Women live in a world where violence, oppression, and marginalization are the norm. Every day, we wake up to stories of abuse and assault. It’s not contained to Hollywood. We’re seeing abuse in all spheres of societies around the globe. And tragically, we’re also seeing it in the church, where we might expect women to be safest from violence and harassment.
This is the congregational context you’re preaching into, pastors. Statistically, you’re talking to an audience where at least 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence during their lifetimes. You're preaching in the age of #churchtoo.
That’s why I’m writing this letter. Because what you’re teaching about gender roles is dangerous for women, and especially for female survivors of abuse. I have seen men, even Christian men, abuse authority and use the word "submission” to justify their abuse. Whether it’s your intention or not, these teachings can be used to enable violence.
Violence against women in the Bible is rarely addressed from the pulpit, but it doesn’t go unnoticed by women, many of us abuse survivors or current victims of abuse.
While I have personally found God’s redemption and love for women in these difficult biblical stories, I know countless women who remain frustrated and confused about how God views women. I will never forget the first sermon I heard that portrayed Bathsheba as a survivor of abuse. It was one of the most healing moments I have ever experienced in the church.
Women’s experiences with violence and marginalization inform how we read the Bible; how we relate to God; and how we interact with our brothers. And for survivors of violence, the church’s unbiblical teachings on gender roles are confusing and harmful.
By endorsing these teachings, pastors run the risk of distorting the gospel and excluding women from the fullness of God’s redemption. By neglecting or silencing women’s voices in church; ignoring the marginalization and abuse of women in our congregations; and sending unbiblical messages about power, violence, and calling, we make it harder for women to come before God. We make it harder for them to feel safe and wanted in church.
In my own spiritual life, I’ve struggled to reconcile my experiences with what I’ve been taught about God in church. The church is meant to be safe place for women, but instead, it is where I have heard some of the most toxic teachings on gender:
- God’s grace is somehow not sufficient for women. We are still under the sin of Eve; we are not a new creation.
- “Women are equal but they shouldn’t [insert prohibited role/activity/behavior].”
- As single women, God is our source/head. Married, a man becomes our source/head.
- It is women’s job to uphold the authority of men and submit to them, no matter our background or past experiences with violence and abuse.
- Male “heroes of faith” are deserving of praise from the pulpit despite their repeated abuse of women (Abraham, David, etc.). Biblical laws that seem to justify violence against women or unfairly punish women for violence outside of their control are tolerable (Judges).
Hearing and internalizing these unbiblical messages made it more difficult to see who God really is and how he regards women. The idea that women are grasping for power and undermining God’s design for gender roles gets a lot of lip service in the church. But in my experience, the opposite is far more common—men distort God’s image and commandments by assuming power over women. We need only read the stories behind the #churchtoo movement to see that.
But in the Bible, I see a repeated call for both men and women to lay down their lives for each other. Further, God intentionally and radically pursues the marginalized in Scripture, including women (Ruth, Tamar, Hagar, Rahab, etc.). We also find countless examples of Christ’s counter-cultural and bold inclusion of women in the redemption story (the Samaritan woman, Mary, Mary and Martha, etc.). At the very core of Christ’s teachings is a clear command for both men and women to give up power and love others first.
Pastors, I am an equal image-bearer with men. I have an equal inheritance in God’s grace and equal access to the outpouring of the Spirit. But it often hasn’t felt that way in the church. In silencing women’s voices and ignoring their callings, we have lost part of God’s heart and image. The whole body has suffered from that exclusion. For this reason, the church must intentionally include women’s voices and work hard to become a safe place for us to experience the fullness of the gospel.
With that challenge before us, I encourage you, pastors, to consider the consequences of what you preach about gender roles, power, violence, and submission. Think about the experiences of and impact on women in your congregation. Is what you preach really good for women?
A Concerned Sister