I was involved in a mission last week which meant I dutifully went along to a women’s desert and coffee night and my husband to his men’s breakfast. This was the second time in six months.
I confess. I don’t like being around large groups of women. Women’s events mean another night not shared with my husband. There’s too much oestrogen. Perhaps it was the all-girls high school which ruined it for me… I couldn’t help thinking this does feel a lot like going back to school… So I wondered, when else do large groups of women meet together? When else do we segregate according to gender? Why?
- In school – that has to do with different stages of development in young male and female brains, and trying to keep horny teenagers focused on their learning.
- In sport – that’s because of the different bodies of men and women (thoughwe could see less segregation in sport – and Steve Waugh thinks so too – especially in kids’ sport).
- In the Country Women’s Association, the Mother’s Union and the Girl Guides…
But it’s actually kind of weird these days to separate men and women post-puberty. We don’t do it in any other forum? Why do we do it at church?
While sipping my juice (who drinks coffee at night anyway?) I looked about at all the women in the room. There were teenagers, retirees, mums, students, workers, grannies, aunties, widows, divorcees, wives, fiancées and single women. There were plenty of anglo-Australian women, but there were also Chinese women, Indians, Pacific Islanders, Japanese. Some were Christians, some had been missionaries, some had never come to church before, some only came for the cake.
The only thing we had in common was that we were all women. Actually, I felt I had much more in common – in terms of interests, experiences, struggles – with the single male students who were helping in the kitchen than the stay at home mums across the table from me.
Whenever I go to a women’s event there’s talk behind the scenes. Someone’s sick of cake/craft/flowers/pink, ‘why are these events always so girly?’ ‘why can’t we go camping/shooting/gaming/[insert ‘masculine’ activity]?’. Then someone suggests we think of an event which would appeal to all women, not just ones who like craft and kittens. That just about kills the conversation. What appeals to all women? … no… nup… I’ve got nothing. So coffee and dessert it is.
The thing is, you can’t create an event that appeals to all women any more than you could have an event which appeals to all people. And if you could, why wouldn’t you invite men too?
In our post-second wave feminism society ‘women’ as a group have very little holding them together as women (not that women were ever a homogeneous group). There is no ‘typical’ woman. Women’s experiences are so diverse that I’m not sure that segregating men from women is useful.
Titus 2 (the ‘women’s ministry passage) might help.
Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.
3 Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.
Notice the that the older men and the older women are to model much the same qualities. Yes, the women are told to teach women. But they’re teaching things which are particular to the women’s shared experience. Older, more experienced women are teaching young wives and mothers how to be wives and mothers in their context. It’s not a picture of taking all the women aside – widows, single women, mothers and child-free alike – and teaching them the Bible at a convention or desert night. It’s particular to the older women’s expertise and younger mothers’ needs. It is not arbitrary segregation but segregation because these groups face particular issues. The aim is to be respectable to outsiders so that there are no barriers to hearing God’s word.
In light of this, I can understand the value in holding separate events or conferences to talk about parenting, being a student, being single, managing work – different life stages or particular circumstances. I can understand separating men and women to talk about sex so that people feel comfortable. I can also see the value of meeting with someone of the same sex to discuss personal issues. But I’m not sure what it is that all women in common today that men don’t which would make it necessary to segregate men and women when teaching the Bible generally.
The speaker at this dessert night talked about the need to be dependent on God not self, on the need to confess our sin and on the forgiveness Jesus offers. This is true for all of us! It’s a shame the men weren’t invited. They missed out.
It’s not just an issue of creating extra work and extra events (although I think we’re often in danger of that). It suggests that we’re not united, that in Christ maybe there is still male and female.It suggests that men really are from Mars and women from Venus rather than both made in the image of God. It suggests that either we’re so different that the Gospel is different or has different implications for women and men. It suggests that we’re primarily Christian women or Christian men rather than just Christians, people who follow Jesus.
So why do we segregate ourselves?
I have two ideas
- It’s about babysitting. We do separate women and men’s events so that each parent has a chance to go something. I’m not sure that childcare logistics justify separating men from women, especially if what’s being heard is relevant to both parents. Perhaps we need to think laterally. Moreover, single parents can get overlooked it the assumption is the other parent will mind the kids. This is easy for me to say – I don’t have kids! Perhaps parents find separate events helpful. Any thoughts, parents?
- It’s about women preaching. There are so many gifted female preachers, but because many people do not believe they should be allowed to preach to mixed groups, we artificially create segregated events so that these women can use their gifts.
- It’s a hangover from the time when it was normal for women and men to gather separately (Mother’s Union etc.) because of the gendered division of labour.
Any other ideas? Why do we segregate ministries according to gender? Are these good reasons to separate men and women? Do you find segregated events helpful?