South Africa was named the rainbow nation on February 3, 1990 by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. For our country, with its nine official languages, this name is indicative of diversity as well as acceptance. Our beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela brought us together in a spirit of unparalleled reconciliation and forgiveness. There is still work to do, but at least our journey has begun.
In Galatians 3:28, Paul makes reference to the three main divides among people: race, class, and gender. South Africa knows these well. Who does not remember our heinous apartheid system? Yet today we are a democracy free from racial discrimination. Economically, we lag behind but have improved in bringing basic services to our poor. The last category Paul speaks about is gender. After a forty-six-year-long struggle against racial oppression, and centuries of colonial racial segregation, I took for granted that gender oppression would be easily identifiable and done away with in our society. I was wrong. Yes, our constitution (one of the best in the world) has fully embraced equality, but our cultures have not. Male domination is one of the few things all South African cultures have in common.
Some thirteen years ago, I began questioning the church’s teachings regarding women’s and men’s roles in society, the family, and the church. Often, when senior positions became vacant in my church, a woman was the most qualified choice to fill the vacancy. Each time the issue was discussed, I was told that a man was the right person for the job. When I pressed further, it became apparent that the idea of women having authority over men was inconceivable to the church leaders. As I became more vocal on this matter of gender inequality, a greater number of women made appointments to see me. Here are some of their stories (names have been changed).
Daughters are a bad investment
In her late twenties, married, and with a child, Tandeka has had to pay for her own education from the age of fourteen. Her father was not prepared to “invest” in her because she would soon belong to another man. She would become a “helper” to her husband. “Helper” in South Africa is the word used for a housemaid, and this is the basis for the understanding of women’s roles in the family. Women are to be subservient, compliant, and domesticated.
Today Tandeka holds two degrees (one in civil engineering) and has bought her father a beautiful house. She got married and was forbidden to continue working. Soon, physical, emotional, and economic abuse followed. “Just like the color of my skin,” she commented to me, “I cannot change my gender. God created me this way. I have no support from my family or the church—both call me rebellious, but I read Scripture differently.” Tandeka is dynamic and has decided to challenge her circumstances. We prayed together and committed to teach women their full worth.
The true meaning of “helper” in the account of creation (Gen. 2) is of course a compatible partner, but this is not what the church has taught. Through our bias, we have reinforced worldly beliefs that are not found in our Bibles, much less in the words of Jesus.
Used for business
My husband and I live in intentional community with the poor. One of our programs provides a caring support structure for unwed mothers. Anna was brought to us by a social worker. Her mother and stepfather had been arrested, and she was five months pregnant. Her unemployed parents drank heavily, ran up large bills, and used her to settle them. The stepfather would introduce the “client” to Anna, walk the two of them to Anna’s house, and leave them there while he returned to the bar. Anna became pregnant, and when her mother took her to the abortion clinic, she was told that the pregnancy was too advanced.
Anna is thirteen.
She is now safe and cared for, yet poverty and the cycle of dependence are all she knows. When asked what she would like to do when she grows up, she says, “find a husband and have children.” We are hoping to absorb her into our children’s home and encourage her to get a good education.
Rape, gender-based violence, and the pandemic of HIV/AIDS are serious concerns in our country and even in our churches. The devaluation of women perpetuates oppression, economic disempowerment, and ultimately, the abuse of human rights. At a Bible study, a young man stated that the reason for the increase in rape figures in South Africa is that women are being disrespectful to men. Culturally, women are seen as being created to satisfy men. Education is still regarded as unimportant—a pastime until you come of age.
Does it sound familiar? In Jesus’ times, the worth of a woman was intrinsically connected to her father or husband. Yet Jesus dialogued with, taught, and empowered women when he walked this earth. He broke many cultural barriers of his day; he demonstrated God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
Women do not qualify for inheritance
Pretty was a committed volunteer in my church, and struck me as a strong woman and a committed Christian. She was raised in a traditional rural family, and expected to do some schooling and then find a man to take care of her. She found a boyfriend and produced a son, but before they married, he began having affairs and left her. Like many women in our country, she was left with her baby without support. In Johannesburg, she got a job as a housemaid earning a meager salary, and I offered Pretty a position in the ministry as the unwed mothers project leader. She did a Christian counseling course and passed a doula course with flying colors. Today Pretty owns a car, is finishing a bookkeeping diploma, and is a member of our board. Her son has received a full scholarship to attend Pretoria University.
As I’ve taught on gender equality, Pretty has begun to understand the importance of the message. On visiting her family she inquired about her parents’ house and farm. She knows very well what the culture dictates: the oldest son (although younger than her) will inherit it all and he will distribute to his brothers as he sees fit. Women do not qualify; they must find men to support them rather than be a burden to their own families, and they must “behave” and not be “rebellious” (which means that they must accept whatever treatment is leveled at them, including infidelity and the spread of HIV).
Our churches are full of women who raise their children singlehandedly, yet we fail to minister to and support them. They are not widows; they have been abandoned.
I have been cursed
A doctor applied to join our substance abuse program. She didn’t want to disclose much. She has had ovarian problems since she was a young teenager, studied medicine to find a solution, practiced for a few years, and then her life spiraled out of control. During a counseling session, she explained the years of mockery and accusations she has had to endure because she cannot bear children. She has been called a man, useless, and a burden; she is seen as the cause of every evil that befalls any member of her family—a curse. No man is prepared to marry her, because in most African traditions, procreation is essential; a woman has to have a child before she marries. She is in her mid-thirties and desperate. She feels ashamed and rejected. Unwanted, she doesn’t understand why God would punish her this way.
I turned to Luke 8:43–48 and read about the woman with the issue of blood, whom Jesus chooses in the crowd.
I needed to explain that culture isn’t everything; that she is valuable because she is made in God’s image. She stared at me. I was unsure if I got through to her. We prayed. Four months later, she had finished her program and asked to speak to me. She knows that she still has struggles ahead of her, and young and old will still mock her. But now she knows she is not a curse.
When our cultures disdain singleness and barrenness, we must remember that Jesus was single and he set many single women free from cultural prejudices and stigmatization.
Chickens and eggs
“Women can never earn more than their husbands,” Nellie said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because he is the head; even if you work, you have to give him all your money. They believe a woman is not clever and she cannot make good decisions.” She continued. “They prefer us to be on the farms raising chickens, but women are not allowed to eat eggs or the chickens. They are for the men. We can only eat the neck and the feet; once the man is full, then he can give us the leftovers.”
“Do you agree with this?” I asked.
Nellie shrugged her shoulders and sighed. “It’s our culture.”
Nellie is one of many young career women who comment that their education and success are eating away at their chances of finding husbands, leading to disapproval by families and friends.
The church must show the way
A friend of mine is an advocate for women’s rights and a member of my church. Until a few years ago, she had not noticed the absence of women in the pulpit and in positions of leadership. Humans are creatures of habit, and we often don’t recognize the injustices before us. No wonder Paul urges us not to conform to our cultures (Rom. 12:2), but rather to renew our minds.
Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with culture per se. The problem arises when we try to import our cultures into the Word of God and make it say what it does not. Pride is at the root of it, breeding an attitude of superiority and control with devastating consequences. In Africa the church must face the responsibility of correcting its erroneous teachings. Spiritual leaders carry much authority in our communities and touch the lives of every strata of society. It is high time we taught and preached the gospel of Jesus Christ—a gospel of truth and freedom with good news for the whole world, regardless of race, class, or gender (Gal. 3:28).
South Africa is changing, but we must continue to be vigilant in working toward gender equality. Let it start with the church.