Guest Post: Women in religion

For almost 40 years I have been a Christian. For much of this time, I felt that as a woman, I should try to behave in a certain way. I never quite succeeded in this endeavour because for a long time I was constantly fighting against the hypocritical, labyrinthine logic required to sustain this position. I have finally given up and it is positively liberating that I no longer have to engage in the mental gymnastics required to uphold the “women are precious children of God” along with “women are subject to men and will never have the discernment required to lead or teach”. 

It’s not that I don’t believe there is goodness to be found in the Christian message, neither would it be true to say that all Christians try to shoehorn women into specific roles. But it is hard to escape phrases like: “man… is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man” and “indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake” (1 Corinthians 11 vs 7 & 9), without feeling like you’re merely rationalizing them away, like you would an embarrassing relative with outrageous views of whom you’re nevertheless fond. I am not going to try to work through all the bible references regarding the relationship between men and women in this post. Far better and wiser people have already done this exhaustively. Furthermore, my concern is not solely around the Bible itself, but really the way the church still continues in this day and age, to subjugate women. This really is about my personal experience and understanding of how women are received and taught today.

There is of course a great diversity of attitudes towards women in the church: some congregations and denominations allow women to engage in the full gamut of roles from teaching to preaching and leading; others, however, confine women to support roles, while only men can lead. Many of these attitudes exist in wonderful, friendly churches where people are incredibly welcoming and generous. However, it’s time to state unequivocally that excluding women from roles of leadership and teaching is an idea that belongs firmly in the past. Complementarianism is wrong­-headed and reflects attitudes that were acceptable and maybe even forward-­thinking in the ancient world, but cannot and should not be acceptable to us today. Women and men should be allowed to choose how they would like to serve a community. They should also be allowed to act in accordance with their personality rather than some gender stereotyped model they’re expected to follow. It is not okay to accuse women of being bossy or shrill if they assume leadership roles or voice their opinions. Of course, these regressive attitudes towards women are alive and well in both religious and secular sectors of society but I cannot help feeling that a religious community dedicated to serving the one true God who has shown us how to live should be better!

Instead, I have received mixed messages as to my place in Christian society. On the one hand, people are gracious, respectful and caring. However, I have often felt that this is contingent on remaining within the bounds of acceptable behaviour. Although I’m not saying I should be allowed to do as I please – I should also respect and care for those around me – it is clear that my role is not to question male authority.

Let me give a few examples of the negative kind of pressure I perceive, particularly in Christian circles, affecting women:

  • Several friends of mine who subscribe to a hierarchical / complementarian view of marriage seem to be beset with resentment and frustration. I cannot say that it is entirely the result of their marital philosophy, but it seems very plausible to me that this is a large, contributing factor when they describe that they feel hamstrung by poor decision ­making on their husbands’ part since they don’t have the means to really reject or even second-guess those decisions. The visceral anger they feel towards their spouses is sometimes shocking, but I’ve noticed that they also feel they cannot appropriately express that anger. It seems like a dangerously toxic mixture that will poison the relationship in the long ­term. I do not desire that kind of relationship with my husband. I would rather hash issues out respectfully but honestly, feeling as though we both have an equal say and responsibility in the decision. Although we’ve had some rough patches, that approach has stood us in good stead and helped to avoid simmering discontent.
  • I’ve met people who have been pressured inappropriately into big decisions with the unseemly use of religious authority. A friend at university was told that her pastor had a prophecy that she was to marry another man in the congregation. He was not of her choosing but she went along with it because it was prophesied and confirmed by others. I can only imagine where she is now since I have not kept in touch, but at the time she was anxious and confused but also desperate to “do the right thing”. She was indeed foolish to go along with such nonsense, but who can say that as a young person, impressionable and eager to be part of a community, they have not gone along with someone else’s “suggestions” when it wasn’t the right choice for them? It is grotesque to preach a model of demure, compliant womanhood to young girls in Christian communities and then pile on “God’s voice” to pressure them to do things. I’d like to write off this example as just a few crazies (certainly all Christians are not like this) but I can say that I was certainly shown the view that a Good Christian Woman is demure, defers to men (specifically her husband) and is compliant. What on earth are our daughters to make of this? How will they be able to stand up for themselves under pressure when they are told not to make a fuss or be “bossy”? And what are our sons to make of this? How are they to find good, loyal, smart mates who will join with them to grow to be wise, good people when these partners are not allowed to stand up to them and point out their faults? We rob ourselves of rich, fulfilling and healthy relationships when we set up these unequal dynamics in relationships.
  • I’ve been told many times that I should “submit” to my husband because he is the head of the household. On these occasions, managing to suppress laughter, I’ve asked for clarity on what this actually entails in concrete terms. So far no useful details have been terribly forthcoming other than that you should respect and follow your man. While I totally agree that you should be respectful to those around you (including your children), there is a dangerous underlying message that teaches you not to trust your own mind or take responsibility for your own decisions. 

You might argue that these are all extreme examples and although they are not the whole picture, they are genuine examples from within the Christian community and we do not get to judge and choose who the “real” Christians are. The fact is that self-­confessed Christians subscribe to these views and represent a not insubstantial part of the community. 

No amount of caring, gentle reassurances that you as a woman are loved and respected, can make up for the general disdain and disrespect that is expressed loud and clear when women are told they cannot interpret the Bible for their community. It rings false in my ears when I am told that I am an important part of God’s family of faith but it is in my best interests not to serve as an elder in my church community because it is not what God has ordained and I must be humble and submit to God’s wisdom in shaping our community. How convenient for the men who tell me this, that it upholds their position of power! It is just plain commonsense that sexism is wrong. It is just plain commonsense that it’s unfair and repellent to dismiss half the world’s population as incapable of showing sufficient spiritual discernment to lead a community. What on earth do people think mothers do, if not lead and develop a future community?! Undoubtedly mothers do not do this alone and I am not arguing that they should. But it’s ridiculous to create glass ceilings in communities on the basis of gender. Society as a whole is held back when more than half the population is held back.

So if you wonder when I started losing my faith, partly it was when I got tired of trying to justify why it is still okay in our church to treat women as second class citizens. I believed for many years that this is not what the bible says. But the truth is, it does say that and there are plenty of Christian communities who do follow those teachings. Indeed there are some forward thinking Christians who have decided that regardless of what some passages say, they’re going to treat men and women with equality. Well, I think they’re right – the Bible is plain wrong in many instances on the treatment of women, and I’m sick to death of trying to defend the indefensible. If Christians really are supposed to be the people of God, they should live in communities of such stunning grace, respect, kindness, equality and love that they draw people in to share in the bounty that would surely come from such a way of living.