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January 1980 · Vol. 9 No. 1 · pp. 7–10 

When Men and Women Work Together in the Church

Esther Wiens

During the last few years a variety of articles, books, and conferences have been instrumental in effecting moderate changes in the role of women in the church. Although many women continue to serve in traditional ways, other women have begun to serve as deaconesses, Sunday School superintendents, members of local church and conference boards, choir conductors, and song leaders.

We seem, finally, to be acknowledging what Dorothy Sayers asserted four decades ago: just as all men are not inclined to do the same work, so women have individual inclinations. 1 Obviously, as our concept of brotherhood expands the accompanying growing pains become more intense. I spoke to a number of men and women at the center of action in our churches who helped me isolate the following areas of ambiguity and stress which occur when men and women work together in the church. To bring them into the open facilitates discussion and the opportunity for deeper harmony in our congregations.

Some stress is caused by the reluctance of some men to accept women into their ranks. The presence of women complicates matters; some men feel uncomfortable in the presence of articulate and aggressive women; their presence dissipates the camaraderie that has developed among the men. Among themselves men are less cautious and more forthright, whereas in the company of women they feel compelled to be more deferential, to speak more gently.

We all need to acknowledge that when women are included in such groups, something is taken away. A different spirit pervades. However, though women should expect no indulgence or special treatment, a spirit of generosity and gentleness is, after all, devoutly wished for and expected in all types of gatherings of Christians. Women will hopefully make up for what is lost with their excitement at being at the growing edge of the church and their characteristic dedication. The end result will be stronger and better.

A more disturbing issue is that at times women are given a task to {8} do but are hindered from fully entering into the work, not because of any biblical principle, but because some people in the congregation might be offended by their full participation. Although pastors and other leading brethren do not necessarily identify with the conservative element, they will fail to aggressively support progress toward greater opportunity for women. Such negative attitudes might be neutralized by a sermon featuring the work of New Testament women or more teaching on the work of the deaconate.

The work of the deaconate involves many ambiguities. Men and women commissioned for service as deacons are given the same mandate: to give themselves unreservedly to visiting the sick and attending to various needs of all members. But in the practice of communion there appears to be an arbitrary division of labor. Women clean up after the service but do not pass the bread and wine to their brothers and sisters. If this exclusion from the service at the Lord’s table is consistent with biblical teaching, this point should be made openly. Otherwise, there appears to be a discrepancy between faith and practice. Another ambiguity has to do with the open acknowledgment of who is included in the deaconate. In the 1979 Manitoba Conference Yearbook, for example, 9 of the 22 churches who have deacons list husband and wife as deacon couples; 12 list only the men’s names. Yet general observation reveals that the couples usually work as a team. To acknowledge this in a formal way would encourage the women.

While many men and women rejoice in the new vitality effected by a truer unity in the church, some members of both sexes feel uneasy about the new patterns of service, particularly with regard to women becoming more visible in the church service. Women have always been visible in the choir and at the keyboard, but when they appear in new places, particularly those that involve some kind of leadership, there is consternation. In one church, for example, women are allowed to lead the congregational singing during the evening service but not during the morning service, presumably because it is of lesser importance than the morning service, or because the smaller attendance in the evening will mean fewer people will be disturbed by seeing a woman where they expect a man. One congregation came up with a happier solution. After much deliberation and some objections, they decided to risk hiring a woman as choir director. (A number of men had been asked and had refused.) The woman is happy to work in an area for which she is well qualified, and the church has an able and dedicated choir leader.

Both church and director have grown in mutual appreciation. Linked to this issue of uneasiness and distaste for women in leadership positions are the fears regarding the outcome if women are allowed to exercise their gifts freely in the church. One concern is that men will renege on their duties, retreat from their posts and leave the field to women. It {9} should be noted that in the secular world men are not withdrawing from professions to which women are attracted. Certainly, whatever work men do with efficiency and dedication in church and society will attract and excite women. Some of them, having waited long for opportunity, bring with them an enthusiasm and commitment that is invigorating and that complements rather than diminishes a man’s contribution.

While some fears astonish, others give us pause. The married woman, ever concerned about her husband and children, sometimes fears that by moving into areas of social risk, she might jeopardize her husband’s position in the church. Her tendency then is to defer to her husband, preferring his happiness and sense of fulfillment to her own. Her graciousness notwithstanding, one hopes both husband and wife might look for divine guidance in such a situation and that the church might learn more fully what it means to respond in love to each person’s sense of calling.

Another fear, little spoken of but apparently real, is the fear that as men and women work more closely together in committees and boards, they will be sexually attracted to one another. As we acknowledge this danger, we must not lose sight of the fact that the same men and women work daily in close contact with the opposite sex at their places of work and in circumstances often less protected than those in the church. In my conversation with persons working in church settings, I heard no complaints of indiscreet behavior. This does not mean indiscretions do not occur, yet surely we can assume that Christian men and women face this issue with their whole spiritual armor intact—and that it protects as effectively in the church as it does in the world.

Another problem that arises as men and women become co-laborers, particularly at the conference level, is the women’s lack of experience and knowledge. As one leader said, our conferences are run by “pros.” Those who are by implication amateurs should give themselves time to listen, to acquire knowledge and understanding, before becoming vocal. This advice needs to be taken seriously, yet women are faulted for doing this very thing; their silence is often interpreted as timidity. Certainly, some fear is involved; women have, after all, just recently entered a male-dominated situation. But quietness may arise not so much from timidity as from discretion, which is, according to the bard, the better part of valor. For a woman to have been a conference delegate in the last ten years has taken courage, and she must surely realize that her words in open sessions reflect not only upon herself but upon all women.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that women have not fully taken advantage of their opportunities. Some, for example, have {10} declined invitation to serve on church boards. Though such a response has not furthered the cause of women, we must remind ourselves that women have individual gifts and inclinations. Many do not feel called to public service, particularly when it involves leadership or policy-making. Moreover, a woman who does accept this kind of position often finds herself set apart from other women. Not all of them want to pay this price.

Related to this issue is the matter of support among women. When a woman enters a work relatively new to her sex, she does so without the support of other women, particularly the older ones. What she needs is the counterpart to the older brother who takes the fledgling pastor or other church worker under his wing for protection and nurture. Women need “mothers” who will support them and who will pray for them with the same dedication they have shown toward men in leadership. Unfortunately, not many of our older women as yet appreciate the sense of calling that younger women today feel, nor do they understand their vulnerability in new roles.

Many men and women involved in the changing nature of the work force in our churches are excited about it. There is a new sense of unity, of wholeness, as each person brings his or her gifts to the task. However, some reluctance to give women even those freedoms which New Testament women enjoyed still persist. Some women are offended by this, others frustrated, but no bitter front can be seen emerging among them. Their continued involvement in the church reflects a graciousness and a deep commitment to the Kingdom.


  1. Lectures given in 1938 and published in 1971 under the title, Are Women Human? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
Esther Wiens is assistant professor of English at Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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