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Creative Tension, Women Preachers, and What It Takes To Change Anything

This summer I’m re-posting some of the most read and shared posts from 2013. This one, on tension and women and ministry, generated much conversation. A friend even shared with my his mother’s concern for my eternal soul. I don’t say that in jest or mockery. Women in spiritual leadership is an important leadership to nearly everyone I know. We should treat the matter thoughtfully, with sensitivity, and with a view towards God’s eternally purposes.


I think tension is good.

It’s not fun. Or easy. Or even comfortable, but it’s good.

Think of your thumb – to use the most commonly used metaphor. The reason your hand works so effectively is because of your opposable thumbs. Your thumb allows you to grip, grab, and strangle – should you be so inclined…and homicidal. Your life would be much more of a struggle, and much less productive, without the tension your thumb creates.

The same is true when it comes to church, change, holding onto necessary and important traditions, and moving forward in other important ways. We (the church) would ultimately be less productive and useful without tension.

Why do I bring this up?

Because from time to time, the church – on the local, denominational, or universal level – has to hash things out. We have unresolved issues – women, sexuality, Neo-Calvinism, the role of leadership, politics, evangelism, etc… that we need to come to terms and deal with. And while there are many folks who would prefer the church to paper over discordant topics, if we don’t deal with them publicly and passionately, the church will never become what God intends. This is why we need tension.

A Lesson From 40 Years Ago

At the height of the Civil Right Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, AL. At the time, King was suffering under incredible criticism from the southern, white church and clergy. They thought King, and the movement he led, wanted too much, too soon. They failed to understand why the movement was causing – in their view – so much upheaval. They wanted King to move more slowly and referred to him as “an outside agitator.”

The truth is, the southern, white clergy actually wanted the status quo. Inequality. The devil’s scheme! They didn’t want change. Instead of admitting their ill-fated position was ungodly and counter to God’s ultimate aims for His people and His creation, the white clergy reacted to the tension King created with name-calling, threats, and demonization. They knew what King knew, that given enough pressure and tension, any system will change. But King knew that tension was necessary for flawed human beings to see others from a Godly point of view.

King wrote,

“You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

Without tension the status quo wins.




A Lesson From 2,000 Years Ago

Pressuring the system is what Jesus did! We cannot paper over that nor domestic Him. Jesus agitated the system at every opportunity.

The Lord’s preaching ministry began with the Sermon on the Mount. Repeatedly, Jesus uses the refrain, “You have heard it said, but I say….” Jesus was reframing God’s intention; reclaiming them from a system that had gone corrupt and worldly. Throughout his preaching and teaching ministry, Jesus repeatedly returns to the simply idea that the religious system the Jews were laboring under (and bludgeoning others with) was wrong, broken, and, worse, breaking people. In response, Jesus created tension because tension creates change.

Most systems – personal, home, religious, organizational, civic, cultural – won’t change unless it has to. 

In the church, therefore, we are required to push one another away from our way towards God’s way, toward changes we might not prefer to make, but are ultimately more in line with the Kingdom of God. We are always restoring!

Had King not pressured the villainous systems of his time – like women’s suffrage, The Civil War, The Reformation and Radical Reformation, the American Revolution, and countless other movements before him – the status quo would have held and our world would look an awful lot like their old world.

Contemporary Changes

In my tribe, Churches of Christ, we are seeing an outburst of what King called, “creative tension” this week. A number of God-loving, church-serving, creative folks are attempting to move our non-denomination toward fully-embracing equal roles for women and men inside the church. This is particularly difficult in an ecclesial movement with no denominational hierarchy. What we do have, though, are annual gatherings – most notably at Pepperdine University and Abilene Christian University. The group advocating change is called “One Voice For Change” and their aim this next year is to have a woman present a keynote lecture at one or both of these annual gatherings. In terms of 2013, the slates are already set, so it won’t happen this calendar year.

Regardless of what ultimately becomes of One Voice For Change (or what any of us think about their aims), its organizers are correct in their view of creative tension. They are allowing people to have much needed conversations, not just about what happens during our annual gatherings, but how the church will view this important issue and what we will do about it in the coming years. Christians, institutions, and churches will have to make decisions about these issues, one way or another. We will have to decide whether we are for it or against it.

That’s what tension does.


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  • I’m teaching a class on change leadership this semester. This was today’s topic — creative tension! As Peter Senge wrote in The Fifth Discipline: “It’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does.”

    But, tension doesn’t automatically lead to the changes occurring because we have two options to relieve it. We can take action to bring our present reality closer to the vision or goal. Too often, though, we simply lower the goal/vision to bring it closer to our current reality.

    That’s why (as the 1V4C folks have noted) little progress has been made in a decade or more on the women’s issue in the Churches of Christ — actions were taken to relieve some of the tension and since then, the goal was lowered to be happy with what had already happened — tension relieved!

  • mattdabbs

    Another term that is used is “productive tension” by Ronald Heifetz in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers. His point is no tension = stagnation. Too much tension = people bail. You have to find productive tension where people stay on board, aren’t stretched too far, too fast.

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