Church & Gender

Mars Hill Reflection 3

Is a tree male or female?

This and other questions about gender, as we revisit and review Mars Hill podcasts episodes 4 & 5.

In prior weeks I’ve asked why this podcast resonates, and then focused on the interplay between church and culture – making a case for understanding the historical context that comes before us.

As the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast marches on, we get episodes covering Mars Hill’s treatment of men and women, and what doozies. I’m forgoing the salacious summaries – I could write forever on all the crazy things Mark Driscoll did – but instead using the podcast as a springboard for questions that matter.


Is a tree male or female? Have you ever looked at a tree and thought, “That tree is just too feminine, or too masculine?” It may be hard to imagine where a tree fits within our conceptions of male or female. Some help: a poet might describe a tree’s soft branches as relational and nurturing, gathering birds to its bosom for shelter and sustenance. Another might consider the unbreakable barked exterior of the tree trunk, rigid and insistent even if offered a rest: “No thanks, I’ll just stand.”

What about God – is the Divine Creator male or female? Most people I’ve asked, after clarifying that I don’t mean the incarnate man Jesus, immediately say “male” – even those who admit they don’t want that to be their only instinct.  Does God live in the world of emotionally distant decisions, fighting as a warrior, and proving His point by toppling temple tables? Or is God primarily about connection, longing to gather Her children underwing as a hen gathers her chicks, as compassionate and attentive as a mother nursing her child?

Let’s come back to that question, and ask one more just now:

What about the church? Does the church as a whole, or your church in particular, manifest as male or female? Have churches been too masculine, or too feminine across history? Does God worry that the Imago Dei – the image of God – will soon look more like Imaga Dei?


Based on the Mars Hill podcast, Mark Driscoll would surely answer “Male” to all three questions; everything is either male or meant to serve males. He walks onto the stage in the mid-1990’s into an era when, in his perception, men have become too soft, the church too feminized (“did you see the pastel colors in some of those churches?!”), and post-9/11 America too weak (“Islam is a masculine religion, that’s why they run an airplane into the world trade center and we… get men like Elton John to play the piano and cry.”) He blasts the Promise Keepers movement – targeted at the very men he is so passionate to reach – because their events have men hugging, “singing love songs to Jesus”, and wearing bright colors on stage.

Driscoll thinks only men – tough, masculine men – should be in charge, yet through the collapse of his power-grabbing, testosterone-fueled ministry, ends up proving the exact reason why that’s a bad idea. Wouldn’t Mars Hill Church still be alive today if leadership had been shared, women had a voice, and the transformational leadership style favored by more women had been used? 1

Podcast host Mike Cosper says, “You can map this out: how post 9/11 anxiety intersects with the sense that the sexual revolution was out to take advantage of women and destroy the family.”

Calvin college professor Dr. Kristin Kobes du Mez points to Mark Driscoll as an example of the movement’s ideal Christian man being muscular, unafraid, and “uncowed by political correctness.” Her book Jesus and John Wayne, “is a sweeping account of the last seventy-five years”…of American evangelicals replacing, “the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism.”

And like an actor in a classic Western film, Driscoll rejected not only the wisdom of women, but also the mentorship of other men, including seasoned faith leaders like John Piper, saying he could never learn anything from Piper because “his church is smaller than mine”. Yee-haw.

Now, to be sure, this is not every man, nor every leader.  I’d wager that a vast majority of men leading churches over the years did not swagger like John Wayne, reject mentorship, or say, “If you’re looking for trouble, I’ll accommodate you.” I’ve been mentored (and fathered) by many fair-minded, humble, and generous men, and looking around they are still faithfully serving the churches around us.

Unfortunately, neither History nor Hollywood make movies about them.

But historically speaking, many of Christianity’s problems come from soaking in a bathtub of hairy, male-dominated leadership, rinsing in empire-building, and leaving the world to towel off in its outcomes. The bathroom steam is still clearing.

As Richard Rohr writes in Eager to Love2, “This [patriarchal] preference for control over relationship ends up making dominative power the primary response to most problems of life, as we saw for example in the Crusades, the Inquisition, the conquest of the New World, Christian support for almost all wars…,” and now we could add: Mars Hill Church.

So what is the way forward?  What will it take to find more feminine leadership in the church? And what kind of man will it take to work in partnership there?

I’ll suggest two questions to guide us.


“Most churches have male leadership, which is truly good — as long as the men in leadership are not threatened by a woman’s voice of influence (or dismissive of it), but rather, invite it, and learn from it,” writes one female pastor in The Perils of Fence Sitting.

To build on this: the posture of learning is so important – and many will claim to strike that pose. But equally important is who we allow ourselves to face in that posture. Can I as a man, only learn from other men? Before I indignantly say no, I should thumb through my learning history card catalog: the authors on my bookshelf, years of sermons, the manager-mentors at work in my career, even my musical playlists and would-be art collection.

It takes practice to learn from people we perceive as different from us. But how I answer the question, “Who can I learn from?” is such a key indicator in how much I can grow, I must practice. If I narrow my teachers, I limit my growth.

(There are obvious extensions of this beyond gender: reading authors of other backgrounds, races, and experiences stretches our worldview as we travel outside what we once called “normal”)

Historically in America and elsewhere, especially in religious settings, adults learned from men (Things are changing, thankfully, but slowly).  Churches coded these gender roles into their charters, reading an ancient societal protocol forward by allowing only men to preach and pastor and elder.

Think what we have lost over the years!

Of course, women were “allowed” to teach children, and each other. Which gives women a distinct advantage in the art of learning from everybody: men could only learn from men, but women learned from both women and men.

Who better to communicate to both groups than someone who speaks both languages? And the men who can partner with – and learn from – women will be in a much better position to lead alongside.


Driscoll’s ministry focused on men, but wasn’t without a vision for women either. Granted, the vision wasn’t shaped by much female input, approaching it as he did, writes Alison Sargent, “with the gusto of a 1950s-era ad for laundry detergent.”

Yet Driscoll made himself out to be a champion of women, tearfully threatening men in his flock with violence if they mistreat a woman or sleep with their girlfriends. It’s said that he had a heart for single women, often buying them groceries or offering help. It’s hard to understand then, why his vision for women is limited to being at home for the children and in bed for the husband, excluding from them the very career aspirations he works so hard to instill in the men.

I find here a subtle difficulty that tempts me as well: vocally advocating for a cause while vocally overdubbing the imagined beneficiaries of that cause. Writing something like this feels good but doesn’t require much from me: everyone believes in the cause but no one is willing to share the mic. As Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says of his own tradition, “Catholics constantly say that honoring of Mary the virgin shows how we love the feminine, but then we grant little or no authority to actual women in decision-making or leadership.”  Or, like the pastor giving a seminar on “allowing” women to speak in the church, who inadvertently monopolized most of the session with his liberating speech: why not hand the mic directly to the women you are championing?

The word “allowing” here is particularly misguided. Where did the power come from, and was it yours to dole out in the first place? Every gospel interaction in the life of Jesus seemed to open, rather than close, the door to first century Palestine women.

A skillful refutation of “allowing” is found in The Perils of Fence Sitting: “A whole-hearted, public, and ongoing commitment to valuing women in church leadership, for the sake of glorifying God in the fullness of his image, in our churches and in our world, is worth the work. Again, when we glorify God’s full image, it is never concession; it is biblical conviction combined with commitment.

There is no need for a “concession”, “allowing” women a seat at The Teaching Table to which everyone is already welcomed. To repurpose a familiar quote from Susan Cottrell for this discussion: the table welcome is not extended “in spite of our faith, in spite of Scripture, but because of it.”

There’s more to this than me allowing you. It’s God allowing any of us to move our tongues in acknowledgement of what we’ve received. Remembering that we’re here to live into Love, and need help learning how that works, means we should practice learning from each other.

If I hoard the power, in the end it’s me who is missing out. It’s like a bachelor hosting his first Thanksgiving dinner and insisting table guests bring nothing: they will be eating only dishes he knew how to cook.

Of course this is all backwards. How much richer a banquet – how nourishing, how interesting, how diverse and how rich – if everyone brings a dish? In the end it’s he who is missing out, and in the process, blocking others from the potential feast.


Perhaps all the centuries of talking of God-as-a-man has tainted us toward thinking men are the best explainers of God. Which brings me back to the question of God Herself.

Is God male or female? We’re talking here about the infinite Creator, the Spirit hovering over the water, the Heart at the center of the universe beating with Love and Purpose. The ridiculousness of this question awakens my awareness of, and aversion to, male pronouns for God. This is not to take something away from God, but to add something to God. Why have we limited our view of our Creator to reflect only attributes that we consider male?

While history has shown church membership is majority female, church power has always skewed male, often to our own detriment.  When it comes to God’s “gender” – I’m not sure history will be much help. Maybe the future will be.

Following this then, I keep asking, what is the best way for me to see more of God? Who should I read, listen to, and learn from? And the answer is an increasingly diverse feast.

Since I cannot figure out the gender of a tree, I’ll close with Rohr’s comment about the building of so many massive European cathedrals around the twelfth century, most of them given female names such as Our Lady or St. Mary of something:  “The combination of massive masculine constructions and yet very feminine-style liturgies, music, and vestments inside seems to speak of a certain synthesis that is still longing to fully manifest.”

May it be so.

♦ weekendswell ♦

Next : After Mars Hill, Step 4: Frenemies

More on Mars Hill from weekendswell:

Reflection 1: After Mars Hill: Church & Context

Reflection 2: After Mars Hill: Church & Culture

Reflection 3: After Mars Hill: Church & Gender

Reflection 4: After Mars Hill, Step 4: Frenemies

Podcast:  The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill

1 “Built on relationships of respect, trust and communality; [the transformational leadership style employed by women] is emotionally expressive, and inspires motivation for others to participate and contribute,” according to one research paper. Another found that nearly a third of women pastors, “view their role primarily as one of empowering laity to implement decisions that laity have made,” whereas less then 10% of clergymen chose this style.

2I’ve just finished a book called Eager to Love, by Richard Rohr, inviting us into St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi’s unique gifts of living without conquering, which is factoring into my words today; look for a full review soon.

Featured Image: Greenlake, Seattle, image by weekendswell. From Hiroshima to Hope is an annual event commemorating “the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all victims of war and violence.”

6 Replies to “Church & Gender”

  1. Thanks Dan, well said. I agree with all of it I think even though I come from and am still involved in traditions that are male dominant. We’re making progress though which is why I hang in there. Not quite ready to call God “her” but don’t believe He is either – weakness in our language. Dad

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, and thanks for your help steering this ship. I agree the “Her” is a trick on the ears, which shows how conditioning and exposure matters: “He” shouldn’t sound so normal either for “Someone” so Grand. But its fun to think about and stretch. Thanks for your example : )


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