dawn’s theology of reception in Like the Wideness of the Sea – a sense that the powerful effectiveness of women in ministry is so evident that questioning their – your – calling should be obviously nonsensical.

    That said, I am uncomfortably aware that I do not, and cannot, know what it feels like to be on the wrong end of this particular prejudice. I took the decision a little while ago that, given where I am, I had to try to do what I could, lend my voice as publicly as I can to promoting full and equal ministry in any way I know. I do this knowing that, because I do not suffer from this, sometimes I would say something wrong, or say something right in a very unhelpful way. I know I have got this wrong before, once at least very badly – trying to help, I ended up hurting a number of women leaders, including some good friends. Thankfully, their grace was/is greater than my competence! If I am going to do this I really need friends like you, honest and brave enough to call me when I fail to understand the reality, or when the tone or phrasing is profoundly unhelpful.

    Lastly, I can assure you that I am not signing off from this argument – rather the opposite, as I hope the post made clear. I’ve got a resource in the pipeline (needs two weeks of work to publish, so the summer, maybe) intended to recover and retell the stories of many of the great female leaders God has given to the church, and I’m planning with a friend to do a book on the abhorrent effects of bad theologies of gender. I will also continue, as I have done for some time, to donate any speaking fees I get from entirely male ministers conferences (depressingly common in Scotland) to causes promoting/supporting women in ministry. Plus, I’ll keep on blogging about this, as and when I find something that might be interesting to say – please, will you keep on calling me out if I get it wrong?


    1. Hey, thanks for the response – I really appreciate it, and your commitment to keep on keeping on with this.

      Like I said – I do really like the post – and I know aaaall about high-speed sleepless blogging! Blogs are a great space for that kind of provocative piece – the trick is then to remember that they’re not the whole answer, or, if you disagree with them, that they’re not a work of evil. The dialogue is good.

    2. I love Steve’s blog, and love the fact that it was written with a title and an idea that was clearly tongue in cheek. I’m grateful for all those guys who stay focused on the point and keep at it, shoulder to shoulder. It’s a great thing to have brothers, especially when they are for you and God’s purposes for your life and gifts.

    3. Steve, don’t be discouraged! I loved your post, and the point of it (which I took to be that there should not be a need to defend these women – unfortunately there is), and I also love Hannah’s reponse here. The fact that your post got so much attention is a great thing – it highlights the fact that we DO need you – and other men! A sorry state of affairs, but that’s the way it is at present.

  2. Hi Hannah – this is fantastic – thanks for thinking and wrestling to get here. I also want to state my appreciation to Steve for taking the time to think and absorb and respond here too. The best outcome is better and more open conversation and both your contributions help – thank you. Harriet

  3. I loved Steve’s post, and I loved this too – thanks Hannah. I think I’m happy with the tension that the two of you have highlighted, I think in agreement with each other between the way things should be, the way they are, how stupid it is that they’re not the way they should be, and how we can’t rest until they are the way they should be.

    I liked this a lot from Steve: “I will continue to fight sexism and bad teaching wherever I see it. I will continue to explain, as well as I can, the truth of Scripture, that it is a crucial mark of the Kingdom that God calls women and men indifferently to every ministry. I want to give more time in coming months and years to tracing the real harm that bad theologies of gender do.”

    Perhaps that counts as ‘defending’, and doing what Hannah is saying here? But part of doing that is telling the stories of those amazing women, and allowing them to speak for themselves rather than justifying them, as Steve does in the post. It’s defending by simply holding them up as examples, while also doing the background weight-pulling of good theology and combating sexism.

  4. Hi, Hannah.

    Thanks for an excellent post. As a woman pastor I’ve been blessed to have many men, pastors & lay, support & encourage my ministry, including my husband, who is not a pastor. For a long time I’ve thought the gender inequities in ministry were pretty much a non-issue for me. I live & minister in a liberal town and was ordained in a Biblically-conservative denomination that recognizes women’s ordination. I feel like there’s enough work to do in feeding & caring for God’s sheep, I don’t have time to argue with people who don’t think I should be preaching God’s Word. There are enough people who are dying to hear the gospel and see it lived out as Jesus lived, it doesn’t really matter if the pastor is male or female. But thanks to your thoughtful post, I can see that those of us who do not have to deal with sexism in our own ministries need to stand alongside our sisters who do. Thanks for your insight & passion. Blessings.

  5. We need one another with all God’s gifts He has bestowed from each of our journeys … just like we need the whole counsel of the Bible so all may “hear” and “know” and “grow” in Jesus.

      1. Hi Hannah – we’d like to feature your post this week – we featured Steve’s last week. The only thing is, we need an email confirming that you would like it published and an author release form. Please contact ebeyer@cbeinternational.org and we will make sure your article can be featured next week.
        Thank you!

  6. Hi Hannah:

    Great comments. We all need each other, in this and many other ways.

    I posted a comment to Steve which could have been done a lot better. What I was trying to get at is that men and women have different energies (I used the word charisms) and that this diversity of gifts is an important part of the wealth of the Church. This goes beyond the right of the individual to participate in ministry. The community has a right to diversity.

    Perhaps you could rewrite my thoughts to better effect since I think it’s an important aspect of this conversation.

  7. Just chiming in as a guy and avid CBE fan who defends women’s ministry every chance I get…

  8. Just chiming in as a guy and avid CBE fan who defends women’s ministry every chance I get…

    Thanks for your post–you eloquently captured the intuition of many and I’m so glad you spoke up.

  9. Thanks Hannah – and Steve. I resonate with lots of this and with the comments. I have been an ordained minister of the female variety in New Zealand for nearly forty years but only last month I was coleading a church pastoral search consult in a provincial city here in New Zealand and when the question was asked, could God’s choice for your new pastor be a woman, the room resounded with NO! In front of me.
    So please brother pastors, I still need you to exegete and nudge and challenge and tell our stories, there are lots of people of both genders who just don’t get it.
    (I read the posts on CBE)

  10. Wow! Ainsley is a What-A-Character! While she’s right that it is humiliating to possibly need further laws to protect women, there is a need for men to keep speaking up.

    I am so proud of my husband for preaching a series of sermons on this several years ago.

    Go guys go!

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