Tweet Share

Signposts: A Conversation with Jen Wilkin

In this episode of Signposts I talk with author and speaker Jen Wilkin about the local church, men and women in ministry, and how to build a strong culture of teaching for women in the church. Listen below, and subscribe to Signposts to get new episodes when they publish.


Below is an edited transcript of the audio

RUSSELL MOORE: I have with me today nationally known author and teacher Jen Wilkin. She’s the author of several books, including Women of the Word, None Like Him: 10 Ways God’s Different Than Us and Why That’s a Good Thing, and a book about the Sermon on the Mount. Everything I read by Jen Wilkin not only equips me better but provokes me to think and to pray. She has a column in Christianity Today and I commend the stuff she does to you, and if you’re not familiar with it, find it and you will benefit from it. Jen, thanks for being here today.

JEN WILKIN: Thanks for having me on!

RM: You know sometimes I feel guilty because I feel I’m the only one in ministry who hasn’t used the phrase “I really married up.” And I haven’t used the phrase, not because it’s not true, but because it’s always felt to me kind of condescending. I’ve never heard a woman say this about her husband, but have heard husbands say this about their wives. I can think of all kinds of times where there’s been a panel at a conference, with one woman and a group of men, and somebody will make a comment about “the rose among the thorns.” Do you think that it’s the case that often in our churches there are some subtly condescending ways of talking about women?

JW: I think it’s well-intentioned. When I hear something like that, I never think that person woke up that morning and said, “How can I keep the woman down?” I do think that we can sometimes speak in ways that intend to honor but end up sounding like overcompensating, but I do always assume it’s well intended.

RM: You know, it seems to me in many ways that women, in conservative evangelical churches, don’t seem to be as mobilized as in previous times in church history. When we think about, even when women didn’t have as high a place in society as they do now, we had women who were leading mission movements and all sorts of things. But it seems at least in my corner of the world that we don’t have as much of that anymore. If that’s the case, how can we correct it?

JW: Well I’m in your corner of the world so I would say that’s an accurate statement. Probably what’s driving that is that often in the church, in the last 20 years, we’ve adopted a sort of backlash position when it comes to talking about women. We’ve developed a sort of fear of anything that sounds or looks vaguely like feminism, and become extremely cautious about roles we’ve put women in and developed some narrow definitions of leadership and who can and should lead. So I think we’re dealing with fallout from that, and in some cases men outside the church have been more open handed toward women in leadership than those inside the church. What I’m hoping to see, and what I see happening in many places is that we’d recapture a vision for men and women partnering in ministry together. The language that the New Testament applies to the church is familial language; the church, like a family, has brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. I would love for the church to begin to look more like a family that has both parents in the home, functioning in roles of leadership and nurturing.

RM: One thing I’ve been convinced of, all my ministry but increasingly so, is that whenever there’s a truth that God gives us, there are least two errors that we deviate toward, on either side of that truth. I think that you’re right that when it comes to biblical ideals and pictures of manhood and womanhood, on the one hand, you have the sort of feminism that erases those good, creational differences. But on the other hand, we can have a hyper complementarianism. I say this as a convinced complementarian. But we can say, “In order to make sure we don’t fall into feminism, we’re going to put all sorts of hedges and protections around so we won’t even come close to a problem.” I think you’re right about that sense of backlash, and you’ve written about this in terms of the “ghosts”, the sorts of ideas of women that can be scary to men who are in leadership in the church. What do you mean by that?

JW: Well, I’ve even heard from seminary graduates that they were told in seminary to be leery of contact with women. I grew up with four brothers, a Dad that loved me and now a husband that loves me and sees me as a peer. It was strange to encounter that attitude because I hadn’t encountered it in my relationships with men. I was used to being treated like I wasn’t a threat. I have an outspoken personality, so maybe I am perceived as “Here comes trouble.” But it was a surprise to me though because what was valued in the workplace wasn’t what was valued in the church. It’s a belief system that has been cultivated and rewarded often, that women in ministry were something to be cautious around. And it did result in many ministry structures that were built on erring on the side of caution at every turn.

And when we consistently err on the side of caution, we consistently err. We are operating from a paradigm of fear instead of one of brotherly-sisterly partnership. And fear doesn’t tend to be a good recipe for ministry. There’s been a lot of interesting stuff written on male and female relationships in ministry settings, and the fact that the more forbidden you make them, the more you heighten the tension around those relationships. And I think of it in terms of, the way we dealt with sibling relationship in my homes. If you were not getting along with a sibling, we didn’t separate you, we put you together and gave you a task to do. In the church, we tend to keep people separate, and I think in the church we’ve tended to have a greater fear of adultery than we’ve had fear of men and women not fulfilling the cultural mandate given to them.

RM: What would you say to someone who responds, “Yes, but, we have had just tremendous problems within the church, and we know there is good, created longing for marriage that the devil distorts.” So there are real dangers and many times when we’ve seen these sorts of falls, they typically happen in the context of doing ministry together that has gone awry. So how would you say, don’t err on the side of fear, but do recognize the dynamic that can be dangerous.

JW: Absolutely. If you recognize one problem, what you don’t wanna do is over-correct. We don’t want to be foolish we want to be wise. But I think one thing we’ve done is made one rule fit all relationships, when in reality relationships are different because it’s two different individuals in that relationship. So when you’re trying to gauge what is my ability to have friendships with people of the opposite sex that I’m in ministry with, you have to say first, how healthy is my marriage? And then you need to say, this person who I’m working with, how strong is their marriage and how vulnerable do they and I seem to be? You’ve got to have a great deal of honesty with yourself about how safe it is to move into even low level friendship with them, depending on who the person is.

But as the friendships between two of the same gender, you learn over time which friendships you can trust and which you can’t trust, and I would say the same is true of male-female interaction. But again obviously, you’re going to be cautious because there can be a sexual component–though honestly there can be a sexual component in same-gender friendships as well. And secondly, we cannot live as though we exist in vacuum. There are cultural pressures around us and sub cultural pressures that dictate how we behave wisely in this relationship. Just because I could go have coffee with a person who wasn’t my spouse, in a highly  public place that wouldn’t be questioned, doesn’t mean I should do that.

RM: You know, I get a lot of books sent to me from publishers. One thing that I notice is that books geared toward men or toward generic readers, tend to be very different than the books I get that are geared toward women. And I can even just tell by looking at the cover. Maybe I’m wrong, but usually, with key exceptions including you and others, a lot of the material directed toward women is relational and has to do with one or two aspects of life, but it’s not usually geared toward theology, or Bible, for the most part. Why?

JW: Well I would argue that its a symptom of this “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” mentality that we’ve had within the church. So if you’ve had the courage to crack open one of these book that looks like they painted the front cover with estrogen, you will look at that and say this is incomprehensible. And you’re going to draw one of two conclusions from that: you’re either going to think this is just what women want, the way they’re wired, or you may think this is all women can handle. But the command for us to love God with heart, soul, mind and and strength is not gender specific. It’s not “Hey brother, you love God with your mind and I will love God with my feelings, and these are the gifts we bring the church.”

I will stand and given an account to God for how well I have loved him with my mind. Not Dr. Moore’s mind, not Matt Chandler’s mind, not Beth Moore’s mind–my mind. I need to have a thinking faith as a woman who is a follower of Christ. And what has happened over time is that we have resourced women almost entirely at the feelings level, for the past 20 years. And so women when they are faced with a thought level challenge to their faith, it throws them into complete crisis. They’re not equipped to deal with it. Not only that, but because there’s so much polarization even within church subculture, we think we are straight ticket voters with one teacher vs another. So [according to this mentality] I have to agree with every single thing Matt Chandler says or else he’s a false teacher.

So women in particular are ill-equipped to discern what is a first level doctrine vs a second level doctrine, and to know whether it’s ok to agree with some things and disagree with others. You combine that with a tendency in women to seek consensus and to collaborate, and so anyone who critiques something that has a woman has written can be perceived to be “outside the herd.” So even within women’s circles, there is a danger to any woman who says I need to raise my voice in critique against what another woman has written. So some of the resources that are written at a level that doesn’t honor the intellectual capacity of women sort of never meets with a critique that would help us see more clearly toward other things.

RM: I think you’re about the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” dynamic. When I look at the material that is directly oriented toward men–I think it is starting to change–but for a long time it’s been hyper warrior-spirit, hyper-competitive, which I think feeds into the sort of masculinity-as-velocity mentality that is ending up with a lot of people burned out and devastated at the middle of their lives.

When you think about the local church level–maybe someone is listening to this and belongs to a church where there just hasn’t been any emphasis on Bible teaching for and by women, what can someone do to see that change? Would you say just go find another church, or what would you say to that?

JW: I would not say go and find another church. To me that is a last resort. I would say if you are someone who feels drawn to lead something like that, you should first approach the leadership of the church and say this is something I’d like to do. Often in churches where they say everything is topical or feelings-related, the first thought is: “Let’s stop that, and do hardcore inductive Bible study all the time.” I would say that’s probably not the best response. Instead, it’s better to lay a different foundation and let the other things continue. Getting women to invest in this foundational piece of learning line by line takes time. It starts with one or two women, and then they catch fire and invite their friends, and then those women catch fire. It’s a slow boil, and that’s OK.  It needs to be seen as something you’re going to build into your church over the long term.

And it can be difficult if you’re in a church that overall does not value that kind of study. And it can also be difficult because as church structure has become more and more organic and decentralized, it’s harder and harder to find environments that are dedicated just to the learning of Scripture. So there may be some mechanical difficulty in terms of implementing that. We’re trying to create structures where this kind of learning can take place, and it’s not likely to take place in a home group setting. Home group is great community but it’s not the most structured place for a thought level engagement with the text. So I would urge women in the local church to talk to their leadership but in many cases they might get a blank stare. If that’s the case, gather some women in your home, get some good resources, and trust the Lord to make a harvest out of that.

RM: One thing I’ve noticed, whether it applies to orphan care ministry or any number of things, when you have people who come to church leadership and say “This is a deficiency, you fix it,” there’s typically not a good response. But if you come forward and say “God has laid this on our heart, and we’re not exactly sure what it’s going to look like, but will you support us as we attempt to be faithful,” there’s usually a very good response.

JW: A willingness to partner, yes.

RM: Well thank you for Jen Wilkin for being here today, and I recommend to all of you if you’re not familiar with Jen’s stuff, Google her and get it. And what I appreciate about Jen’s work is that we talked about overreaction here, and I think sometimes when someone is a pioneer and moving in directions that have been deficient for a while, one of the things that you can easily do is say “I want to be super cerebral, so I’m just going to present the omniscience of God in the most arid and abstract way.” But what Jen does is talk about the omniscience of God in a way that is applicable to every day lives as well. That’s a good model for all of us, men and women, to follow.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).