Sunday, 5 February 2012

Sexism in the church, I've just had enough!

I’m not sure when I first noticed the sexism in the church, perhaps being brought up a Catholic you’d think it was obvious that something was amiss in the equality for women stakes. I think it was my teenage years where I started to question how a priest could teach on a Sunday about marriage or childcare when he wasn’t married and didn’t look after any kids.

Entering the charismatic movement and hearing women introduced on the platform as someone’s wife, no name, just Pastor/Prophet So and So and his wife, caused me some consternation and a dislike for platforms. The ‘women’s ministry’ related to children, family and other women. Responsibilities in the church; run the crèche, organise Sunday school or be an intercessor and certainly no female leaders as it is unscriptural for a woman to teach men. Women were expected to take the babies out of the meetings if they were noisy because the men had to stay in to hear the word of the Lord! Being told I couldn’t do youth work unless Phil wanted to do it too, really was the nail in the coffin for being around Christians for a while.

In the last fifteen years I've been a part of Pioneer Wirral church/community and they/we have endeavoured to ensure that sexism in any form is avoided. So the rest of the blog has come from church life in general rather than specifically one church.

Archetypal roles for women are still expected in some churches, there is still an expectation to stay home and raise the kids, any career aspirations are suspicious and only really permitted until the kids come along and then only really acceptable if you could establish that it was God’s call on your life and if it is in an area of employment where you will be caring for others or maybe teaching toddlers all the better. Women who aren’t married by 25 should be missionaries abroad as nobody knows how to relate to them so pack them off and once you’ve been married for two years you should be pregnant by now.

Paul, our eldest son, went to a Christian school for a while with Accelerated Christian Education as it’s syllabus and when the colouring in at four years old included questions like, what does mummy do? Right answer- bakes the cookies and cleans the house, and what does daddy do? Right answer – carry a briefcase and a tool box we knew there were problems ahead and when his teacher started to wear a head scarf, we left. That was in the early 1990’s not the 1950’s! We are sure that twenty years later things have moved on in that particular school.

About twenty years ago I did an assertiveness training course with some friends, teaching us the difference between passive, aggressive and assertive responses to situations. I have found in the ‘church‘ context that aggressive women are definitely unacceptable, assertive women make others nervous whereas passive women are considered Godly. What is that about!!!!

Now I don’t believe I’m the only woman who has experienced more sexism in the church than in any context outside of the church structure. It’s as if the world woke up to women’s equality and the church decided to ignore it. We can blame Eve and pull out a couple of scriptures from the New Testament and oppress women believing we are being biblical, however Jesus seemed to treat women differently and certainly his annihilation of the curse on the cross speaks of a return to equality for the genders as referred to in Genesis. If you’re struggling with Eve being Adam’s helper and therefore equal I suggest you go and read it in the Hebrew or if you cannot accept that perhaps the scripture that says we are created in God’s likeness, male and female, not male and male. Paul’s teachings are thrown about depending on who’s reading them and depending on whether you want to read some of his writings about women in the context of the culture or the church issues he was writing to or even from his own understanding, (shock horror), or consider them fully applicable to today’s culture and context.

I’ve heard teaching on the existence of a hierarchy in heaven; God is at the top, then Jesus and then the Holy Spirit and therefore a hierarchy on earth is the ‘right way’ to do things too and therefore women are subject to men. It is interesting to note the hierarchy theology came into the church around the time that the clergy laity split was established. More recent thinking might ‘just’ put women who are married under the headship of their husband, subject to him and no other man and I’m not too worried about this scripture as long as the husband is laying his life down for his wife, loving her as Christ loves the church. I don’t accept this scripture as meaning that the husband is meant to control his wife, to ensure she is well behaved or to ‘wear the trousers’. I believe it means that he is to cover her with his life, that he is to protect her, watch over her and care for her. It doesn’t mean he’s the one with the intelligence and therefore the decision maker, any good marriage will share decisions and work in the best interests of each other. Christian marriages should reflect the equality of the one-ness that it represents.

Here’s a few of the phrases that have an undercurrent of sexism and should be avoided – I think!

1. ‘The time is coming for us to release the women/it’s time for them to rise up and take their place….’ – I think you’ll find we were released by Jesus, the curse is over, women hankering after men, men ruling over women, the curse is, once and for all over! We don’t need to be released by men we need to not be oppressed, patronised and generally considered the weaker sex. If you want to have a women’s conference to release women then consider having a men’s conference instead and teach the men who women are in the light of the completed work of Jesus.

2. ‘So you’re a feminist I won’t hold the door open for you or carry your bags’ – er no, you can still do all that, it’s just manners! I would hold the door open for you and help you carry your bags, unless they are too heavy. I don’t mind being called a feminist when the person calling me one understands what feminism is. Here’s a definition of feminism; the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. Unfortunately the times I have been called a feminist in a church setting there has been a sense that feminist means a person who is ‘worldly’ who should therefore be ignored and considered a troublemaker, certainly not listened to, she can’t be right as that would mean acknowledging that inequality is a bad thing!

3. The ‘Ladies meetings’ instead of women’s meetings. Words change in their meaning over time and since the gender revolution the word “ladies,” contains an inference of inferiority or condescension when used in certain contexts. In England, the main use of “ladies” and “gentlemen” is for public loos and to address groups “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen” unless you are in a church structure and then pretty much everything is referred to with ‘men’ and ‘ladies’. The word ‘ladies’ originally referred to aristocratic women and the word ‘women’ refers to the opposite of men. This is the main difference between the two words. One has the inference of status, manners and appearance whereas the other is just the opposite of men. In church structures using the word ‘ladies’ has been used to keep women in line, been told to ‘act like a lady’, has meant that your freedom is restricted because you're not allowed to act in all sorts of ways that men are allowed to act, such as having an opinion on something other than family matters, being able to hear from God for ourselves and be able to teach someone older than 16! Women are not blushing maidens, pristinely presented at all times and who faint at the slightest cross word. ‘Ladies’ has a connotation of weakness and therefore shouldn’t be used in a context where women are to be considered equally with men. Ladies are supposed to have reserved standards of behaviour that highlight their femininity. Ladies cross their legs, don't swear, burp or fart, are modest and always buttoned-up. Ladies don't play in the mud, get their dresses dirty or climb trees. You were considered a tomboy if you did these things rather than a girl who liked to wear jeans, be loud and get muddy. I understand why some women are happy, very happy to be called a lady, it gives that whole picture of well mannered, well groomed, well brought up which is great unless that is all you are and if in some contexts that is all you are considered to be that is inequality! To be referred to as a woman in the context of church meetings, in matters of theology, lateral and logical thinking, driving even, acknowledges that they are more than ladies, they are equal with men. I think 'ladies' has an implication of being essentially decorative, rather than essentially effective and I don’t think I’m alone in that.
There’s the sense that good Christian women should all the look the same; styled hair, modest but existent makeup, big shoulder pads, pearls or scarves and Laura Ashley dresses, flat shoes and no curves. They shouldn’t be too feminine in their outward appearance, single women in particular should pretty much cover up head to toe and ensure no curves are visible or she might just have a Jezebel Spirit and tempt all the husbands away!!! Such a shame God gave her those curves!

Words matter, and our language choices have consequences. If we believe that women and men deserve social and indeed spiritual equality, then we should think seriously about how to reflect that belief in our language use, especially in our humour!

So a couple of folk have rattled my cage on the sexism front again this last few weeks and whilst I’ve moved on from shouting ‘women’ when someone announces a ‘ladies’ meeting and have become a bit more understanding, I think it’s time to move from assertive response to sexism to aggressive intolerance. If we cannot have equality in the church; our daughters will grow up thinking they are less than they are, unbelieving women will look into our churches and wonder what century we are living in and maybe the most destructive effect of sexism in the church is that women will not be heard and my gosh that is tragic!


  1. Well said, Mags. It really is time we accepted the new ways of interpreting Scripture and accept that men and women are equal in God's eyes.

  2. Brilliant Mags. Another brilliant blog.

  3. Agree with most of what you said Mags except for a few bits ;)
    ‘So you’re a feminist I won’t hold the door open for you or carry your bags’ – er no, you can still do all that, it’s just manners!
    Its only manners as part of the system that has men and women in a structure, the same system that calls you a feminist, so if you want blokes to open doors for you then your essentially cherry picking the parts of that system you like/want :)
    Unless the person opens the door for anyone & everyone then thats different :)
    Manners are man made as what is considered manners in one culture is an insult in another

    Words do matter but what matters even more is the way they are given and recieved
    The heart in which words are spoken give them power.
    Ive heard guys swear and throw insuts at one another and it has no power why? because theyre is no malice in the words there is no true insult meant
    Yet I have seen/heard the politest of comments that are filled with venom and distain
    ie. Ive been called a Bible basher and found it ammusing and none insultive infact almost a compliment but I have also been called a Cchristian in such a way and woth such venom as I would not want to be called it again.

    Calling someone a Lady may well insult your ears but I suspect that this is more because of how you percieve & recieve the word and not neccessarily the word itself or how it is said.

    Words do matter but the heart in which thy are spoken matters more and the heart in which they are recieved can turn them from terminoligy to insult in a split second
    Also I think the Gender issue is a side issue really coz if we teach that all people should be treated equal then we negate the need for any sexism/bullying/over lording etc. these issues all fade away as we acknowlegde that all are created equal and worthy before/by God and in accepting that we will find our spiritual and social equality

    Just another thought :)

    1. I think that was my point about holding doors open, that it's just polite to hold the door open for someone and help carry their bags regardless of sex and yet some men now refuse to hold the door open under the guise of not wanting to offend the feminist.
      It is indeed how I perceive and receive a statement and if it is the word Lady used in a way that demeans then it should be confronted rather than left floating around, it's also a bit more than that as we've seen from the football racist comments, one of the arguments being that the receiver wouldn't have found the comment racist because of his culture but the offence was still there and considered racist and sanctions ensued.
      I agree that it is a symptom of a deeper problem, if we don't believe the gospel and equality for all then we'll have problems...
      Mags x