Recently, I read Jeremy Linneman’s article, We Need Female Group Leaders, in which he explains why the leaders of Sojourn Community Church have chosen to have female small group leaders and how their church empowers women for this role. Linneman’s article outlines many of the positive contributions that godly women can make to the church, and that is a great and glorious thing, since God loves to reflect His glory through both women and men. (Is. 43:6-7)
Immanuel Baptist Church, where I am one of the Pastors, has decided not to have women lead mixed small groups, because we view small group leadership as an extension of our pastoral care for the whole flock. Because of this, our pastors love to test and train godly men for leadership of the whole church by having them lead some of the church in small groups. I wish I could say that Linneman and I only have a different practice, but, unfortunately, it’s weightier: as he attempts to lift up female group leaders, his line of reasoning devalues the unique glory that God has given to women. The way he argues for women leaders inadvertently takes away more than it gives.
Before I jump in and explain why I think Linneman’s reasoning is unhelpful and unpersuasive, I want to make sure that it is clear where I think this argument falls: this is clearly a family disagreement. Sojourn Community Church, where Linneman pastors, is our dear sister church. In fact, their main campus is practically our next door neighbor. These guys (and gals) are allies in the gospel, and what the Lord has done through them in the last 15 years is simply marvelous beyond words. As a congregation, we regularly fellowship with, celebrate, and pray for the Sojourners in our city. On top of this, I want to stress that I think this is a disagreement between complementarian brothers. Nothing I say in this little response should be understood to be calling into question Sojourn’s complementarian credentials. Linneman has made it clear that Sojourn’s small groups “are not mini-churches that hold to qualifications and rules for elders.” I appreciate his sensitivity in making this important theological distinction, and it is not my intent in responding to say, “but you see, they are obviously not really complementarian because they have women small group leaders.” Sojourn is both a sister congregation and a complementarian church.
If this is not a gospel or complementarian issue, then why respond at all? My reasons are both pastoral and biblical. My reasons are pastoral because this is an issue that affects our congregation. The former Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, once said that living beside the United States is like sleeping in the same bed as an elephant. They are friendly, he said, but you feel it when they roll over. So, too, with Sojourn: they are friendly—even gospel friendly—but you feel it when they roll over. I first found out about Linneman’s article when I saw it was positively linked from one of our member’s Facebook pages. I think the sister who linked to it (and others like her) deserves a response from her pastor.
Not only are my reasons for responding pastoral, they are biblical. I believe Linneman argues from a presupposition that cannot be supported from the Book we both love. Linneman’s argument assumes that when groups are functionally led by a man, “the female leader regresses into a mere support role.” He adds that, “many ladies enter our groups expecting to be marginalized and relegated to support roles at best.” I find all of this language curiously unbiblical. What is the problem with support roles, and since when does occupying a support role make one “marginalized?” Was God marginalizing women when he created them for a support role?! Eve was made a helper. (Gen. 2) The dominant orientation of a woman when she is filled with the Holy Spirit is towards helping. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul celebrates the mutual dependence that men and women have on each other and simultaneously says, “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (1 Corinthians 11:8-9). There is no talk here of being relegated, marginalized, or regressive. The scripture speaks positively to a woman’s original creation as a helper. It is her glory to be one oriented to come under another in a common cause. What if, instead of speaking of “mere support roles” and being “relegated to support roles,” we spoke of being given honor through support roles and finding one’s calling in the glorious kinds of support roles for which God made women?
Some may debate if 1 Corinthians 11 should be used in this argument since many of the small group leaders Linneman equips are single. I believe this verse has application for singles, but let’s begin by thinking about the clearer application. Linneman tells us that 90% of Sojourn’s small group leadership pairs are actually married. So, how does that work? Is there one standard for their day to day marriage and another standard for when they are leading a group? Should we say that in marriage it’s good for a woman to be a wise, intelligent, submissive helper, but in small group ministry it’s important that no wives be relegated or marginalized into the role of helper; there they must be leaders? How does that work? It seems better to say that in marriage husbands ought to be wise, sensitive, cross-bearing leaders and wives ought to be intelligent, submissive, helpers, and this kind of marriage relationship should continue when they minister to a small group together.
Instead of exploring the Biblical theme of “helper,” Linneman asserts, “women are more natural group leaders.” What? An entire gender is better at small group leading? If this is true, then assuredly there is Biblical support for it. If it is true, then we should certainly have women lead all of our small groups. To back up this claim, Linneman asserts that women are generally better at asking good questions, making complex ideas simple, demonstrating patience, comforting, building better relationships, reminding one another of upcoming events. Well, let me just say: I know many women who excel in these things! Many women are better than many men in all of the categories mentioned above; I praise God for their excellent God-given talents and hope they will use them mightily in the local church. But I also know many impatient women, many disorganized women—many women whose zeal for the Lord can discourage the suffering. Linneman’s whole line of thinking is offensive. Maybe offensive seems a bit strong, but what if I were to assert: men are more patient, ask better questions, comfort the discouraged better, and generally make complex ideas simpler than women can? If I said that, many would be rightly offended. It is true that often women are more gifted in different ways than men. But the presence of many diverse gifts in many diverse women does not mean that the entire gender is better at small group leading.
I can agree with so much of what Linneman writes: some seminary students are terrible leaders (AMEN!), some women are amazingly gifted (AMEN AGAIN!), we need to constantly encourage the ministry of women (TRIPLE AMEN!). All of this is true, but Linneman caricatures the best women and contrasts them with the worst men and then advocates for his small group practice. This is not the way to argue biblically.
As a church, Immanuel has gone in a different direction. Since we believe that the church is to be led by godly, qualified male pastors, and since we believe that small groups are an extension of our pastoral leadership, we choose to place over our small groups men who are growing in faithful leadership. We use small groups as a testing ground for faithful pastoral leadership. I recognize that the Bible does not command us to gather into small groups, nor does it tell us how they should be run. Nonetheless, since so many churches have found them helpful as a vehicle for cultivating discipleship, community, and mission, and because they are consistent with the Biblical pattern of gathering in homes, we use them. And since they are so central to how we disciple our congregation, we want the people in these groups to experience the kind of godly male leadership that we hope they will experience in the broader church. We want to create a continuity between our discipleship in the church at large and the church gathered in small groups. On top of this, we hope our people will experience the kind of empowered and mobilized ministry of many gifted women and men in their small groups and throughout the church. So, on Sundays, under the leadership of our elders, we see women serving on welcome team, in nursery and children’s discipleship, and on our music worship team. We also see them baptizing those they have led to the Lord and serving the Lord’s Supper to the brothers and sisters they love. Then, in small groups, we seek to encourage these same sisters to cultivate all of the virtues Linneman lines out, under the leadership of godly men.
Since the Bible does not command us to meet in small groups, we are always on slippery ground when we discuss how to do them best. Nonetheless, we have found that keeping our groups in continuity with the New Testament pattern of leadership for the broader church allows us to disciple our people into lifestyles of supernatural service by women and men under Godly male leadership.