A conversation is unfolding about women’s voices in Christianity

Sharon Garlough Brown
Sharon Garlough Brown Courtesy Photo

The Rev. Tish Harrison Warren struck a nerve in April when she wrote a blog post titled “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?” for evangelical magazine Christianity Today.

In the piece, she argued that the rise of social media has allowed women’s historically marginalized voices to be heard in Christianity. She also raised the question of how these women ought to have oversight and accountability, particularly if they are in traditions that don’t ordain women.

Response was swift, with many raising questions about how women’s voices are and should be heard in Christianity — and whether Christian women’s voices are being heard in different ways than the past. Several have pointed out that the conversation is not an entirely new one, but dates at least back to the Protestant Reformation, 500 years ago.

“We don’t just need any woman in ministry so we can have women in ministry,” Warren said in an interview. “We need theologically trained, deeply equipped women who are embedded in church institutions with accountability who are the best teachers.”

This week, Warren, an Anglican priest, and a number of other women Christian authors are among the lineup at The Apprentice Gathering at Friends University. The annual conference draws speakers and attendees from across the United States, including a variety of Christian traditions. This year’s theme is “beauty will save the world.”

Author and spiritual director Sharon Garlough Brown said she was “struck” by the number of women also speaking at the conference: 7 out of 17 (one woman will speak with her husband).

“It was a source of joy and celebration that there’s such diversity,” Brown said.

While Brown doesn’t spend much time online, she has heard many people talking at a pastoral level about women in Christian leadership. Questions are raised about what women are called to and how Scripture ought to be interpreted, she said. Debates about whether women should preach continue, particularly in conservative places like West Michigan, where Brown lives.

Conversations have also gone on for years about the lack of women speakers at Christian conferences. In 2011, author Rachel Held Evans wrote a blog post titled “7 Reasons There Are No Women Speaking at Your Conference.” Reasons she gave included women holding fewer pastoral positions and the societal expectation that women be submissive.

In 2013, columnist Jonathan Merritt responded to a Twitter conversation involving Evans by surveying some of the largest evangelical Christian conferences. He found that out of 34 conferences, about 19 percent of speakers were women.

The Rev. J. Dana Trent, also a speaker and author, says she’s seen Christian women having their voices elevated recently, particularly women with less traditional evangelical messages, such as support for LGBTQ inclusion in the church.

“I love it,” Trent said. “I love that these women are emerging, and they’re saying some very provocative, what would be thought of as controversial things, especially to the evangelical community.”

Trent thinks women are increasingly being heard both due to the internet and the election of President Donald Trump.

“We have a lot of different political and cultural events that have happened that have allowed women space, given women space and opportunity but also emboldened them, particularly Christian women, to say, ‘This isn’t the gospel,’” Trent said.

Author Beth Booram said she doesn’t think much about how her voice is heard or how she influences others through her work. She does hear from readers at least once per week, and estimates that she and her husband have hosted about 5,585 guests at Sustainable Faith Indy, an urban retreat center.

How women are being heard might be changing, Booram said. She wonders if reading a woman’s writing is more accepted than hearing a woman speak.

“The more women writers, the more people are exposed to the female voice and opening to it,” Booram said. “I still think there’s a bias against women speakers. We’re so used to men and the way men communicate.”

Jenny Bennett, a member of Chapel Hill United Methodist Church, plans to attend The Gathering along with many of her fellow church members.

She hadn’t noticed at first how many women were speaking at the conference, but said diversity of speakers is important in a world that is too often divided.

“Hopefully they (the attendees) will see a glimpse into a narrative that speaks more about unity and less about this camp or that camp or this gender or that gender or this denomination or that denomination,” Bennett said. “These women aren’t on a soapbox for women’s rights, they’re just women who are following hard after what they believe.”

Warren said she makes a great deal of the verse “In the image of God he (God) created them; male and female he created them.”

She hopes that conference lineups like the one at The Apprentice Gathering become normal, that one day her two daughters would be surprised to find a conference where women’s voices are not heard.

The “Fullness of God” is found in male and female together, Warren said.

“I think it’s true on the conference level as well.”

The Apprentice Gathering is Sept. 28-30 at Friends University and costs $179 for the conference and $69 for just the Thursday intensive pres-sessions. People may register online at www.apprenticegathering.org

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess