Twenty-three years ago an economist from India, Amartya Sen, reported the largest human holocaust in all of history. His research showed that over 100 million females were missing! Though Sen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, few were mobilized by the horror he had uncovered. Even the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalists Kristoff and WuDunn said that “when a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were routinely kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news” (Kristoff and WuDunn, Half the Sky, xiv). How could the world be so disinterested in the sufferings of females?
The philosopher Alvin Plantinga offers one explanation. He notes the blinding influence sin has on humankind. As fallen people, we unconsciously place ourselves at the center of the universe. If asked, we “deny thinking any such thing,” but as Plantinga suggests, we greatly exaggerate the importance of what happens to ourselves, compared to what happens to others (Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 213-214). Rather than facing our failures, we rationalize them while ignoring their impact on others. Our ability to fully empathize with others is impaired and distorted. This is particularly true when it comes to gender, even for Christians.
For centuries, male rule has been perpetuated among Christians in two fundamental ways. First, Christians have asserted the essential difference between males and females, from which males are routinely viewed as superior and therefore the more logical option for leadership and positions of authority. Because Eve sinned first, the argument goes, females are more gullible and should not, therefore, hold authority over males. It is easy to see how this can quickly become diabolical in viewing women as subhuman and in treating them as such.
The second way Christians have successfully perpetuated male rule is by routinely advancing a consequence of sin—the “he will rule over you” of Genesis 3:16—as God’s ideal. Therefore, males have ruled over women not because of their character, moral choices, or intimacy with Christ, but solely because of their gender, which is a fixed and unchangeable condition. This creates a power imbalance that is intrinsically unjust, and which places females at risk for abuse and suffering. An imbalance of power explains the suffering so many females have encountered.
From the moment I joined the staff of CBE, I began hearing from women who had been beaten, raped, molested, and humiliated in every way by their husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, pastors, or other men who believed that God had given males authority over women. Clearly, the authority these men exercised had everything to with their gender and nothing to do with character. Is this the teaching of Scripture, or a distortion of it?
Injustice, abuse, and suffering are always the result of a distorted worldview. Fortunately, scholars recognize the consequences of interpretative errors. The suffering of women was a key reason that eminent theologian, I. Howard Marshall, found it necessary to reconsider the biblical validity of male-only rule (visit cbeinternational.org/Marshall to learn more). Thankfully, Marshall realized that a theology that too easily permits abuse and suffering is not God’s ideal.
Ideas have consequences. As we have explored in this issue of Mutuality on rape and sexual violence, our views of male headship have daily consequences. It is a very short step from theory to practice when it comes to power in a broken world. Join CBE this summer in Pittsburgh, July 26-28, as we consider how the misinterpretation of Scripture contributes to a worldview that devalues females and fosters injustice. Come grow, speak out, and fellowship with us!