Elizabeth Esther recently wrote a blog post about “the new misogyny,” highlighting the shift in the church away from blatant misogyny to a more subtle, yet equally toxic attitude towards women. Elizabeth’s post made me simultaneously angry and depressed and disappointed.
The anger prompted me to write this post, to vent, to speak out against the status quo.
The depression makes me feel like giving up. Because really, what can one person do when the monolithic patriarchy of the institutional church just keeps steamrolling along with megaphone blaring and blinders firmly affixed?
And the disappointment is directed towards me, because it’s so very easy for a privileged male to ignore the blatant and not-so-blatant misogyny that permeates modern “Christian” culture.
So this post is as much a reminder for me as it is a cry of outrage into the vacuous depths of the internet. Futile or not, it must be said, and said again, and again, until maybe, someday, real change will not only take place, but will take hold and blossom into lasting and pervasive unity and equality within, and beyond, the Church.
While there are many reasons why attitudes toward women within the church are so deplorable, it’s the leadership who sets the tone for how we think about topics related to gender. It’s a problem that starts at the top and works its way down: people follow their leaders; they look up to them; they respect them. It’s been said that a healthy church’s congregation should roughly reflect the age, race, gender and socio-economic background of the larger community in which it’s located. But shouldn’t this metric also hold true for church leadership? Why are the roles of elder and pastor almost exclusively filled by middle-aged white men? How is that representative of the true diversity of the church? How can we expect any meaningful advancement on gender issues when any change puts at risk the power of those in charge?
Equality and respect for women within the church threatens the current patriarchal power structure — the male-dominated leadership doesn’t want women breaking up their party. To prevent that from happening, they marginalize and exclude those who disagree with their positions. They belittle them and mock them and place them into carefully labeled boxes that can easily be ignored and dismissed — boxes with labels like “liberal” and “feminist” and “un-Biblical.” And when pressed, they defer to their interpretation of a couple of Bible verses that oh-so-conveniently support their already decided position. Not only do they lock the door, they also throw away the key.
When you say that women can’t be pastors you’re effectively saying to half of your community that they can’t fully participate in the life of the church. When you say that women can’t be teachers, you’re saying that the wisdom and insight and knowledge and grace and love of half the human population simply aren’t important. You’re saying that, because of their gender, some people are lesser than others. You’re saying that some doors are closed to women not because of any merit based, objectively valid reason, but that they’re firmly locked solely because someone happens to be the “wrong” gender. Excluding someone from positions in the church on the basis of gender is no different than excluding them on the basis of their skin color.
Complementarians usually claim that women and men are equal, but that they have different God-given roles. But unless you’re operating with a completely different definition of equality than the rest of the world, that arithmetic doesn’t add up. In what distorted version of reality does a man being a senior pastor equal a woman teaching children’s Sunday school? In what messed-up alternate universe does a man being an elder equal a woman organizing women’s brunches? In what wrong-headed state of existence does men teaching and preaching equal women serving and submitting?
When complementarians speak about roles and submission and authority and headship, all I hear are words of anger and hate and suspicion and above all fear. When they talk about how marriage is a team effort and that they’ve rarely needed to exercise their authority of male headship — as their wives listen silently from the audience — all I hear is arrogance and pride and deep-seated insecurity. When they inextricably connect the “truth” of “biblical” womanhood to orthodox theology and Trinitarian belief, all I see is a shell game that’s carefully designed to avoid the theological alternatives and maintain the current power structure.
I once asked a complementarian pastor if, since women weren’t allowed to teach and preach in the church, does God therefore withhold gifts of preaching and teaching from women? He wouldn’t give me a direct answer. To answer no is to deny the reality of extraordinarily talented and effective women in ministry throughout the church. To answer yes is to say that God would bless someone with a unique and powerful gift that he wouldn’t allow to be fully used for the benefit of the church.
Yes, we are each suited to some roles better than others. But God doesn’t arbitrarily withhold teaching and leadership ability based on gender. We are all created in the image of God, and when we deny that fact through our words and our actions we hurt not only those who have been relegated to second class citizenship in the church, we hurt the entire Body of Christ — a body that is called to unity and maturity:
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Eph. 4.11-13)
Shortly after leaving a church due in part to their views on women in ministry, I found myself sitting in the pew of a different church on Sunday, December 16, 2012, two short days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. There I listened to one of the most poignant and powerful sermons I’ve ever heard — and it was given by a woman. It didn’t matter that she was female; that fact didn’t make the sermon any better or any worse. But if that church had had a policy against allowing women to preach, no one would have ever heard that sermon. The congregation wouldn’t have been blessed by those wise words, they wouldn’t have felt that bit of God’s love and grace. When we exclude women from ministry, it’s not just a loss for those being excluded — it’s a loss for us all.