CUs and women – thoughts on the BUCU fiasco

There are bound to be mixed feelings when conflict apparently arises between two sets of values, people or groups that you care a lot about. This seems to happen particularly for me when Christian groups and Christian principles end up at odds with the values of gender equality that I want to hold to so firmly. There’s an instinct for many of us who are committed to groups like university CUs and their mission, to keep the peace, to stop “secondary issues” such as gender distracting from the focus on Jesus and sharing the gospel. But there’s got to be a time and a place to stop and think about these issues properly, however secondary they might be – and I think many would say gender equality is an issue which relates to the gospel, both in terms of what difference the gospel makes to Christians, and also in terms of how the gospel is received by others, the reputation it has in society. Both are important things for any evangelistic organisation to have thought about.

The story has been reported by the Huffington Post, the Guardian and the Telegraph as well as student press, and has attracted a fair amount of Facebook and Twitter discussion. There’s been a bit of mis-representing, so here’s the situation as best as I can make out:

  • Bristol University CU, like many other CUs, had a policy against women speaking in its main meetings. Whether this policy was constitutional or not, spoken or unspoken, I’m not sure; in practice though, women hadn’t been speakers at CU meetings and events for at least 7 years.
  • There had been a recent discussion and decision made that because the Christian Union is not a church, any perceived prohibitions on women teaching in churches (a view presumably held by some of the exec) did not need to apply in a CU context, and so women were going to be allowed to speak.
  • This decision was opposed by some, including the International Secretary, who could not accept a woman teaching in a CU context. In response, the decision was changed so that women could not speak in the main meetings, and could only be joint speakers with their husbands at weekends away and mission week events.
  • This was still a step too far for some, and the International Secretary stepped down from his position.

What was actually a small move towards women having more active speaking roles at BUCU led to a written clarification, in an email from the president, of what women are and are not allowed to do in this particular CU. It’s attracted media attention because it looks like a backwards moving ban, but actually reflects the unspoken situation in many CUs across the country. OICCU for instance, Oxford’s CU, has nothing in its constitution about the gender of speakers, and similarly nothing about the gender of the President – but the conservative evangelical culture of many CUs means that women are simply not invited to teach at main meetings and events, with perhaps only a couple of rare exceptions in recent years in Oxford.

When Christians disagree, we’re meant to do something unnatural and uncomfortable – show grace and love to one another. We’re meant to resist the urge to insult, slander or rage against one another, because we’re family. So before I say anything more about how the attitude of a lot of CUs towards gender and division needs to be rethought, here’s some positives about the Bristol University CU and what I think they should be commended for in this situation:

  • Being prepared to be unpopular and counter cultural, for the sake of their Christian conviction. Whether or not we agree with that particular conviction, it’s always hard to go against the grain of popular feeling and opinion, but Jesus tells us we’ll have to. “If the world hates you,” he says in John 15:18, “keep in mind that it hated me first.”
  • Seeking God’s wisdom on the issue.The President’s email stated that they understood it was a difficult issue, and the exec have therefore been looking to God for wisdom on it.
  • Recognising that CU is not a church. This seems to be a key issue in the debate over women’s roles in CUs and yet is completely ignored by many – CUs seem to unanimously agree that their meetings should not replace churches, and members are encouraged to be part of local church communities as well as the CU, and yet most people who hold that women shouldn’t teach in a CU context do so because of verses specifically about women in churches.
  • Seeking to maintain unity around the gospel. Christian unity is a very difficult thing to maintain where there is disagreement  and it takes courage to keep this as a priority rather than risk infighting, splinter groups and factions. Although the phrase “secondary issue” can be used to brush important discussions under the carpet, BUCU are right to keep stressing that the gospel is the most important thing which Christians hold in common and should stay our top priority.

All good things which I think a lot of CUs share. Focus on the gospel, whatever other people think. Focus on God’s wisdom over people’s. Recognition of what a CU is and what it’s not. But there are a few questions which to me, suggest that the thinking of BUCU and others on this issue needs an overhaul. Here are a few questions/thoughts:

  • If a CU is not a church, why are we still debating this as if it were? Why don’t we call on those who oppose women teaching in CU because of verses from Paul’s letters which they interpret as prohibiting women speaking in church, to explain why they feel that their interpretation of those verses also extends a prohibition to CUs?
  • Why is it only those who do want women teaching who are seen as divisive on this issue? It seems obvious that opinion is divided, and that anyone who has any opinion on it is part of that split of opinion – we need to avoid the labelling of one group as divisive.
  • Why is the offence taken by one group of people more important than the offence taken by another group? The email sent round to BUCU members said that despite a recognition that CU isn’t a church and therefore women should definitely be allowed to speak in all CU contexts, “However, we understand that this is a difficult issue for some and so decided that women would not teach on their own at our weekly CU:Equip meetings…” Why is it that those who have “difficulty” with the decision previously reached are important enough to have it completely turned around, when there are loads of women and men who also have great difficulty with the fact that they don’t get to benefit from women teaching at their CU meetings? Perhaps it is time for those who feel equally hurt and offended at the lack of women speaking to be a little more vocal so that their concerns are heard within CUs too?
  • If women speaking is a “secondary” issue, not a “gospel” issue, shouldn’t we use gospel principles to solve it? Paul’s take on secondary issues was that they should always be used to promote the gospel. He had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3) so that the Jews in the area would listen to the message. The priority was the gospel – even though circumcision was a contentious issue, it was unnecessary for salvation, it wasn’t the point of the gospel, Paul was happy to adapt on secondary issues so that they gospel could be shared with the most people, and so that  it could be received in the best possible way. Surely all this media attention shows that the gospel will not be received by a world which sees Christians as sexist. If we’re to have any hope of sharing the gospel effectively in universities, students need to hear it equally from the mouths of women and men.

Most of all, CUs need to stop silencing those who want to talk about women’s speaking roles in CU. We do need to talk about it! We do need to ask why those with a particular opinion on women teaching in church are also being allowed to apply that to CUs, which are definitely not churches. We need to ask why we’re allowing a “secondary issue” to cause such damage to the gospel’s reputation and alienate so many people. We need to use this opportunity to get talking about the questions, and get listening to women in every setting – for the sake of the gospel.


About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
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8 Responses to CUs and women – thoughts on the BUCU fiasco

  1. Pete Collins says:

    While I agree with the general principle of this post, that secondary issues are meant to be dealt with in an inclusive way, I have a couple of questions.

    Firstly, why do we draw a line between church and churches? Getting together as a Christian Union is not meant to replace A church, but it is church, in that it is the people that make up church, not the establishment.
    I firmly believe that if your principles depend on setting, then they're not principles (note that “you” is used in a general sense, I'm not suggesting that's how you roll).

    Secondly, what is your actual viewpoint on “Women in leadership”? (Loaded question obviously)
    My viewpoint is that male headship is not sexist, not outdated and not un-inclusive. That being said, it is very important to point out that the only leadership positions I would suggest should be male only is the eldership and senior leader/pastor of a church.

    In fact my current church has women leading small groups (often with a husband, but some of the husbands do little more than turn up :p ), outreach projects, the worship team, etc, etc. And in a recent discussion of the preaching team it was declared in no uncertain terms that women are welcome in NewFrontiers churches to preach, there is just a shortage of volunteers it seems. This was news to me, and reinforced my belief that women are welcome, capable and God-gifted to lead in many areas, and this does not invalidate or conflict with male headship.

    You may disagree. I almost hope so, because intelligent and reasoned discussion on this issue doesn't happen often, because people so often sweep it under the rug, or declare one way or the other without discussion or thorough Biblical principle study, rather than single-verse, out-of-context declaration.

    I hope that makes sense… Anyway, the purpose was to ask those two questions and offer a view of gender roles in leadership that I find to be biblical and inclusive.


  2. Claire Jones says:

    Hi Pete,
    On church and churches, I do think there's a distinction to make in that the verses used in these discussions – 1 Tim. 2:11-12 for instance, and 1 Cor. 14:34-35 – are talking about churches as local congregations. At least, I haven't heard anyone try to argue that Paul was insisting that women should be silent whenever Christians are gathered. The contexts of both 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians are specifically about ordered, congregational worship in whatever form it existed then.
    On male headship, I could write loads about the nuances and specific verses and whatever, but in a nutshell, what I said in the poem I wrote on women bishops:

    “See, I’m not trying to argue that Jesus had a modern feminist agenda,
    But that he radically liberated women from societal expectations of our gender.
    I get that those who oppose it are trying to stay true to God’s word
    But if you’re questioning my motives, above all let this be heard:
    “Whoever wants to be an overseer, he desires a noble task”
    So why is it career-driven, selfish ambition when its she who dares to ask?
    No, I love the Bible too, and everything it’s got to say,
    I don’t want to ignore Paul, or just to run the church my way,
    But when I’ve looked at the cultural context of what Paul said on women leading
    I think his prohibitions were context specific, and that's my most sincere reading.”

    Coming from a conservative evangelical background, and currently being part of two conservative evangelical churches, I do get that people who subscribe to male headship are not all woman-hating chauvanists, and that people do really struggle with reconciling their convictions about Biblical interpretation with a real desire to be more inclusive. It's a tough position to take, and I wouldn't want to question the motives of everyone who takes it – I just disagree with their conclusions.

  3. siobhanj says:

    (To repeat a discussion from elsewhere for future reference..!)

    Claire, not sure I agree that being counter-cultural is always praiseworthy in and of itself. If I sincerely believed in stoning adulterers, say, would you be praising me for my Christian conviction? I see what you are getting at, but on the same point they can be criticised for the complete opposite – namely going along with something they suggest they do not agree with to appease some people. It seems like they're only prepared to be counter a certain type of culture…

    The way that the Bible teaches us to be countercultural is to not be swayed by popular opinion away from Christian values, which last time I checked did not include categorising people as the sum of their parts in any sense, including gender. I really object to an us versus them Christianity, which is often all too prevalent in CUs. It doesn't make their decision better because it goes against the sort of gender equality that wider society is beginning to encourage. The whole point of Christianity is us and them, within them – I believe we're called to reject the selfishness of worldly orientated values, but the way we're meant to do that is by living out the Christian values in that world, not shying away from it.

    I think the point is really covered in the second bullet – that they deserve credit for trying to be faithful on this issue. I'm not sure giving them a little hug for how hard it must be to present an opinion that is in opposition to Christian and secular values is necessary – it's a bit like saying 'to be fair to the BNP, I know they're racist, but at least they've stuck at it'.

    Some things are unpopular because they're hard, some things are unpopular because they're wrong.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hi Claire,
    Thanks for this, and thanks for sharing it on fb.
    A thought on the CU /church issue; I completely agree with you that CU is not church and that that has implications. (Specifically – Pete Collins – CU is a mission arm of the church which does not administer the sacraments and which is not intended as the community in which christian believers find fellowship and learn (for which the biblical model is of different generations encouraging each other), although they do often provide fellowship). But many christians, I would wager, would want to extend the 'principle' and say that women should not be in a position where they are publicly teaching men.
    For my part, I think that principle runs into a whole load of issues; can a wife not rebuke her husband? Of course she can! Can a woman not encourage a male friend in church by speaking of a bible passage, say? Naturally! What is the difference between that and leading a housegroup? Nothing really.
    In other words, there's a kind of slippery slope here (yay!) which leads to women being able to teach men in all contexts apart from when they formally lead a church. That is; (1) either we say women do not teach men at all (ludicrous) or (2) they may not do so as leaders of a church (v.literal reading of the Bible) or (3) they may teach as church leaders. But there is no step between 1 and 2; meaning that they should be allowed to teach in CU.

  5. Claire Jones says:

    Thanks Siobhan – “Some things are unpopular because they're hard, some things are unpopular because they're wrong.” Definitely agree, and in this case, I think they're wrong. I guess there are plenty of other things asserted by Christianity though which are unpopular because they're hard, and so not being afraid of being unpopular sometimes can be helpful and good. But that doesn't mean that this particular unpopular thing is to be commended.

    Carwyn, thanks particularly for the thoughts on why CU isn't church, very important for the whole discussion I think.


  6. Anonymous says:

    Hey Claireyfairy, Fishface here 🙂

    In response to Carwyn, surely there IS a difference between a woman rebuking/encouraging/generally talking Bible with her husband or male friend on a one-to-one basis, or even in a group context, and the same woman LEADING a housegroup/church meeting? In the one context, she approaches the man/men informally and speaks as and when she has something to say. In the second context, she is speaking with a kind of formal authority- she's down to lead/preach and has therefore most likely prepared a lot to deliver something to the group- without necessarily knowing who exactly she'll be speaking to beforehand. Surely there's a difference between contributing to a group discussion on the Bible and actually leading it- especially if you're the one that planned the discussion in advance? Hopefully, if the group discussion is a genuine discussion(!), there's a further difference between leading said discussion and preaching. Basically, I think there are steps in your slippery slope- just, maybe some find them easier to slide down than others 🙂

    In response to the 'she can teach with her husband' thing, they're possibly taking a precedent from Priscilla and Aquilla, who explained a few things privately to Apollos after hearing him preach? Personally, I think the point there was that they took him aside- it wasn't a formal meeting. But hey, people can interpret things differently.

    Personally, it seems to me that the easiest way to maintain unity is to be careful about what you allow. I thought that CUs had male speakers (especially for the preachy bits) because no Christian thinks it's wrong for men to preach- some think it's wrong for women to preach. Those who think women should be allowed to preach are welcome to preach as women and listen to women preaching in their own churches, where our unity in the gospel isn't threatened because everyone there is OK with women preaching. If you talk about missing out on women preaching, it doesn't quite make sense because no-one's stopping you from listening to women preach- they just may not think it's wise for it to happen in the context of CU.

    It's not easy to say this, coming from the other side of the debate, but are we not a little too reluctant to sacrifice our freedom in Christ for the good of our brothers and sisters? If there were a significant proportion of teetotalers in a given CU, would the other members be willing to think twice about the semi-official post-CU meeting in the pub? If there were a lot of Messianic Jews (Jews that have become Christians whilst retaining their Jewish culture) in the CU, would a CU meal in guest events week definitely have a pork-free option? If you lived in a culture where all the affordable meat had been offered to idols, would you eat a vegetarian meal for the sake of a brother or sister's conscience? When I was planning my wedding, was I impressed that I was told I couldn't have drums because some people in my church thought that drums are somehow evil or inappropriate for worshipping God?? (They would probably have also made far too much noise for a smallish building, so no regrets, but what is my response to people who think such things?)

    Hannah x

  7. Claire Jones says:


    Some helpful thoughts on the 'middle ground' where we try to maintain unity etc here – it's not just about people missing out on women preaching, but women not being able to exercise their gifts and contribute to organisations and Christian groups they are part of in the way that they feel called to do. Men are not denied that opportunity on grounds of their gender, whether they are egalitarian or complementarian in their views. Women who are complementarian are not restricted either, they don't have to alter their practice – it's only egalitarian women who miss out on doing what they feel called to do. Which doesn't feel like much of a compromise or a keeping everyone happy…

  8. Anonymous says:

    It's not all egalitarian women though- only those who feel called to preach. That's only a teeny bit relevant. Anywho…

    It's not as if everyone/every man in ANY church or Christian organisation is in a position of authority, and those who are in a position of authority in one organisation are not necessarily in a similar position in others that they're a part of. My point is that, as an egalitarian woman, you are free to preach/lead in certain circles- and even in a complementarian context if there are only women around. You're welcome to fulfill your calling, it's just preferable that you pick a context that won't violate someone else's conscience.

    If we take the drum issue I mentioned in the other post, one where I think we'd agree, then I could say that I'm welcome to worship God to the accompaniment of any instrument I like… but not when I'm with whoever-it-was in my home church. It would be wrong to bring such practices into the church without giving them time to read Psalm 150 😉 and work out their issues- if they couldn't agree on the basis of conscience, then what would Jesus choose to alienate- a drum kit or a member of his family? The decision might be a difficult one, especially for someone who cares more about musical diversity than I do, but it seems fairly obvious.

    With this, I realise that it seems more personal than a drum kit… but if you were a keen drummer and played in some worship band somewhere, wouldn't you feel a teensy bit insulted that someone in your church thought that you couldn't possibly be worshipping God and there's no way you should be allowed to play in church? Thing is, they still aren't stopping you from worshipping God on the drums elsewhere, even developing some kind of ministry through your music, or from worshipping God without drums in the church. And the bit where you can worship God together, inside the church and outside of it, is the important bit.

    As an egalitarian, would you be happy in a context where no women preach- either because no women want to preach, or because no women are gifted to preach, or a combination of the two?

    H x

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