In just one week, my recent post on the Jennifer Lawrence photo situation has become my most popular of 2014 and the second most-viewed of all time. It seemed to strike a nerve. Lawrence is a star, of course, and the issue has been percolating for a while. So it makes sense that such reflections might catch fire.
Even so, I think there’s more to it.
Jennifer Lawrence is not merely an actress but a symbol of a rising new kind of female empowerment. Both widely accessible and confident in identity, this new feminism finds its foundation not at the periphery of pop culture but rather at its center. Lawrence, then, is just one in a vanguard of voices like Beyonce’s and Taylor Swift’s whose careers and trajectories make them heroes to many women.
I realize, of course, that these women are pop stars. That they do not carry deep philosophical or political weight on their shoulder. That they have no graduate degrees and have authored no lengthy tomes. But therein, perhaps, lies their widespread appeal and accessibility.
They are a highly visible part of a new generation who have been able to build upon the advances of their mothers before them, stepping forward in confidence even while they advance the cause further.
As I think about the lives of such women, I understand their main influence to be in modeling what an empowered person might look like. To be sure, there are very few young women out there who will rise to become a top musical act or win an Academy Award. But the fact that those with such lofty achievements can inspire others onward is vital. While it is legitimately to be debated whether everything these women do should be imitated, they at the very least provide confident and self-assured options for women to consider. Wilting submission to older societal conventions and unfortunate silence on important issues need not apply.
I think about the power of such modeling when I consider the young women of the Church. For while broader society has its Beyonces, Lawrences, and Swifts to look up to, the Church has not done a very good job providing a wide range of options for its women.
To be sure, there have been some notable figures throughout the history of Christianity and–thankfully–we now live in an age when many denominations support and affirm women in ministry. I laud both of these facts. But masked behind history and present understanding is the hard truth that there aren’t nearly as many heroes available for Christian women to admire as there ought to be.
Women have not often been allowed–by society or Church–the same kinds of leadership roles as men. Church historians of the past have focused upon men, sometimes exclusively. And in today’s world of churches, even denominations (like my own, the Assemblies of God) that support women in ministry have relatively few serving in pastoral roles. It is one thing to say we support the ordination of women; it is another thing to have their ordination be realized in service to the local church.
The effect of such realities continues the tacit limitations placed upon women within Christianity. Think about it: if a teenage boy feels called to ministry, he will probably come to understand some of that call through the lens of all the male ministers he knows. Maybe he’ll feel led to live into his purpose in youth ministry, missions, or church planting. There are lots of men in those fields for him to imitate. For the 15-year old girl, however, the picture looks much different. If she discerns a call to ministry and looks around for models of what that might look like at the pastoral level, all she might see is a room full of men. Even though all of those men might philosophically agree that women can be ministers, the tacit message we send is somewhat different.
Ministry roles for women in many churches–even those that support the ordination of women–can take the form of ministry spouse, women’s group leader, Sunday School teacher, stay-at-home mother, and the like. For young girls called to serve, those might be some of the only options deemed worthy of consideration. Now please: don’t get me wrong. None of these things is bad. I affirm anyone called by God to live in these roles. My point is not to criticize them.
Rather, I’m simply saying that they should not be the only roles open to women. That when God calls a young woman to full-time ministry she should be able to reflect upon all her options as she discerns which direction that call to ministry might take. I’m convinced there are probably many women out there that could and should be serving in lead roles in our churches who have not embraced that potential simply because it never even seemed like an option. This is not just unfortunate; it is tragic.
I’m not going to spend time here debating the idea of women in ministry; as a matter of fact, I grow tired of debating it at all. As a Pentecostal, Acts 2:17 tells me that the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh; I’ll just leave it at that. As a seminary graduate and academician, I have studied with and know women who are serving our churches faithfully. As a professor I teach ministry classes to many gifted, mature, and empowered women. And, to be honest, I tend to be more impressed with the quality of my female students’ work and personal maturity than I do their male counterparts.
I’m excited for their potential, and I don’t for a second want them to feel limited in their options. (Which, sadly, they do.) In light of this, questions persist. Which of their fellow students will actively and vocally support them in their call? Which churches will hire them in visible roles? Which organizations will e-mail me looking for a candidate, and not specify that they only want a male?
There are great women serving in our churches today, but there are few if any Jennifer Lawrences, Beyonces, or Taylor Swifts out there in terms of ubiquity and influence. I’m convinced that the generation of women ministers represented by the students in my classes can be such leaders. We need to help them do so; not just for their sakes, but for the sakes of our daughters and their daughters after them.
There is still a lot of work to do, of course. But it is work worth doing. Work that is achievable. After millennia of male dominance by means of tradition, brute strength, and biology in basically all parts of culture, I will welcome a coming age of women.
Not that 49.6% of the world’s population needs my permission or blessing.