Missio Dei and the Palm Tree: The Increasingly Gendered Roles in Western Christianity

I don’t know if anyone else experiences life as I do – in phases where everything seems to attend to a particular issue, and I can’t get away from it, no matter how I try. As a Christian, I believe this is not the ‘universe speaking’ but in fact God directing my attention. So, after reading about the purported “princess” women of Hillsong Church from the view of Macquarie University Religion scholar Marion Maddox, I was bombarded by gender issues.

I finally admitted it was happening after reading a quote in an American friends’ facebook photo collection. She is a talented young worship leader, and I asked her if I could share the image. She said she would not only be OK with that, but she’d like to read the responses. So I feel safe to raise this discussion about an issue that deeply grieves me.

Let me just say, before I do, that I was a singer, occasional songwriter and choir director in Hillsong Church’s worship team serving under Darlene Zschech from ages fourteen to twenty-six. Thus, using your powers of deduction, you can see that my worship pastor was a woman. Our executive pastor, Donna Crouch, was also a woman. And this felt entirely normal for me. My mother was a Professor of Psychology. My father was a Maths Teacher and finished at 3pm each day so he did the ironing and washed the floors. He was the most emotional person in the house and we loved him for it. My whole family attended Hillsong. One of its ministries is ‘Sisterhood’, a meeting that functions as a mother’s group (but also includes other women who are free every Thursday morning at 10am), so I do have many friends who make lunches and wave their children off to school each morning, but it never struck me as the ‘norm’. I guess I felt that if there was any ‘norm’, it was to find a passion and make that into a vocation: my Godmother is a Melbourne Anglican bishop, and my aunt assisted the UN in creating their Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. My best friend is a missionary to Spain convinced she will be a martyr (I hope she doesn’t reach her goal). I saw lunch-making, grazed knee kissing and children’s book reading as expression of the same thing that motivates my Godmother to drive to the Diocese office each morning, the same thing that motivated my aunt to collect names of those killed in the Bougainville genocide, the same thing that motivates my mother to listen to the difficult cases that appear in her office on the hour each hour as the senior psychologist of a large medical centre. I saw it as the same thing that motivated Darlene to stand up and sing in each service, week after week.

And I’m not sure what I thought that thing was… a holy vocation? a calling? a willingness to participate in the Missio Dei, or mission of God? the Holy Spirit’s unique assignment to each Christian woman I knew?

It’s not that I thought gender was irrelevant, because it is clearly a *part* of life. We are embodied in gendered bodies. Although, when I say that, I feel I need to say that sexuality doesn’t always fall neatly into blue and pink categories.

And, it’s not that I thought the bible irrelevant on this issue either. There are letters from Paul that state clearly contextual directives. I imagine the churches they were written to, and see the wisdom of his directions. But it’s not the only information in the bible. There are various positive roles women play in the biblical text – I think of Deborah, Abigail, Zipporah, Naomi, Ruth, Esther, Jael, Miriam, Martha, Mary, Lydia, Phoebe, Priscilla. Just to name a few. None of these women are diminutive, or listed in a way that makes me feel they are incidental to the Missio Dei. It does sometimes feel like they are in another room while the main discussion is going on, and so missed out being front and centre in the movie. But I assumed this was because God holds great honor for those not rewarded on earth (Matt 6:1-6). In the text, they were not unimportant. Not passive. Not unintelligent. Not lesser. Not undervalued by God.

On a trip to Bougainville, I saw my aunt at work in a UN women’s forum. In the sessions she was a contributor. But in the break, she sat under a palm tree, receiving those who requested her wisdom on issues. One of the requests was brought by Lucy, whose husband had died of a heart attack, and the village was holding her culpable for this loss. My aunt read the letter of extortion and together with those present formulated a plan of response. This looked to me exactly like the biblical picture of leadership in Judges 4:5.

I’ve come across a lot of resistance to female leadership of the Deborah type. Often from men intimidated at a woman who sits under a palm tree surrounded by requests and queries that do not come straight to them, the authorized leaders. Perhaps it is their rejection of the effective power of this type of leadership. But now I see women, who are stepping down from their roles due to the resistance they feel. I’ve been brought the stories of three talented worship leaders in different American states who stood down from their role in the last year because it was not ‘biblical’ to lead men. And then this post:


You see, I’m not an ‘angry feminist’. I’m not a journalist on a rant. I’m a scholar and singer/songwriter, who feels called of God to do what I do. I expend myself to work on the margins of the Christian world, because I see God at work there. I want to be where God is. But if at the power centers there are women gifted to the body of Christ who are stepping down because they feel God has one set ‘role’ of responding to male initiative, evidenced by the lack of an outie bit, it makes me angry, because suddenly women *are* at the margins, and the ones oppressed.

I don’t have all the answers. I just have a growing unease with the way we are talking about gender and representing God. I don’t know if it’s biblical for girls to ask to be scheduled only to lead the music at women’s meetings and in smaller, less visible roles. I hope that in discussion and dialogue, we can pay attention to the Spirit’s message, and what God is asking us to do with it.

8 thoughts on “Missio Dei and the Palm Tree: The Increasingly Gendered Roles in Western Christianity

  1. Great article, Tanya. In my opinion, any church that is seriously revisiting these old issues has ceased to focus on the mission field but has rather turned its focus on irrelevant issues designed to mitigate its potency and is in process of imploding. It has relegated to a footnote the word of God that says both sons and daughters would prophesy. Thank God He has poured out His Spirit on all flesh. If it were up to man, many would remain out of relationship with Jesus Christ.

  2. Aaaah, Hillsong. The church we love to hate. Although I have not *fully* read ‘Prosper, consume and be saved’ by Marion Maddox, the whole nuance of the article speaks to lazy scholarly and once again reinforces the tall poppy syndrome that so abounds in Australian culture – which coming from an academic is a real blow to her credibility.

  3. I so experience life this way, in particular-issue-oriented phases. Thank you for articulating what I’ve never quite been able to put eloquently with this post.

    “And I’m not sure what I thought that thing was… a holy vocation? a calling? a willingness to participate in the Missio Dei, or mission of God? the Holy Spirit’s unique assignment to each Christian woman I knew?” That’s exactly what it is, even all of the above, but especially the latter: Missio Dei, identity in Christ, how we participate in the Kingdom of God.

  4. Great post tan, this also disturbs me. deeply. how can we discount half the body of christ because they are female? no wonder the church is so impotent in so many areas. it is hard to remember that there are parts where women are valued for their contribution and skills beyond traditional stereotypes. i just wish it was so rare…

    and that article by marion maddox was lazy and ill-informed.

  5. Tanya- love this. God is definitely speaking to us- just saw this- Encouraging the Ministry of Women in the Church http://t.co/IMbmKstaIw – it’s been a part of so many conversations lately. Just this weekend Jen Hatmaker mentioned that she was once one of the only female speakers at a church where she was introduced as a guest who “shared” instead of preached. Thank you.

  6. *Dear Beloved in Christ Hearty greeting in the name of our Jesus. I want to put the following few words for your kind consideration and prayer. My parents are Hindus (non-Christian). In India there are many man made Gods. Being a Hindu after my birth my father approached one astrologer to know about my future. That astrologer told him that if I live my father may die, So as per the advice of that person, my father sold me to a poor pastor by the mediation of a nurse. *

    *So my life began in a Christian home, These Pastor is a man of God but a poor man. He use to treat me as his begotten son and I remember the life of Joseph in the old testament. My new parents gave me, education, but suffered for food many times. My father is having a poor congregation. We use to take food from the offering in the Church. To our bad-luck all the church members are daily labor in stone quarry. So food-less sleep became our bit in our daily life. But Satan working more vehemently and my mother slept in peace with blood-cancer on 5th June 1998 .My father was did in lorry extent on 2005 may 8th. Through we are encircled with bare-stomach; our Lord has not left us alone.

    * My church people sent me to study in Bible college. I finished my B.Th course of 4 years, after training I was married with a Godly minded girl(name : Rachel) on 27th Jan 2005, I had two children (First son name Joy Solomon, second son name Manos). Aurally with the faith on Jesus I am preaching the word of Jesus as per my vision and call from God. I never tried for a Job. I am interest to preach the word from my child-hood and miraculously my God is using me as His good vessel.

    *I know that my God who called is a trustworthy. He is not un-just (Heb 6:10) We are living only by the verse. I treat you as my spiritual brothers and requesting you to pray for me. Every day in the morning I am praying for you all. May God bless you all. I need your fervent prayers. Heb 13:21= Make you perfect in every good work to his will working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight through Jesus Christ to who, be glory for ever and ever, Amen.*
    * Heb 13:16= But to do Good and to communicate forget not; for with such sacrifices,*God is well pleased*
    *Your beloved brother in Christ. Pastor M. Rajan Babu*
    * (**pastor.mrajanbabu@gmail.com* *)*

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