While we speak of the power of unity, we can be incredibly guilty of creating a divide between men and women, enforcing a gender ghetto within the Christian faith.
Before I start, I would like to confess my absolute love for the Christian church. As a believer who has been involved in church life for a number of decades, I sincerely hold it with such high esteem. Most nights of the week, you’ll find me helping out at or spending time with people I know from church. Not only have I seen my own life dramatically changed there, but I have seen the lives of hundreds if not thousands first hand transformed and integrated by the power of believers doing life together.
And I’ve already even used the old Christian cliche expression of “doing life together”.
So it is with a measure of humility that I attempt to discuss an observation I have heard made my several onlookers to the Christian faith, as well as several people within it, in addition to being an observation of my own.
And that is that we seem to reinforce a gender ghetto in much of the way we build church relationships.
I remember one night a number of years ago I had one of my friends come and visit my church and make a comment after he left – “Hey, all the guys seem to stick together, and all the girls seem to stick together”. “Oh, that’s funny, I didn’t really notice”, I said. Then I had another friend come along and say “you guys always stand in circles, and the men are always on one side and the ladies are always on the other”. “Oh, haha, guess you were right about that circle”, I said.
Then I had some ladies come up to me and say, “Hey Matt, a lot of the guys just stick together, how do we get to meet any of them?”. “Let me introduce you to some”, I said as I brought them over to meet a few of the guys I knew. I also had the same conversation with a number of guys who found it hard to make female friends as they all seemed to congregate together, and they felt like they stood out like a sore thumb in the sea of women they had to swim through to say hi to any of them.
As time has gone on, I have attempted to do my part in crossing the divide, but I thought it was time to write about this very real phenomenon that exists in our church environments (and I have visited and been a part of many different Christian communities) – we can be very guilty of creating a gender ghetto within the congregations that we say we desire unity amongst.
As innocent as who stands next to who in our circle may seem, I find that it actually can be the outworking of a very destructive and divisive attitude that exists within the walls of our faith communities. Unfortunately, our well meaning behaviour may further be driving a wedge between us.
And I’m not the only one to notice this. In addition to my onlooking friends who were able to notice such phenomenon on their first few encounters with the church community, many authors and research groups have been fascinated by the topic such as the Barna Group. A noteworthy book that comes to mind on the topic was the book Why Men Hate Going to Church by Dave Murrow, where the author cites several instances of men in particular feeling cut off from the faith community as it appears to be largely feminine, and feel like they lack a connection point.
It’s an interesting comment from a number of men, and one which many churches were quick to respond to. With men’s events, masculine topics and more stereotypically male decorations (namely cars, hunting gear, or “men’s sheds”), a lot of churches flipped the switch completely the other way to bring the men in. All the while we still have a large number of thriving women’s ministries around the world, which do a great job in uniting women together and strengthening the bonds of friendship and community that are so important to the church.
And yet for all our efforts, we seem to be more successful in uniting men with men and women with women than we have been with uniting people with each other. Family and community. Culture and diversity. Two separate rivers flowing next to each other, rather than a truly integrated spring of living water.
Am I saying I don’t think ministries targeted towards particular sexes are worthwhile? Not at all. In fact, I’m a big believer in them, having participated in running and organising several functions for men, as well as serving women at an array of female targeted events and ministries. I do think though that if we are to be doing church life properly, these ministries shouldn’t be existing in isolation, but rather devote their focus to integration. Your men’s ministry should champion the women in your church, and the women’s ministry should be just as powerful in seeing men built up as women. We can’t just be creating feel good places for people to hide from each other. It should never be the case where (as I have experienced in a few cases) you have men or women in their 30s and 40s physically removing themselves from any and all conversations once a member of the opposite gender joins the circle or the bible study.
I had thought such problems only existed in a high school ministry arena. And granted, in the teenage years, an argument can be made that it is probably for the best that deeper discussions are held between other men or other women. But as people head to university? Or as they enter their 20s? Or as they head into their 30s and still struggle to have basic interactions with the opposite sex? And in their 40s with no one from the opposite sex they would call a friend, who they would have conversation with and grow in faith community with? As I have gotten older and the age groups I have targeted have become more broad, I have discovered these issues don’t just disappear as you get older. You have to make a decision to intentionally change these paradigms in your life, and in the lives of others.
Come on people, where’s that Christian maturity we keep raving about?
The reality is in our world today, men have a lot of reasons to be cut off from women, and women have a lot of reasons to be cut off from men. Whether it be a background of abuse, a repeated sense of failure or disappointment associated with the opposite sex, or even just high school level jitters that have followed them into adulthood, many people still experience great difficulty in crossing the gender divide.
And yet I would say that the Christian church is not meant to be a place where we reinforce these reasons for distance, but rather a place where we are able to work through said issues and come into the fullest sense of what unity truly means. I know in my own life that I would be nothing if not for the voices of the women in my life, and I could say the same about the women in my life and the role the men they’ve allowed in have played in their continued growth, leadership, and strengthened faith journey.
I really like what the apostle Paul said on the subject once. He wrote that the first woman, Eve, was taken out of the man. At that point, all the men could be like hey that’s right, we’re all that, we’re more than capable, we can get by without you. But Paul levels the playing field by pointing out that every man since then has come out of a woman! Talk about bringing the walls down. He’s pointing out that women would be incomplete or even not exist without men… but the same is now true about all us men and our need for women as well!
We were made for each other.
As one who has been incredibly blessed by the power of men and women working in unity in a community of faith, and saddened when I have observed instances where we have reinforced separation from the opposite sex, I would like to pose the following questions to you and your ministry, as a sort of health check in this regard.
When was the last time you had a good conversation with the opposite sex? More than “hi how are you bless you my sister goodbye”? I mean a conversation about the specifics of your week and life, an opportunity to invite an outside perspective, and dare I say, develop a friendship? If it’s longer than two weeks, may I suggest that this is unhealthy, and you may be using gender ministries to hide, rather than to truly live.
How often do you discuss your faith in a shared gender setting? While single sex groups can be beneficial, if they are your entire experience, you are missing the whole picture. Christians believe in the creation of Adam and Eve – male and female. It wasn’t called “very good” until we had the perspectives and worldviews of both. How could you hear from more women in your life? Or more men? I’m not saying let’s get creepy and talk about our deep rooted sexual issues or whatever they may be when we’re all together, but how about the topics which are appropriate to share about (which is most of them)?
Once someone is integrated in a gender ministry, what is the direction you take them after that to integrate them into the broader church community? Yes, by all means, reach them with the single mother’s ministry, or take them into the men’s rehab program, but once they’ve made some significant steps forward, are we teaching them that they can just stay hanging out with the boys or doing morning bible studies with the girls and that’s all the Christian experience they’ll ever need? If so, we’re part of the problem.
How are you as a leader going about dealing with issues and challenges relating to the opposite sex with the people you oversee? When you hear of a man who hates all women, do you tolerate and enforce his distorted view, or do you help him address the source of the issues and progress towards a healthy normal? Do you help create opportunities for people to learn from each other in a safe and non-threatening environment where views of the opposite gender may be discussed?
What are your attitudes towards the opposite sex? Are you evasive or dismissive of women? Can you really not respect any man when he speaks? How many years do you plan on continuing to harbour unforgiveness or resentment towards your brothers or sisters? Are you still living in the shadow of a bad breakup? Disunity is one of the most destructive things in a church, and like all great forces of destruction, it begins within our own hearts. It must start with me before it becomes community.
Overall, I just fully believe that the church is more than really strong men’s ministries and really strong women’s ministries working in juxtaposition til kingdom come. Yes, by all means, build them, but don’t build them in isolation – build them in unity. I love what one of the pastors at our church said – she said that Jesus wasn’t coming back for half a bride, but a whole bride, male and female, the men and the women together, pure and united.
Segregation is not something that we should ever tolerate or enforce in our churches, and we must be vigilant to help people move towards whole relationships with all people.
As the psalmist said, “How good it is when God’s people dwell in unity… for there God has commanded His blessing, life forevermore”.
What are your views on unity? How can we stop our churches adopting the appearance of a gender ghetto?