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  • Hannah Williamson

Imbalances in the church today

Galatians 3:28

I grew up in Dagenham - traditionally a very working class area. In fact after the war, it was the biggest housing estate in Europe where thousands of people were shipped out of the east end of London which had been bombed and housed in this area on the edge of Essex. My grandparents were two of these people. They were working class people and my Grandad who was fairly traumatised mainly induced through the war, had a variety of ‘working class jobs’ - mainly in factories. My grandfather on the other side of the family worked in Fords which Dagenham was known for - again, working class without university education.

I grew up in a church as a child which was predominantly white British with a few black families who came over from the Caribbean as part of the wind rush generation. My parents took on the church when I was 13 and lead it for 20 years. In that time, the church moved from being 95% white to 80 % black African. The church changed as the community changed. I was the Youth Pastor in a hugely multicultural environment which I would never want any other way!

I became the Youth Pastor when I was 21 and was the first female youth pastor there had been. When I was about 28 I joined the leadership team, again as the first female...I grew up believing I could serve Jesus in ministry as a woman because I was always told I could. I, of course, questioned this naturally being the only woman but was always believed in by the leadership and encouraged in the roles I was given. My hope was always that the girls coming after me wouldn’t question if they could lead because I had hopefully modelled it to them.

I have found myself in light of my history and in light of the role I do now working with a multitude of churches, coming back to this verse and thinking about the practicalities of it within the local church.

I often see imbalances everywhere I look, whether it be in race (Jew nor gentile), social status (slave nor free) or gender (male nor female). Or even in the amount of young people to older people in the church!!!! As I look at Galatians 3:28 I wonder how this can actually work. But it is in the bible so it must be possible!

John 8 tells a fascinating story about a woman caught in adultery who is brought before Jesus by the religious leaders. They wish to trap Jesus but as ever, Jesus surprises them with wisdom. The story ends with Jesus elevating this woman in a society that would wish to look down on her. The story is a powerful picture of how we can address imbalances we see.

In this story we see 4 imbalances that I notice to start with….

1. There are multiple men gathered against one woman.
2. There is an imbalance of power - the woman holds no power or rights even though she was not the only one to sin and she can do very little to get out of this situation without the help of a man.
3. There is an imbalance of justice - Where is the man? Where’s the fair trial?
4. There is an imbalance in thought - why does the passage have the title ‘the woman caught in adultery?' I read recently in one of NT Wrights books that he says maybe it should have had the title , ‘The men caught in hypocrisy.’

I’ve got 4 ways, we can approach imbalances that we see in the church today….

"The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and placing her in the midst, they said to him…” John 8:3

I try to imagine what this moment must have been like when this group drag this woman up to Jesus and place her right in the middle of them, but proceed to use her to make a point about how they felt about Jesus. The above verse says they placed her ‘in the midst of them’ but in the NIV it says, ‘they made her stand before the group.’ The MSG says, ‘they stood her in plain sight of everyone.’ She was the centre of the story while at the same time wasn’t. She is right there in front of them but they are more interested in trapping Jesus.

A human being, made in the image of God was placed at the feet of Jesus with a crowd gathering yet only one person really noticed her - Jesus. The men who brought her didn’t see her, they saw her sin. They didn’t see her heart. They didn’t see her character. They just saw mess. But even in what they did see, they didn’t seem to care that much as the whole story is not really about her - she’s just caught up in someone else’s hypocrisy, ignorance and arrogance.

It to me, is a powerful picture of what can often happen when it comes to imbalances in the church. We don’t really see what is often right in front of us. Some call this an unconscious bias.

“Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.” Proverbs 21:13

We must make decisions to open our eyes and see what is right in front of us. An imbalance I often see in churches is the amount of young people to older people. I see a lot of what I do in advocating for the younger generation but there are hundreds of churches across our nation who have an imbalance of older people to younger people. The problem most of the time, is that people don’t want to see what is right in front of them. Maybe they are scared to confront this imbalance as it would mean making some radical changes that might affect everyone.

“And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them…” John 8:7

Jesus begins by dealing with those who are in power. They really can do what they want in this situation. They have the woman in their midst and people look to them for their moral basis and so they could decide what they want to do and do it as I’m sure they had done many times before. Jesus doesn’t actually answer their question which is there to trap him, but he challenges their thinking and their mindset. He actually challenges their morality, the very thing they were meant to uphold.

It’s one thing noticing something and another questioning it.

I love how Jesus approaches this moment.

  • He doesn’t respond immediately - how often do we give a quick 'non- thought through' response which could be ignored?

  • He framed a response to challenge thinking - we are not here to just give opinions but help people think through their opinions.

  • He doesn’t wait for an immediate response - sometimes we want to get into a debate but sometimes people need space to think.

Maybe this can help us in leadership team contexts? Don’t rush in with an attack when you see and imbalance. Frame a question that challenges thinking whilst showing respect and a well-thought out idea. Let the thoughts settle before going back for a follow up conversation.

“Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said…” John 8:10-11

Up until this point in the story, the woman has no voice. The men in the story are doing all of the talking and she is just there. She is not given a chance to defend herself, or express her remorse over what she’s done or complain that the other person involved wasn’t there. She is silent. Men were expected not to talk to women in public in the time the gospels are set. Here in this story He is giving a voice to the one who is not expected to have anything to say. He is allowing her a voice to defend herself. He’s giving her a voice to express how she feels if she wishes.

She actually only says two words in response to Jesus allowing her a voice - ‘no one’ andLord’.In her response she acknowledges Jesus’ lordship over her life. It’s a powerful moment.

This was something my parents modelled well to me in our church. Particularly as it was growing into a multicultural church. There were of course complexities that came in having a church made up of so many different nationalities. People had different expectations of what church was, there were different practices and differences in styles, but they worked hard at asking questions. Seeking to understand differences. I’m sure they didn’t always get it right but I was always grateful they were willing to ask questions and listen and I believe others were too.

When it comes to these matters of Galatians 3:28 are we asking questions? If you are in a majority white church, have you ever asked the other ethnicities in your church how they feel in your church? Do they feel welcome? Is there anything that is difficult for them? And then do you listen….really listen? Are all people given fair opportunity of a seat at the table in order to have a voice?

“…go and from now on sin no more.” John 8:11

We all know this part of the story, where Jesus questions where everyone has gone and He not only elevates her by giving her a voice and Him not condemning her but He presents a different way for moving forward. He doesn’t give her a slapped wrist and say ‘you were bad’ but He says, ‘now that you know you are not condemned there is a different way of moving forward.’ We know in the context of this story, Jesus is asking her to make a decision to not sin. Jesus presents a different way moving forward.

When it comes to imbalances in the church, we have to find some ways to move forward. It’s not good enough to just point out the problems. We need some clear ways forward. I have found when it comes to matters of Galatians 3:28, it can be hard to bring change. especially where for years, things have been the same. People are not so great with change. It can take a lot of consistent challenging and bringing change to see the imbalances shift.

In this story, Jesus challenges behaviour. Behaviour change comes firstly from a ‘change in thought’ - thats harder to shift and takes longer time. And then next comes behaviour or actions. Let’s be solution finders not problem finders!!!

We go back here to the beginning of the story which begins with the narrative about Jesus. John 8:2 says,

“Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.”

This story is about Jesus. It’s main focus appears to be so many other things - the Pharisees trapping him, a woman and her sin, the temple, injustice, poor treatment of people. The needs in the story stand out but we have to remind ourself that this story is about Jesus ultimately. It’s about His extravagant love for all people. It’s about His character - the character that fights for people. A character that loves people. A character that gives voice to those people try to silence. It’s about Jesus.

We focussed a lot of what was said today on Galatians 3:28 but here's what a few verses before says, (v26-29)

When it comes to matters of injustice or inequality or imbalance, for those who the imbalance affects it can be painful, difficult and feel like no change will ever come. But we’ve got to remember that the reason we approach imbalances in the church is not to make things easier for us or even to make sure things are equal but in order to represent Jesus and His church. His church is not made up of one gender or one race or only those of a certain social standing. The church is for everyone. Everyone can come before Jesus at the cross. That’s the reason we address imbalance and see it as important because Jesus did. He modelled it over and over in his ministry - he sought out the poor, he elevated the place of women and he came to reach the gentiles. And so, we as churches should aim to do the same. I hope you will.

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Jul 06, 2023

Very informative and eye opening with answers and suggestions how we can deal with a true predicament in the church in the UK today. Sunday again seems to be another segregative day eyesore - whites go to white churches and Black minority go inn their community churches where they feel understood and welcome.

Thanks so much Hannah for giving the church of our generation - food for thought and and a prayer item!

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