The best pastors I know have this uncanny ability to speak words which directly apply to what you are going through in life. It is as though they have insight into your soul.
This, I believe, is one way God’s spirit moves.
And when it happens, you are left reeling, open, vulnerable... seen.
I haven’t shared much about this on my blog, but my son was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago.
Throughout the grueling treatment process, a few wonderful pastors walked by our side.
When our son first received his diagnosis, one of the pastors sent us the following message:
“The main thing we’re going to do for now is: we’re going to keep getting together [...] on Sunday nights to sing and pray and listen to Jesus. We’re going to keep refilling our reserves of faith, hope, and love. And you will know, whatever is going on in your family life, in the hospital or elsewhere, that there is this little group of people clinging stubbornly to faith, singing in the dark, even if you can’t on any particular day.”
Somehow, these were the exact words we needed to hear.
After our son’s cancer treatments ended, we began attending this church. The pastor regularly greeted us with hugs and tear-filled eyes.
Throughout our time there, we have been blessed, nourished, filled and challenged by every message preached.
This pastor is a Reverend and a a Doctor, and I can honestly say she is a wise, intelligent and eloquent pastor who listens to the spirit’s voice.
If I believed women shouldn’t be pastors I would be missing out on so many blessings.
This leads to my first big thought...
Perhaps you are “happily” settled within your own personal belief framework, confident women shouldn’t preach, happy with your male pastor.
You may be wondering, “What’s the big deal?”
Why should we spend our precious time trying to figure out whether or not women can preach?
Why Is It So Important To Figure Out What Women’s Roles In The Church Ought To Be?
Well, for me, the answer is obvious: it matters to me because I’m a woman.
I remember a time in my life when I thought women should not preach. An elder in my church (a man) asked whether or not it bothered me that God was always referred to as a man and never as a woman, though God is not gendered.
At the time, I had no answer. I never seriously considered the question. But the query stuck, and I am so glad it did.
Because God says these things about godself:
“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Hosea 11:3-4
“Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…” Hosea 13:8
“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Isaiah 66:13
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Isaiah 49:15
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Matthew 23:37
Who better to help us understand the heart of God portrayed by these metaphors than a woman?
Men (and women) are missing out if they do not hear women interpret the Bible through their unique lens.
As evangelist, feminist and abolitionist Sojourner Truth famously wrote in her speech “Ain’t I A Woman?”:
“Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him! If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn this world upside down all alone [sic] together women ought to be able to turn it rightside up again. And now they are asking to do it, and the men better let ‘em.”
The issue of a woman’s role in the church— Can she lead? Can she preach? Can she pastor? — is so so important, friends.
It is important to our full understanding of God.
It is important because the church is missing out on so many wise and powerful voices in not hearing from women: https://carolyncustisjames.com/half-the-church/.
It is important because women are equal to men in every way.
It is important because many women experience a pastoral calling, and ought to be leaning into that calling.
Now, before anyone stops me with some choice Bible verses claiming, “But the Bible says women can’t preach!!!”, let me point out some incredible women the Bible extols.
Wise, Strong, Brave: Women In The Bible…
These are just a few of the many women the Bible extols.
Of course, I have heard alternate interpretations for these stories.
I have heard Deborah led because there were no men available to lead.
I’ve heard that Junia was really a guy named Junius.
In the end, we all bring our own point of view to the biblical text.
If we are certain the Bible has a patriarchal agenda and that women should not teach men, then we will be quick to explain away the stories of Deborah and Mary (at Jesus’ feet).
If we believe God created men and women as equals, then we will see in these texts an incredible precedent for women in spiritual leadership.
After you read the Bible and read who God is throughout, what do you think is the best interpretation?
I see God as loving.
I see God as a God who rejects any kind of human hierarchy, whether based on gender, wealth or intelligence.
Therefore, I believe God wants women to lead in the church if they are so called.
10 Reasons I Disagree With The “Women Can’t Pastor” Interpretation Of The Bible.
As I was pondering women in the church, a thought took my breath away: when God told Mary she would have a child out of wedlock, God appeared to her, not to her father or even her future husband.
God wanted to know if Mary was willing to bear a child out of wedlock and carry the shame which would accompany such an affair.
God gave Mary choice over her own body.
God spoke DIRECTLY TO MARY.
And this was at a time when the entire world (it seems) was patriarchal.
If there is any doubt God communicates directly with women, look no further than the story of Mary.
God did not tell Mary, “your future husband will protect you” or “your dad will protect you”.
Instead, God let Mary stand on her own two feet. This communicates a confidence in Mary, in her strength, her dignity, her courage and wit.
After God spoke to Mary and Mary said "Yes!" to God's request, she penned the following words:
My soul lifts up the Lord!
My spirit celebrates God, my Liberator!
For though I’m God’s humble servant,
God has noticed me.
Now and forever,
I will be considered blessed by all generations.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
holy is God’s name!
From generation to generation,
God’s lovingkindness endures
for those who revere Him.
God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds.
The proud in mind and heart,
God has sent away in disarray.
The rulers from their high positions of power,
God has brought down low.
And those who were humble and lowly,
God has elevated with dignity.
The hungry—God has filled with fine food.
The rich—God has dismissed with nothing in their hands.
To Israel, God’s servant,
God has given help,
As promised to our ancestors,
remembering Abraham and his descendants in mercy forever.
As I read the final stanza of Mary's poem, I cannot help but see prophecy in her words.
Mary responded to God's call upon her and heard God's voice. She was filled with gratitude and words of spiritual wisdom and insight.
Now it is time for us women of faith to do likewise: listen to God's voice, follow God's call upon our lives, do God's work with courage and dignity.
"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."
It was 1996, and I was a fourteen year old living in South America.
The sordid story of Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton took a few extra weeks to reach my ears, but its scandalous nature did not fail to impress me.
My mom has since shared with me that when she had conversations about this topic with her Venezuelan friends, they couldn’t understand why Americans were so shocked their president would have an affair.
You see, In Venezuelan culture, politicians engaging in extra-marital affairs is nothing scandalous; in fact, it is to be expected.
We are all influenced by our cultures, aren’t we?
We are scandalized by what our culture says is taboo.
We accept that which our culture says is acceptable.
And as a whole, our American society frowns upon promiscuous behavior, especially that of leaders. They are expected to live by the highest of standards.
At the same time, our society also seems pretty obsessed with sex (just look at the magazine headlines in the checkout line).
Christianity, which forms a fairly large subculture in our country, also elevates sex, with the stipulation that sex should only be engaged in within the confines of marriage.
I went to a small Christian college. I remember discussing sex with my girlfriends at length, and I remember dreaming about one day being married and having sex.
I remember how my wedding felt like the ticket I needed to finally have sex.
I remember feeling like life was ironic… how could one little ceremony make something which was SO NOT OKAY suddenly be good?
Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers summarizes our cultural issues with sexuality well:
“On one side, we have the religious right that espouses abstinence only ‘education’ (which in essence means no human sexuality education-- only a message of ‘no sex before marriage’).
On the other side, we have the world’s largest grossing porn industry and perhaps one of the most promiscuous recreational sex cultures in the western world.
Ours is a confused sexual culture. One minute we say sex is a sacred act and the next minute we say for the right price, sex and people are for sale – no strings attached.
No wonder I hear so many people speak of feeling isolated when they are caught in between these extremes! They long to be deeply touched-- known.”
Last week, I looked at the evangelical purity movement, both its causes and its effects.
I finished my post with a few questions:
As I pondered these questions, it struck me how much we are what we believe.
And what we believe about sex and sexuality affects both the way we experience sex and our attitudes about sex.
The first question I ended my last post with was, “Could feminism’s emphasis on sexual equality and Christianity’s focus on loving others as you love yourself be good bedfellows?”
Love Others as You Love Yourself: How Feminism’s Emphasis on Sex Positivity Fits with Faith
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”
And what do feminists say?
A term used by some feminists to describe a feminist’s attitude towards sex is “sex positivity”.
The Colorado State University's Women and Gender Advocacy Center describes sex positivity this way: “As a broad ideology and world view, sex positivity is simply the idea that all sex, as long as it is healthy and explicitly consensual, is a positive thing.”
Some folks claim sex positivity frees people to go out and have sex all the time, with whomever they wish, even children or, or, animals.
However, a closer look at the definition of sex positivity reveals a sexual boundary: “[...] as long as it is healthy and explicitly consensual [...].”
The Cambridge Dictionary defines consensual as meaning, “with the willing agreement of all the people involved”.
Synonyms and words related to consensual include “accord”, “allow”, “go along with”, and “informed consent”.
You really can’t go wrong with advocating for sex positivity while including the caveat that sex should be both consensual and about “loving your neighbor as you love yourself”.
What a great “check” for us to use when exploring our own sexuality.
Rachel Held Evans wrote a thought-provoking article called "Sex and the Path of Holiness". In it, she challenged us to think more about doing justice for people than about judging ourselves or others for "losing our purity".
She included an important exhortation in her post:
“But I want folks to know that abandoning the painful and destructive narrative that a single sexual encounter can ‘ruin’ a person or make her unworthy of love doesn’t mean swinging to the opposite extreme to endorse an anything-goes sexual ethic.”
Again, what a wonderful moral compass we have in the mandate to love others as we love ourselves.
Later in the same article, Held Evans shares quotes from a blog post on the topic of purity by blogger Jamie Wright.
In the post, Wright shares how both the shame-inducing purity movement and the “anything goes” attitude are destructive.
She tells how, in her younger years, she believed sex was a tool she could wield to get what she wanted:
“I believed that sex was the best thing I had to offer the world. It was the only thing about me worth loving. And I learned, too young, that I could leverage sex to get what I wanted. My female parts had become my greatest asset.”
Going back to those proverbial magazines-by-the-checkout...aren’t so many of them selling men and women that very message?
Wright goes on to share an equally harmful message she received from her church: because she had engaged in sex before marriage, she was irrevocably damaged.
She summarizes the two messages she believed with these words:
“The first comes from our culture, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage isn’t a big deal.
The second is from the Church, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage is the biggest deal of all the deals ever.
One allowed me to give it away freely, convinced I would carry no burden. The other forced me to carry a spirit crushing load.”
Wright finished her article, which was ultimately about what she wanted her teenage sons to know about sex, thus:
“Do I want my boys to wait? Absolutely. And they know it! But I refuse to tie their value as a human being to their junk like a shiny red balloon.
I want them to know that sex is sacred. And I want them to believe that it matters. I hope they will esteem the bodies of the girls in their lives, as they hold their own bodies to the same high standard.
But I also want them to understand that the kind of sexual purity the Bible calls us to doesn’t begin or end with Virginity – It’s way bigger than that. It’s way more significant. And it’s way harder to hold on to.”
In conclusion, let’s combine sex positivity with one of our highest mandates as people of faith, “Love others as you love yourself”.
Then, let’s take it one step further, remembering our highest mandate:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
What if we embraced the feminist notion that both our bodies and sex are good?
What if we refused to worship “having sex” as the god which would solve all our loneliness/emptiness/shame problems?
What if we approached sex with thankfulness to God?
What if loving others was just as important as loving ourselves?
We may not end up with any stringent sexual rules; instead, we’d have something better. We’d have wisdom guiding our decision making .
In the end, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, would it?
Since Sex is Good, How Do We, As Feminists Of Faith, Develop A Healthy Sexual Ethic?
When Christians who promote the purity movement harp on purity (no sex until marriage) as “God’s way”, I chuckle.
The Bible seems to be at odds with its own self on this topic.
Pastor and scholar Jennifer Wright Knust wrote an article entitled, “Five Things the Church Gets Wrong About Sex” for the blog “news and pews”.
In the article, she stated, “It is simply not the case that the Bible speaks with one voice about anything, let alone sex, and to say that it does is disingenuous at best.”
You have probably heard many of the Bible verses which are used to support sex within marriage only.
Here are a few: Hebrews 13: 4, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, Proverbs 5:8-9,1 Cor. 6:18-20.
As you read them, you may be surprised to see that while these verses address adultery and lust, they do not directly say, “no sex until marriage”.
Here are a few examples of why the topic of sex and the Bible is complicated:
Where do these very different Bible mandates and stories leave us, then?
As Knust points out, “[...] I have discovered, the Bible is a treasure trove of fascinating stories and teachings about sexuality and desire. It is not, however, a moral guidebook.”
The Bible leaves us with very few explicit commands. Instead, it gives us both freedom and wisdom.
So throw out the purity movement’s fear-inducing shame-message, and embrace the ethic of loving God and loving others as you love yourself.
And if you are wondering where to go from there, Dr. Schermer Sellers offers an excellent list of 12 beliefs essential to a healthy sexual ethic at the end of this post: https://www.tinaschermersellers.com/post/testing-the-title.
To sum it all up, in Dr. Schermer Seller’s words:
“Well, this might sound too simplistic, but the way I like to think about it is that the way that we are in relationship with our sexuality with our desire, it needs to honor us. It needs to first it needs to honor us. It needs to honor God if we have a relationship with God and that’s important to us. Then, if we are in relationship with another, it needs to honor the other. If it’s not doing that, then it’s not serving love. That’s really the purpose. It to serve love. That’s where it becomes generative. That’s where it grows. If it’s self serving, it’s going to fall flat at the least and be hurtful at the most, right?”
(Read the full podcast/interview transcript here: http://shamelessthebook.com/tina-schermer-sellers/)
When I first began to breathe the fresh air of freedom from shame and fear, I felt happy, but I also wondered how I could truly become free?
You can’t just tell yourself, “Ok, you’re free. Enjoy sex. No more shame.”
Our bodies aren’t wired that way.
Even when our mind changes about something, our bodies and emotions can still be triggered by shaming messages.
Which leads to the question:
How Do Those Of Us Who Have Been Hurt By The Purity Movement Recover Our Sexuality?
As I’ve shared, I have slowly been gaining sexual freedom.
I no longer feel ashamed of “fun sex”.
I have begun to embrace myself as a sexual being. I now see that BOTH my husband and I should be enjoying pleasure.
I see sex as a gift and not as a chore.
And hugely instrumental in my sexual freedom-fest was the book, Come As You Are.
This interview transcript provides an excellent overview of the key concepts in the book, which will, I hope, whet your appetite: https://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2015/03/12/emily-nagoski.
If you read the book in its entirety, I genuinely believe it will revolutionize your sex life.
Here are a few key ways it has helped me:
So what are you waiting for, friend? Go out and buy the book!
In so many ways, writing is the best therapy.
I have been learning and learning through my study of faith and feminism and all that good shit in between. Thanks, friends, for coming on this journey with me.
So far, we have examined women’s freedom in every sector except one: a woman’s role in the church!
Tune in next week for an exploration of this incredibly important facet of faith and feminism as I wrap up the series.
My body is mine, and mine alone.
I can say no, or I can say yes.
I deserve to experience pleasure.
I am beautiful.
For a girl (me) who thought it was her duty to give her body to her spouse, no matter how she felt, this new mantra is huge.
I used to think men’s sexual appetites were so massive that if wives didn’t satisfy them, husbands would have to find something or someone else to satiate their hunger.
This meant that if a husband was addicted to pornography, it was his wife’s fault.
If a man had an affair, it was his wife’s fault.
And if a husband was feeling unloved or sad, it was his wife’s duty to “comfort” him.
I am sure you can see how patriarchal and stereotypical this way of thinking is.
Not only does this leave women feeling trapped and used, it also shortchanges men: they could have wives who actually enjoy sex instead of wives who are having sex out of duty.
I grew up when the Evangelical Purity Movement was in full swing.
Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers, a sex therapist, has spent many years exploring the harmful effects of the purity movement.
She explains that, because the purity movement included elements of shame, silence and fear, people who have been exposed to the movement display the same symptoms as victims of sexual trauma:
“This combination of Fear, Shame, and Silence wrapped in a religious context of 'This is of God' is what produces religious sexual shame that can manifest as symptoms of childhood sexual abuse in adults.
The Purity Movement delivered this in spades … and we have a generation of young adults now trying to heal from levels of shame, depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunction unlike we have seen in recent history.”
The purity movement appears to have begun as a reaction to the sexual revolution of the 60’s, which was a result of the feminist movement.
As feminists were asserting women's equality in the work place and in politics, they also began advocating for women's sexual equality.
According to a PBS article entitled "The Pill and the Sexual Revolution", “At the core of the sexual revolution was the concept -- radical at the time -- that women, just like men, enjoyed sex and had sexual needs.”
Feminists in the 60’s advocated especially for the sexual empowerment of unmarried women. They advised women to use birth control and be free.
Whereas, prior to this time, society emphasized the importance of “virginity and marriage”, now society celebrated the “single life and sexual exploration”. (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pill-and-sexual-revolution/)
You can imagine how terrifying this was for Christians, who were concerned about sexual promiscuity.
Even before the sexual revolution of the 60’s, Christians placed a great deal of emphasis on women’s sexual purity (aka-be a virgin until marriage, be modest, etc).
How then, should they respond to this increased sexual freedom for women?
Christians apparently felt they needed to affirm sex as pleasurable while also admonishing young people not to engage in sex outside of marriage.
As a teenager, I remember giggling while listening to the song, “I Don’t Want It” by DC Talk.
It was so scandalous; were they really spelling “S-E-X” in a catchy Christian song?!?
Give the song a listen: https://youtu.be/KEpZd6jqmuQ.
Though I enjoyed the song as a teen, now it makes me feel angry:
A message I received from this song was that girls can really lead guys astray with sexual tempation.
I also understood that good guys ought to stand strong because “God has set his standard higher Purity is his desire”.
My question now is, "What is God's purity standard?" I'm not convinced it is what DC Talk hinted at in that song...
I distinctly remember, after listening to the song, feeling hyper conscious about what I was wearing around guys. Was I unintentionally begging them to have sex with me?
Couched in the words of this song is the promise that if you wait until you are married to have sex, then sex will be really really good: “And trust that God will give us something better if we wait.”
In other words, delay your passion until you are married; it will be worth it.
As a young teenager secretly fantasizing about sex and boys, I took this message to heart.
After all, who wouldn't want fabulous sex?
While Christian singers in the 1990’s and 2000’s were putting out songs emphasizing the glories of sex after marriage and the pitfalls of sex before marriage, numerous Christian organizations were promoting the same messages in a variety of ways: through promise rings, True Love Waits conventions, father-daughter dances and an increasing emphasis on courtship over dating and delaying kissing until marriage (I Kissed Dating Goodbye).
Once again, I feel lucky my parents never encouraged me to become involved in any of these movements.
In spite of that fact, I absorbed its basic tenets: sex outside of marriage was bad; if I waited for marriage, sex would be wonderful; girls ought to be modest lest they lead guys astray.
I remember hearing that if you were sexually promiscuous before marriage, you would bring all of your former partners into the marriage bed with you.
Joshua Harris is the author of the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He now regrets having written the book, and recently participated in a documentary about its impact as well as that of the purity movement.
The opening scene of the documentary (which was also the opening scene of his book) involves a wedding ceremony in which the groom brings all his former girlfriends with him to the ceremony.
If you want to understand both Harris's book and the purity movement in more depth, I highly recommend watching the documentary here.
I have heard of some youth groups asking girls to chew a piece of gum and then spit it out. After that, the girls were asked, “Would you give this to someone else to chew?”
The message behind this exercise? Don’t have sex with other people before marriage. If you do, you are damaged goods.
And you don’t want to offer “damaged goods” to the man you marry on your wedding day, do you?
What an incredibly shaming message!
Earlier, I shared a quote by Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers in which she shares how the purity movement used “Fear, Shame and Silence wrapped in a religious context” to encourage young people not to engage in sex before marriage.
Writer Linda Kay Klein tells her story and the stories of other women affected by the purity movement in her book PURE.
In this article by VICE, the author shares some of the stories in Klein's book. The stories are maddening. No woman should ever feel this way!
From these examples, can you see the fear, shame and silence invoked by the purity movement?
It is hard for “good Christian girls” who have been told first to dress modestly and then not to be lustful to suddenly become sexual beings once they are married.
For years, I myself felt “naughty” (shameful) after having especially enjoyable sex.
This leads to a few honest questions:
I can't wait to explore these questions next week!
Do you have personal experience with the purity movement? If so, be sure to leave a comment and tell me about it.
She leaned forward, gripping the steering wheel, heavy-footed and radiating positive energy. Every few seconds she turned to me with a new detail, “He’s so wise!”, “He keeps himself so well-groomed”, “He tells such good stories!”
— ”Have you heard the pineapple story? It’s SO good!,” interjected one of my fellow female passengers...—
Every time our chauffeur turned to me with new, glorious descriptions of the amazing keynote speaker, her pupils dilated and sparkled animatedly.
I was a young teen, and I was canister-ed in a humongous van with several other girls from my church. They were all chattering and interrupting, filling me in on the amazing things I would learn at the conference we were about to attend.
I’ve always been annoyed by “people worship”, and I was unimpressed by the flattery. However, I couldn’t help but feel curious about this “great” man everyone was going on about.
The man’s name was Bill Gothard. You can google him if you want to; you’ll find he’s not quite as loved as he once was.
It is here I must interject, red faced, that my motives were not pure; I really could have cared less about the seminar.
I had a crush on a few of the boys in our church, who happened to be brothers to some of the girls in the van, and I was trying to make a good impression.
I remember, upon entering the convention center, feeling as though the vastness of the glass-windowed lobby vacuumed up my breath.
Women roamed the halls in packs, swarming into spacious tiled bathrooms.
Most wore dresses— not cocktail dresses, mind you: hand sewn, modest dresses.
As I navigated the busy hallway, I chuckled to myself— women lined the sidewalk outside, using the convention center's one-way-glass as a mirror, combing their long hair and re-applying lipstick, unaware that everyone inside could see them.
From inside, it looked as though they were silent circus performers repeating a simple routine: comb, apply, comb, apply, comb, apply.
Upon nearing the spacious room where the conference was to be held, I veered left into a restroom; it was bizarrely hushed.
The counter was lined with women soundlessly jostling each other, craning their necks to view their reflections, applying makeup.
I wondered why everyone was so concerned with their makeup and with how they looked. We were, after all, attending a seminar to learn more about God and the Bible. (Um, well, most of us were…)
Why did our appearance matter so much?
I still remember the one fleeting moment during the conference when excitement overtook me: I was handed a pencil and an empty workbook, all my own.
Oh, how I still love new workbooks and studying and assignments!
Now, however,when I recall this seminar and that crackling new workbook, I feel sick.
I want to stomp on that workbook, rip it to shreds and burn it; it was, after all, garbage wrapped in this beautiful, terrifying paper called Religiosity.
Looking back, I’m grateful my parents did not embrace this man or his teachings.
Many of the young women who attended that conference with me were scarred for life; years later, the world learned that Bill Gothard himself (a single man) had made inappropriate sexual advances on several young women who had interned as his secretaries.
It was at this conference I was introduced to the following diagrams:
This diagram illustrates the “Umbrella of Protection”. As long as us young ladies remained under our umbrella, we were told, we would be safe from the devil. Otherwise, he would certainly have us for lunch.
This diagram juxtaposes the “godly” family structure, protected by God, against the “worldly” family structure, governed by Satan. Talk about stretching a metaphor!
One of the most chilling aspects of the second umbrella is the statement (I apologize for the blurriness) that ordering your family incorrectly “disempowers the husband”.
Now, back to my story. Although my bullshit sensors were blaring at this point, and although my parents themselves never became followers of Gothard’s teachings (thank God), I couldn’t shake the fear induced by these illustrations.
Who in their right mind would want to have that dreaded dude Satan leading his or her family?
I wish I would have known then what I know now: that this whole illustration was an example of what I call Christianized patriarchy. And patriarchy has very real and lasting effects on people.
So What Is Patriarchy?
In simplest terms, patriarchy is a system in which men rule over women.
Dictionary.com defines patriarchy as “a form of social organization in which the father is the supreme authority in the family, clan, or tribe and descent is reckoned in the male line, with the children belonging to the father's clan or tribe.”
Imagine with me for a moment what sort of cultural “needs” would lead to such a system. Why would it be important for the father to be the supreme authority in a family or tribe and for male children to inherit their father’s wealth?
Here are three detailed descriptions of patriarchy:
Most scholars agree that though patriarchy has been the basic structure for many societies, it has not always been the chief societal structure.
Remember my question earlier, about what sort of culture would benefit from patriarchy?
Not a hunter-gatherer culture, according to most scholars.
Most hunter-gatherer societies are thought to have been egalitarian: every member was equally important and job-roles were fluid.
People in hunter-gatherer societies, I’d imagine, were more concerned with having enough food to eat and surviving than with anything else.
Many would posit that hierarchical societal structures such as patriarchy emerged when societies became agrarian and began amassing wealth.
Agrarian societies needed to find ways to pass on wealth; what better way than to pass money along to other family members.
The focus on amassing wealth and passing it along family lines gave more authority and leadership capabilities to some (the wealthy) than to others.
What Are The Defining Characteristics of Patriarchal Societies/Structures?
From this short history and definition of patriarchy, what would you say are some of its defining characteristics?
My list includes: power, hierarchy, obedience to authority figures, structured living and rigid roles based on gender and age, dominance of the powerful/wealthy over the weak/poor.
Check out this series of slides, which gives an overview of patriarchy and also highlights how patriarchy manifests in a society: https://www.slideshare.net/nivi88/patriarchy-in-society.
One excellent point this slideshow makes is that patriarchy is a system which affects both men and women.
Men are hurt by patriarchy, and men can do just as much as women to open people’s eyes to the invisible patriarchal rules we follow.
For many years, my husband lived with the heavy burden that he, and he alone, ought to be the sole financial provider for our family: that was his job!
He was not allowed to pursue a career which interested him; he had to pursue a career which would provide.
Furthermore, in much of the church culture we were immersed in, “being a man” was all about speaking loudly, vying for power, jostling for authority, and being invested in sports.
My husband is quiet, sensitive and emotional. He does not desire the limelight. He is not a die-hard sports fan.
Under this patriarchal delineation of manhood, my husband wondered where he fit.
As a young woman, I also received a loud message about how to be a worthy woman, thanks to patriarchy:
It is a constant challenge for me, as a homeschool mom, to educate my son and daughters to see women as equal to men, and to know there are a myriad of ways families can be structured.
I strive to show them they don’t have to think or live according to “patriarchal” norms.
While I do stay home to educate my kids, I treat homeschooling as my job/career.
My husband and I partner on housework.
I am careful to also spend time pursuing my own interests, passions and friendships.
As you saw above, growing up, I had many friends whose parents followed Bill Gothard’s teachings.
I also had many friends and family members who did not follow Gothard, but believed women should submit to their husbands. This meant that in the event of a disagreement, a husband’s word on the matter was final.
I recall hearing a child being instructed by a parent that his parents’ words to him were essentially God’s words to him.
I also remember witnessing a child being punished because, when his father instructed him to do something, he (the child) questioned it.
He questioned what his father told him because his mother had told him something different.
The child was wondering who he was supposed to listen to. When the child queried the father about this dilemma, the child was punished severely.
This was presumably to show the child that the father’s word is always the final word.
As I have been researching patriarchy, I have come across an interesting debate over whether or not America is a patriarchy.
I have also read several online debates over whether or not the Bible is patriarchal (does it promote patriarchy?).
I think this conversation is complicated; it can't be right or fair to summarily label a society, a family, or a book as 100% patriarchal.
Cultures and systems are highly nuanced.
For example, though the family structure Gothard taught about placed fathers above all other family members, it also taught that wives had this special ability to hear a sort of cautioning wisdom from the Lord.
If a wife received this special wisdom from God, the husband was admonished to listen to her.
This gave women a great deal of power over their husbands.
I think arguing over labels distracts us from addressing real problems.
What if, instead of spending our time debating whether or not someone or something is patriarchal, we instead use the “characteristics of patriarchy” as a filter through which to run the “water” of our lives?
We ought to look at our families, churches, schools and governments and ask whether all people are being treated with equal dignity and respect, regardless of their wealth or gender.
We also ought to be asking whether or not all members of society are given equal voice and opportunity.
The Negative Consequences of Patriarchy
Some would wonder why I am making such a big deal about patriarchy.
After all, compared with much of the rest of the world, we American folks (especially us white middle class folks) have SO MUCH.
I have a friend who immigrated from Venezuela to Colombia. Her major life concern right now is figuring out how to get dinner on the table for her two growing boys.
Yet, I believe this conversation is important: it is in questioning and dismantling unjust systems that we begin to help this hurting world— the world needs empowered women.
Let’s apply the “filter of patriarchy” to our modern lives. Where do we see patriarchy at play?
Though I have recently seen some magazines and TV ads promoting a more positive view of women, many headlines and commercials for women are all about how to make a man happy (often by becoming prettier and slimmer).
Here are four examples:
-From Cosmopolitan: “4 Words That Seduce Any Man. Any Time.”
-Also from Cosmopolitan: “Times He Wants You To Be Jealous”
-From Woman’s World: “10 Years Thinner”
-Also from Woman’s World: “Lose up to 130 Pounds”
Do you see how these ads are all about helping women become more desirable?
What a harmful message we are sending women when we tell them their value lies in their appeal!
Something makes me think this is the message the women at the Gothard conference I attended were receiving as well...
Another area in which we can apply our “patriarchy filter” is in the workforce, where men have historically received higher wages and been given more opportunities to hold positions of power.
Take a look at these statistics: https://www.dol.gov/wb/stats/stats_data.htm.
One cannot help but wonder why women are paid less than men for the same jobs?
Is it because men are considered to be more valuable?
Is it because of the myth that only men should provide for their families financially while women stay home?
Is it because of the false notion that women aren’t as good at being leaders as men are?
Wage equality would mean that:
Another area in which we can apply the “filter of patriarchy” is in the area of sexual assault.
Women who are sexually abused are often accused of inviting the abuse, while men are rarely held accountable for their actions.
I don't know about you, but I have heard many of these statements over the course of my lifetime:
Perhaps they (the women assaulted) were wandering in dark alleys they shouldn’t have been in.
Maybe they (the women assaulted) were wearing “slutty” clothing.
Maybe they (the women abused) were not being submissive enough to their husbands, or maybe they weren’t adequately “meeting his needs”.
This list of myths about people who are sexually abused sheds light on many of the cultural assumptions surrounding sexual abuse: https://www.ourresilience.org/what-you-need-to-know/myths-and-facts/
Do you see how often these myths let the perpetrators off the hook?
Do you see how this is about excusing those who hold more power?
I remember being teased by a group of boys when I was a young teen.
The teasing hurt deeply.
I was told, however, “those boys were just being boys” and, “they actually like you” (because if they didn’t like me, they wouldn’t be paying me any mind).
One of the areas in which I see patriarchal injustices in our society (and especially in the church) is in the implication that it is a woman’s duty to satisfy her man sexually, while downplaying or overlooking her right to pleasure.
I cannot help but wonder if, in those agrarian societies which first embraced patriarchy, women who “had a man” were more privileged and protected, and therefore focused on pleasing, and keeping, their men.
I will be writing more extensively on this topic in a future post.
We can apply the “patriarchy filter” to the treatment of men in our society as well as women.
As I mentioned earlier, many boys are taught they must grow up to be the providers and leaders in their families. They are admonished to be strong and not demonstrate too much emotion (“big boys don’t cry”).
Carolyn Custis James addresses the harmful effects of patriarchy on men in her book Malestrom. She warns,
“It isn’t overstating things to say there isn’t a man or boy alive who isn’t a target. The malestrom’s global currents can be violent and overt, but also come in subtle, even benign forms that catch men unawares. The malestrom is the particular ways in which the fall impacts the male of the human species—causing a man to lose himself, his identity and purpose as a man, and above all to lose sight of God’s original vision for his sons. The repercussions of such devastating personal losses are not merely disastrous for the men themselves, but catastrophic globally.”
Read more of her thoughts here: https://carolyncustisjames.com/2015/04/23/the-manhood-crisis/.
These are just some of the many ways in which patriarchy has affected our society in negative ways.
Patriarchy, The Bible, And The Church
As we have seen, patriarchal ideology is definitely at play in our society, and its effects are not beneficial.
As a child, I was taught that a system in which the man is the head of the family is biblical. Does this sound as patriarchal to you as it sounds to me?
Many scriptures were used to support this:
I believed that in order to be a woman of God I needed to be submissive to my husband.
I always wondered about single women, though. They were really not able to be “godly” without husbands, were they?
Guess what many of the single women I knew were taught (overtly and covertly)? That until they found husbands, they were under the authority of their fathers.
As I grew older, I saw so many ways in which "Christianized" patriarchy was harming women with the church:
I was tired of hearing “God’s wisdom is not our wisdom” as an explanation for why this hierarchical power structure must be followed.
What if there was another way to see scripture?
What if patriarchy was a societal structure in which the writers of the bible found themselves but not necessarily a god-ordained system?
I thought about slavery.
Many slaveholders used passages in the bible such as “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything” to condone slavery as biblical.
Yet most Christians would agree that the only reason Paul wrote these instructions to slaves was because slave-holding was a facet of the society he lived in. They would say there was a general redemptive bent to Paul's instructions.
What if the same thing were also true of the biblical instructions for women, specifically wives?
In other words, what if Paul’s thoughts on women and submission had more to do with the patriarchal cultural system he was writing from than with patriarchy being a God-ordained system?
After all, we can’t ignore other passages in scripture such as Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.”
As we have discussed in a previous post, Christian complementarians have coined the term “equal yet different” to address this issue. "Yes, we are all equal," they say, "however, we have different roles: leader and submitter."
Yet, what if equal truly means equal?
Thanks again for all your thoughtful comments, critiques and stories, friends. I really appreciate you.
Tune in next week for a deeper exploration of my journey into “what the heck is the Bible saying about patriarchy?!”
Follow me on Facebook to stay up to date on my latest posts. Comment here or on Facebook and share some ways in which you have felt the heavy weight of patriarchy in your everyday life.
Click on the links to catch up on Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
How vividly do I remember witnessing a childbirth for the first time. I was young, maybe nine or ten.
About thirty minutes before the birth, my dad summoned me, asking whether or not I wanted to see a babe make its grand entrance into the world.
My answer? Of course!
I hopped onto his motorcycle, and we hastened along a dirt path scratched out of the rainforest by some gargantuan finger.
Tall vine-tangled rainforest trees tried to nab us as we rode up and down mountains, bumping and winding and gulping down gnats.
We arrived at the thatched village hut, called a “shabono”, just in time. Ducking through a hobbit-high door frame, our eyes took a few minutes to adjust to the dim light of the smoke-filled interior.
I was surprised to hear no sound, though four or five women were gathered around the laboring woman.
Panting, neck muscles straining, she squatted above a gargantuan green banana leaf.
And just when our eyes had adjusted to the dimness and the stinging smoke, a tiny babe, coated in mucus, slid silently from between its mother’s legs.
For a moment, everyone stared at the babe. The babe had to be deemed worthy; it must be without defect. Otherwise, it would be taken into the jungle and killed.
After investigating the child for defects and finding none, the women began to care for the newborn. Soon, that universal infant cry, so like caterwauling, filled the room.
I will never forget this experience: The miracle of new life coupled with the earthiness of my surroundings and the “other-ness” of cultural customs so different from my own imprinted itself firmly on my memory.
Upon witnessing this birth, I was filled with this great sense of unity which binds all of humanity— new life is new life, whether cradled under the mossy trees of the Amazon rainforest or ensconced in a blue blanket in a sterile American hospital room.
This past week, as I pondered the various ways in which I have read and interpreted the Bible's take on a woman's life work, I could not shake this vivid memory.
You see, in Yanomamo culture, a young woman’s status was lower than a dog’s; she was a man’s property. A man often had multiple wives. Most women were regularly abused and violated.
Before my third child was born, my husband and I lived in Bolivia. While there, I became friends with several Bolivian women.
Women in Bolivia went to school, and some graduated from college even, but they were not allowed to drive cars. Furthermore, there were many jobs which were considered to be women’s work (childcare, cooking, cleaning), and the men did not engage with these facets of life.
Imagine with me an ancient culture not so different from the Yanomamo or Bolivian cultures, in which the men were seen as more valuable and held a higher status than women: this is the cultural backdrop of most, if not all, of the Bible.
Stated another way, when I picture these two cultures’ treatment of women, it helps me grasp why there are so many difficult texts about women in the Bible.
Yet, what is God's vision of "woman"?
In Part 2 of this series, I ended with a quote from Sarah Bessey in which she shared a vision of men and women being “warriors fighting in distinct unity”. This vision of women certainly sounds different from that of the cultures I cited above.
The portrayal of “women as warriors” didn’t make much sense to me until I delved into the meaning of “helpmeet”.
I had been taught that a “helpmeet” was man’s perfect partner, meant to submit to him and help him carry out his mission in this world.
Boy was I surprised when I learned how the two Hebrew words combined to formulate “helpmeet” were actually used in other parts of the Bible; they didn’t have anything to do with subordination.
What is a “Helpmeet”?
I have two precious daughters and one sweet son.
They are my inspiration and the reason I push myself, work hard and face my fears.
I am constantly asking myself what message I am sending my children about women.
Am I telling them women are only good at certain jobs?
Am I communicating through my actions that women are only meant to be “background people” and not leaders?
(I am not saying there is anything “less” about being a background person. I am just saying I don’t want my kids to think women “can’t” or “shouldn’t”. )
Am I working as an equal partner, a warrior, alongside my husband, or am I demonstrating a subservient nature?
This resolve to demonstrate female equality awakened when I finally “got” what a “helpmeet” was.
I’d like to begin by narrating two stories for you (these stories are the main reason I am a feminist woman-of-faith):
Once upon a time, divine love, the Word, breathed God-life into this planet.
And this Word said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” so that they can rule over creation together.
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Then God told these two image-bearers to “fill the earth and subdue it”.
And God saw all that God had made, said it was good.
Once upon a time, divine love, the Word, formed this man-creature out of dust and breathed life into him. The man’s name was Adam.
God gave Adam some instructions, some “do’s and don'ts”, along with a job— name the animals.
And God noticed the man was alone, without a “suitable helper”. So he put the man to sleep and took out one of his ribs. God used this rib to form a woman. Her name was Eve.
Or, was that the beginning?
Whether or not you take them literally, both of these stories are in the opening chapters of Genesis.
Can you guess from which of these two stories we have gleaned the idea that a woman’s job is to stand by a man’s side, helping him?
“The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” (Gen. 2:18) — Story 2
According to Story 2, the woman was made for the man, right?
At least, this was the narrative I grew up hearing.
But what does the phrase “suitable helper” mean?
The first creation narrative, Story 1, makes it clear that the man and woman were both created in God’s image. Wouldn’t that mean they both demonstrated God-likeness, and so were equals?
God spoke to both of them and gave them a job to do, together.
In the second creation narrative, Story 2, it sounds more as though Eve was secondary, an afterthought. It sounds as though she was designed to help the man do his job.
So why the contradiction?
Many scholars have certainly combined these two stories to affirm the idea that men and women are “equal yet different”.
At first glance, it seems obvious from these passages, doesn’t it?
Yet one glaring problem I see with the “woman-was-created-for-man” interpretation is that there are many women who are either single or do not marry a man.
This whole interpretation leaves them out!
There were many women featured in the Bible, in fact, who were exemplified for their character qualities; we do not even hear mention of husbands, or even men, in their lives, women such as Rahab, Mary Magdalene and Deborah.
To repeat, if the Adam and Eve story was supposed to provide us with wisdom, we need to ask this question: How does the “equal yet different, woman as "helpmeet" to man” interpretation apply to single women or women who aren't married to men?
Let’s dig into the meanings of “suitable” and “helper” in the Hebrew language...
The word translated into “suitable” is “kenegdo” in Hebrew.
The King James Bible translated “kenegdo” as “meet for him”. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon translates "kenegdo" as "corresponding to".
I love looking at how other languages translate words; interestingly, in the New Afrikaans Translation , "kenegdo" is translated as "sy gelyke" which means "his equal".
In your opinion, do any of these translations— “suitable” or “meet for him”, "corresponding to" or "his equal" — connote “subordinate” to you?
When I hear “suitable” or even “meet”, I hear “perfect fit” or “perfect complement”.
It was like a half-finished picture: something was missing for wholeness to be displayed; Adam needed a complement, an equal.
Eve was Adam's perfect counterpart.
None of the animals had been “suitable” as an equal to Adam; Eve was.
Marg Mowczko holds an MA with a specialization in early Christian and Jewish studies. She writes extensively about “ezer kenegdo” and what it means.
On her blog, she explains that “kenegdo” means “equal” or “corresponding”. If you enjoy getting into the nitty gritty meaning of words, I highly recommend reading her article on kenegdo here.
If “kenegdo”, then, means “equal to”, or “corresponding”, isn’t the implication behind these words similar to what the first creation narrative implies— that Adam and Eve were both made in God’s image?
Adam by himself was not complete. We can even assert that by himself, Adam wasn’t the full expression of the image of God.
Does this thought make your heart beat faster?
Stop and think about the women in your life. They are divine-image-bearers.
Have you affirmed this in them recently?
Have you told them the world wouldn’t be complete without them?
Are you empowering them to be fully who they are called to be?
My husband has been doing this for me. He does all the “house-and-kid” stuff after his job ends so I can write. He believes my life’s passion is important.
In Sarah Bessey's words, "In the early new light of Creation, God didn't set up a 'masculine' rule as his standard and plan for humanity. No, it was masculine and feminine, together, bearing the image of God." (Jesus Feminist)
Now that we have tackled “kenegdo”, let’s tackle “ezer”. This is the word which has been translated as “helper”.
Ever wonder who coined the complete term “helpmeet”? It was a poet named John Dryden (1631-1700). He decided to hyphenate “help” and “meet” into “help-meet” so as to describe his wife in a poem. Interesting, right?
Before I get into what “ezer” means, I’d like to ask: If someone helps you, does that make them subordinate to you?
In fact, what words would you use to describe a “helper” who is also subordinate? The terms “slave” and “servant” come to mind...
The word “ezer” is used twenty-one times in the Old Testament.
Blogger Rachel Held Evans, explained that “ezer” was used, “[...] twice in reference to the first woman, three times in reference to nations to whom Israel appealed for military support, and sixteen times in reference to God as the helper of Israel.” Read more here.
Wait. Military support? God-as-helper? These uses of “ezer” certainly don’t connote subordination.
Check these verses out. I have highlighted “ezer” in bold.
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.
-Psalm 10: 14
But as for me, I am poor and needy;
come quickly to me, O God.
You are my help and my deliverer;
Lord, do not delay.
Blessed are you, Israel!
Who is like you,
a people saved by the Lord?
He is your shield and helper
and your glorious sword.
Your enemies will cower before you,
and you will tread on their heights.”
God-as-helper, desperately needed, warrior-on-our-behalf, companion-by-our-side, rescuer...
Sit with these meanings for a bit.
The fact that God is an “ezer” for God’s people has been life-changing for me.
If I am an “ezer”, then I am a warrior.
This is so very different from what I previously believed. It means first of all, in marriage, that I ought to be working alongside my husband in everything.
In the larger sphere of society, this means that I ought to be bringing my whole self, all my gifts and talents, to the table, for the good of the world.
This means women should not in any way be valued as less than men.
Women ought to be compensated equally as much as men, and their word should be seen as equally authoritative to that of men. If a woman holds a title, she ought to be addressed by that title, just as men are.
If I am an “ezer kenegdo”, then I am a perfectly suitable warrior, fit to fight beside man- needed, necessary, valuable, capable, powerful and compassionate, bringer-of-aid, rescuer.
Sarah Bessey writes:
If a woman is held back, minimized, pushed down, or downplayed, she is not walking in the fullness God intended for her as his image bearer, as his ezer warrior. If we minimize our gifts, hush our voice, and stay small in a misguided attempt to fit a weak and culturally conditioned standard of femininity, we cannot give our brothers the partner they require in God's mission for the world.
Godself is in fact an Ezer to God’s people.
Before I go any further, I’d like to say I believe men and women alike demonstrate various facets of God’s image; I do not think these bearers of the “imago dei” should be categorized or delineated by gender (as in, "only women are compassionate" and "only men are loud").
Where does the idea that Eve was to be subordinate to Adam come from, then?
The short answer?
In my opinion, it comes from the pronouncements of “The Fall”.
Whether you see “The Fall” as metaphorical or literal, you can see it resulted in the “goodness” of everything God had brought forth getting mussed up.
After The Fall, a “curse” was pronounced on the man, the woman, creation and the serpent. The idea of “curse” implies that things were going to be very different from how they had been previously.
The “curse” for the woman reads:
“Your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.” Gen. 3:16
The subordination of woman, then, in my opinion, was a result of the fall, of humanity’s brokenness, of its “having gone wrong”.
This subordination of woman to man has not exactly born good fruit.
Take a moment to review these stats: https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures.
Need a Kleenex?
I love that God isn’t interested in leaving the world hopeless and fallen. God is about restoration and rescue. God is our ezer.
As my pastor often says, to loosely paraphrase, “God is going to get everything God wants”:
“He [God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Rev. 21:14
What do you think we should be about, friends?
The fall, or “God getting everything God wants”?
Subjugation, or restoration?
Ultimately, we could haggle over words and meanings forever. For every argument one way, there is an equal argument another.
I would say most Christians, regardless of what their view of the meaning of “helpmeet” is, would agree that women are equally imbued with God’s image and should be treated with respect.
Most would agree that women can have careers or pursue higher education.
The difference in perspective, though, is highlighted when we look at the ultimate, highest purpose of “woman”.
Is “woman” fulfilled when she is subordinated to a man, acting as his helper?
Or, is “woman” an equal counterpart to “man”, a fellow image bearer, an important contributor to all the work which needs accomplishing in this world?
Can woman be fulfilled and effective without a man in her life? (A resounding yes! from me...)
Is woman a warrior armed for battle you’d be lucky to have fighting by your side?
"And men, what a gift for you! What a revelation! A man does not need to deny a woman's identity as a beloved and unique warrior in Christ out of misplaced fear or insecurity or a hunger for power. Let's praise God together for this truth. Sons, brothers, husbands, friends, can you imagine? God knew that it was not good for you to be alone, and he gave you your best ally." (Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist)
Does woman have valuable insight, wisdom, leadership and skills to contribute to this world? Absolutely!
I urge you to take some time to consider the implications of each of these points of view.
I love how Rachel Held Evans described male-female equality, and how she came to a more feminist viewpoint not by reading feminist literature, but by reading the Bible: https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/accidental-feminist.
"Most of all, if these critics knew me, they would know that it isn't feminism that inspires me to advocate gender equality in the Church and in the world; it is the gospel of Jesus Christ."
I feel the same way.
In this article, Rachel Held Evans mentioned the term “patriarchy”.
Remember my comparison at the beginning of this post of the Yanomamo and Bolivian cultural treatment of women to the treatment of women in the Bible? The word often used to describe this treatment is “patriarchy”.
Patriarchy is another plausible reason some of the Bible seems to be placing women "beneath" men.
I am excited to dig into this thought more in next week's post.
Meanwhile, I love hearing your thoughts! Thanks again to all of you who have followed my Facebook page, leaving comments there as well as on the blog. Your stories and thoughts mean so much.
Hey, you. I'm glad you dropped by...
I'm a busy mom of three asking hard questions about my faith.