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.

To counter this tendency, we can seek a dynamic mix of women and men teaching and leading, cooking and preparing refreshments, taking care of children and exercising their spiritual gifts in the community, in small groups and in the community as a whole. We can invite each person to share about their spiritual gifts, personal hobbies, and interests—even those that go against gender stereotypes—and brainstorm how those gifts can be offered within the group. There may be women in the group who are strong teachers and men who love to cook or care for children and vice versa, which makes things a lot more interesting! We can mix it up and have couples or different combinations of men and women combine their gifts to offer different aspects of what's needed, rather than relegating certain tasks to one gender of another. Perhaps we, too, will then be able to say, "The women of our group astounded us … and the men, too!" (see Luke 24:22).

Recognizing Subtle Messages about Gender

Closely connected with including one another is the commitment to listen to one another with love, respect, and genuine interest. We may already be committed to listening well, but it may take another level of commitment to listen to one another across lines of gender, believing that we all share the same basic experience of being human. Women and men have much to offer one another in community if we are willing to listen and be influenced by one another, rather than dismissing each other.

In worshiping communities I was part of during childhood and young adulthood, women were not allowed to speak in worship services or public forums. This simple pattern communicated powerfully that men were more worthy of being listened to than women. In many churches today, women still do not have the freedom to speak from the pulpit or to provide leadership as pastors or elders. This communicates subtly that women are not to be heard and listened to with the same kind of influence and authority as men.

By the same token, when men and women are segregated too much in separate small groups and ministries, the subtle message can be that we don't need each other—that men don't need to hear from women regarding the issues they face or that women don't need a perspective from men on the issues they face. Or that there are certain aspects of the human experience that women care about more than men and vice versa.

In transforming community, there is a deep-seated belief that none of us have the right to say to another, "I have no need of you"—on the basis of gender or any other characteristic. Transforming community is a context in which women and men can approach one another with curiosity and a genuine sense of anticipation regarding how we might speak into, listen to, and influence one another's lives.

Recently I preached all four services in a mainline church that was part of a denomination that has ordained women for years. I assumed that having a woman in the pulpit was rather routine for this congregation, so I didn't think much of it. At the end of one service, however, as I stood in the sanctuary to greet people, a woman approached holding the hand of a little girl who must have been about 8 years old. With tears in her eyes, she told me that this was the first time she had heard a woman preach! Profuse in her gratitude, she kept looking from my face into the face of her little girl, who was looking up at me with what appeared to be awe. I could tell that part of this mother's emotion was her deep desire for her little girl to see that God can and does speak through women to his church—the body of Christ—and that all options for serving God are open to her.

On the one hand, my heart was broken that there are still places in this world where the voices of men and women are not heard together in harmony proclaiming the good news of Jesus. On the other hand, I was grateful to be part of a sacred moment in which a little girl could have a more complete vision of what life in the body of Christ—and what her life—can be like.

Honoring Sexuality in Community

In order to experience transforming community, we must acknowledge, with eyes wide open, the sexual dynamic that is present between men and women when we are together and commit ourselves to respect and honor the power of sexuality. In a secular culture where sexuality is overplayed and often abused, and a religious culture where sexuality is often repressed and avoided, transforming community can be a place where the gift of our sexuality is acknowledged and received while, at the same time, its power is respected and handled wisely.

All of us have experienced moments where someone else's infidelity or our own sexual urges bring up fears that can be pretty overwhelming. At the same time, we long for a community where we can be held safely as the human selves we are, experiencing the fullness and the goodness God intended for us as men and women in relationship with each other.

In transforming community, we learn to experience and even enjoy the good chemistry that is produced when male and female—the core elements of the human race—get together. It is possible for the sparks generated by male and female in close proximity to be harnessed toward building a fire that can warm us all rather than being allowed to fly out of control and burn down the whole forest. Tending the sparks wisely so they don't start a forest fire will involve:

  • Facing our fears and moving beyond them so we don't remain victims of sin and cultural pathologies
  • Establishing good and healthy connections between our sexuality and our spirituality as beings created in God's image
  • Cultivating self-awareness and taking responsibility for any transformation needed regarding any distortions within our experience of sexuality
  • Opening our sexual longings to God and learning how to seek his care and wisdom regarding how such legitimate longings can be met
  • Moving toward each other in Christlike expressions of love, friendship, and partnership
  • Cultivating marriages (if married) that are healthy, satisfying, and honest
  • Being intentional (if single) about expressing sexuality in healthy ways

A Compelling Witness

What a worthy goal it would be for men and women in transforming community to model relationships that are closer to God's ideal and Jesus' example than the cultural distortions for which we have often settled! And what a testimony such a community would be to a world lost in a sea of confusion, selfishness, and sin—sometimes because it has never been winsomely presented with another way.

Certainly there is a fine line between respecting the power of sexuality and refusing to live out of our fears, but it is the line that Jesus himself walked. The willingness to move beyond fear and paranoia to real brotherly and sisterly love in Christ is completely contrary to what we see in our secular hook-up culture and also in much of our repressed religious subculture. Celia Allison Hahn calls this "sexual paradox," which she identifies as:

A call for women and men to live faithfully in the tension of two realities: awareness of our feelings and drives, and also the call to behave in responsible ways. Sexual paradox invites us to live where the currents of energy spark back and forth. People discover new sources of vitality when they hold opposites together in tension. And there is a lot of good energy in male-female collaboration—energy that is one of the most precious gifts of God for the people of God.

—Taken from Life Together in Christ by Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright 2014 by Ruth Haley Barton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.

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