If it wasn’t quite so tragic a conversation, it could have been the plot of some quirky, off-beat, comedy-of-errors sitcom, or an early burlesque comedy sketch.
Several years ago, I was in a men’s Bible study group at the church I attended. It was a small group of about twelve to fifteen men, mostly middle aged, mostly white. We had a lengthy discussion regarding the biblical characteristics of manhood and how Christian men were to conduct themselves in a fallen world.
Our discussion was thick, heavy, and sublime. We debated. We examined. We discussed. We threw down well-worn adjectives used to describe Christian manhood like they were trump cards in a spades or euchre game: Provider. Protector. Strong. Rugged. Virile. Confident. Control.
While it was a weighty and wide-ranging discussion, I noticed that we didn’t spend much time discussing how manhood intersects with issues like oppression, equality, or women’s rights. In fact, in that seventy-five-minute discussion I don’t ever remember hearing the words woman, women, or patriarchy uttered at all.
As the discussion wrapped up, the discussion leader asked if we had any lingering questions. I took that comment as an invitation to ask questions about the missing topics.
“Perhaps, next time maybe we can talk about preventing assault or the role of women in the church,” I mentioned.
The study leader looked at me, puzzled, and responded, “But, this is men’s group.”
“Yeah. Those issues are all men’s issues as they intersect with manhood and our responsibility as men,” I explained.
He looked up toward the ceiling as if he was waiting for it to cave in. “Uh, but this is men’s group.”
The difficulties women face in this country are so pervasive and long-standing that we should know them by heart and be able to recite them from memory the way we recite state capitals or edited portions of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
One difficulty is the lack of women in positions of power. Women are either completely missing from or woefully underrepresented in corporations, on the bench, and in elected positions around the country. We know that when women are not in leadership positions in this country, their rich, diverse, and valuable perspectives are left out of the decision-making calculus, and we all suffer as a result.
Women also find it difficult to have safety and agency over their own bodies. In the United States, one in three women has experienced intimate partner violence,1 and one in six has experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.2 Women cannot walk to their car after work or take the trash out at night without fearing for their safety.
But nowhere are the disparities and difficulties women face felt more acutely than in the church. In the Christian church, while women comprise between 54 and 58 percent of Protestant congregations,3 under 10 percent of all senior pastors are women.4
What is more, women in churches find it difficult to express and exert agency over their own bodies and destinies. All too often, we are still prooftexting the apostle Paul’s letters to perpetuate an oppressive theology to women that calls on them to “submit” to men and keep silent in church.
In the twenty-first century, it is not difficult for some men to acknowledge that women are treated differently inside and outside the church, simply because they are women. We can readily see the embarrassing statistics and hear the stories of women through their collective voice.
However, like the Bible study leader I encountered, many men still find it difficult to see how the oppression and disparate treatment of women in this society has anything to do with them.
“But, this is men’s group.”
But, the condition and treatment of women in this society has everything to do with men. Women are not denying each other opportunities for leadership, oppressing their own agency, and paying themselves less simply because they are women. Men and a male-centered culture do that. What is more, the research now indicates that societies that oppress women and treat them badly are less stable and less wealthy.5
This article is from “The State of Women’s Equality,” the Winter 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.
1. “Statistics,” NCADV.
2. “Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics,” RAINN.
3. “Gender Distribution of Religious Groups in the United States in 2017, By Faith Tradition,” Statista Research Department, 15 January 2021.
4. Scott Thuma, Twenty Years of Congregational Change: The 2020 Faith Communities Today Overview (Hartford: Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2021).
5. “Societies that Treat Women Badly Are Poorer and Less Stable,” The Economist, 11 September 2021.
6. Carl A. Grant, James Baldwin and the American Schoolhouse (New York: Routledge, 2021), 26.