For a short time, I lived in a city where world news was summarized by a large scoreboard with two opposing teams: God versus Satan. When something good happened in the world, God won a point. When evil advanced, a point went to Satan. Humorous perhaps, but this popular scorecard also represented our deep longing for God’s presence in every betrayal, for God’s power to redeem every abuse. Like Hagar, humans yearn for a God who sees and a God who defends (Gen. 16:21). Like Hagar, the world’s women long for justice because the face of exploitation and abuse is predominately female.
As Robert Seiple, former US Ambassador and former president of World Vision, observed:
From birth to the grave, throughout much of our allegedly “modern” world, violence marks the lives of those born girls. We should not be surprised when girls are used, at best, as human workhorses, and at worst as human shields in time of war. We should not be surprised at attempts to intentionally destroy or limit female hopes in upward strides for a better life.1
The Ever-Constant Pull of Patriarchy
Women worldwide are too often acquainted with patriarchy’s catastrophic impact, which also makes them the most passionate advocates for patriarchy’s survivors. For this reason, women missionaries were often close friends to the world’s women and children, believing “they had a special calling or sanction to aid the helpless and the oppressed.”2 During the missionary movement of the 1800s, women outnumbered men on global mission fields.
Tragically however, in 1998, male-authority advocates gained control of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest, wealthiest protestant denomination in the US—along with its extensive, worldwide missionary presence. Despite the SBC’s longstanding support of women as missionaries and church planters, the new patriarchal leaders of the SBC swiftly orchestrated their removal.3 These events had enormous spiritual and humanitarian consequences for girls and women.
Secular Progress Toward Women’s Equality
Former president and leading humanitarian Jimmy Carter provides exceptional insights into the harm of patriarchal teachings, especially religiously based ones. He writes:
. . . the most serious unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls, largely caused by a false interpretation of carefully selected religious texts and a growing tolerance of violence and warfare. . . . In addition to the unconscionable human suffering, almost embarrassing to acknowledge, there is a devastating effect on economic prosperity caused by the loss of contributions of at least half the human beings on earth. This is not just a women’s issue. It is not confined to the poorest countries. It affects all of us.4
Carter gave the women in northern Iraq a platform to report ISIL’s abuse of their girls and women. He brought them to the Carter Center’s Human Rights Defender Forum and ensured their reports were heard in Washington.
Recognizing women’s strategic leadership, secular humanitarian organizations have also filled data gaps and prioritized women’s equality to upend power imbalances and their dehumanizing consequences. Leading the way, the United Nations has created seventeen humanitarian (sustainable development) goals with gender equality as Goal 5.
Research Says Religion Can Make or Break Women’s Equality
Last year, researchers on the UN’s Goal 5 published actionable priorities for 2022, and they also identified religion as either a key lever or hindrance to women’s equality. Researchers note that religion remains “the hardest barrier that women must overcome in the path to gender equality.” Yet religion can also serve as a catalyst, improving life for girls and women in overcoming inequalities. Even more than public officials, faith actors—pastors and church leaders—have tremendous influence in communities that value religion.
Over 82 percent of the world adheres to some religion, with Christianity holding a slim majority worldwide. Yet men still hold top leadership positions in the majority of Christian denominations and organizations. Many Christian communities continue to teach and/or practice male-only leadership, with the two largest groups in the US—Evangelicals and Catholics—being prime examples. Unsurprisingly, donations to religious nonprofits significantly outpace funding to girls and women causes. Those with the least power are also those with the fewest resources.
While women leaders are prominent throughout church history, their achievements are minimized in Christian curriculum. Ongoing #MeToo and #ChurchToo cases have exposed the destructive force of patriarchy entrenched in Christian theology and practices. Yet the greater the obstacles, the greater the untapped possibilities.
How CBE Helps Churches Help Women
Those same research findings on Goal 5 reinforce some of our strategies at CBE:
- Partner with male allies in faith communities
- Amplify and mobilize 1) Female and male faith leaders and theologians (existing and emerging) 2) Digital influencers and youth leaders
- Engage complementarians in Christian spaces, on relevant cultural issues
- Provide quantitative and qualitative data on egalitarian theology and human flourishing
To challenge theological and social barriers to women’s equality, CBE creates multimedia education materials and events. Resources in more than thirty languages expose the biblical and moral failures of patriarchy. Research and case studies show the impact of egalitarian theology. Here is one example.
After using CBE’s curriculum in Uganda, men challenged sexism by hosting a cooking contest. One observer said, “It was an unbelievable experience for men to cook, as in this culture, men do not cook or even enter the kitchen. Children wondered to see their father cooking, as they have not ever seen that.”5
Adding to the opportunities identified by researchers, we thank God for our global partners, equipped and called for strategic leadership in their context. We also elevate the power of prayer to guide every aspect of our work. We recognize that Christian faith leaders have enormous influence because the power of Christ, alive in each of us, is able to do more than we might dream or imagine possible. We mourn the damage that has been done to women and girls by Christians who promote male-only leadership. But Christ remains our hope and the power in our work. Christ is the God who sees, who overcomes on our behalf and settles all scores. Together, we move closer to a world that celebrates the contributions of women every day, not just on International Women’s Day.
Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash.
- Robert A. Seiple, A Rent in the Human Garment (Washington Forum, 1998), 9.
- Diana Magnuson, “Swedish Baptist Women in America, 1850-1914: the ‘High Calling’ of Serving Christ in the Life of the Church,” The Baptist Pietist Clarion 8, no. 1 (2009), 19.
- Paige Patterson became president of the SBC in 1998 and was fired in 2018 for his treatment of abuse women. See Scott Neuman, “Seminary Votes to Fire Paige Patterson After Ousting Him as President,” WBUR, May 31, 2018, https://www.wbur.org/npr/615711743/seminary-votes-to-fire-paige-patterson-after-ousting-him-as-president, accessed March 19, 2019.
- Jimmy Carter, Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 3.
- Mimi Haddad, “Human Flourishing: Global Perspectives,” Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy (Carol Stream, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 630–631.