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Gender Justice

Evangelical Initiatives in India

An important point out of which spring many of our contemporary problems in relation to gender justice is our failure to start from the right point, i.e., the glory shared equally by boys and girls and men and women of being created in the image of God, of being redeemed in Christ, and of being empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Presumably, we have all studied, argued, and reached conclusions in conferences, seminars, symposiums, etc., about gender justice in various spheres of life, namely, the home (family), the church, and the society. Nonetheless, the evangelical tradition has, by and large, remained strongly patriarchal until today, perhaps as the universal form of gender relations in the home, church, and society. This means that, in India and around the world, among other things, that source on which evangelicalism is based, mainly, is the Bible—the inspired word of God, as it has been interpreted by men who have taken on themselves the task of defining the theological, sociological, ontological, eschatological, and ecclesiological status of women. However, there has been a tremendous change, both in India and around the world, as Christians have drawn lessons despite the patriarchal pattern of gender relations, since the Bible contains examples both hierarchical (e.g., Boaz and Ruth model) and non-hierarchical (e.g., Priscilla and Aquila) of man/woman relationships, both found within its patriarchal family structure. To cite another example, women have been integrated into decision-making bodies and positions of leadership in theological institutions, local churches, etc., based on their callings, gifting, training, interests, and experience. Furthermore, the Evangelical Fellowship of India, with which I serve, has come up with a position statement and the World Evangelical Fellowship has passed a resolution at its Eleventh General Assembly in May 2001 at Kualalumpur “to stop abuse in the Church.” Through the international Task Force to Stop Abuse Against Women,1 we have launched a book entitled No Place for Abuse. Thus, conscious and consistent efforts are being made by men and women in leadership to promote gender justice in all spheres of life.

The purpose of this article is to challenge the church in India— and in all the Christian community—to facilitate mutual respect and support, edification, communication, and resources (spiritual, theological, experiential, socioeconomic, and legal) in order to work and strive for gender justice in all spheres of life and in all faith communities in our land.

First, a brief discussion will center on understanding gender justice. Second, biblical and historical foundations on gender justice will be discussed and summarized. Third, a brief description will be given of a research project that sought views from children, youth, and adults on the subject, and major findings of the research will be summarized, followed by recommendations and a conclusion.

Understanding gender justice

Generally the word sex connotes the biological differences between male and female. In contrast to the word sex, the concept gender is used to describe a cultural notion of what it is to be a man or a woman. Status, roles, and power are allocated on the basis of gender in all societies. Gender roles are shaped primarily through the process of socialization in the context of the family. Biologically, women get pregnant, give birth, and lactate, but the roles of earning a livelihood and of giving nurture and care for children and the household are socially determined, and are assigned to men in some societies.2

The term justice is commonly understood as the practice of what is right and just, as equitableness or moral rightness, as fairness and righteousness. Justice or judgment specifies what is right, not only as measured by a code of law, but also what makes for right relationships as well as harmony and peace.3

In Christian community, gender justice should advance the biblical notion that accepts and recognizes that boys and girls and men and women are created by God, redeemed by Christ, and gifted by the Holy Spirit without partiality: The concept encourages all Christians to have mutual love and respect, celebrating the truth that God loves us all the same and facilitating all to exercise their spiritual and theological gifts in the life of the churches (1 Cor. 12:4–31a). Thus, gender justice means affirming that boys and girls and men and women are created by God in God’s own image; they are valued and empowered by God as human beings. This leads us to look at and treat every person with dignity irrespective of gender, caste, color, creed, culture, language, capabilities, socioeconomic status, and nationality. Furthermore, as God has accepted us in Christ Jesus, we ought to accept one another.

Biblical and historical foundations

Justice is an attribute of God. Righteousness is included in any definition of justice. Justice is one of the important themes of the Bible, and this strand runs right through. The concept of justice in the Bible goes beyond the law courts to everyday life. The Bible speaks of creating justice, whereas we speak of getting justice, e.g., Micah 6:8 says that we should act justly and love mercy. This shows that justice is also a characteristic of human beings, as we are made in God’s image. Thus, to create justice is to maintain what is right or set things right.

Furthermore, Isaiah 30:18 speaks of the justice of God, i.e., God is interested in fairness, in showing love or compassion, which makes for right relationships. Paul uses the concept “righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17, 3:5)—an act of love that has become manifest “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:22). This is precisely the point in creating gender justice in all spheres of life. Faith plays a significant role in responding to inequalities and injustices in all walks of life. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the church in India and all over the world to make conscious efforts to promote gender justice and remove injustices being practiced within its spheres of influence.

Theological assumptions

I perceive that, in many societies in the Christian tradition, as in the Jewish and Islamic traditions, there are three theological assumptions on which man’s superiority to woman has been erected. These assumptions are based on the creation account found in Genesis 1 and 2.

  • That God’s primary creation is Adam (man), not Eve (woman). Since woman was created from man’s rib, she is derivative and secondary ontologically. This priority of creation, according to some, indicates male precedence in a hierarchy and, therefore, women are given an inferior status under male authority. In some churches in India, a woman becomes a member only through her husband and not directly as an individual. (On the other hand, some hold to the view that Eve is created out of Adam’s rib, a symbol of their mutual partnership.) • That Eve (woman), not Adam (man), was the primary agent of the fall and, therefore, “all daughters of Eve” are to be regarded with contempt. This assumption is used to limit the ministry of women in certain respects as over against the ministry of men.
  • That Eve (woman) was created for Adam (man) and, therefore, a woman’s existence is instrumental and not fundamental. This assumption that women are created as subordinate to men in order to serve and satisfy men has led to an imbalance of power that makes abuse all too easy. Violence against women is a worldwide problem that needs to be overcome with conscious efforts at all levels.

These three assumptions have contributed to a subordinationist method of biblical interpretation of some of the passages on women, such as 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, 1 Corinthians 14:33–36, and 1 Timothy 2 :11–14, and these misinterpretations have become barriers to creating gender justice in many spheres of life. However, Scripture clearly says that God created both Adam and Eve in God’s own image and held them equally responsible for the fall (Gen. 3:1–19). The Bible also affirms that all human beings have the same dignity and value in God’s sight (Gen. 1:26–27, Acts 17:25–26, James 3:9). St. Paul would not contradict such teachings, for he himself affirms the creation, redemption, and gifting at Pentecost in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 3:28.

The Bible calls for loving and responsible relationships between members of the family, with each in honor providing for the needs of the others (Rom. 12:10–16). It is the obligation of all believers to respect and honor one another and to promote each others’ wellbeing (Rom. 15:1–2, Gal. 6:2, Col. 3:11). Christ calls us to mutual submission and desires that we embody and exemplify in every aspect of our lives and relationships the transforming power of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 4:19, 5:22–23; Eph. 5:21). Therefore, the call to the church is to create a new community that Jesus inaugurated through his teaching and interactions with people.

In Christ, a new creation and a new community

St. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, says that, when anyone is united in Christ, there is a new world. The old order has gone, and the new order has already begun. Although St. Paul is talking about himself here, it is clear that his outlook has been transformed and made new by “being in Christ,” his favorite expression for a Christian. Yet, the implication is that “being in Christ” describes the status of women just as it describes the status of men in the church: being in Christ or in a community where there is unity —oneness and total acceptance of each other. St. Paul further illustrates clearly in Galatians 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (NIV)

Thus, St. Paul says that, in the new community in Christ, the imbalance of power between male and female, along with the rift of fellowship between Jew and Gentile and slave and free, all of which existed in Judaism, have all been healed in Christ. In other words, all are baptized in Christ, clothed in Christ, and, therefore, there should be no more divisions between these paired categories of people mentioned in this verse.4

It is the mission of the Christian community to live out such unity even within the complexities of its contemporary situation, which is impacted by a globalization that introduces the hierarchies of other competing religious systems. In fact, it is precisely in those complexities that the church is to demonstrate to the world this astounding reality of equality. Yet, controversy centers on how far the principle of equality is to be applied. In other words, in what configurations are we equal? As Paul makes clear, the principle of believer equality is meant for other relationships besides Jew and Gentile. For example, Paul sends the slave Onesimus to his master Philemon and requests him to consider Onesimus not as a slave, but as a dear brother (Phlm. 16).

It took about eighteen centuries for slavery to be considered wrong in the majority of countries around the globe. In fact, many evangelical women actively campaigned for the abolition of slavery in the USA and England as part of the abolitionist movement. A few of the outstanding are Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Grimke sisters, Sojourner Truth (an ex-slave), Antoinette Brown, Anne Knight, and Hannah More. Although some of them did not participate in the women’s rights movement, which was contemporary with the anti-slavery movement, it is widely recognized that evangelical Christianity was a vital force in the nineteenth century, both for the abolition of slavery and in the women’s rights movement.5

Christians today should likewise hold 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 3:28 together in drawing out implications for promoting gender justice in our context. In India, our society is multi-caste, multilingual, multi-class, multi-religious, and multi-political in nature. In such a society, “being in Christ and becoming Christ-like” defines who we are and how we are to enjoy the blessings and responsibilities equally. Thus, in Christ, the wall of divisions should be broken down (Eph. 2:13–22). Christ’s redemptive work frees us from oppressive structures and relationships. We are called to live according to the vision of the new creation, which looks forward to a day of complete reconciliation among people of all races, every social standing, and both genders. We are called to follow Paul and the earliest Christians who allowed tradition to inform them, but not confine them. Furthermore, they dealt with the causes and symptoms of gender injustices/inequalities simultaneously and with integrity. Therefore, the challenge to us is to address and deal with both causes (roots) and symptoms simultaneously, with spiritual and moral integrity. In order to meet the challenge, men and women ought to work together, and this cooperation should become viable, visible, and vital at the national level and all levels.

Major findings of the research in India

In order to explore issues related to gender justice, focus group discussions, in-depth interviews, and random interviews were conducted in different parts of the country, covering North, Northeast, Central, and South India, among Christians from different church denominations. In-depth interviews were held with leaders (both men and women); focus group discussions were held for Christian children (ages ten to twelve), youth (thirteen to twenty-one), and adults (twenty-two and above, up to seventyeight) separately; and random interviews were conducted with Christian youth and adults from different walks of life. The respondents included theologically trained men and women, students, pastors, lay leaders, married, unmarried, parents, and single parents (divorced, separated, and widowed). Most of them are from middle-class families, a few are from low income groups, and some are from wealthy families. The Evangelical Fellowship of India held a national seminar on “Empowering Widows” from October 2 –4, 2 000, in Bangalore, and some participants were interviewed during the seminar. Views were also sought at the Women’s Seminar held in Ahmedabad from October 2 7–28, 2002. The findings were grouped under three headings, namely, Gender Justice in the Home (Family), Church, and Society.

Gender justice in the home

Gender justice begins in the womb and continues until the tomb. Children develop attitudes and a mindset from parents and other members of the family. The attribute of justice is learned by observation and absorption from the childhood stage. Therefore, how we relate to one another and how we treat our sons and daughters in the family is important to our Christian discipleship. Our survey of families gathered the following observations about the nature of family relationships and the balance of power within them:

  • Family types: Most survey participants belong to nuclear or extended family types. Only four families are joint family types (clans).
  • Types of marriage: Although freedom was given to choose their life partners, most of the women interviewed preferred arranged marriages by parents, but ones about which they could make the final decision.
  • Educational qualifications: It was observed that the participating couples were equally qualified. In some cases, wives were more qualified than husbands, but also vice versa. Unmarried women were also well qualified, and one of the reasons that they remained unmarried is that they could not find compatible partners.
  • Marital status: Most of them are happily married and settled. In the case of the ones who are separated and divorced, it was observed that the wives were both more and less educationally qualified than their husbands.
  • Widows: A few young widows expressed their desire to marry again, but their families and churches were not supporting them.
  • Discrimination: It was observed that a few parents favor sons and do not treat daughters well. It was also observed that they ill-treat daughters-in-law and their relations. Furthermore, they expect their daughters-in-law to give birth to sons only.
  • Abuse in marriage: A few women are in abusive situations where physical abuse is prevalent.
  • Sex workers: Only one family testified that their daughter-in-law was once a sex worker (prostitute) and is now a disciple of Jesus Christ.
  • Most of the respondents observed that gender justice is seen more in Christian families than in families in other faith communities.

It was noted that most of those interviewed explained that systematic teaching of God’s word in the church, daily family prayer, personal Bible study and prayer, and the experience of fellowship groups and church-related organizations have been helpful in exercising gender justice and putting off prejudices and old practices that are not building up people in the family. These families themselves have been reaching out to the people in their neighborhoods with the transforming love of Jesus Christ and have been instrumental in helping them to accept girl and boy children as God’s gifts.

Gender justice in the church

It was expressed that, when the child is taken to the church first for churching or infant baptism or dedication, one of the questions generally asked by members is, “Oh, you had a daughter again?’’ The next comment is, “I hope God gives you a son next time.” Another common comment is, “Oh, you will have a problem finding a bridegroom for her, because she is dark and does not have sharp features.” On the other hand, many parents explained that they accept God’s will, whether son or daughter, normal or abnormal child.

Regarding the role of men and women in the church, some participants noted that women are not fully accepted and given their rightful place, even after completing their theological studies. Women do not have the same rights and privileges as men who are equally qualified. Most of the time they are given assisting roles, but much main work is extracted from them. For example, a woman is often made the associate pastor, but she is expected to do the work of the pastor. She is expected to be ready to deliver a sermon whenever asked, and she is expected to do well.

Generally, it was observed that, although women play key parts in the ministry and mission of the church, their contributions are not recognized properly. Furthermore, many Christian organizations and mission bodies give the impression that they are male organizations or male-dominated. Women are not integrated into decision-making bodies or chosen as main speakers in a national mixed-gender convention, conference, or assembly. This clearly shows that biblical teachings are not fully understood and applied to real-life situations.

On the other hand, it was noted that men and women in local churches (rural and urban) are equally encouraged to do theological education by extension through TAFTEE (The Association for Theological Education by Extension) and other organizations. They are doing certificate- and bachelor-level programs.

Women respondents explained that patriarchy is a universal form of gender relations that cannot be ignored or often removed. They feel that it is a challenge to accept the situation, become proactive, and make a difference within that structure by following Jesus’ role model. They also explained that God changes people and situations through intercessory prayer. The following suggestions were given:

  • More networks of men and women working together need to be created.
  • Leadership development seminars for youth and adults are the need of the hour.
  • Systematic discipling is needed for children, youth, and adults.
  • The church has to revisit its teachings on gender justice from time to time.

Gender justice in society

When gender justice is practiced in the home and family, it affects society.

• Among the respondents, there were seven gynecologists who shared how they make use of mass media—radio, television, and newspapers—in order to influence parents of all faith communities to accept daughters and not to abort female fetuses (foeticide).

• It was also observed that the church in India has not produced outstanding ambassadors, politicians, etc., except for a very few.

• Continuous training is needed to address causes and symptoms of gender injustice at all levels.

Recommendations for the way forward

In view of the above findings, the following recommendations are made for further reflection and action:

  • That the church (vigorously and consistently) ought to address inequalities, injustices, and situations of abuse within its own community.
  • That Christians must refuse to condone infanticide, female foeticide, child abuse, polygamy, the sex trade (prostitution), sex trafficking, and rape.
  • That a national task force of women and men be formed to address the issues related to gender justice and stop violence against girls (children) and women.
  • That a national forum of Christian women be formed to address legal issues related to girls and women.
  • That the church in India prepare/produce ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, etc.
  • That the church in India strengthen its educational ministry in every local church and bring about a change of attitudes for the better in order to help congregations to have a mindset that is in line with biblical teachings.
  • That special seminars be conducted on the subject of gender justice in all theological educational institutions in order to equip parish priests, pastors, and others.
  • That the church in India continue to be an agent of healing and reconciliation.

Conclusion

Thus, in Christ, we are a new creation and a new community. In this community, women and men will work together to remove obstacles in the way of their full participation. We will pool resources, be innovative and creative, learn from one another, and support one another to restore the dignity of those who are marginalized in the society. In Christ, let us encourage one another to share the dynamic of the Holy Spirit to change the world.

Notes

  1. Online at www.abuseofwomen.org.
  2. Lalrinawmi Robinson Ralte, Florence Scott, and Corinne Vasanthkumar, eds., Envisioning a New Heaven and a New Earth (Nirmala: NCCI/SPCK, 1998), 284.
  3. E. Leelavathi Manasseh, “In Christ a New Creation and a New Community,” in Envisioning a New Heaven and a New Earth, ed. Ralte et al., 141.
  4. Manasseh, “In Christ a New Creation and a New Community,” 160.
  5. Elaine Storkey, What Is Right with Feminism? (London: SPCK, 1985), 141–44.

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