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Published Date: November 30, 2023

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The Golden Child and the Scapegoat

Editor’s note: This a CBE 2023 Writing Contest Honorable Mention!

In many dysfunctional families, like my own family of origin, one child is treated as the “golden child,” the favored child who can do no wrong, while another child is treated as the “scapegoat,” the problem child who can do no right. The hopes of the family are projected onto the golden child, but scapegoats are blamed, shamed, and rejected. Families never admit to these unhealthy role designations, lest parents be forced to face their motives for treating their children unequally. Hence, the children must either accept their roles in the family or question the roles, which is a painful process because the family continually denies that a problem exists.

I was the golden child of my family, and because of my favored status at home, I was vexed and confused by the unequal treatment of women in my role-restricting hometown church. I read through the Bible in middle school and wondered if women were indeed prohibited from teaching or pastoring the entire congregation, but since I soon felt drawn to be a physician and a writer, I was not personally affected by such rules. I was, however, bothered by forbidding called and qualified women to serve the whole church.

In my twenties, I realized how unjustly my sister had been treated in our home, and I apologized for my part in blaming her. In my thirties, I became fully disillusioned with being the golden child. I also summoned the courage to begin reading the books of egalitarian Bible scholars. These authors viewed the Bible as inspired and authoritative, and they sought to reconcile seemingly disparate views of women in the New Testament. My husband, children, and I moved our membership to a fully egalitarian church where I enjoyed co-leading or facilitating co-ed small groups and Sunday school classes. By my late forties, though, my husband became alarmed at the liberal theological drift of our congregation and switched to a church that prohibits women from being deacons or elders or from teaching co-ed groups. I knew I could never join such a fellowship and could not be complicit with a culture of partiality to males, but I struggled with our family being divided between two assemblies. Even now, with all three children out of the nest, our separate church situation causes tension.

I am now in my early fifties and teaching Sunday school at my church while visiting the worship services of my husband’s church, attending without joining, and I am struck not only by the emphasis on men in leadership but also by the heavy expectations on them to perform in the home, church, and world. The experience of being back in such close contact with a gender hierarchy has not only pressed me to get complete emotional healing from the Lord but also to see clearly what’s been going on my entire life: men are the “golden child,” and women the subtle “scapegoat” in these dysfunctional institutional families of God. And neither role is desirable. Men suffer from the higher expectations and greater pressure inflicted upon the favorite, and women suffer from being limited, marginalized, overlooked, dismissed, discounted, and disrespected. The religious powerholders egregiously misrepresent God as being the parent who ordained this unequal treatment of the sexes.

The partiality to men is not surprising in a world that worships strength and power. Males in complementarian churches are addressed from the pulpit as being held to a higher standard, are invited to serve in positions of influence from which females are restricted, and are exhorted to lead their wives in a home gender hierarchy that God supposedly established. Men are portrayed as more rational, less swayed by compassionate understanding and desire for consensus, and more likely to take a stand against the evils of our culture.

The scapegoating of women pre-dated Christianity, in the writings of Plato, Euripides, and other Greeks. Aristotle asserted that “the male is by nature better fitted to command than the female” (Pol.1259.b.2⁠–3, b.10) because man is rational and woman is irrational (Pol. 1260.a.59); man has “the courage of command and the [woman] that of subordination” (Pol. 1260.a.23⁠–24). Democritus wrote, “To be ruled by a woman is the worst insult for a man” (Saying 111). Jewish writings continued the theme, as per Philo, who said that “woman is not equal in honor with man” (QG 1.27) and Josephus, stating, “The woman, says the Law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive… for the authority has been given by God to the man-spirit” (Ag. Ap. 2.201). The blaming, shaming, and rejecting of women in these quotes are examples of scapegoating.

Christians, many of whom admired the Greek philosophers, perpetuated this toxic practice of scapegoating women; these early church fathers, reformers, and Puritans included Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, Augustine, Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, John Knox, Martin Luther, and John Dod. Origen wrote, “Men should not sit and listen to a woman… even if she says admirable things, or even saintly things, that is of little consequence, since it came from the mouth of a woman” (Fragments on I Corinthians). John Calvin wrote, “All women are born that they may acknowledge themselves as inferior in consequence to the superiority of the male sex” (Commentary on I Corinthians). Christians in our day continue to blame and shame women as though females are more easily deceived, more likely to compromise with the culture, more likely to accept or tolerate false teaching, and less likely to confront and correct errors in the church.

The complementarian denial of favoritism compounds the injury of the favoritism itself. It manifests, among other tactics, as gaslighting: Christians, all of whom are gifted with both a conscience and the indwelling Holy Spirit, are told that although we’re generally capable of routinely discerning what’s fair and what’s not, we “cannot trust our hearts,” citing Jeremiah 17:9 out of context, with regard to women’s roles in the church. God’s limits on women are inscrutable because “His ways are higher than our ways,” quoting Isaiah 55:8–9. Why we must discount our Spirit-guided conscience in the arena of restricting women when we’re never challenged to do so with other issues is never explained convincingly. Furthermore, anyone who raises legitimate concerns about role restrictions is undermined or attacked by this dysfunctional family system of complementarian Christians, a prime example of spiritual abuse.

The slippery mantra of “equal worth, separate roles” ignores what was clearly stated by the 1954 Brown versus the Board of Education Supreme Court decision that separate is inherently unequal.[1] Some complementarians more honestly admit to “equal worth but unequal roles,” but this ignores another self-evident truth: to restrict anyone from doing good (Proverbs 3:27) is to decrease their worth to their community. Role restriction limits the good that women can offer to the entire congregation, and this limits their value within the church. We’ve been distracted by the complementarian emphasis on equal value of the sexes under God (ontological value) while neglecting to notice the erosion of women’s value to and within the assembly of believers. The artificial separation of roles from value is a subversive strategy of partiality toward men that must end.

Women are less valued in a faith community that keeps them from speaking for God from His word to edify all believers, where they are told by human power holders that God Himself has restricted them, and where they are excluded from the roles worthy of “double honor” per I Timothy 5:17. Paul exhorts us in I Corinthians 12:25 to cause no division in the body of Christ, but complementarian practices create division as the assembly is told that men don’t need to benefit from women’s spiritual gifts such as teaching; this is a concrete example of I Corinthians 12:21 (“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’”).

When we responsibly interpret the individual Bible verses regarding women in the light of scriptural principles (God’s impartiality and justice, the new covenant), each passage’s unique context, and a fuller view of Scripture, we see that females are not restricted by God in their service to the Christian community. They can prophesy, pray, and “teach what is good” (Titus 2:3) to the entire church. They can speak for God alongside their Christian brothers. They have no limited or separate roles in God’s impartial kingdom. The true “separate role” of women in complementarian churches is the role of human-assigned scapegoat, not of God-ordained limited influence.

My sister and I gradually discarded our scapegoat and golden child roles to form a reciprocal friendship based on equality, and although it’s been an unfamiliar experience for us, we are making progress. I was able to stand up for her in our adult years and support her when she had to go no-contact with our problematic parent for six months. I learned to take responsibility for my own emotions rather than blame her when we had a conflict. The institutional church likewise can learn to function without these unhealthy roles, to be collegial and cooperative rather than competitive and restrictive. May the complementarian congregations stop denying their gender favoritism, repent of dividing the body of Christ, and allow male and female elders and deacons who are gifted and called by God to serve His family.

Photo by Liubovart on Shutterstock.

[1] Warren, Earl, and Supreme Court of the United States. U.S. Reports: Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294. 1954. Periodical.

Other Resources

Why Do We Blame Women When the Deck Is Already Stacked?
Growing Pains: How Complementarianism Shames Boys and Isolates Men
Uncovering and Dismantling Barriers for Women Pastors