I am one of the fortunate few who have had the privilege of seeing a country peacefully transform from one plagued by illegitimate authority, discrimination and neglected human rights to one that is solidly entrenched in democracy. People previously unable to relate to one another are finally finding joyful common ground.
Some of my earliest memories in South Africa involve my local Methodist Sunday school. An attempt was once made to bring my Sunday school class together with students of color from a sister church. My parents expressed some concern about this because bringing together different races was “unlawful” in those days. I remember pondering the ethics of this, and knowing in my heart that something was very wrong.
Years later, I moved into the corporate world and began to see how competent my colleagues of color were. This challenged many beliefs I had absorbed from the society I had grown up in. As we developed friendships, I also noticed how easily we could misunderstand and hurt one another. Years of conditioning had made us wary of each other’s motives, and even as mature professionals, we found ourselves second-guessing what others meant by certain things they said or did. The legacy of apartheid (dubbed “apart – hate” by some) has left scars on all people of South Africa — black, white and every color in between. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, stereotypes and old beliefs still exist and we are still fighting to live outside their painful parameters.
Despite these setbacks, South Africa has come a long way in its battle for racial equality. One would think in a country that has achieved so much in the battle against racial discrimination, we would find it easy to do the same with the issue of gender. However, I believe that South Africa remains one of the most chauvinist and gender-stereotyped countries in the world.
Pastor Gary Kinnaman of Word of Grace Church in Arizona said, “the body of Christ has come a long way in recognizing that there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, but we haven’t begun to understand that there is neither male nor female.” Kinnaman’s words echo the present situation in South Africa.
The Reign of Stereotypes
The dictionary defines a stereotype as a “meaningless, repetitive action or thought.” The God I worship is a creative God, not one given to “meaningless, repetitive action or thought.” When he created humankind, he did not intend to limit the capacity of half of the human race or place them in subjection to the other half, just as he never intended for the color of our skin to indicate our character or intellect.
From an early age I questioned some of my church’s teachings on gender roles. Like the teachings of apartheid (which were enshrined in some church beliefs in South Africa), I have wondered whether they are consistent with God’s character. I grew up in a world that believed people of color are less intelligent, less worthy and less sophisticated than white people. Similarly women were less logical, less able and less suited to a leadership position. My own household was an exception to this, which is probably one of the reasons I began questioning the status quo at such an early age.
As I read about and studied equality, I began to understand God is not a God of stereotypes and discrimination. It is only after the fall that gender stereotyping and discrimination became a part of human existence (Genesis 3:14-17) and since then, like racial discrimination, it has become so much a part of our lives that many of us hardly question it.
What is a Biblical Marriage?
One thing I noticed was that the “biblical” pattern for marriage, which some churches promoted, didn’t seem to be working. The fact that the divorce rates were the same for both Christian and secular marriages troubled me. It amazed me that people failed to see that the attempted cure of hierarchical marriage could be causing many Christian marriages to fail.
I watched women try again and again to be “good biblical wives.” Most of these women ended up feeling powerlessness, miserable and frustrated. These feelings drove some women to resort to emotional and sexual manipulation in an attempt to restore some sort of balance in the marriage.
Meanwhile, the husbands carried the unfair burden of total responsibility for the marriage -- the emotions of his wife, their spiritual lives and often the finances. Sometimes they felt cramped by overly clingy and emotional women, and the only escapes were male friendships and sports, or even worse, affairs.
Women with wisdom, leadership skills and the ability to earn money ended up frustrated and unfulfilled. Many of them looked increasingly toward their husbands to fill their emotional and spiritual needs rather than to their Creator. Is this what God had in mind when he took a rib from Adam and crafted it into a helper suitable for him?
Stifling Women in the Church
In the workplace I was lucky enough to work for an encouraging, non-prejudiced employer and I was able to excel, eventually being appointed to a senior position. But in my church I found that I was regarded as my husband’s helper, not worthy of a leadership position simply because of my gender. I was also stereotyped with all the usual labels: emotional, unstable, weak, illogical and incapable.
I began to question the logic behind the suppression of women in ministry. Why was it OK for women to plant churches, sometimes in very difficult circumstances, only to have them taken away when they got “too big” and needed to be “properly led” by a man? When does a church become too big to be led by a woman?
For that matter, why was it OK for a woman to lead a cell group but not a church? Wasn’t the “elect lady” of 2 John 1 the leader of a house church, which was in fact “the church” of that area? John, the “elder” who led a house church did not write to the “elders” or other male leaders of this house church but to her, the person responsible for orthodoxy in the house church. Wouldn’t she therefore have been responsible for exercising authority in the church?
I also discovered churches with existing female leaders were regarded as being in error. As far as I could see these women appeared to be doing a good job and their churches were benefiting from their service. It was also OK for a pastor’s wife to be the most dynamic and anointed of the couple and for all intents and purposes be informally leading the church, as long as she was “under his covering.”
I also pondered our church’s decision to appoint female apostles while denying them the authority accorded apostles in the Bible. I still can’t find any biblical support for this. In my mind it was simple, if God did not mean for these women to be in leadership, he wouldn’t have anointed them with such awesome abilities and he wouldn’t be so abundantly blessing their ministries.
I noted with sadness that at our local prayer gathering of churches in our city, there were Catholic ministers, Methodists, Anglicans, Pentecostals and Baptists, but not one woman! We have managed to put the denominational stereotypes aside for the higher goal of unified prayer, but we still balk at inviting a woman to lead at this forum.
Fortunately, I have found a church that has had the courage to break away from traditional stereotypes. In this church, I’ve found a new refreshing and enabling home, but many of the women in my country are not so fortunate.
A Call to South Africa
I look at our country and all that it’s suffered because of racial prejudice. Today, almost 10 years after we’ve been set free from a prejudiced government, we still reap the pain of that sin. We have one of the highest rates of HIV in the world. We have poor education and poverty. We still approach each other with great caution as we battle stereotypes and struggle for true unity.
I wonder if God grieves at the way men and women of God are treating each other. As we tell one of our sisters in Christ that she must suppress her God-given gift of leadership or look down on a brother for not “putting his wife in her place,” we swap the awesome creativity of God for stereotypes. I fear our actions today will continue to stunt the church and its people for years to come.
I want to issue a wake-up call to the church in South Africa. Some of you have embraced true biblical equality and are living the amazing liberty that this brings. But many hold to the tradition of hierarchy among the genders, much like we did years ago when we limited others because of their race. How can we stand as examples to unbelievers when we practice ungodly discrimination in our churches?
Don Rouso, pastor of Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Alberta, Canada, said, “Women, I have a prophetic Word for you. The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the oppressed, and proclaim release to the captives. You have been held captive in the church. You have been restrained and in many ways disqualified from public ministry. I know, because I co-operated in that restraining process thinking I was right to do so. By his Word and Spirit, God has radically changed my thinking and set me free…. It’s time to hear the Lord saying release my captive daughters to do my will.”