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Does Male-Headship Theology Dehumanize Women?: Part 1

On October 27, 2016

Bitches
Bunnies
Chicks
Heifers
Vixens
Shrews
Women

Are you offended by anything in the above list? If so, why? Is it the mention of a certain derogatory term for women that also means “female dog”? Is it the implication that women are less than human and belong in the category of animals? 

Without a doubt, this list is provocative. Many of you are probably wondering how it is connected to the subject of this article: male-headship theology. Allow me to explain.

Before an individual or society can effectively discriminate against, exploit, disempower, abuse, and sometimes even kill another individual or people group, the oppressor must first establish superiority over the target. Oppression is generally justified by the “confirmed” inferiority of the dominated group—and inferiority is often established through dehumanization.

The process of dehumanization requires oppressors to rob the oppressed of their human qualities, personality, and/or spirit. Dehumanization has historically been achieved by asserting that certain people groups are subhuman and more closely linked to animals (animalization).

Oppressors have used animalization to justify the subjugation and/or annihilation of entire people groups throughout world history. In fact, historically, some church fathers argued that women were more animal-like or carnal in nature than men, and were thus an inferior people group. Some argued that women were not fully human and therefore not fully made in the image of God. This allowed them to be treated as chattel by men (generally fathers and husbands).

The transatlantic slave trade is another perfect example of the process of dehumanization. For almost 400 years, Africans underwent a forced migration to the Western hemisphere. They were shipped as cargo and forced into slavery. They were treated brutally and lived in harsh conditions. African slavery was enforced for four centuries across three continents—Europe, North America, and South America!

So how did the Western world (primarily) justify the transport and enslavement of an estimated 12-15 million people?

During the transatlantic slave trade era, many Europeans believed Africans were a lesser-evolved human species more closely linked to apes and monkey than humans. It was therefore not unfitting that the superior white race rule the inferior black race.

The humanity of African peoples was denied by those running and profiting from the slave industry. In fact, during the civil rights era, people of color commonly held up signs that stated, “I am a man!” in protest of racial dehumanization. Hitler’s Nazi regime made similar claims about Jewish people, likening them to rats.

These are extreme examples of what can happen when one group dehumanizes another. But the evil device of dehumanization has consistently been used throughout history to suppress and control women.

This is evidenced even in our modern day language that labels women bitches, vixens, cougars, etc. Terms like “heifer” and “cougar” bring certain negative images of women to mind.

Consider the porn industry. Women are called bunnies, bitches, and vixens. They are given animal names. Our society has many negative animal terms for women, implying that women as a group have something in common with animals.

Male-headship theology, embraced and promoted by groups such as The Gospel Coalition (TCG) and The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), is a widespread belief in Christendom that men are God’s called leaders and women are helpers, called to submit to male authority.

A traditional complementarian interpretation of Genesis 1-3, according to Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, groups women under male dominion with other creatures (animals). I believe that the complementarian emphasis on the naming of Eve in Genesis 1-3 implies the superiority of men and allows for the dehumanization of women.

Of course, I am not saying that complementarian theology calls women animals or derogatory names, or believes that they are, in fact, closer to animals than they are to men. But in studying Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, I noticed that women were lumped with the animals in the argument for male authority through naming. So with that in mind, Part 2 of this series will ask:

Does male-headship theology have overtones of male superiority?

Does male-headship theology dehumanize women in any way?

Christians have an obligation to learn from the human history of oppression through dehumanization. We must be on the lookout for theologies that have even a hint of this device.

With the stakes being so high, male-headship theology must be examined. It would be unfair to accuse complementarianism of deliberately dehumanizing women, but we must ask whether it, even unintentionally, implies male superiority and female inferiority. And if so, what oppression is made possible?

As Christians, we must ask these questions. After all, we represent Jesus, not the broken ways and systems of the world. We must pursue God’s original plan for humanity.

In Part 2 of this series, I will explore whether the complementarian interpretation of Genesis 1-3 in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood dehumanizes women. 

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