How American Evangelicalism Has Been Weaponized Against Women | CBE International

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How American Evangelicalism Has Been Weaponized Against Women

On November 15, 2018

In 1995, economists discovered that 100 million females had vanished. Today, that number may be as high as 200 million according to Amartya Sen, a retired professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard. Sen received a Nobel Prize for his work, which prompted humanitarians and researchers to employ a gender-lens in their research and work. With one voice, they demonstrated how patriarchy is one of the most malicious and debilitating forces in history. Because of it, females are and have been abused and slaughtered on a mass scale. Amartya was the first to sound the alarm: females were suffering a genocide. But who was paying attention?

Our privilege as Western Christians, and especially evangelicals, has distanced us from this crisis, and from the experiences of girls and women globally. We haven’t been as attentive as past generations of Christians. Rather, quite a few evangelicals in this country and beyond have been busy silencing women and normalizing male dominance as a biblical ideal. While Amartya was studying skewed gender ratios, evangelical ministries were incorporated to promote male headship.

Advocates of Christian patriarchy made strategic moves to secure their power. For decades, prominent evangelical leaders filled auditoriums in the thousands, fortifying their male-run churches, families, and organizations. They damned women leaders as “liberal,” demeaned accurate translations of Scripture that de-centered skewed male-dominant language, and took charge of the largest, wealthiest Protestant denomination in the US—the SBC.

Once in control of the SBC, complementarians systematically removed women leaders from their institutes, churches, and mission fields where they’d planted churches, preached, and built schools and Christian organizations. Not only were these women marginalized, but advocates of patriarchy effectively silenced women’s leadership in SBC and evangelical history. Today, these institutions have little memory of the legacy of their own women leaders and founders. 

As women leaders and their allies were removed or muzzled, proponents of male leaders ascended and flawed translations and shallow readings of Scripture gained prominence. The loss of women leaders and better Bible translations meant the church overall had less capacity. Worse, we became less aware of the issues facing women and children, and less empathetic to women’s experiences, which women themselves were best equipped to attend to. As a result, our communities became less resistant to violence and sexual abuse. In this way, American evangelicalism was weaponized against women globally.

Ideas Have Consequences

One humanitarian said: “No matter how subtle, dehumanizing ideas of people lead to dehumanizing actions.”

Throughout American evangelical history, theologians used Scripture to support slavery, racial segregation, and male supremacy. They aligned God with maleness and whiteness, and then weaponized these ideas against women and especially women of color. Though the Civil War ended, slaves were emancipated, and women later won the vote, the root causes that fueled the dehumanization of women and people of color were not dismantled. It would take years before we faced down the flawed theology that furthers segregation and violence today.

Consider Bob Jones University, a key evangelical institution in North America that endorsed racial segregation. One hundred and twenty-one years after the Civil War (in 1986), the school issued an apology for its racists practices. A member of their Bible department said that racial segregation was viewed as biblical. Now they realize they were influenced far more by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Like segregationists who supported white supremacy biblically, supporters of gender roles also make their case from Scripture, reading male privilege into the text. They argue:

  1. Jesus was male, and his maleness was essential to his mission as Messiah.
  2. Scripture reveals God as Father not mother. This validates the centering of male language and experience when imaging God and people.
  3. There are many more male leaders in Scripture than female.
  4. Man is called “head” (which they interpret as authority) over woman; men are God’s appointed leaders.
  5. Adam was created first (Genesis 2:7). Man must be “first” in all ways. [1]
  6. God created woman as man’s “helper” or subordinate (Genesis 2:18). Woman was created from man and for him. [1]
  7. Woman was the first to be deceived and disobey God. Women are more prone to deception and evil, so women need men to lead them. [1]
  8. Punished for disobeying God, women will desire men who rule over them (Genesis 3:16). Male rule is therefore God’s justice.[1]

These ideas and more have been weaponized to subordinate women and enforce strict gender roles. And according to victim advocates, gender roles dehumanize women as “other,” creating the need for male authority. Challenging the “othering” of women in American theology, Jimmy Carter wrote:

If potential male exploiters of women are led to believe that their victim is considered inferior or “different” even by God, they can presume that it must be permissible to take advantage of their superior status…”

In short, American evangelicalism—viewing women as inferior—has been weaponized against them for the benefit of male power and domination. While Christians like John Piper and Brad Wilcox insist that gender roles protect women from abuse, the data and the stories of the #ChurchToo movement stand against them. Power and sex are two sides of the same patriarchal coin, according to abuse survivor Christa Brown. She explains: “Because complementarian theology promotes a power differential between men and women, it fosters the sort of abuse of power that devolves into sexual abuse.”

Here are three ways we can build a more biblical narrative to promote women’s empowerment and flourishing.

1. Decenter dominance and authoritarianism in our theology.

Churches can challenge dominance boldly—as Jesus did. In all four gospels, Jesus tells his followers that the Gentiles lord their authority over others, but “not so with you.” Jesus needs to be at the center of our theology, who taught and modeled leadership as service! All Christians are called to serve.

Now more than ever, we should study and celebrate powerful male-female leadership teams throughout church history. There’s Paul and Phoebe, prominent apostles Andronicus and Junia, and church planters Priscilla and Aquila. There’s also Paula and Jerome, who produced the Latin Vulgate; Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, both leaders in the counter-Reformation; and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, prominent social activists and abolitionists.

Biblical women also led powerfully without male support, like Deborah, Huldah, Jael, Ruth, Esther, Shiphrah and Puah, Phoebe, Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary, Chloe, Apphia, and Lydia. In recognizing and engaging with the countless examples of female leaders in Scripture and church history, we amplify the capacity and faithfulness of women’s gifts and calling in our churches and in American evangelical theology.

2. Overcome a lack of empathy in our theology.

There’s a learned lack of empathy in American evangelical theology toward the experiences of women. To redress it, we can celebrate the empathy and emotion of Jesus, who cried with those who mourned, cooked for the hungry, nursed the ill, and centered the experiences of women. We should also become familiar with how Scripture portrays God in feminine metaphors and images and as one who rejected the lure of power and stood with the oppressed.

What else can we do to build empathy in our theology?

We can center the voices and experiences of women and especially women of color. Given how they’ve been silenced throughout American evangelical history, it’s their time to talk now. Give sisters of color priority on your platforms. Learn from women overturning patriarchy. Join them in prayer, financially, and as vocal allies. Listen to women’s stories and traumas and grieve with them.

3. Push back on impunity.

One of the most dangerous messages in American evangelical theology is that maleness (or whiteness) equals virtue. Too often, we elevate males over females and maleness as a character quality in leaders. The result is communities without accountability, where men and male leaders act with impunity—which fuels abuse.

We need to call out Christian celebrity leaders like Bill Hybels, whose character did not align with the leadership standards outlined in Scripture. We should question charismatic leaders who gain positions of dominance because they are male and not because they demonstrate the fruit of the spirit, which Scripture insists is essential in leaders (Gal. 5:22-23; 1 Tim. 3:1-12).

We must build systems of accountability that include opportunities for confidential feedback from church/organization leadership teams that include women. Denominations should consult spiritual directors and counselors and do psychological testing of leaders.  

Flannery O’Connor said: “the first product of self-knowledge is humility.” And humility is a great antidote to impunity; we need leaders who are self-aware, humble, and willing to admit their weaknesses. These practices make all of us more effective.

We also need resources and curriculum on abuse for colleges and seminaries that train pastors. Ideas have consequences and theology that fuels men’s privilege and access to power without requiring them to demonstrate accountability and the fruit of the spirit is a threat to women’s flourishing. It weakens the gospel and devastates churches and families.

How Kate Bushnell Challenged Patriarchy 

Let me end with the story of a woman who saw how Western theology had been weaponized against women and boldly challenged it. For more than thirty years, Katharine Bushnell held a global stage as a silence breaker. She worked for decades to expose sex slavery and flawed interpretations of Scripture that devalued females and justified men’s abuse.

Kate worked with prostituted females in Chicago. She infiltrated brothels to interview girls and women enslaved in Michigan iron mines and Wisconsin lumber camps. Later, Kate traveled to India to work in brothels established by the British military.

While prostitutes were viewed as sinful, Kate observed how the men who used them were excused as satisfying a “natural impulse.” She also noted that Christian leaders failed to denounce the impunity of these men and showed a lack of empathy for women and girls. Seeing the dissonance, Kate searched for root causes.

She read every biblical text on gender in its context and original language. She published the first systematic treatment of gender, exposing flawed translations and misinterpretations that gave to men what belongs only to God: the right to direct women’s talents and agency. A gender reformation was needed, she argued. For “no class nor sex should have an exclusive right to set forth the meaning of the [Bible].” This task, she asserted, belongs especially to women.

Kate Bushnell understood that those who speak for God hold great authority, which is why that office must include the voices of women and those who are most marginalized. Those advancing gender justice today and those who began this work over one hundred years ago are in agreement—the church will remain complicit in the global abuse of females until Scripture is translated and interpreted by and beside women and with attention to how the text has been weaponized against women.

Repairing our theology begins with admitting and lamenting our failures. It’s time for us to say “time’s up” to those that misrepresent Scripture, to those that prop up male rule with bad theology and use isolated biblical texts to center white, male experiences and authority in Bible translations and churches.

Like antibodies fighting a life-stealing disease, women are repairing distorted theology. They’re normalizing the leadership of women and women of color in churches and Christian organizations and advocating for equal inclusion of women’s voices and experiences in theology. They’re giving voice to the abused and advancing God’s vision for all men and women to jointly govern. Beside male allies, women are reclaiming a faith centered not on masculinity but on Jesus. Because of their advocacy, the church is being transformed into the fragrance of Christ, into a people that welcomes the marginalized, centers the cries of the suffering, and celebrates the priesthood of all believers.

Notes

[1] 5-8 come from Kevin Giles’ article in CBE’s ETS Book. See here.  

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