Women, War, and Evangelicals

Gail Wallace

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Marine Cpl. Christina Oliver on patrol in 2010. Credit Lynsey Addario|The New York Times

Recently the U.S. military announced it was in the final stages of opening all combat positions to women and the question of whether or not women should register for involuntary service was raised in a presidential debate.* These developments were met with loud opposition from some on the evangelical right who declared that “any man who would ask his wife or daughter to endure the horrors of war to protect him has missed the very core of biblical manhood” and suggested “a nation that sends its young women to fight its wars is a nation that may no longer be worth defending.” [1] These responses stem from a belief that women serving in combat is a violation of God-ordained gender roles.

CRYING WOLF?

From my vantage point as a conservative evangelical who believes in gender equality without role limitations, the uproar over “sending our daughters into battle for us” seems like an overly dramatic and late response. Today women serve in combat in at least 18 countries, and over 200,000 women are on active duty with the U.S. armed forces.

An estimated 11,000 women served in Vietnam, 40,000 women filled combat-support positions in the Persian Gulf War, and 300,000 women were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, where female soldiers were found to be essential to combat effectiveness.

Women-in-Military-v5_sm

Less than 20% of military roles are combat positions; lifting the ban simply opens up the final 10% of positions that currently exclude women. The changing nature of war suggests that future conflicts will be conducted mostly through technology-driven strategies rather than hand-to-hand combat, so numbers of women on the front lines are not expected to increase much moving forward.

As to the issue of mandatory service, the proposal would only require women who turn 18 to register with the Selective Service – it does not institute a draft. Considering recent military downsizing and budget constraints, and the fact that the U.S. hasn’t used the draft since 1973, it is unlikely that large numbers of women are going to be conscripted in the near future.

If God did not create women to be able to function in military environments, surely by now this would be self-evident. Yet data from nations that employ women in combat roles has not shown any significant negative impact on the effectiveness, cohesion or readiness of mixed gender military teams. For example, an Israeli Defense Force study found that women often exhibit “superior skills” in discipline, motivation, and shooting abilities”.

THE BIBLICAL ARGUMENT

Christians regularly debate the morality of war, and I think most would agree that not sending any of our children to war would be preferable. But it is difficult to make a case against women in the military from the Bible.

Those who would exclude women from service use the creation narratives as a foundation for their argument, specifically the description of Eve as Adam’s “helper” in Genesis 2. This interpretation mistakenly assumes that “helper” refers to a subordinate role. The Hebrew phrase “ezer kenedgo” actually conveys the sense of a military rescue and would be better translated as “a strong rescuer” or “equal partner”. Such an interpretation also ignores the mutual mandate given to both Adam and Eve in Genesis 1 to have dominion over the earth.

In the Old Testament mostly men are recorded as going to war, but there are enough stories of warrior-spirited women to suggest that this is not the whole picture. Consider the stories of Deborah and Jael (Judges 4), the woman who cracked the skull of Gideon’s son with a millstone (Judges 9), the wise woman who negotiated the beheading of a rebel and had his head thrown over a wall (2 Samuel 20), and the apocryphal figure Judith.

New Testament passages like 1 Peter 3 and Ephesians 5 are sometimes cited to say that God intends for men to be the protectors of women rather than the other way around.[2]  But these passages speak to marriage relationships in Greco-Roman culture, and cannot be extrapolated to contexts they are clearly not addressing without violating basic hermeneutical standards.

The book of Acts and post-biblical sources remind us that Christian women were often imprisoned and killed for their faith along with their male counterparts, and we have the example of Joan of Arc, who led the French army to victory over the British during the Hundred Years’ War under divine guidance.

Women were tortured and imprisoned for their beliefs during the Reformation, women endured the same hardships as men in settling “The New World” for the sake of religious freedom, and women risked their lives spying for the government in the Civil War and “manning” the Underground Railroad, and women have served in every major war since. Throughout history, Christian women have put their lives at risk for their families, their faith, and their countries.

Women War and Evangelicals The Junia Project
Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester at attention before receiving the Silver Star. Iraq, 2005. Photo Credit|Spc. Jeremy D. Crisp

BROADER IMPLICATIONS FOR JUSTICE

A post on the website of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention asserts that “forcing women into that [combat] role will not lead to more freedom but rather to less equality, more violence toward women, and a general degradation of humanity.” [3] One has to wonder how the author reaches those conclusions in light of the violence against women being perpetrated by men all around the world,  both inside and outside of combat zones.

It is widely acknowledged that in modern wars it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier. The use of rape as a weapon of war is well documented, and 90% of war casualties are civilian, the majority being women and children. [4]

USAID and other humanitarian organizations report that armed conflicts are escalated by a posture of “hyper-masculinity” (an increase in aggressive and misogynistic traits), and such posturing continues after a conflict ends. The integration of women in the armed forces can help to counter this unhealthy dynamic and increases the likelihood that women will have opportunities to influence the outcomes of conflict and contribute to peacemaking efforts.

The role of the military internationally is moving towards the prevention of conflict, securing of peace, and the reconstruction of countries after wars and natural disasters. Enlisted women are sorely needed to influence these complex situations, but so far their participation has been minimal. For example, less than 1% of the troops involved in UN peacekeeping missions and only 9% of negotiators at peace tables are women.

It is hard to imagine a more Christian calling than to be a part of these military-aided humanitarian efforts around the world.

Closer to home, the history of sexual assault within the U.S. military is appalling and must be addressed.  As more women are integrated, especially into the senior enlisted and officer ranks, we can expect the culture to improve (as this pilot program in Norway demonstrated).

BOTTOM LINE

Organizations like The Gospel Coalition and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood are out of touch with other Christians on issues related to women. [5] They oversimplify complex matters, allow those using their platforms to use scripture out of context, and make definitive statements about gender roles that cannot be supported by the biblical texts.

It’s telling when an issue that primarily affects women is framed in terms of the impact it has on men. But such a posture is a logical outcome of a theology of gender that views women as subordinate to men and discounts their autonomy and spiritual wisdom. Fortunately, not all evangelicals hold this view. [6]

Biblical egalitarians believe that a hierarchy based on gender, no matter how benevolent, has no place in the Body of Christ. This doesn’t mean egalitarians believe there are no differences between men and women. It means that we believe the gifts and abilities those differences represent are sorely needed in all areas of society, even the military. It’s time for these leaders to stop presenting themselves as though they represent what all evangelical Christians believe.

Christian daughters, sisters, mothers, wives, and grandmothers serve their countries, not in some ill-guided attempt to rob men of their honor or blur gender boundaries, but out of a desire to live out their Christian convictions. To refuse women the right to serve so that men can feel more “manly” seems self-serving at best and arrogant at worst.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13, NIV 2011). Sacrificial love is a core principle of Christianity. No one should be excluded categorically from defending their country or fighting for justice based on their gender.

*This post was amended after publication to clarify that the comments in the opening paragraph directly address the issue of drafting women. The organizations cited also oppose women in combat. [1]

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

End Notes

[1] Quotes from The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and The Gospel Coalition http://cbmw.org/topics/manhood/we-will-never-let-our-daughters-die-for-us/ http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/will-women-be-forced-to-register-for-the-military-draft. See also The Facts about Women in Combat http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-faqs-women-in-combat and http://www.dennyburk.com/women-in-combat-and-the-undoing-of-civilization-2/.

[2] There are several egalitarian readings of 1 Peter 3:7. 1) The writer is encouraging the believing husband to treat an unbelieving wife with honor even though she is spiritually weaker https://junia.thereachco.dev/wives-husbands-1-peter-who-is-the-weaker-vessel/, 2) the writer is describing what mutual submission might look like in that specific cultural setting http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/submission-respect-1-peter-3_7-8/, 3) the writer expects husbands to actively counter the injustice society had perpetrated upon women and honor them as “equal heirs” in the kingdom https://junia.thereachco.dev/becoming-a-champion-of-women-pastors-journey/. Regardless of the interpretation, physical protection is not the issue being addressed. More on Ephesians 5 here.

[3] https://erlc.com/article/women-in-combat-a-good-idea

[4] http://www.forbes.com/sites/shenegotiates/2011/10/04/more-dangerous-to-be-a-woman-than-a-soldier/#788660d0500d

[5] According to Pew 2013 66% of the American public support women in combat, while just 26% are opposed. An informal poll of 250 Junia Project Facebook followers showed an even greater divide, presumably due to egalitarian beliefs. 92% favor women in combat roles, 8% oppose.

Women and War Poll Chart_Q1_160225

[6] Click here for a list of Protestant denominations showing their official stance on women (complementarian vs. egalitarian).

Resources                              

Women in WarThis documentary looks at American women’s increasing participation in war—from Vietnam to the present—as nurses, soldiers, journalists, diplomats and spies. The film shares the stories of military leaders who have broken through gender barriers, like General Angela Salinas, at her retirement the highest ranking woman serving in the USMC, and Vice Admiral Michelle Howard, the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. Navy.

Women for Women International – A grassroots humanitarian and development organization helping women brutalized by rape and war.

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29 Comments

  • Wow! How my great aunt, a nurse in the Royal Australian Nurses Service would have appreciated your article. She went to Egypt, the Asia-Pacific region and finally the prison camp at Changi in WW 11.
    Her greatest test was coming home on the hospital ships with the amazing, decimated, tortured, but spirited men and women from these camps.
    She spoke little of it, but wouldn’t marry, as then a doctor would be in charge of her, a Matron and a Captain to boot!
    She was fiercely independent, didn’t hate men, but could not give herself up to what she saw as a type of servitude. This strong, amazing woman was 5ft tall, straight as a ram-rod, and ran a very ordered, hospital as night Matron for years. She has been a total inspiration to several generations of our family.

  • A timely article, thank-you. It does make you wonder how many conflict situations may have panned out differently if there had been more balance to gender involvement throughout the ages.

  • If Jael is any indication, women have been involved in warfare for a very long time and been celebrated for it too.

  • Hello again,
    I feel I must comment again. I usually love reading all the blog posts on Junia Project. But I have to say this is the first time I am disappointed and actually feeling somewhat angry. I feel your post is misleading because you do not mention that the reason TGC and CBMW wrote their blogs was to oppose the FORCED registering of women for military war draft. Otherwise if it were not for this reason they wrote I would wholeheartedly support and agree with everything you wrote in this post. I do not agree with TGC and CBMW’s stand on complementarian roles as a whole. On this one I agree. Not all women are suited for, gifted in, .nor desire to use their minds and bodies for this type of work. Therefore should not be required and forced to serve.
    I do appreciated your statistics and information and belief that we can and should be allowed to participate in all forms of combat if we, our own selves choose and believe that is our calling and gift; same with any other occupation. But your ignored the real issue being addressed by some who oppose this new push for the draft not just the freedom to serve voluntarily.
    SHOULD WOMEN BE FORCED / REQUIRED REGISTER TO GO TO WAR IF THERE WAS A DRAFT?
    I think this is the more important topic. Otherwise I agree women are capable to fight. And yet, I do believe because our female bodies (the physical things that make us women, not our intelligence or capabilities) have been created different, having wombs that give life, etc., there is a different kind of vulnerability we have that men do not. Going to fight and sacrifice our lives should always be a choice. Thank for taking the time to read this and consider my thoughts.
    Sincerely,
    Jenn

    • Jenn, I agree with you that the draft is a different issue altogether. The post originally addressed both issues, but got to be too lengthy for the platform, so that content was deleted. The Gospel Coalition, The Southern Baptist Convention, and the CBMW have the same arguments against women in combat as they do against women in the draft, and have posted plenty on the topic – all in the same vein as what I shared. Here are some relevant links: http://www.dennyburk.com/women-in-combat-and-the-undoing-of-civilization-2/, The Facts about Women in Combat http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-faqs-women-in-combat.

      • Hello Gail,
        Thank you for responding. I will read those other posts also. I guess the hard thing for me is the reality of true equality of this issue of women being allowed in all aspects of combat is it very well could lead to forced draft. It sad for me to say that I guess if I choose equality then our women would then risk being forced to go to war. I’m not sure that is fair of me to selfishly ask for equality in this if it would then take away a women’s freedom as to whether she would want to go to war. It is wrong that our country requires men to be forced into war and sad to think this most recent decision to open all areas of combat for women may now cause women to lose a freedom of choice to fight or not to fight.
        I think in this case it would be better to have not demanded full equality on this if it means losing freedom to. It is a win lose situation. A win for the women who want to be in the military and in full combat but a loss to our future women who may be forced into combat against their will. That is all my point was about. Maybe we need to be more careful about what we are willing to demand and the sacrifices it may cause another person. Sometimes it is better to not win every fight. It was not hurting any women to be keep from full combat. Sometimes maybe trying to make our point and prove women should have full equality in all things men do can go too far.

        • Jenn, I’m glad the clarification was helpful. I would just say that it’s important to consider that the new requirements only open up the remaining 10% of combat roles that aren’t open to women. So I’m not convinced that this step is directly connected in anyway to the issue of the draft. Also, registering with the Selective Service system is something altogether from being drafted. We don’t even know what that draft might look like – how women would be selected, what their term of service would be, etc. But what we can say for certain is that even if women are drafted, only a very small percentage of those women would be placed into combat situations. For one thing, very few would be able to meet the physical standards. It is logical to assume that those who would like to be in combat would sign up to take the specialty training that is required and work towards that end. I think you would find the Makers: Women in War video interesting, as it shows how women in war situations are often in combat zones anyway, and would benefit greatly from the extra training and preparation they were denied because of the ban. Nurses in Vietnam were not allowed to carry a weapon because of the ban and so when a unit was attacked only the men could defend themselves. It seems unfair to me to suggest that the women who feel strongly that the military is a calling and want to serve in combat are trying to make a point or prove something. The issue for me is that it is not right for men to be gatekeepers for what women can and can’t do in society. So to sum up, I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to say that this change in policy forces women to serve in combat against their will. There is just no evidence in any of the statements or documentation to suggest this is the case. But I appreciate the dialog!

          • Hello Again Gail,
            Thank you for taking the time to respond and help me understand. I do understand your points. I do not think men should be the gatekeepers alone. I do think if women choose to serve along side them they should be able to. I guess more than anything I am responding with fear of the future possibilities of war. It is sad for me to think about what war is like and how horrible it can be. I do hope that we never have to have a draft again and could leave always up for volunteers. Thank you for bringing these issues to light. I fully support women’s equality, this is one that made think more about what it means to ask for full equality with men in everything and whether I feel I can ask for it to go so far when it could what I talked about. But overall I love what you and all who write for Junia Project blog do to encourage and spur men and women to rethink scripture and challenge us to make changes based on our convictions about what God wants for women and men.
            Thank you,
            Jen

          • Hi, Jenn. You are exactly right that this is a very serious and sobering discussion. War is horrifying and something to be feared. You are also right that there is sometimes a cost to equality and we should be thoughtful about counting that cost. Another thing I’m thinking related to this is that having more women in the military (and moving up the ranks) means more women’s voices might at the table to give input when decisions about things like the draft are made – specifically who will be drafted and for how long, and what exceptions should be given. The scary thing is that if the draft were to be instituted tomorrow, women would have very little input. Thanks for engaging in this discussion!

          • Wow I have never engaged so much on a blog. With your last comment I agree very wholeheartedly. Very good points. I sure hope that with more women involved in higher ranks they will be able to better represent us for future decisions related to all military matters related to women.

          • Yes, it would be great for women to have more of a voice in these matters. And in the meantime, we’ll all keep praying for peace!

    • Jenn, I think most Americans are probably against a draft, and I hope would feel the same way about “forcing” our sons, fathers, and brothers to fight as we do about “forcing” our daughters, mothers, and sisters to fight.

      I think discussion about the draft is separate from gender. It’s either right for both men and women, or it’s wrong for both men and women.

      The root question, which this post addresses, is should women be able to serve equally along side of men.

      That’s my take on it anyway 🙂

      • Hello Kelly,
        Actually I think it is completely wrong for anyone to be drafted and forced to go to war man or women. But since this has already been decided for decided that does not mean we can’t try to keep it from happening to women. So I think it is perfectly honorable that TGC and CBMW want tot try to do something to keep women from being forced into a draft for war. Otherwise if it was purely by choice then yea men and women should be and are capable of fighting equally side by side if it is by choice. But now there is it highly likely that because women wanted their choice for being treated equal in this matter now other women may lose their freedom of choice not to fight. I think women should have been more careful to think what would be the full implications of there fight for equality in this matter. Now it may cost women who don’t want to fight, who do not feel called or gifted to military service now to have to sacrifice more than the women who pushed for this full combat right. There is no sacrifice made by a women because she could not participate in All forms of combat. Those women could have chosen to think more of the sacrifice they will now be requiring of other women their sisters. The fight for equality can go to far if we are not thinking enough about the real costs on certain issues. There is more to life than being so focused on equality that we lose sight of other more important things. We don’t have to win at everything to prove our worth, capabilities, and value as women to the world.
        Jenn

        • Jenn, I’ve already responded to a lot of this in other posts, but I don’t think TGC and CBMW have honor as the primary motivation for their position on the draft. It has more to do with their beliefs about women not being suitable for military roles in general. Personally, I know a lot of men who aren’t suitable either! Also, it was not primarily women who pushed for the full combat right – many men believe having women alongside men will greatly improve military effectiveness.

          • Again thank you Gail, I agree TGC and CBMW may very well have less honorable reasons for what they write but on some points I understand. And it just made me think more where I stand on these issues. I agree women will and are very valuable in working alongside men in any area. We benefit greatly from each other’s perspectives, and differences.
            Sincerely,
            Jenn

  • I agree that women should be free to serve in anyway they see fit, even in all forms of combat. Although I personally do not believe in war or being in the the military. I read the articles you referenced from TGC and CBMW. I am not good at keeping up with the news. The articles mention not only opening all combat positions to women but also a push for the requirement of women to register for the draft. That is where I would most certainly draw the line. That thought actaully scares me. It is one thing to volunteer and another to be forced. I completely disagree about forcing even men. But there is nothing to be done about that, it is already decided. I guess this is where some difficulty comes in with women wanting to be equal with men. I would not want to be equal in this not for me, my friends, or any women.
    I think it is perfectly acceptable for anyone to fight against the forcing of women to go to war. It should be a choice always. War is cruel, terrible and traumatic. It can scar a person for life. We should be able to choose that sacrifice. So if the arguement is to draw the line there then I fully support anyone in making it so that does not happen.
    Thank you for writing on this subject.

    • I don’t think there is a full understanding of the draft or Selective Service in these comments.

      Signing up with Selective Service is *not* the same thing as being drafted. It means that IF a draft is instituted — and we haven’t had a draft instituted since 1972.

      Since that time, resistance to a draft has hardened around the U.S., for men as well as potential women in combat. A new draft might well be a quick political suicide for those involved. This is a good thing.

      There are two other points I’d note:

      (1) We have women supporting war efforts, including coming into dangerous areas to provide logistical support, medical work, etc. — but we aren’t willing to have them be armed and trained, and able and prepared to adequately defend themselves, even in combat zones? This makes no sense. I realize some groups would not have women anywhere near the battle, which brings me to the second point…

      (2) I value my male family members as much as I value my female family members. Men are not cannon fodder by virtue of being male. They are just as valuable as women and we shouldn’t be ANY more willing to send them off to war than to send women. Their lives are not more expendable. I don’t know how much more plainly to say it than that.

      And one last point: Women are no less patriotic or protective of their families than men. We have lived in a society that doesn’t *want* us to be that way, a society that views men in general (and military men specifically) as the pinnacle of patriotism. Love, loyalty, and sacrifice for country — patriotism — is *unrelated to gender.*

      • Hello Terri,
        I actually agree with everything you wrote. I believe men and women are completely equal, in value and should have the same rights as men. I do not believe men should carry any burden alone. If women want to fight along side men then should be able to. I don’t like the idea of any man or women having to be in combat. If there was a way to change the draft for men if we have one again then that would be better. I don’t think anyone should have to sacrifice their life without making that choice themselves, not to be decided by the government. I was only trying say that I hope with this new change it will also not lead to the next step of equality for women also having to be drafted if it comes to that again in the future. If it possible to avoid that next step then it would be good instead of two genders now not having freedom of choice. It is not about one gender being more important just not to add to the injustice already brought on men and avoid that for women.
        Thank you your willingness to engage with me. I hope with more women in the military women will have more of a voice for good changes for men and women in the military.

  • Hi Gail, we experienced similar machismo-push back in the fire service thirty years ago. Apart from a handful of dinosaur-like-old-timers, women were accepted and celebrated. They quickly proved themselves more than capable. And they continue to perform in amazing ways as paramedics, firefighters, fire officers, and chief fire officers.
    Hugs from Colorado! /tim+anne

  • Gail,

    Thank you for this insightful post. I truly believe all women should have the opportunity to thrive in WHATEVER calling God gives them. I pray for more articles written such as these that can counter some of the current one-sided discussions that permeates the evangelical church on the issue of gender.

    Your statistics on the percentage of women in peacekeeping missions and negotiators is telling. I think the more we can advocate for women in these positions as well, the better off the world will be.

    Jon C.

    • But now the problem is that if this goes to the fullness of equality then other women will lose their ability to choose how they what to thrive in the gifting they were called to, because they may be required and forced into a draft to fight a war when they feel called to be home with their families, working , having their careers, taking care of children or parents etc.
      Yes we all have our rights but is demanding our rights also worth someone losing their rights when the right they are demanding is not a necessity but really just prove a point about equality and we are as good as men.

      • So Jenn, it seems like you are saying that women should have more rights than men, then? I’m sorry, but I’m just not following the logic here. Everything you are saying applies to both men and women. And I don’t think the issue is about proving a point, but about making sure women have the same freedom to follow their dreams and callings as men do. But I agree that the whole concept of the draft is horrific.

        • Gail, I am sorry I have not expressed myself well enough. I do not think women should have more rights. I do believe we should be treated equally. I was only trying to say that it is wrong that men have or could be drafted again based on the laws we have and that if we could avoid this same wrong for women if the time came for a draft then why have two groups of people have their freedom of choice taken away. If we could change the law of the draft for men I would say yes let’s do that too. That is all.

          • Amen to all of that, Jenn! Thanks for clarifying 🙂

  • Love it! I’ve been blown away by the rhetoric from certain Christian groups on this issue. This post puts words to so many of the things I’ve been thinking. Thanks!

  • Gail, this is such an insightful, researched and balanced article. One of your concluding sentences really sums it very well, “Sacrificial love is a core principle of Christianity. No one should be excluded categorically from defending their country or fighting for justice based on their gender.”

    As the father of an infantry Marine who fought in Afghanistan, I absolutely agree with your position. Of course we had mixed feelings about him being in combat, but his mother and I knew that God had called him to serve in this capacity. That calling is not based on gender and it could have just as easily been my daughter. One of the things our military was/is fighting against in Afghanistan is the oppression of women. How wonderful would it be to have both men and women bearing arms for such a noble cause!

    Keep fighting the good fight,

    Brent Wood, Proud Father of a US Marine

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