Last week, Canadian writer and Christian feminist Sarah Bessey started a hashtag entitled #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear and the results were pretty fantastic. And by “fantastic” I mean stomach-curdling, exasperating, cathartic, and angering.
Friends have already written about it here and here. You’ll find there samples of the typical things Christian women hear, and the fact that it trended so quickly only shows how commonplace these oddly out-of-place statements appear in the midst of a twenty-first-century context. Some of my favorites include:
“You can teach the women and children, you just can’t teach the men.”
“OK, you can teach this, but there has to be a male leader in the room when you do. We’ll send someone.”
“As a single woman, you need to find a male mentor to submit yourself to because you need a covering.”
“You are an amazing leader! You’d make an excellent pastor’s wife someday!”
“You and your husband are equals, but he makes the final decisions in your marriage.”
“Your period is punishment for Eve’s sin.”
Nothing here is unusual in the slightest. These are all quite typical things Christian women hear, not fifty years ago, but now, today.
Second Class Citizens
Women are treated differently than men in the church, in case you weren’t aware. There are exceptions, of course. But in the largest church traditions in the world (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), women aren’t allowed to become priests or anything higher, and in evangelical churches they are relegated to teaching only women and children or else teaching no one at all.
In Southern Baptist churches (my heritage), they can “give their testimony” in front of the congregation because that’s not considered teaching or preaching for some reason that escapes me. My former mother-in-law for example has been a children’s minister for decades and is now the most senior member of her church staff, yet she refuses to be called a “minister” on principle because she’s a dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptist and a woman, therefore she cannot be a minister. So much for “every member a minister” and the priesthood of all believers, I guess.
This is the case despite the fact that we live in a country which legally cannot discriminate based on sex…outside of the church, that is. Thanks to the same separation of church and state which evangelicals so vehemently disparage whenever they want to openly endorse political candidates or let coaches and teachers lead out in public prayer, churches are able to treat women differently than men and there’s nothing the government can do about it. Their discriminatory behavior is protected.
Which is why few things ever change in those churches besides the youth ministers’ hairstyles or maybe the fonts used in the church letterhead. Within conservative Christianity, in case you hadn’t noticed, social progress is always imposed on them from the outside, either by force of law, by influence of a culture they view as hostile toward them, or else in the case of slavery by having an actual war forcing them to change. To this day, they still hold a grudge about that last one, by the way. That’s why they voted to the tune of 81% for a man who promised to “make America great again.”
The conservative church is always slower to embrace social progress than the rest of the world around them. That’s why they’re called “conservatives.” They don’t like change. They made a 2,000 year-old book their final arbiter on all matters of faith and practice, which means their view of women today will unavoidably remain linked to however women were viewed in ancient Mediterranean culture.
That seems like a really bad idea to me.
But they will defend it to the death. They will say that it’s God’s order of things. Following the example of the writers of the New Testament, they will tell you Christ is the head of the church, which is his bride (note the inherent hierarchy woven into their concept of marriage), and that below him men are to run the church, with women functioning in a strictly supporting role to the men.
This is simply the way the Bible talks. Anyone who denies it is trying to repackage a very old faith into a form that better fits today’s world. Between you and me, I would like to see the repackagers win. I just don’t know how much hope to have because I know they are fighting against their own source documents.
Seen and Not Heard
Well-meaning people today make much of the fact that it was women who first testified that Jesus had risen from the dead, but one wonders why not a single woman was selected by Jesus to be among “The Twelve?” The church in Jerusalem certainly didn’t give women any public leadership positions, nor did Paul make it very clear that they were to have anything like the same authority in church that men do.
In an attempt to dismiss the sexism inherent in Paul’s prohibition of women speaking in church (see 1 Tim. 2:9-15, quoted below), modern interpreters usually call into question the authorship of the passage. They point out that the Pastoral Epistles were most likely written by someone other than the apostle Paul despite their bearing his name. But conservatives never take very well to questions of authorship, so that discussion is usually lost on them.
Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness. A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.
But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint. (emphasis mine)
One glaring problem with attempts to dismiss the above passage is that, even if Paul wasn’t the true author of the Pastoral Epistles, he himself most likely wrote the first letter to the Corinthians (it’s not among the regularly disputed letters), and he says something similar in there as well:
The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only?
If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. (emphasis mine)
Interpreters have been trying for centuries to make the above passages NOT SAY WHAT THEY ACTUALLY SAY, and I can definitely sympathize.
Reading what the Bible has to say about women is like watching your dad mow the lawn in his knee-high dress socks. You wanna make him stop because you’re dying inside a little, but what are you gonna do? He just is who he is, and you’re gonna have to live with it.
Kicking Against the Goads
I cannot fathom why people are still shocked to learn that the Bible preserves for us an outdated understanding of the role of women in the world (or the church). It was written in the midst of an ancient patriarchal culture, and even its key metaphors stick closely to the language of their day: God is a monarch to whom you should submit if you are to enjoy the benefits of his “kingdom,” and a husband is the “head” of his wife in the same way Christ is the head of the church. Authoritarian, top-down leadership is assumed on every page, and the reader is expected to be fine with this. Slavery was fine then, too, by the way.
Is it really any wonder that churches today struggle to contextualize this ancient book into today’s world? Most religions of the world suffer from an excessively conservative ethos, especially faiths which are predicated on divine revelation as it were “handed down” to us fallible earthen vessels to be accepted without question. I mean who are you to question God’s authority, amirite?
Paul said it himself: “Was it from you that the word of God first went forth?” Translation: You don’t get to reinvent things to fit your preferences. Never mind the fact that Paul’s ministry was founded upon an unprecedented reimagining of just about every important tenet of Judaism, including but not limited to the allegorization of circumcision, the Passover, the Temple, ceremonial washings, kosher food laws, and even the physical bloodline of Abraham (“all who are of faith are sons of Abraham”). Consistency was never among the apostle Paul’s strong suits.
People who read the Bible today and want to make it fit our contemporary culture are going to bump up against this limitation to their book no matter how hard they try to refashion it into a more egalitarian framework. Revealed theology is so inflexible that the only way significant change has ever been produced in the history of the church has always been by starting an entirely new church. Anyone who starts out trying to “reform” the church will soon find himself having to begin a new one from scratch, or else having to build one out of the ashes of one already on its way out of existence.
And yet, there remains the Bible, like a thorn in the side of egalitarian Christianity. Pray though they may that this be removed from them, I’m afraid they’re going to be stuck with it “till kingdom come.” I’m highly skeptical that it will ever be made into anything other than what it actually is.
But then, I’ve been wrong before. I guess we’ll see. More power to them.
[Image Sources: Adobe Stock]
P.S. I appreciated seeing that over at The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta pointed out at the end how the church isn’t alone in struggling to overcome its own inherent misogyny. Skeptic and Freethought subcultures deal with this problem as well, and often quite poorly, I’m afraid. These aren’t just religion problems, they are human problems. But thankfully, we don’t have an authoritative book pushing back against our own desires for progress. I expect better things from my current tribe, and will be holding them to it.