The Case for Mixed-Gender Small Groups

The Case for Mixed-Gender Small Groups

The compelling witness of men and women together in groups

One of the defining characteristics of the New Testament church was radical inclusivity, starting with the issue of race. God went to great lengths to teach the Christ-followers to affirm the conversion experiences of the Gentiles and welcome them based on evidence of the Holy Spirit in their lives rather than insisting they be circumcised. This was their first challenge related to including those who had previously been excluded or limited due to some physical characteristics. Their mandate was to welcome people based on the condition of their heart in relation to God, not on physical characteristics. Peter expressed it this way in relation to his experience with Cornelius: "The Spirit told me … not to make a distinction between them and us… . If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" (Acts 11:12, 17).

What was so remarkable about this new development was the fact that circumcision was one of the most sacred cows among the Jewish people: it was a symbol of their status as God's chosen people, instituted by God himself. Now God was challenging something he himself had put in place because it no longer served his larger purposes—the redemption of the whole world. It took attentiveness and responsiveness to God in the moment to recognize this and live into it.

Radical Inclusivity

We can be more intentional about including one another and perhaps even pay more attention to the ways in which we subtly exclude or diminish one another. As a culture we are at the point where we at least give mental assent to the fact the people of all races and classes are equal in God's sight; however, many are still in the process of making the final application to gender as well. Since Paul himself connects the dots between the issue of race, socioeconomic status, and gender in Galatians 3:29, we, too, must learn what it means to include and welcome one another's true selves and gifts regardless of gender, as each one's gifts and interests are given by God and breathed into life through his Spirit.

While we still wrestle at times with the tendency to subtly exclude others or make assumptions about them on the basis of race, in most circles today there is at least a basic agreement that racial stereotyping and the resulting discrimination are not at all consistent with our Christian ideals and commitments. And yet, it is easy to fall into the same kind of stereotyping and exclusion when it comes to men and women. Some Christian communities today still hold to a theological position that prevents women from being free to serve God in all the ways he has called and gifted them, which greatly hampers the sharing of life together in Christ.

When these two elements (gender stereotyping and theological perspectives that limit women) are combined, small groups and whole congregations can fall into a pattern where women serve refreshments and take care of the children while the men preach and lead—or where women are limited in the ways they can serve while men are free to exercise their gifts unencumbered by limits due to gender. It may be that women and men are routinely segregated into separate ministries based on an assumption that there are certain topics just men talk about or just women talk about—or women's spirituality and men's spirituality are framed as being so fundamentally different that it is not useful for men and women to be together and talk openly about a full range of human experience.

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