When the Threat Isn't Real: Rewiring our Response to Differences in the Church
Have you ever had one of those “aha!” moments where one statement brings clarity to so many past experiences? For me, one of these statements came from the lips of a dear mentor and friend: “Rachel, women feel threatened by differences.” These few words have illuminated the way I understand myself and other women in the church. From personalities to professional callings, Christian women are a diverse bunch. This was true of biblical women, and it’s still true today. The perceived “threat” of these differences has been impacting church life for centuries.
Why The Threat?
Pardon the generalization, but I think it’s accurate to say that most women are highly relational. Furthermore, shared experience is a key sphere in which we relate. Why can two women in a checkout lane eagerly strike up a conversation about the same gluten-free item they’re both buying?
If shared experiences are unifying, must differing experiences be disunifying? Biblically, of course not! Yet realistically, our diverse experiences sometimes do divide. We may eagerly relate to the gluten-free stranger in the check-out lane while secretly resenting the woman in our small group who has chosen a different method for educating her children. The list of potentially-threatening differences is endless: food, dress, entertainment, education, jobs, spending habits, etc. We carry the unconscious assumption that life in Christ should homogenize women’s gifts, temperaments, and lifestyle choices. Because personality and lifestyle feel nearly synonymous with identity, women who differ from us “threaten” our identities. To protect ourselves, we feel compelled to determine who is “right” and, in turn, who is “wrong.”
Ungodly Responses to Difference
What are our fleshly responses to the threat of difference? Some of the most destructive sin patterns of women in the church arise from ungodly responses to perceived threats. We judge other women as making “wrong” decisions. We assume others are judging us (even when they’re not!) We dismiss the importance of another’s gifts. We silently glory in another’s pain. We envy. We ignore. We scorn. We gossip. In short, we destroy potential (if not actual) life-giving friendships.
A Simple Approach to Responding to Difference
Perceived threats among women often arouse strong emotions, so sometimes it’s helpful to employ a mental check to control these feelings. When I start feeling threatened by another woman, I ask myself: What difference is making me feel this way? In the area of this difference, is the other woman stronger, weaker, or “just different” from me? I try to avoid the temptation of putting all differences in the category of “her weakness.” The answer to these questions informs my response to the situation.
If she is stronger (or more gifted) than I am in a particular area, I strive to:
-Learn from her. For example, what qualities make her such an excellent teacher? How can I emulate those qualities?
-Thank the Lord for her.
-Articulate to her the specific reasons why I thank the Lord for her. It’s amazing what this can do for a relationship!
If she is weaker (or less gifted) than I am in a particular area, I strive to:
-Lead in the situation. I find ways to communicate that I’m not judging her. I actively appreciate her other gifts. If it’s clear she’s wanting to grow, I look for gentle ways to help her do so.
-While it should go without saying, I pray for her!
If she is “just different” from me, I strive to:
-Listen to her. What has led her to make the choices she is making? Perhaps there are well-thought-out reasons why she’s living the way she is.
-Give her the opportunity to understand me (if she desires to do so). While it’s tempting to think she “couldn’t possibly understand me,” this just isn’t true sometimes.
-Realize our respective life choices may be the wisest choices for each of us, given our differing life circumstances.
The Experience We All Share
If I randomly chose a name from the list of women in my congregation, I should be able to go out to lunch and enjoy fellowship with any woman I choose. Why? We share the experience of being daughters of God who have been redeemed from our sin. We each are being renewed in the image of God. While our situations differ, we share many insecurities as we strive to live out our God-given callings. We each bear identities that are rooted in Christ, identities that can’t be truly threatened by anyone in the church. Together, we can “pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” (Romans 14:19b)
Really, this approach to handling differences could be used in contexts beyond women in the church. However, for some of us, the church might be a good place to start. What’s the three-sentence take-away from this article? If she’s strong, learn from her. If she’s weak, lead her (gently!) If she’s “just different”, listen to her. For some of you, this approach may seem simplistic. After all, a method like this can’t change the heart! And you’re right. While rewiring thought patterns can’t change a hard heart, it can aid a soft heart in navigating friction-laden interactions in the church. My prayer for this article is that it would help Christian women to enjoy the diversity of persons and gifts that makes the church both functional and altogether beautiful.