Of all the contentious topics one could write about in the realm of Christian/Church theology and practice (and, unfortunately, there are many), few seem to rise to the top quicker than the topic of women in Christian ministry. After all, we have seen entire denominations split over disagreements on the acceptable level and nature of female-led ministry.

Thus I whole-heartedly applaud this ambitious attempt by Felicity Dale and her co-authors to put a definitive stamp on the debate. And in case you’re wondering: yes, it is pro-women-in-ministry-and-leadership. But before you go running off into the hills to grab your pitchforks, let me just say that the arguments and subjects put forth in this book are varied, thought-provoking, and certainly worthy of your consideration even if they don’t ultimately result in changing your mind.

Structure of the Book

As I mentioned, Black Swan Effect is a compilation. Many of the authors who contributed essays are personal friends of editor and co-author Felicity Dale, which would seem to lend itself to a sense of “groupthink” or mutual admiration society, but in this case works quite well due to Dale’s background in publishing House2House Magazine and other connections in the wider missional and organic church movements. Some of the authors are well-known names in those movements: Alan Hirsch, Frank Viola, Jon Zens…and others may be familiar even in the broader world of Evangelicalism, such as Lynne Hybels of Willow Creek Church. In short, if you consider yourself part of the organic-missional church movement, this is simply a must read. If you are part of a more traditional church or denomination, this book may very possibly rattle your cage.

The great strength of Black Swan Effect is also paradoxically its principal weakness. As much as I enjoyed the diversity of viewpoints encapsulated in the various essays, I also found myself puzzled at times due to contradictions between the different authors as well as problems with the sequence of the essays. For example, most of the essays that directly addressed Scriptural concerns were placed around the middle of the book. Given the fact that most Christians who oppose women in ministry do so because of the Biblical texts which might appear to prohibit such activity, it seems to me that it’s important to dive into that subject as quickly as possible. I fear that some people will drop out and not get through enough of the book to arrive at those all-important chapters.

Another issue for me was the lack of consensus on “what to do” in attempting to launch more women into ministry. Based on a particular author’s stance, one solution would be to take small, respectful steps and quietly reform church culture from the inside-out, and another solution would be to act boldly, taking a progressive stance against all odds (what you might call Christian feminism). One essayist in particular spent a good part of their time airing personal grievances that the male-dominated church paradigm had wrought. While I fully appreciate the need to expose church-sponsored injustice against women and call it what it is, I feel at times such a mood detracted instead of bolstered the overall message of the book.

However, these small concerns of mine are simply a matter of editorial preference and are in no way reasons not to engage with the material put forth in Black Swan Effect. Overall, I greatly enjoyed reading the book, and I furiously highlighted many passages, some on the same page! I will attempt to extract a few nuggets for you to whet your appetite.

Female Ministers: the Scriptures Say…What?

It should come as no surprise that Christians value the Scriptures, and thus any attempts to “reframe” a discussion on a given topic in the realm of theology or ecclesiology must start with a careful and humble review of the Biblical narrative.

One point that is stressed by many authors in Black Swan Effect, and one that I think is easily overlooked, is that Jesus is first and foremost the example we are to follow as Christians. His earthly ministry was a reflection of His divine purpose as part of the Trinity and thus requires careful scrutiny. In that light, when it comes to a woman’s role in the Body of Christ…well, WWJD?

In his essay, Frank Viola writes:

Jesus came into a world where the cards were stacked against women. The ways he engaged, conversed, healed, and recognized them in his teachings were radical for his culture, but they were second nature to Jesus.

Indeed. When one compares Jesus’ attitude towards women to the attitude of contemporary rabbis, the differences are striking. Many Jewish rabbis considered women barely worthy of any consideration in God’s eyes, and perpetuated rather than reformed the misogynistic culture of which they were a part. As Viola puts it:

Women in Jesus’ day were treated poorly both by the Jewish and Roman worlds. They could not receive an education. They had no voice in their marriage, and they were limited to a special court in the Temple that was inferior to that of the men. A Jewish man was not supposed to talk to a woman in public. If he did, it was considered a shame. Jewish women were to be seen in public as little as possible. The prevailing view of women in the Jewish mind was that they were regarded as private property.

Contrast that with Jesus’ remarkable discussion of high theology with the woman at the well (a Samaritan woman, no less!). Or his treatment of the woman caught in adultery. Or his willingness to allow a woman to anoint him with oil and wipe his feet with her hair. Or the fact that Jesus had many female disciples (Luke 8:1-3) who did not abandon him at the crucifixion even when the majority of his male disciples went AWOL. Frank Viola lists many more such examples in his essay. Clearly Jesus was pro-female and stands out as a 1st-century revolutionary in this regard.

Now that may be all well and good, someone could say, but all of Scripture is God-breathed and able to inform us of God’s heart and intentions. So what about the Apostle Paul and his “notorious” views of women in ministry? Are they actually aligned with Jesus? Do they contradict Jesus? (Heaven forbid!) Or have we interpreted certain passages incorrectly in church history?

Jon Zens addresses these certain passages head-on in his essay, and I felt he did an admirable job of navigating these choppy waters. The two main passages in question are 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Now I’m not going to give away his exegesis—buy the book for that!—but I will quote a bit from statements and conclusions that I found highly illuminating:

Traditionally, we tend to think of “teaching” in terms of a person presenting material to others who are listening. However, New Testament perspectives would expand our narrow conception of this matter considerably. Broadly speaking, believers came together to partake of the Christ within each other. Paul contrasted the Ephesians’ former way of living with their new life by reminding them, “You have not so learned Christ.” In the New Testament, “learning” is not about gathering brute knowledge, but about going deeper in a Person—“growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.” Teaching is much bigger than a teacher/listener context. For example, Paul revealed that saints “teach and admonish one another” when they sing of Christ together. So when the Lord gives a song to a sister to share with the assembly, she is contributing to the “teaching/learning” that is continuously taking place in the ekklesia in a variety of ways.

Now it must be said that Zens is fundamentally a proponent of organic church, and therefore his mental image of church ministry is very far removed from top-down, pulpit/pew hierarchy. So, in essence, he is describing a vision of church in which all members participate equally—not equal in action per se because we all have different gifts as the Spirit leads, but equal in standing and honor. This begs the question: how can the church be a place where all members of the body come together to function properly and in divine “oneness” (John 17:20-26) when roughly 50% of the body is silenced?

On the contrary, Zens states:

I believe the information we have in the Bible about women participating in body life is extremely significant. How you ever noticed that the New Testament offers many glimpses into the service of women in the Kingdom—more so than most of the original 12 apostles? In fact, the Lord gave us more information about the function of sisters in the early church than he did about lot of other people, places, and matters in general.

He goes on to cite numerous examples, including Paul’s mention of a female apostle, Junia (Romans 16:7), and his commendation of female house church hostesses such as Nympha (Colossians 4:15). In fact, it must be said that many of the early churches (which all invariably met in homes) would have been hosted by women. It seems odd, to say the least, if the women who opened up their houses to Christian fellowship were unable to participate in such fellowship.

I realize that not all objections to women in ministry are absolute—for many people, it’s not that women can’t be ministers, it’s that they can’t be in “senior” leadership roles where they exercise authority over men. In other words, it’s OK to have a woman be a deaconess or lead a children’s ministry, but it’s not OK to have Pastor Jane preach on Sunday.

Neil Cole’s essay does a fabulous job of blasting our faulty notions of leadership in the church wide open. He explains:

While addressing men who were striving to find their place in a hierarchical view of authority, Jesus spoke clearly and authoritatively about leadership that aspires for positioning in his Kingdom:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant…” (Mark 10:41-43)

This statement is the baseline of revelation by which any other passage on leadership in God’s Kingdom must be understood. It is primary when looking at New Testament leadership texts…Using this passage as our basis dismantles some faulty views, and allows for a better hermeneutic (how a text is interpreted) regarding church leadership in general, and specifically how it relates to women.

In other words, perhaps instead of trying to argue for the validity of women “in ministry leadership,” it’s better to look at what Jesus actually said about leadership. Maybe we’ve been wrong about the role of men in ministry leadership all along! (I think, looking at church history, we have.)

I would like to point out that the word we translate from the Greek into the English word “minister” is actually the exact same word that is translated as “deacon”—diakonos. In addition, the very word translated “ministry” is the Greek word diakonias. I learned this fact rather recently, and it was a giant Aha! moment for me and only reinforced what I already believed about the nature of the church. So every time you read Paul or another NT author refer to himself as a minister—“I, Paul, a minister”—know that you could easily read that phrase as “I, Paul, a servant” and it would be Biblically accurate. Ministry as well could easily be read as service.

Are we so willing to reject women who wish to be servants and engage in service to the Body of Christ? Seen in that light, our traditional view of gender-specific leadership may not be what’s singularly skewed but rather our view of leadership in general.

Justice: a Clarion Call to the Church

Just as the Church has historically been on the wrong side of justice issues in certain times and places past, it has often been on the wrong side of the gender debate. I was extremely impressed by some of the essays in the book on this subject matter. The detailed examples of women being marginalized, dishonored, and sometimes outright abused simply because of their God-given XX chromosomes were shocking and heartbreaking. Even small matters that might not constitute direct injustice got me riled up, such as this pitiful example shared by Felicity Dale:

One Saturday morning a few years ago, Tony [Felicity’s husband] and I were enjoying a lie-in when his cell phone rang. The person at the other end was discussing publishing a book I had written, so naturally, I was interested in the conversation. I mouthed to Tony, “Put it on speaker phone.” The conversation continued. After a while, the man said, “Of course, we’ll have both your names on the front cover. This book is far too important to have been written by a woman!”

Upon hearing this, I suffered a temporary loss of sanctification.

One can hardly blame Felicity. If I were her, it would have been a true WTF?? moment!

Now it’s all too easy to hear stories like this and get angry and then think “Oh well. That kind of thing doesn’t happen much anymore. This is the year 2014 after all!” But stuff like this does happen, and while it may not happen regularly in your particular community, it is happening in other communities all around the world. And obviously, injustice against women is hardly a problem restricted to Christian circles—we see it happening in all religions and cultures and even in modern Western secular society every day. One does not need to look far to realize that hatred of women seems to be a key part of the enemy’s diabolical plan to degrade and ultimately destroy humanity.

Possibly the greatest thing the Church can do to deal with this issue right off the bat is strive to become a place of healing for women who have borne the brunt of bigotry. Suzette Lambert, a licensed marriage and family therapist, writes:

A fellowship that does not discriminate by gender, but celebrates differences while releasing each person into their God-given calling, can be an essential part of the healing process. Everyone is allowed the expression of the Holy Spirit, both within and outside of the group. Neither gender is threatened, nor is there any need to subjugate anyone within the group. We can share times of openness and vulnerability, our fears and hopes. As each person expresses the gifts the Holy Spirit has given them, the whole group has a greater experience of the presence of Christ.

It is from this place of wholeness that we can begin to raise our daughters and sons in a healthy way. Not only will children see women released in church, they will view this as normal in every area of life. Marriages will be healthier—complementary relationships, as opposed to relationships that are competing to win the subjugation battle. Imagine if a whole generation grew up never knowing gender bias in church or in life.

Amen to that! It is truly unfortunate that many people well outside of Christendom have come to see Christianity as a “patriarchal” religious system and in response have followed other spiritual paths. Where I live currently, in the west of Sonoma County, California, the Christian faith is highly marginalized and most people engage in Eastern-inspired beliefs with a very large helping of feminism. If anything, it is men who seem to play second-fiddle in the collective consciousness of the community. While one might argue that’s indicative of too far a swing from patriarchy over to essentially matriarchy, it is hard to argue that traditional male-dominated Evangelicalism has much chance of making any inroads into this type of community when it comes to a relevant presentation of the Gospel. For me, an apostle at heart, the situation is truly grievous.

So what’s the solution? For instance, what are some practical things that someone, particularly a man, can do to combat the perception of sidelining women? Michael Frost, a missiologist from Australia, suggests the following:

When was the last time you heard a preacher quote from a woman theologian or writer? How often do you read scholarly articles that draw on the work of female theologians? If male leaders are going to model their affirmation of female leadership, they need to not only submit to their teaching but also liberally quote those female teachers whose work has shaped them. Unless we are reading and seriously engaging with women as writers and theologians, how can we say we affirm their role as teachers?

For some of you, Frost’s statement will be a welcome and worthy challenge; for others of you, such talk is tantamount to heresy! If you fall into the latter camp, I can only encourage you to read Black Swan Effect with an open mind and a humble heart. You don’t need to agree with everything in the book to get at least some helpful perspectives. I personally felt convicted as I read the above statement because, quite honestly, most of the Christian books and blogs I’ve read have been from a male viewpoint. Perhaps that was simply statistics at work, but perhaps it was something more. Pray the Holy Spirit will expose subtle biases in our own thinking of which we may not be aware!

Conclusion: the Phenomenon of the Black Swan

I probably should have explained the meaning of the book’s title in the opening of the review, but instead I shall close with it. Up until the 1600’s, the term “black swan” was used in England to describe a fanciful impossibility, a far-fetched notion. Everyone knew swans were white! Then a Dutch explorer discovered a species of red-billed swan in Australia that was also black. Suddenly, a “black swan” wasn’t nonsense. It was real.

In like manner, the idea of women fully taking their place at the table of Biblically-sound Christian fellowship and ministry may seem like a “black swan” to some, but it’s becoming more and more real every day and around the world. Black Swan Effect is an effective chronicle and catalyst of such a movement, and for that reason alone it is worthy of your time and attention. Whether or not the message of the book resonates with you, the issue is one of the most important ones facing the modern Church, and you will be well served reading these pro-women perspectives presented by some of the leading minds in Missional Christianity today.