Women’s Equality and How Churches Respond to Abuse

by CBE International | July 07, 2021

In a continuation of the second conversation sponsored by CBE and our 2021 conference partners in the UK, Charles Read, priest and director of liturgy and reader training in the Norwich Diocese, asked conference speakers to discuss women’s equality and church response to abuse.

This blog was adapted from the second half of a recording of a Zoom conversation.

The Speakers:

Sean Callaghan is an activist who focuses on the challenges of conflict, gender, and livelihoods, primarily in Africa. 

Natalie Collins is a gender justice specialist, speaker, and trainer on male violence against women and wider gender injustice. She wrote Out of Control: Couples, Conflict and the Capacity for Change.

Pontsho Segwai is the advocacy and child protection manager for World Vision South Africa. Her passion is seeing males and females being treated equally, as is God's original plan.

The Conversation:

Charles: Is there a link between beliefs about women’s equality and how churches tackle issues of abuse?

Natalie: It's important that we have a clear understanding of why somebody is abusive before we discuss this question. There are lots of myths and misconceptions, like having been abused as a child or alcohol or stress or unemployment or being on the autism spectrum. There are all sorts of reasons that are given for why somebody is abusing their partner. We need to strip that back and acknowledge those things as factors, but they're not the cause. The reason why someone abuses their partner is fundamentally about the beliefs they hold. This is a theological argument too, because Jesus says the mouth speaks what the heart is full of, so we understand as Christians that what we do comes out of what we believe. Somebody who is abusive believes that they own their partner and that they're entitled to do what they want to their partner. Out of ownership and entitlement they act in ways to control and to limit their partner to maintain those beliefs. 

We also need to understand that the reason there are more abusive men than abusive women is not because women are any better than men, but because we live in a patriarchal society which enculturates men and boys into systems of ownership and entitlement. Women are not exposed to those same messages. When we understand that is the root of abuse, then we can start to have conversations about the impact of our theology of men and women and leadership. Essentially, if you hold to complementarian theology, you believe that God says that men should have authority and power over women and are entitled over women. 

Complementarian churches and people with complementarian theology can be pastorally sensitive on an individual basis to people who are being abused and they can support women and they can challenge abusers. However, they cannot fundamentally address the wider issues around what is causing an abuser to abuse, which is the belief of ownership and entitlement.  Theology that advocates male headship, theology that advocates men have God-given entitlements over women, are colluding with the same systems that cause men to think it's acceptable to be abusive and lead men to develop beliefs of ownership and entitlement.

That is why the theology around male leadership, male headship, is so crucial in understanding abuse. And the problem is that a lot of the time we don't interrogate and understand why somebody is abusive, so it's very easy to assume that the theology around headship is not relevant.

Pontsho: I think that what a church believes makes a difference in terms of how they approach issues of gender. We have a program called Channels of Hope for Gender at World Vision and one of the discussions focuses on issues of gender-based violence, where we discuss some of the misinterpretations of scripture. For instance, we explore Genesis 3:16, after the fall where people interpret when God says, “your desire for will be for your husband and he will rule over you,” to mean that this is what God intended. But we go back to Genesis 1 and 2: did God intend it to be this way or is this a consequence of the fall? God did not declare that the relationship between males and females is one where the man has authority over the woman. Genesis 3:16 is one of the scriptures we've heard a lot—faith leaders bring it up and that encourages people to say men need to show their power, be in control, make all the decisions.

Then you have scriptures like Proverbs 31, how when their relationship is not going well, it's the woman's role to fix it. A foolish woman is one who lets her house go to ruin and a wise woman builds her home. So even when you are being abused, you feel like it is your responsibility to make it work. It's more difficult to get out because your church comes back and says you are the foolish one; if you want to be wise, make it work. 

There’s also the issue around submission and how it's misinterpreted. How do we understand headship? We know that the Bible talks about being a head like Christ, loving your wife, being willing to lay down your life for her. People tend to forget that and emphasize that women must submit and sometimes are forced to submit. Many women stay in abusive relationships because when they approach their faith leaders they are told, “No you'd better stay, you have made a vow.” This is where beliefs impact the response of churches to gender-based violence. 

Natalie: Understanding that abuse is fundamentally about having power over another person, we need to look at how the Bible approaches power. How does Jesus model power? Jesus gave up all the power of being God to become human. I think there's something important about us giving up space. What is my power and how do I give that up? The Bible tells us we need to die to ourselves, but we've got to own ourselves to die to ourselves, right? For a lot of women, they don't own themselves, they don't feel like they have ownership over their lives, so they can't die to themselves because they're owned by their husband or by this theology that says they have to bow to men. The work that women should do in the discipleship journey is to gain ownership of themselves. Until that point, they can't really die to themselves. Whereas the journey that most men need is one of death to self, because generally they've been socialized in systems that have allowed them to own themselves. It's recognizing the different journey that men and women often need to take. All that matters in issues like forgiveness and divorce. Those things all need to be examined.

Sean: I go back to the word “theology” and how we frame God. I think about Hagar. She clearly was in an abusive relationship, she was Sarah’s maidservant, she was raped by Abraham again and again until she fell pregnant. Eventually she's abused so much that she runs away to the desert. There she meets God and then she names God and says, “You are the God who sees me.” How do we name God? How do we perceive God? What's our theology about who God is? That creates this sense of how we then perceive others. If he's the God that sees us, then who do we see or who do we not see? 

So much of the way that we think about God is as king, conqueror, father, an old angry man, judge. We have these thoughts about who God is and that colludes with our culture. They say that's how God is with us and that's how we are with women and that's how women are with children and that's how our church leaders are with congregations. If we flip it around and see this very beautiful other way of knowing God and seeing God and understanding God like Hagar, then we have a “less male approach.” 

Pontsho: That reminds me of a reflection after we had a discussion on abuse and submission. A man said when he got married, his pastor told him, marriage like peddling a bike. One pedal is up and the other is down, so it's not about men or women being above all the time, it's about changing gears together. He was saying tanda and toba, because tanda is to love in Zulu and toba is to submit, the two go well together. 

If we look at Christ and see how he balanced loving and submission, allowing himself to take off the crown and serve, I think we can go a long way as churches. The core idea is what does leadership mean? It starts in the home first because a lot of the time we think the church is going to make all the difference, but it has to start in the family context. If we are not teaching that at home, it becomes even more difficult to change at church. We see that relationship between home and church in terms of making sure we are preaching the same message about who God is, what serving God means as males and females.

Sean: Pontsho and I grew up in South Africa, so we know there were multiple power dynamics between her and I. It's the lens that you look at the scriptures through that defines everything. Under Apartheid we looked at Scripture through the lens of the Tower of Babel, that God separated people because that was God's intent. So we created this system of “apartness” that separated people—we had separate restaurants and separate schools and separate and separate and separate, and that was “God's design.” That was the lens that we viewed the world through. 

But if you change the lens and say Pentecost is about all these people understanding one language even though they spoke different languages, it's a new kind of togetherness. When you look at it through that lens, you see this whole narrative of God reconciling, versus the other lens that showed a narrative of God separating. I had to go through a metamorphosis of looking at the world that I grew up in through a different lens in order to live in a different way. 

In the same way, people have grown up in churches, communities, and families where the lens tells us there's a hierarchical structure between men and women. If we don't change the lens, we fundamentally can't see it. That is the grace that we can give people—they don't see it because they can't see it. But the minute the lens changes, it's “oh my goodness how did I not see it?” 

Charles: What we're about is changing the lens so that people can see things differently. I think it's also true that once you've seen it, you can't unsee it. Once you've seen issues of gender inequality or racial inequality or other sorts of inequality you can't unsee it. We'll be able to talk about these things some more and expand on them at our conference. 
 

Learn more about CBE's online conference, September 10–11.
 


More conversations with CBE’s 2021 conference speakers:

What Are the Consequences of Theological Patriarchy?
How Can Churches Encourage Women Leaders?
Making Space for Women Leaders in the Church of Ireland