Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Pitfalls of Hierarchy: Racial & Gender Superiority

(3rd in a series of articles exploring how hierarchical paradigms negatively impact culture)

Those of us who advocate egalitarianism, working for justice worldwide, may consider ourselves to be enlightened, inclusive and progressive. But hierarchical thinking can linger subtly in our own lives, manifesting itself as racial or patriarchal attitudes of superiority.

For a few months in 1973 I rented a room from a widow in South Georgia. "Miss Ida" was a friendly, genteel, Caucasian woman with one of the most distinctive southern drawls I've ever heard.

Miss Ida* was nearing retirement, but still worked full-time at the local Neighborhood Services Center. There she distributed food and clothing, taught life skills and planned fun events for poor people, most of them African-American clients. She delighted in her work, finding it very fulfilling; I admired her dedication and generosity.

One week Miss Ida hired an African-American woman to help clean her house prior to hosting a party. The woman was as jovial as Miss Ida; from my room I could hear them laughing as they worked together. For some reason the woman wasn't paid that day, but was asked to come by for her earnings later in the week.

A day or so later I was talking with Miss Ida in her living room when the front doorbell rang. She opened the door, had a friendly exchange with the cleaning woman and handed her some cash in an envelope.

Closing the door, she wheeled around and muttered scornfully as she briskly walked by me, "Now they're coming to the front door!" I was speechless, totally shocked. I never expected to hear those words, especially from her.

Apparently, as long as Miss Ida played the role of benevolent white woman everything was fine. But let any of the blacks get "uppity" and presume to act like her equal, then her inbred assumption of superiority quickly kicked in.

A similar situation sometimes occurs when Baptist churches overcome internal political barriers and begin ordaining women as deacons or ministers. Admirable intentions aside, there is a big difference between allowing ordination of women and embracing women as church leaders. Congregations don't always understand that ordination is only the beginning, not the climax, of women's full inclusion into the life and ministry of the church.

Some churches consider themselves to be progressive simply because they ordain a woman or two here and there as deacons. But this can be a mere nod to egalitarianism if these women are perceived primarily as tokens, not functionally equal to their male peers.

In such churches women deacons may serve communion and attend deacons' meetings. But the unspoken assumption is that they will mostly serve quietly behind-the-scenes, still following the leadership of male deacons or ministers in important church matters.

Things will go smoothly for a woman deacon until she starts to act as if she were as capable a leader as any man in such a church. Once she begins leading, voicing her opinions, lingering patriarchal assumptions of superiority quickly kick in. The status quo is threatened. She's soon discounted, labeled as "uppity," "difficult," or worse.

More progressive churches may ordain and/or hire a woman as children's minister or youth minister, perhaps even as minister of education. Some churches perceive of these as mostly behind-the-scenes positions heavily involving the teaching/activities coordination of children and youth.

[Please note that I personally am not critiquing or ranking ministry positions, only observing the thinking of some misguided congregations. Ironically, when it comes to impacting a church's ministry and influence in the community, a strong case could be made that the children's minister position is more "important" than all other ministerial positions. Yet children's ministers--so many of them women--often have little power and receive the least salary.]

For many congregations, the last bastions of male leadership are the "platform positions" (minister of music and, of course, pastor). Churches tend to reserve these up-front, worship-leading positions for men. Even among the most progressive congregations, outspoken about equal opportunities for women, so many prefer hiring males as their primary worship leaders.

It's one thing to invite a woman to preach occasionally; it's quite another to hire a woman as senior pastor. No one is saying that only churches with female pastors are fully progressive and egalitarian. And every pastor--female or male--is not necessarily the right match for every church.

However, it seems obvious that the deck is greatly stacked against women pastoral candidates. Overall, words of affirmation for women ring hollow unless ministerial search committees are intentional about giving serious, not just token, consideration to female candidates.

Those of us who try so hard to live egalitarian lives that embrace women and minorities are sometimes surprised to discover lingering hierarchical, "superior" attitudes, subtly inbred by our culture, in ourselves and our churches. At the Holy Spirit's revelation, it is incumbent upon us to dust out these corners of our spiritual lives, that we may see each other as God sees all of us.


(Upcoming: My next article will deal with hierarchical attitudes in domestic relationships.)


  1. I very much enjoy your writing: clear and compelling.

    Speaking about ranking ministerial positions and functions (which you are careful to avoid), I was amazed to see that this has been done by a well-known hierarchical complementarian. He has painstakingly ranked 83 ministries in (according to him) order of decreasing "authority".

    The positions/functions that occur on Sunday mornings, or are paid, or are more visible get a higher ranking of "authority". I personally can't see the scriptural premise behind these criteria.

  2. Thanks for your kind words.

    I was only making observations about ranking of ministers/ministries that I've seen over decades of ministry. I had no idea that this had been formally articulated by someone--obviously someone with hangups about the importance of "authority." (I'll bet he claims most of the "God-given authority" at home, too.)

  3. f.y.i. This article was published by under the title, "Subtle Barriers Can Hold Back Women Ministers" on April 26, 2011.