Misogyny, Patriarchy and the Church

May 6, 2013 in Theology · 31 comments

Silent Junia

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.

31 comments… read them below or add one

allegro63 May 6, 2013 at 3:41 pm

I am dismayed by the push in some circles of Christianity to reverse most of what we women have fought so hard to achieve. When a former presidential candidate tells female college graduates to get married have babies, instead of follow your dreams, discover your potential as a person with talent and ideas, I am sad for my gender, and disappointed that the female members of that class didn’t get stand up and turn their backs on the speaker in protest. When politicians and business leaders who believe they are being people of faith seek to hinder women from preventative health access, I am angered. When men abuse women and women cannot turn to their church for honest help, much less the legal arm of their communities, I am frustrated, but sadly, not surprised.

We have come so far, yet there are those who are afraid, and so seek to hold us back. Afraid? Of us? I cannot fathom why,

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meetingtheneighbour May 7, 2013 at 12:11 pm

simply awesome

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Dan May 7, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Thank you.

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Shaterian May 7, 2013 at 12:43 pm

In what church do they not permit women to be priests or teach? Certainly not in my Episcopalian ones. I am aware that in places that are not New York City or the San Francisco Bay Area that women are barred from the priesthood but I wish the author would be more specific about which religious bodies he was referring to. Also, I applaud his feminism! Equality is only reached when those with more power name the structures that give them that power. Bravo to you!

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Kate JW May 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Southern Baptists decided over a quarter of a century ago that women could not be ordained to serve as pastors. Therefore women with MDivs or DMins from SBC seminaries were relegated to positions like Head of Christian Education. Many of them simply left the Southern Baptists and aligned themselves with other denominations, such as PC(USA) or UMC. Unfortunately, this usually requires additional hoop jumping in order to be found qualified for their denomination.

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Dan May 7, 2013 at 2:13 pm

I realize I’m speaking in general terms, but at least in the context of this post I didn’t want to get bogged down by naming denominations and pastors. But since you asked, these groups/denomination all generally hold to a “complimentarian” understanding of women in ministry: Christian & Missionary Alliance, Anglican Church in North America, Evangelical Free Church, Christian & Missionary Alliance, the Acts 29 network, Church of Christ, Independent Bible Churches, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the SBC (16+ million members).

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meetingtheneighbour May 7, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Really? There is a whole world of traditions outside the episcopalian churches. Pretty much any protestant evangelical church could put their hand up here, right?

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lageorgia May 8, 2013 at 9:16 am

Yep. I come from the Presbyterian USA background but have attended many different denominations. We are currently attending Buckhead Church (Andy Stanley, son of Charles Stanley) and we are very hesitant to actually join as all my research shows me not one woman in leadership in one of the biggest churches in the country.

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Carrie Melbourne May 7, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Your woman’s voice is being joined slowly by other women’s voices around the world. The Bible was written and collated by men for men, so it is no surprise that it “adds up”. But if we listen closely for Jesus’s call in our hearts, then we find a full and equal and most beloved ministry – from and with all of us. Ultimately I feel sadness, for those men who can only relate to women by putting them down – the fault is theirs, not ours x

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Troy Haliwell May 7, 2013 at 2:42 pm

This is yet another reason this man left the Catholic church and joined the Episcopal one. We not only equalize man and woman, but we celebrate the achievements of both and advance opportunities for each sex!

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Rebecca May 7, 2013 at 6:03 pm

This lack of meaningful equality is a huge issue to me and I keep finding myself in churches where it pervades everything. (I am a member of an Anglican church that is so opposed to women in the priesthood that they couldn’t advertise our vacancy for a vicar openly and a new frontiers church which presents itself as terribly forward-thinking but doesn’t allow female elders)

Interestingly, someone asked me recently if it was a “closed-handed” issue for me i.e. could I continue to attend a church whose views I was so opposed to. My response was that my church affiliation has a lot to do with the network of people whom I connect with in the church and that tends to override my indignation/horror about this misogyny.

However, I have to wonder, how long can it continue thus?
It becomes difficult to be the only voice in a crowd who thinks this is still an issue. The techniques discussed in Elizabeth Esther’s blog become quite familiar- you become labelled as an un-biblical, liberal abberation and no one is listening to what you have to say in return for this mental hell.

I have yet to find a local church who believe fully in the bible, exercise their spiritual gifts and don’t hold deep, hurtful misogynistic views.

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Robert Dingus-Deville May 7, 2013 at 9:13 pm

The Quakers have had women ministers since the 1600s.

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Dan May 7, 2013 at 9:17 pm

I’ve been mistaken for a Quaker before!

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lageorgia May 8, 2013 at 9:19 am

And they would be a wonderful church for my husband and I but there are no Quaker meetings within 70 miles of us here in Atlanta. There are a few conservative Quaker groups within an hour but the conservative Quaker doesn’t allow women in leadership.

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Steven Waling May 7, 2013 at 11:28 pm

In Quakers everyone is already a minister, Robert. We don’t employ hireling shepherds.

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Don May 11, 2013 at 8:23 am

“Equal but” ain’t!

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Sally Archer May 12, 2013 at 3:05 pm

The freedom of finally leaving the church and connecting to healthy self-compassion and appreciation for the need to overcome (through outdoor nature) the mental ravages of misogyny (in the church and, culturally, everywhere else) has changed my life. There was a time when the well-articulated issues expressed on blogs like this greatly concerned me. But once you free yourself (or SpiderWoman or “mi Reina, mi Guadalupe” frees you, who knows), the wrangling over what’s happening at church and the hypocrisy of leadership there becomes irrelevant. Today the church (“the” so-called Church or any church) is no more relevant to me than the mosque around the corner, the synagogue, the temple, the ashram or the rotary club. And this from one who was raised as a water-immersed Southern Baptist (“once saved, always saved, cannot fall from grace”) who also went to Catholic school. Thus my indoctrination was profound and difficult to overcome, but eventually I became free. Live your own life, make your own community, separate from the tools of oppression! Underlying the church is a spiritual nexus that resonates and keeps drawing women to believe, because men in charge with an agenda told them so usually from the time they were children, that it’s about some form of the man-God men have defined. Take that spiritual nexus with you when you walk out the church door. You deep within, where spiritual reign resides, know there are options better than church because of your inherent capacity to connect to the eternal numinous and the natural glory. Walk out and walk into your natural spirituality. This is how we might evolve as women and stop man-made institutions (including all male-dominant religions and the secret rooms of global politics) from destroying our food supply and/or planet and killing us all.

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dgsg May 13, 2013 at 5:28 am

Hey, The Salvation Army has trained women as leaders/ministers as well as men pretty much since they began in the UK almost 150 years ago. In most countries in the ‘Army’ world, married couples are trained together equally, and both of them ordained and commissioned into full-time ministry (so if the woman’s husband were to die, she would still be an ordained minister in her own right). They’ve had women in the top international leadership role three times so far in their history, including right now. I guess this is why a lot of ‘Sallies’ I talk to from time to time look at all this ‘battle’ over women’s roles in the church and go ‘huh?’.

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Mary Newhouse May 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Thank you.

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Dan May 14, 2013 at 9:14 am

You’re welcome! Thanks for stopping by!

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sallyarcher June 22, 2013 at 7:21 pm

The conclusion of this piece is so powerfully stated: “When we exclude women from min­istry, it’s not just a loss for those being excluded — it’s a loss for us all.”

What we wring our hands over is the false notion that if only the men running churches realized the loss, if we could only help them see, then they would correct their error.

In fact men running churches know the loss. They just don’t care. Or rather, they care only or mainly about their own power, not the greater good of women and men and spiritual growth.

Men have since the Roman Empire set up churches to reinforce the subordination of women in patriarchy. Churches even in their modern incarnations are one of the strongest tools of female oppression by men in the world, along with mosques, synagogues, temples, ashrams, anyplace the male form or the male deity is put in first place over womankind.

For this reason, after trying to rationalize and deny reality about churches for 40 years of adult living, in the words of singer Jewel, I am in the growing majority of ex-church-goers who “no longer lend our strength to that which we wish to be free from.”

You can join us. Set yourself free. Breathe easier, thank Goddess..

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Scot Fourowls September 1, 2014 at 1:16 am

A mature and intelligent family member (60-year-old, law-degreed from a top ten US university) recently sent this letter to the pastor of her former Southern Baptist church, and we both agree the denomination cannot lose membership fast enough (along with all the other misogynist leaders running churches as nominal Christians who have no Holy Spirit informing their oppressive decisions against the female 50% of their congregations):

Dear [pastor, name redacted];
This is my thanks for your role by your indirection in showing me to let go as a Christian woman of the Southern Baptist denomination. When I spoke with [your assistant pastoral designee] on 8/19, I was too stunned at his approach to respond that same day. My letter to you afterward expressed my concerns but not my Christian prayer that everyone who follows Jesus would come to the full expression of the Holy Spirit’s gifts as believers, even if their church leadership tries to block or deride their gifts for reasons of female sex. [The assistant pastoral designee had instructed her to stop writing about theology, as she is both a Christian blogger and a popular Disqus-followed commenter, and start visiting shut-ins more.] You as expected never provided the courtesy of a response to my letter.

Since leaving fellowship at [church, name redacted] to worship elsewhere, I’ve been warmly included and valued for Bible-based theological contributions in co-ed study sessions where male “headship” does not pre-empt the Holy Spirit’s gifts. The current Sunday sermon series is on Habakkuk, an inspired and sustaining choice for our time of Islamic global encroachment against Christians and Jews. I’ve already found women friends who have joyfully shared their phone numbers, their walks with Jesus and their informal witness in the world by reciprocally caring over coffee outside of church. (None of that happened at [church, name redacted], such is the subtly subordinated gender apartheid’s negative effect on females by over-privileging Paulinism and disregarding the Bible’s whole message including the woman who anointed Jesus on the head in the priestly function as did Moses by his anointing of God’s priests under Torah. That is a sermon S. Baptist males never preach from the gospels of Matthew and Mark, even though Jesus specified that wherever the gospel is preached, what she did is to be told in memory of her. Similarly the first missionary who ever spoke the message of Jesus so that others would believe was the woman at the well; also not a sermon S. Baptist men preach.)

Without the 8/19 conversation with [assistant pastoral designee], I would not have been able to sort it out, such was my own S. Baptist gender apartheid programming from childhood. Thank God, He had a better plan.
Shalom,
[name redacted]

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Dan September 2, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Thanks for sharing this letter.

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Phil December 15, 2014 at 6:23 pm

https://gracetracer.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/breakthrough-on-paul-and-misogyny-part-two/

Read this, I found it rather enlightening; It will give your concerns, frustrations, and argument doctrinal teeth.

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Dan December 16, 2014 at 9:03 am

I write about 1 Cor 14 here.

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Nancy April 12, 2015 at 1:19 pm

As a female member of a Southern Baptist Convention affiliated church, I can say that I believe that the SBC is, in reality, the SBP (Southern Baptist Plantation).
Men are the overseers, and women are the baby-birth in’-cotton-pick in’ slaves.
Moses led the Israelites out of slavery and Lincoln wrote the emancipation Proclaimation, but bonded women have no voice!

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Dan Wilkinson April 14, 2015 at 11:39 am

I realize that there are a variety of (good) reasons you may have, but I’m curious…why would you stay a member of an SBC church?

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Nancy June 1, 2015 at 9:48 pm

My husband …… Need I say more?

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Dan June 2, 2015 at 3:02 pm

Ah… well, without knowing more specifics, I simply pray that you’ll find peace and happiness in your life.

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Nancy June 4, 2015 at 11:47 pm

Thank you. I was very active in each of the 2 churches we used to attend. I actually taught adolescent, mixed gender classes in Sunday school and VBS. Not anymore.
My husband is perfectly comfortable at the church we are in now. But, he is not the one who is not allowed to speak during church business meetings, and he is not the one who is not allowed to participate in Sunday school class discussions. Even though I have a BS in mathematics with a minor in secondary Ed., and I have taken some seminary classes, I am outranked by 16 year old boys at our current church!
I feel like a redheaded step-child in this church! Sure, I’m a “member”, but I don’t feel like a member. I have lost interest in anything church related.
Please pray that my husband will come to understand!

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Susan Jordan March 21, 2016 at 5:51 pm

Nancy, Just because your husband attends this church doesn’t mean that you have to. Surely, a loving husband would want his wife to be regarded as an equal. I can’t imagine my husband condoning such
a misogynistic stance towards women. Stand strong!

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