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.