A few weeks ago Jen Wilkin wrote a piece for The Gospel Coalition that got some significant circulation, and I wanted to make a few comments about it. The post was entitled “3 Female Ghosts That Haunt the Church,” and in the course of what she wrote, she made a number of observations that, in my view, could have been quite helpful in a lot of ways. But unfortunately, the way the whole thing was structured, it is awfully difficult to know how to do anything constructive with it.
“If you’re a male staff member at a church, I ask you to consider a ghost story of sorts. I don’t think for a minute that you hate women. I know there are valid reasons to take a measured approach to how you interact with us in ministry settings. I absolutely want you to be wise, but I don’t want you to be haunted. Three female ghosts haunt most churches, and I want you to recognize them so you can banish them from yours.”
The ghosts that haunt most churches are, according to Wilkin, are the usurper, the seductress, and the child. Thus haunted, male ministry leaders start acting like a bull elk responding to any challenge for dominance, the preyed upon chump who always blames the women for his dirty mind, or the patronizing pastor who pats the cute little scholarinas on the head. And to give Wilkin her due, all three of these guys do exist, and are running around loose. The basic question is whether it is true that most churches are haunted by this kind of thing. But whether or not most are, it is certainly true that some are.
So what are the structural problems with the argument? They boil down to a failure to make some important distinctions, distinctions that the article itself requires us to make.
1. How do we distinguish between a ghost usurper and a real one? How do we distinguish between a ghost seductress and real one? How do we distinguish between a ghost child and a real one? At the end of the article, having already written about the ghosts that haunt most churches, Wilkin makes an important acknowledgement.
“Do some women usurp authority? Yes. Do some seduce? Yes. Do some lack emotional or intellectual maturity? Yes. And so do some men. But we must move from a paradigm of wariness to one of trust, trading the labels of usurper, temptress, child for those of ally, sister, co-laborer. Only then will men and women share the burden and privilege of ministry as they were intended.”
This is like acknowledging that we actually are in a mine field, but then urging us to move on from a “paradigm of wariness to one of trust,” so that we may go dance in the field anyway. Sure, but before we do that, shouldn’t we know how to tell the difference between real mines and ghost mines? Shouldn’t we clear the field?
Mark Twain once said that a cat that sits on a hot stove lid will never sit on a hot stove lid again. But neither, he added, will he sit on a cold one. Before we abandon our wariness, we need to know if most churches actually are haunted in this way. If they are haunted, what is the story behind it? And last, perhaps it is not a haunting at all, but an actually real life problem in real time. If we want to be ghostbusters, we have to make distinctions, and we have to have biblical criteria for making them.
2. Another distinction that must be made here is the distinction between the “paradigm of wariness” that is to be rejected, and the “measured approach to interaction” that she approved earlier. What is the difference, and how can we tell? One minister is simply being prudent with the sisters, and another minister is being paranoid. What distinguishes them? I know that there are prudent ministers and I know that there are hyper ministers, but what distinguishes them and who decides?
To take just one of the three examples, the apostle Paul warns Timothy as a young minister to be careful of certain pitfalls. He calls Timothy to a scrupulous standard of purity.
“Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
“Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1–2).
So let us say that Timothy has a window installed in his office door so that his pastoral counseling can be completely above reproach. Haunted or measured? Well, that’s easy because it is Timothy and the apostle Paul told him to do it. So now Robert from Des Moines has a window installed. Haunted or measured? We really need biblical criteria to distinguish the two before delivering a sweeping statement that “most” churches fall in the haunted category.
3. And briefly, the last distinction we must have is the distinction between the wise and intelligent women who understood exactly what Wilkin was getting at, who have dealt with real instances of such a haunting, and who actually have had a bloviating pastor modulate into his “pastor voice” when answering a simple question, and the clueless women who blindly liked Wilkin’s article on Facebook, but who are themselves pushy broads, twinkies in tight tops, or waifs with manga eyes. If there is a real problem out there, an article like this one needs to put up barriers in order to keep the wrong people from getting the wrong idea.