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On Gender and the Bible: One Church’s Real-World Fight (Part 8)

Photo of Jared EllisJared Ellis | Bio

Jared Ellis

Jared is the preaching minister at Fellowship Regional Church in Iola, KS, with a satellite campus in Caney, KS. He is also the host of a long-form interview podcast show called The Homilist, which explores the various aspects of preaching. 

(This is Part 8 of our series “On Gender and the Bible. For context, see articles 12345, 6, and 7.)

Blinding lights swing and sway across a massive Vegas venue. Deafening stadium anthems play at eardrum-bursting decibels. The bass is not heard as much as it is felt, rattling your lungs. Suddenly the lights and music are cut. Tangible darkness overtakes you. In those brief seconds, the thousands of people in attendance roar with eager anticipation.

Suddenly a single spotlight illuminates a dapperly dressed figure centrally located in the center of a chain-link octagon. His sequined suit coat reflects a myriad of tiny lights that dance in the darkness like a murmur of perfectly orchestrated lightning bugs. Faithful fight fans know the silhouette by his perfectly quaffed hair and showman swagger. It is in this moment that the Veteran Voice of the Octagon, UFC announcer Bruce Buffer speaks into the microphone, his voice booming through the speakers. It is only two words, but these two words send the crowd into a frenzy. Those who know the familiar introduction join in with him, shouting it out in unison, “It’s time!”

These two words are like a starting pistol. They carry in their wake a host of unexpected events and semi-controlled chaos. “It’s time” signals the start of several wars. From this point forward, anything can happen. This is only the beginning. These words are the preface to carnage, mayhem, and stitches.

Many of the same thoughts, emotions, and reactions are conjured when the words gender roles are uttered.

For many reasons, they are rife with angst and controversy, and often trigger a barrage of combative emotions. Even now, you may have the urge to back into your own corner on the issue or begin to bounce on your toes and dance about simultaneously cracking your neck and knuckles in preparation for a fight. If so, then you may disappointed in where we go from here.

This article is not a scholarly report. It does not read like a business white paper, persuasive speech, or a Complementarian’s Guide to Success. This is simply our church’s story.

January 19th of this year for Sanctity of Life Sunday, I shared this statistic as I closed in on the final point of my sermon: “Over 90% of the women seeking abortions reported that they were heterosexual.” I used this bizarre statement to establish the fact that abortion is a man problem. More specifically, it is a weak man’s problem. It was a heavy morning for us all.

As the sermon concluded, I asked for every man to step out of his seat, surround the rest of the congregation, and hold hands. We confessed our own sins and the sins of our nation. We apologized to our wives and kids for being lazy and self-centered. We renewed our commitment to be what God wanted us to be— leaders, protectors, and teachers. We invited the Holy Spirit in to heal our hearts and bodies of bitterness and abuse. There was weeping from men and women alike. Confessions of abortions, remorse for failed relationships, prayers for prodigal sons and daughters, and conviction to step up and lead all made appearances that week.

Yet the most memorable moment of that service happened after the closing prayer.

I stood at one of the exits and shook hands with folks as they left, and through quivering lips and cheeks smeared with eyeliner and mascara, nearly every woman said the same two words: “Thank you.” In the words of Bono, frontman for the band U2, “Some days are better than others.” This was one of those days.

Within a couple of months, the landscape of the church completely changed. Like most places this spring, we became an online church. During this time, we, the elders and staff, observed and prayed for our church, community, state, and nation, trying to make sense of it all. Two things became very apparent to us: 1) There were many weak men in decision-making positions, both locally and nationally. 2) We needed to build better men.

We had no way of addressing the first, but we could do something about building better men. For this season, we decided that every sermon would be geared toward men. On Sundays, we ran a livestream, but it was stripped down to nothing more than a devotional thought with a discussion guide uploaded to our webpage. Our goal was to put men in a teaching position within their homes. We strongly suggested that our men lead their families through the Scriptures and the discussion guide. Some never did it. There were those who did, but only sporadically.

However, others did it religiously. We were building better men. We heard from many wives how this was such a blessing and how pleased they were at their husbands’ newfound spiritual fervor. Even the men began to check each other: “Did you do your questions this week?” one would ask. “No, I didn’t.” The other would respond. Then the gouging would start. “Fella, get it done!”

It has now been seven months of preaching specifically to men, and what we’ve seen happen in our church has been remarkable and unexpected. But let me take you back to the beginning.

Our church did not start off as a Christian church. It was originally a “nondenominational” church. However, the founding pastor was partially supported by his denomination. After five or six years, the pastor at that time decided that, in order for the ministry to remain fresh, he would begin transitioning out and handing the leadership of the church over to younger guys. He homed in on me and my lifelong friend, Luke Bycroft. (If any man has reason to boast in his Restoration heritage, we have more. There’s Luke, the son of David Bycroft, 40-year veteran preacher in Tyro, Kansas, and me. Both baptized within the same calendar year, circumcised on the eighth day, graduates of Ozark Christian College…you get the point.) 

This was not the stereotypical denominational pastor or church. Nonetheless, we anticipated there being many theological wrinkles that would need ironed out. Surprisingly, those happened quickly. Within two years, Luke and I were both on staff and the man that had planted, nurtured, and tended this church began helping us establish our new roles for when he would be gone.

Pragmatically, when the church began, the pastor surrounded himself with a team of people made up of husband-wife couples, five couples to be exact. They were a wonderful support to him and the ministry, but Luke and I struggled with the fact that the men on the leadership team, though qualified completely, were not elders as we understood the term. Secondly, their wives served beside them in the same role. This was completely foreign to us.

Suddenly we found ourselves in quite a predicament.

This was our thought process: First, what they were doing was working. Second, our church history and education had informed our understanding of the various gender roles within the church, but it’s not like this was the only model out there. Thirdly, like many ministers across the world, we had experienced the hypocrisy, politics, and power moves within our preferred model of church structure and leadership. The temptation was to say, “If it ain’t broke…”

Ministry moments like these should always force us back to God’s Word. Even as I type that, it sounds blatantly obvious. Unfortunately, often times we take the path of least resistance, or we take the path that keeps us employed, or we take the path that looks progressive, or we take the path that feels right or helps us make friends. We expressed all of this to the lead pastor and told him that, more than anything, we just wanted God to bless this ministry and, at the end of the day, whenever we have the ability to bring our friend, spouse, business, or church into obedient alignment with the Bible, we should do it.

At the next leadership team meeting, after casual conversations and catching up was through, he opened the meeting by saying, “As I begin to transition out, there will be some things that will change, as we’ve talked about before.” Turning to me, he said, “Jared, go ahead and let the team know what we’ve been talking about.” I don’t know if you’ve ever been punched in the kidney before, but there are certain sensations that go with the punch. I was feeling them all. To be clear, it wasn’t as if he threw me to the wolves. There was no ill intent. He was doing exactly what he said he was going to do: transition out and transition us in.

So, I simply expressed the same thoughts to the team that I had expressed with him. As I spoke, I felt completely inside out, humble, and probably a little scared: “I really just want God to bless this ministry and I believe that he will if we are obedient. After wrestling with the Scriptures, we think for us, it’s going to be important for the ladies to step out and the men to step up.” I don’t know if you’ve ever been punched in the kidney before, but there are certain… One lady spoke up, “I agree. That is what the Bible says.” Another began nodding her head in agreement. Then one of them asked, “Do we need to leave now, or after the meeting?” I was floored.

From that point forward, the leadership team transitioned to a team of men we call elders.

God blessed us as leaders with a spirit of peace and unity, but there was something about this decision that began to change the culture of our church as well. We announced to the church that the structure of the church had changed a bit, and we introduced the men to the congregation as elders. We explained that, when a big decision, disagreement, or complaint arises, the staff defers to these men as the elders of the church.

I could go on for paragraphs about each one of the men, but instead, let me tell you the impact they have had on the culture of our church. Because they took seriously the challenge to “step up,” they have held that standard for the rest of the men. They have preached, led parenting and marriage classes, led small groups, and have frequently taught children’s church. Above all that, they are loving husbands to their wives, and their expectation is that other men will follow them as they follow Christ.

Another cultural shift happened a few years later. As we began to grow and try to cover all the bases, the elders sat down with the staff and helped us define our job descriptions. I remember mine clearly: “Jared, you preach. If you want to do some marriage counseling for couples in need, feel free, but the main focus for you needs to be preaching. Show up on Sunday and preach your heart out. You lead us from there. When you are done, you do whatever keeps you healthy until it’s time for you to preach again, then preach your heart out.”

Their decision to prioritize Scriptural preaching and to emphasize the need to keep ourselves healthy had a natural trickle down.

We want to continue this focus, especially as we get more focused on disciple making too. We now have clear staff values, a clear purpose and a healthy church, and our congregation has come to desire and expect the same things. A phrase I’ve heard repeated by one of our elders is, “We would rather be a mile deep than fifteen miles wide and a dime thick.” As a church, we desire health and depth. This pursuit means we have had to make some hard decisions. Another phrase we often say is, “We do hard things.” We don’t do hard things because they are popular, or because we are tough guys. We do them because we want God to bless our church and our efforts. He has.

Among evangelical churches across the U.S., men occupy roughly 35-45% of the sanctuary seats on Sunday mornings. This isn’t surprising news. For the last couple of decades, most congregations have become increasingly more female. Why are so many men neglecting weekend church services? Many have attempted to unravel this mystery, resulting in the blame being thrown in nearly every direction: the pastor’s kid-gloves, weak preaching, and modern worship music, just to name a few.

Yet, in Iola, Kansas, over the last five or six years, our church has started seeing an increase in the number of men in attendance.

It happened subtly. We had never made a plan to make our services more appealing to men. We did not launch a men’s ministry.

But we did spend a lot of time, energy, and money on marriages—from classes and counseling to couples studies and an annual, sometimes bi-annual sermon series on the Song of Solomon. We stuck to our guns on the roles of men and women within marriage, while banging loud the drum that men were to uphold their responsibilities as husbands by loving their wives as Christ loved the church. We have emphasized that men are called not only to lay down their lives for their wives, but also to rise and live for them by elevating their wives’ status as co-heirs with Christ with gentle consideration so that their prayers are not hindered.

There was one other thing that we suspect has happened, although it’s just our best guess. Even when the majority of our congregation was women, we were preaching the same high-standard messages concerning men and their weighty responsibilities as husbands and fathers. We suspect that this gave many of our women hope and faith that their non-attending and non-engaging husbands could actually become better. It seems as if these women came to pray and believe that their husbands would catch fire for Christ. It was as if, instead of going home and hounding that man to begrudgingly follow her to church, she instead started putting him in the presence of God through her prayers. She no longer had to contend with him, but rather she contracted the job out to the Great Shepherd, who is always looking for the “one.”

Our church is currently 56% men, thanks to our women. Their faithful prayers, submissive hearts, and desperate tugs at the hem of the Ultimate Man were seen and heard.

Seven months ago, we started preaching specifically to men. And here is what we saw happen: More women and young girls have been baptized during this time than at any other time in the history of our church. We have seen more husbands climb into the baptistry and baptize their wives than ever before. A wonderful women’s ministry has also appeared, and simultaneously, two new men’s groups and a college class started.

One side will cry that gender roles are the remnants of the male patriarchy. Another side will appeal to science, citing that skeletal, musculature, and hormonal differences have predetermined these roles. All I know is that obedience to God’s word should be the first step. Understanding it may come later, but the harvest is the important part.

We have women that have fought for their husbands, on bended knee in desperate prayer, and we have husbands that cherish their wives.

I apologize if any part of this sounds like bragging. God has done this all on his own. He never needed us to accomplish it. We are only eternally grateful to witness it.

We are no Vegas venue. You’ll probably never see a sequined suit at our church. We have some lights and music, and although my voice will never be as smooth or cause the same emotional stir as Bruce Buffer, I can tell you what we do have. We have women that have fought for their husbands, on bended knee in desperate prayer, and we have husbands that cherish their wives. They love them and they live for them.