In exploring the cultural impact of gender on ministry, examples from Kenya, India, Venezuela, and the United States were selected as case studies, illustrating the impact of gender on Christian ministry.
by Judy W. Mbugua, PACWA Continental Coordinator (Kenya, Africa)
The Oxford Dictionary defines culture as “the customs, civilization and achievement of a particular time or people.” Culture often determines the values, worldview, attitudes, behavior and practices of women and men from birth to death.
Understanding culture is important in considering how we might best approach the issue of gender in Christian ministry. Only then can one determine an effective strategy for recreating the desired values, norms and practices.
Although most cultures look down upon women, and up to men, they express it differently. In Africa, where I live, when a man visits a home and the husband/father is not in, the visitor goes away saying there was nobody at home—even though the wife (or wives) were there and were hospitable to him. In one mosque in Nairobi, Kenya, a notice pinned outside reads: “Women and dogs are not allowed in the Mosque.”
Traditional African society looked upon women as perpetually dependent on males. Women have to be protected and guided by men. Women are often objects of exploitation, and a source of wealth to men who handle them like personal property.
Yet, despite this cultural subordination, women in African tradition frequently occupy leading positions in divining, rainmaking and as mediums in prophesying, healing and counseling. These occupations illustrate that women are given leadership in various spheres, even in cultures generally repressive towards women.
Examples of African culture and the treatment of women
- Chicken wings—In Uganda, women cannot eat chicken wings. Otherwise they would fly like a chicken and not be submissive, especially in bed.
- Physical Abuse—In some cultures in West Africa, women are to be beaten at least once in three months in order to remain disciplined. If they are not beaten, the women ask for it!
- Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Some cultures say that a woman needs to go through FGM to be tamed, so that she does not become sexually promiscuous. This primitive practice is still active. The Kenya Demographic Health Survey of 1998 indicated that 50% of women aged 35 years and above are circumcised!
While most cultures seem to lower or reduce the value of women, at the same time culture often raises the value for men to threatening proportions. For example, a Moran (Maasai young man) is expected to kill a lion to prove he is a real man. The boy child is encouraged “never to cry.”
Marriage and concubines in Botswana and Swaziland
Polygamy is tolerated and some pastors have a wife in the rural areas and another in the city. This is especially true for itinerant evangelists who are allowed to keep concubines in different cities where they go to preach.
Some men put aside their Christian perspectives in order to seize the properties and wife of a deceased brother in the name of culture, even when the husband dies of HIV/AIDS. Knowing that the wife was infected, men said they would rather die of HIV/AIDS than break their culture!
These traditions and cultures have found their way into the church’s attitude toward men and women in spite of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 15:6, “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” The word of God has often been sacrificed at the altar of culture and tradition.
Discrimination against women in ordination
Whereas women are allowed to take the same courses with men in Bible Colleges, they are not ordained at the end of their training. Churches oversee ordination, and most of them do not support women in ministry.
The churches have used and twisted religious doctrines against women. Women must be silent in church. They are supposed to be saved through child bearing. These teachings not only imply that men are superior to women, they also make it difficult for women to succeed in ministry.
The way forward
The church, as the company of God’s people, should be a redemptive force amid oppressive traditions and culture. The church should provide a supportive environment for women’s development.
The church should recognize existing capabilities of women and men. This recognition should help both men and women in their Christian service.
Women are in the majority in our Christian communities. Unfortunately, they have internalized the very myth of inferiority that keeps them from pursuing church ministry. Women must therefore, “restore their dignity, appreciate themselves, be proud of their womanhood and motherhood.” In Pan African Women’s Association we say that we, “assert our true dignity as found in the Bible!”
There is the saying that “unity is strength.” If the church taught the gospel in a way that shows its superiority over negative culture, many men and women would be delivered and empowered towards finishing the task of the Great Commission.
by E. Leelavathi Manasse, Bangalore
Shanti and her husband Raj are blessed with a daughter and a son. A few years ago, Raj had a personal encounter with Christ in a home Bible study conducted by their church youth group.
In one session, they had a discussion on the Christian attitude toward dowry. Dowry, in most parts of our country, is a demanded gift from the father or parents of the bride.
As Raj was reflecting on the issue of dowry, he was convicted by the Holy Spirit to tell Shanti he was sorry for having demanded and taken dowry from her father at the time of their marriage. Shanti was happy about the transformation in Raj’s attitude. She explained to Raj the difficulties her father had in borrowing the money and clearing the debt. After discussion and prayer, Raj visited her father to say he was sorry and to return the dowry.
Often we meet people feeling sorry about taking or giving dowry, but seldom do we meet people who actually return the dowry. But this action is a valuable contribution to reshaping and restructuring the world, beginning with our immediate family relationships and our own life. Raj’s relationship with Christ changed his outlook on dowry as practiced in his culture. Often we fail to take a bold step to redeem persons and situations from inequality, and injustice. In our new community in Christ, men and women can work side by side, learn from each other, and support one another in restoring the dignity of those who have been marginalized in the family, church, and society.
by Nora Matilde Mendez de Mora
I have observed the following cultural impediments to mutuality in men and women in ministry in my country of Venezuela.
1. Women are not given encouragement or opportunities by the male pastors who mentor them. It is assumed that women are limited in leadership gifts.
A friend told me of one church in a denomination that did not permit women to teach men, even though the women far surpassed the men in Bible knowledge. The leaders finally decided to let two women speak to each other behind a curtain, so the men could listen “by accident.”
2. Latin American women are often left alone with a household of children. The Latin culture has insisted that motherhood is the highest and most satisfying state. Motherhood is celebrated through literature, art, religion, and national holidays, and this gives rise to matriarchy, dominance and control rather than healthy communication. It also contributes to resentment, codependency, and fear.
3. Abusive and dysfunctional family systems are common in Latin America. This makes women vulnerable to abuse from shame-based, legalistic churches. We need grace-based models of church life that lend dignity, respect, and opportunities for service to all.
4. Men and women in Christ need to learn how to enjoy true friendship as they grow together in the pursuit of God.
Cultural influences and socialization are powerful impediments to healthy communication required in any profession or ministry. Moreover, cultural influences also perpetuate abuse within the church, home and society.
by Dr. Russell Palsrok—Christian Reformed Church of North America
The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) has always believed that both men and women are gifted for ministry. However, it is generally assumed that women are gifted for ministry in the home, while men are gifted for ministry in church and society. Women have not been permitted to enter into official ministry positions, yet they often provide significant ministry to the church. They teach children, lead music, organize Bible studies, and engage in outreach ministry.
The CRC culture has been ambivalent toward women participating in formal leadership roles. While there was consensus that women should minister, there was division over whether women in ministry are to be subordinate or equal partners with men.
The debate raged back and forth until 1995, when the denomination (in compromise) declared that both positions appear to be biblically defensible from a Reformed hermeneutical viewpoint. Therefore, the decisions about women in ministry positions should be made at the local church level.
Consequently, women are given ambivalent messages by the denomination. They may attend seminary, and become ordained ministers in the CRC, yet many churches oppose them. Women answer God’s call with little assurance they will have a place to serve.
In spite of this, the level of participation and the use of women’s gifts have increased during these last ten years. Attitudes are slowly changing from subordination to equality, from repression of women in certain situations to empowerment.
In the regional body in which I serve, women are not permitted to teach, to preach, to administer the sacraments, or to exercise pastoral care as an elder. Women elders cannot be delegates to regional meetings. We are not able to encourage women in our congregations to seek ordination locally. They must transfer to another region that will support them.
In my church, we nominate elders and deacons without gender consideration. Both male and female ministers have preached the Word and administered the sacraments.
However, this is a first generation change. Many confess to some personal discomfort. Some acknowledge they do not treat males and females equally. We are still too conscious of the issue to function in a completely gender-inclusive environment.
Neither have we been able to discuss what unique gifts a woman might possess that a man may not have. Not acknowledging the sexuality of the woman, we do not ask what contribution motherhood might make to ministry. Perhaps we also treat male ministers as neuter rather than masculine.
The culture of my denomination regarding women in ministry ranges from discouragement to encouragement. Some women are comfortable with subordinate positions; others are impatient with the slow progress toward equal partnership. Some leave the denomination to serve elsewhere. Others struggle with the ambiguity.
This is likely true around the world. Cultural effects, while specific to each setting, are complex, positive and negative. And it may always be that way. Finding the right balance to encourage the church and to advance God’s kingdom is ultimately more important than focusing on gender. As we minister from the viewpoint of Kingdom culture, may we transform culture to become more Christ-like.
It has been said that most cultures and religious systems value men more than women. As Christians, we hold that God values all people equally and we seek to become culturally sensitive to the subtle and overt ways culture devalues individuals. We seek to offer a proper and biblical voice that claims, as the bible does, that all people are created in God’s image, and therefore all people deserve equal dignity and care.