The New Shame: Why Gender Equality Is Still Worth Fighting For

Mandi Cherico

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Gender Equality Worth Fighting For

Gender Equality Worth Fighting For

“Are there really that many hurting women in the Church?”

I was a freshman at a Christian college when one of my professors posed this question to our class. Yes, I replied, women were still second-class citizens in many congregations; yet he was unconvinced. According to him, the women in his church seemed happy and fulfilled. We’ve come a long way. Women have the right to vote and work outside the home.

Why make an issue out of nothing?

I wish I could tell you that I attended college in an era of widespread, Mad Men-type sexism but, alas, I graduated in the early 2000s. I’ve reflected on his disbelief since then, still saddened by his ignorance. His question taught me something valuable, though. For some among us, the struggles of women in the 21st century are a non-issue. It is the opinion of some, even (especially?) in the Church, that discussions on gender equality are simply not needed today.

I agree that it’s good to recognize women’s progress. Three waves of feminists spanning two centuries have done hard and necessary work both inside and outside the Church to create a more equal playing field for women and men. There are far more women in the workforce this decade than ever before. For every one man who graduated from college in the U.S. in 2009, three women earned their diplomas as well. Women are running companies and running for president.

So why, some may ask, are we still writing blogs about gender equality?

Glaring inequalities such as the wage gap, sexism in the media, and the lack of female leadership in our churches are all good responses to that question. At the same time, we live in a new era where women not only have more options, but are excelling in these new frontiers. In her sensationally-titled book The End of Men and the Rise of Women, Hanna Rosin uncovers important findings on segments of modern American women and men. Though middle-class and upper-middle class women and men are now nearly equal when it comes to representation in the workforce and academia, these new equalities don’t make for equal expectations.

In 2016, patriarchy is not dead, it’s reincarnated.

While many women now have more freedom to pursue their God-given potential outside traditional roles, the pressure to marry, have children and be the primary homemaker still looms over them. Rosin’s research proved that society’s ‘to-do list’ for women has only gotten longer since the acceptance of the Independent Woman. Even more, when women can’t check off this to-do list, they feel intense shame.

The New Shame for women comes not from a failure to fill one specific role, but from a failure to fill every role.

We’re handed a long list of attributes: be confident and compassionate and professional and sexy and respectable and whimsical and quiet and strong and…the list goes on.

Today, women may not feel shame for pursuing a career or an education, but they often do if these things impact traditional expectations of a wife and mother. If they choose the calling of motherhood and homemaking, they also feel shame for not working or leading outside the home.

Many women struggle with the lie that they must be everything, to be worth anything at all.

And – guess what? – some of these women preach sermons and fill pews in our churches. All progress considered, there are still hurting women in our churches, women who have been told – even by the Church itself – that they must be it all and do it all. As leaders in the Church, it’s our job to create safe places of healing and wholeness for women, and for all people.

Take an inventory of the culture of your church. 

How are we talking about the lives of men and women in our pulpits? How do we structure our gender-based ministries? Who do we applaud as ‘normal’ or exemplary among women and men? Above all, we can fight shame for all people by communicating that our worth is not found in how well we fill any role, but in the liberating love of God.

This post originally appeared on the blog of the Commission for Biblical Gender Equality, which exists to educate people in biblical equality regarding gender; to advocate for justice in the structure of the church regarding gender; to equip the church to articulate the truth about Biblical equality regarding gender; and to advocate for the modeling of women in ministry and leadership in all possible venues within the church. The Commission is a ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church.

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17 Comments

  • Joe Wheatley…”A fundamentalist Christian (or Muslim) woman might look at things differently and we need to respect that”. I spent over 30 years believing all those lies…and you know what Joe? The worst lie was the lie about who God is…that lie tells women that God is a respecter of persons, and favours men over women (this is directly contrary to the Bible’s teaching)…and that God has a lesser view of women…that God is neither just nor fair and that he doesn’t care that women are oppressed or in bondage…It tells me that God made us both in the image of God but that being in the image of God can make you inferior to another…it is the lie about who God is that is the most nefarious and, no, I don’t believe we need to respect that at all! In fact, I wish someone had disrespected the idea so that I hadn’t wasted so many years believing a lie…so don’t be so ‘kind’ Joe.

  • I had coffee with a colleague pastor the other day who had experienced a particularly nasty form of discrimination. She had made friends with another pastor in the town and had organised a joint youth group between their respective churches.

    After over 12 months of what seemed to be a really good partnership, she discovered that her female youth pastor was not being allowed to teach at the youth meetings. When she asked why she discovered that the other pastor was firmly in the female subordination camp- any male was better than any female no matter how gifted, anointed or able. So she asked him the question, “What does that say about your opinion of me as a pastor?” He avoided answering that one.

    I am shocked that this is still going on. I am grieved about what it does to the Body of Christ,

  • I know that gender equality is very important to many women but you should accept that some women are content being “keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands”, teachers of young children and younger women, and supportive of their husbands. They feel they are following God’s instructions as delivered through the inspired Paul and are willing to live a life that might not live up to its full earthly potential in exchange for eternity in heaven. Many of the posts I read here seem to imply that almost all women want equality and that the few who don’t are somehow dragging down their more progressive sisters. To think that equality is essential is sexist in itself. Work toward equality for those who want it but be tolerant to those women who support the status quo out of a sense of following the will of God as they see it.

    • “…willing to live a life that might not live up to its full earthly potential in exchange for eternity in heaven.”

      Some might see this thinking as indicative of “salvation by works,” which is a problem just as serious as sexual inequality.

      “To think that equality is essential is sexist in itself.”

      Would you also say, “To think that (racial) equality is essential is racist in itself”?

      “Work toward equality for those who want it but be tolerant to those women who support the status quo out of a sense of following the will of God as they see it.”

      Genuine egalitarianism allows for couples to work out whatever allocations of authority and duties best suit their individual personalities.

      • Perhaps clear writing isn’t one of my strong suits so allow me to explain.

        “Some might see this thinking as indicative of “salvation by works,” which is a problem just as serious as sexual inequality”

        What I meant is that there might be a woman who is qualified (I don’t think anyone, male or female, is divinely “called”) to preach or teach to mixed gender classes but who feels that she is prohibited from doing so by God. To her it might seem better to not teach than to displease God by teaching and in so doing commit a sin that keeps her from heaven. I know women who think this way.

        “Would you also say, “To think that (racial) equality is essential is racist in itself”?”

        To say, “You are a woman so you MUST stand up for equal rights” would be like telling a black person, “You are black so you MUST join the NAACP, march in Black Power parades and wear your hair in dreadlocks.” Some people are happy with the lives they live.

        “Genuine egalitarianism allows for couples to work out whatever allocations of authority and duties best suit their individual personalities.”

        Couples should work out whatever system best serves their needs. I am thinking in terms of the church where some women don’t want to preach or serve as deacons. I know some women who are reluctant to speak up in Bible study because they think they might be violating the scriptural command to remain silent. I think they can and should speak up but if it would violate their conscience then they should remain silent.

        • Joe Wheatley, I see where you are coming from…freedom of conscience…but doesn’t that also include ignorance of the true will of God? I believe that those who are content to give up their agency and talents in order to believe this is pleasing to God are simply not taught the message of God accurately. Would you then say that a Muslim woman whose husband beats her to correct her is right in gladly accepting this beating because their holy book recommends this treatment of women and she believes in her conscience that this is their god’s will? How far would you go in permitting women to accept bondage and oppression in the name of God? Does this not concern you that God is thus represented as a God who approves the woman who abandons the talents He gave her in order to please Him? And what of the woman who accepts violence from her husband because she believes it is pleasing to God that she accept her lot in order to possibly bring salvation to her husband? What limitations do you put on permission to misrepresent God to women and the world?

        • Joe Wheatley says: “(I don’t think anyone, male or female, is divinely “called”)

          I would say that this is a problem and possibly part of the problem of complementation thinking. In subordinationist thinking all men are called the leaders, teachers, preachers, pastors, etc. Only men are called to be “in charge” of whatever needs directing.

          A diligent reading of Ephesians 4 shows that Jesus Christ Himself is the one who chooses who is to be the apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher. Many are capable of teaching stuff they have learned from another. But that isn’t what God wants. God will set, appoint, call forth the leader/teacher that He wants to direct to teach the things He wants them to teach. And it is not divided into race, age, gender, social status, etc.

    • Equality does not mean getting a job. Equality means AGENCY…the privilege of choosing one’s way of life and having the opportunity to express one’s gifts without prejudice under the limitations of their individual economic and inherent circumstances…it includes every way a woman can express herself, from motherhood to whatever. Men take agency for granted and often have no idea how unjust and ‘unrighteous’ this is…they can be parents AND anything else they choose, having the expectation (entitlement) that the woman will give them liberty to do so while bearing all the responsibilities that men could share if they had a sense of fairness, as some do. Men live their dreams while women often can only imagine their dreams and weep.If men only realized that they often do themselves an injustice, as well, by stifling the potential of their mates.

    • Joe, keep in mind that half of the women in the US work outside the home (and even more run businesses from home), and the percentage is much higher in other countries. In biblical times you can bet that women were doing much more at home than they do now (Proverbs 31 is an example of that.) As far as living a life not up to its earthly potential in exchange for eternity in heaven, that seems like a faulty analogy. We don’t get eternity in heaven for being keepers at home and obedient to husbands. Even moms at home should be living out a missional life, with their highest calling being a disciple of Jesus.

      How on earth is thinking equality is essential sexist?? Equality is a fundamental aspect of respect for human life. What is sexist is inequality. I am seriously confused as to how you could reach an opposite conclusion. Whether or not they work outside the home or not, the women you refer to benefit from the rights others have fought hard for them to have, including protection from spousal abuse, the right to have custody of their children, the right to higher education, the right to own property, the right to have a bank account in their own name, etc. Finally, I would add that many women who support gender equality are stay at home moms, and all of us strive to teach children and support our husbands. I’m rambling now, so will stop there.

      • Gail, my quoting the “keepers at home” part of scripture was not meant to imply that women should stay at home. My point is that some women were brought up being taught that Paul wrote the words of God, delivered to him by inspiration, and that scripture was “once delivered to the saints” and that it is never to change despite changes in culture. For such a woman, to take a leadership position in church would be sin. “But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean (Romans 14:14). My concern is that you are pushing some women to take actions for which they do not yet have the understanding that doing so is allowed by God. You can’t say “Because you are a women you have to assert your rights.” You need to say, “A proper understanding of scripture will show you that you are allowed to exercise your rights.”

        No person should ever be subjected to verbal or physical abuse but when it comes to owning property, obtaining an education or other worldly matters, we must always balance the few years we live on earth to an eternity in heaven. You and I know that we can have a good life on earth and still please God so that we will gain entry into heaven. A fundamentalist Christian (or Muslim) woman might look at things differently and we need to respect that.

        Show men and women why women should be allowed to preach or teach in mixed gender classes and the women will start to do so. But don’t make women feel guilty if they are reluctant to go against the teaching they have heard for a lifetime.

        • Thanks for clarifying, Joe. I understand that having agency (an essential aspect of equality) may mean women make choices I dont agree with in this area.

          • Nevertheless, while Joe wants women who ‘believe’ the Complementarian view should be free in their consciences to do so…my concern is that they have done this through ignorance of the truth of scripture, that their teaching has been twisted into making staying at home, not an option but a requirement. He says “But don’t make women feel guilty if they are reluctant to go against the teaching they have heard for a lifetime.” Of course we shouldn’t make them feel “guilty” for their reluctance but they should know that what they were taught isn’t the only way to understand the Bible and is, in fact, a tainted view of God whose entire message is about lifting up the downtrodden and setting people free … it is sad that their reluctance is based on a false teaching in the first place that God wants them not to use their gifts unless a man tells them their gifts can possibly be from God.
            This is a case of killing women with ‘kindness’…literally…killing the fullness of their humanity.

  • Mandi, when that professor asked the question he expected his students to listen carefully to it. It’s a shame he didn’t offer the same courtesy by listening carefully to your answer. thanks for continuing the discussion here with us. We’re listening.

  • I would like to add to the list the horrendous approach to sexual harassment and sexual violence that is still endemic* in Western culture. It is likely that there is at least one woman in every congregation who has been the victim of sexual assault and it is also likely that the perpetrator got away with it. I am appalled by the way people of privilege fail to acknowledge oppression, whatever its guise. Some men take the notion of misogyny as an affront: ‘I’m not like that therefore there is no problem’ seems to be the line of reasoning. Same for other types of prejudice, too. Denying that a form of prejudice is a problem could very well stem from a wee bit of prejudice in itself. In my view, sexual crimes (including sexualised threats) should be treated as hate crimes. Why is it that in the 21st century crimes against women simply because they are women are *not* treated as hate crimes? (Do you have designated ‘hate crimes’ in the US? I write from the UK).

    *NB While the majority of sexual crimes and sexual misconduct are perpetrated by men and towards women, it is always worth stating that men can be victims too.

  • As a pastoral counselor I address this in a variety of ways within the congregation. From FAMILY SYSTEMS we become aware of over-functioning – which produces under-functioning, in a marriage, on the job, with children, with friendships, etc. We also learn from other therapist about the trap of perfectionism and the “existential guilt” of not living up to potential. This is a family-based, church-based, society-based problem where we have chosen women to be an example of this. Men can over-function in various areas of their lives, but usually without the need to “do it all” that women are modeled to achieve – work, home, kin, society… There are many helpful articles on this. Here is a simplistic but helpful one: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kathycaprino/2015/10/29/7-signs-of-perfectionistic-overfunctioning-how-to-recognize-it-in-yourself-and-change-it/#7fd839a4345a

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