Because attitudes and actions begin as an idea, Paul reminds us to “take every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). What have been the attitudes and actions that have resulted from the church’s teachings on male-only authority? Few Christians today deny the equal value of females, yet when Scripture is used to justify the unilateral submission of females to males, it is hard to avoid the conclusion (conscious or unconscious) that females are less valuable and are even inferior to males. To require male authority throughout the whole of life not only devalues females, but it also places them in positions of dependence and vulnerability. To exclude women from positions of decision-making in their lives and in the lives of their children also places far too many at risk for abuse. For this reason, abuse is often an unavoidable issue in churches and Christian communities because biblical ideas regarding authority and gender have daily consequences.
From its incorporation, Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) has endeavored to understand why so many Christian women have encountered abuse, and how the church might respond. Our first president, Catherine Clark Kroeger, vigorously addressed abuse through CBE conferences and publications. When she retired from CBE in 1995, Catherine went on to become founder and president of Peace and Safety in the Christian Home, a nonprofit organization that provides resources to individuals, churches, and secular groups. Almost immediately after accepting the position of CBE’s second president, I too began hearing from abused women. These women had been beaten, raped, molested, and verbally and emotionally humiliated by their husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, teachers, colleagues, pastors, or other men who believed that Scripture gave them authority over females. Abused women are drawn to CBE because we challenge the biblical assumptions held by their abusers who demand submission. The prevalence of abuse is unsurprising, particularly when it comes from the extreme patriarchal branch of the church (learn more about these accounts in No Will of My Own: How Patriarchy Smothers Female Dignity and Personhood by Jon Zens and Quivering Daughters: Hope and Healing for the Daughters of Patriarchy by Hillary McFarland).
Ideas have consequences, and patriarchal teachings have been circulating within the evangelical movement for decades. Held in the largest auditoriums around the country, Christians spent weekends in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s receiving training from leaders like Bill Gothard on many topics, including gender relations. As the diagram suggests, these seminars taught that God often uses males to shape the character of females. The hammer and chisel represent God’s instituted authority, such as the government, parents, bosses, pastors, and husbands. The teaching asserts that God uses a husband’s authority to sanctify his wife—imaged as a diamond in the rough. Therefore, submitting to one’s husband constitutes obedience to God. And, to oppose a husband’s authority is to oppose God’s work in a woman’s life. But what about marriages that are abusive? Women have been discouraged from divorce, even in the case of abuse, because male authority is viewed as integral to a woman’s relationship with God. I have spoken with women who were told as much by their pastors.
Consider a conversation I had with a woman whom we’ll call Zoey. She had been a proponent of male authority and attended, at one time, a church well known for its hierarchical teachings. But, she decided to leave the church and Christian faith because her husband was abusive. She said:
My husband could do or say whatever he wanted, with the understanding that I would be submissive. Whether he treats me right or not was not the issue. The issue was I needed to obey him, and to do so was to obey God…Even if he is not right, he is still in authority. To obey my husband was synonymous with obeying God…I told my pastor [about the abuse] but he said if you leave this man, you are denying Christ.
To require passivity or the abandonment of volition in becoming holy was referred to as Quietism, a perspective that was condemned by the Catholic Church in the seventeenth century and by the Protestants in the eighteenth century. Though Quietists believed that holiness could be attained without effort, through passivity and by abandoning one’s will, theologians insisted that human agency and volition are essential and God-given in promoting the physical, moral, and spiritual well-being of all believers.
Egalitarians today likewise challenge any notion that women become holy through abandoning their wills to male authority. We offer the biblical basis for the shared leadership and authority of males and females because ideas have daily consequences. Abused women not only need organizations that support their safety and recovery, and that of their children. They also need CBE’s unique ministry as it addresses flawed theological assumptions about gender that lead to devastating consequences in marriages, families, and communities. We need your help in this work. Please join in supporting CBE’s ministry so that biblical teachings on gender may have redemptive outcomes around the world. Thank you, CBE members and donors, for working beside us!