“Men’s worship should be audible, while women’s should be inaudible”
He was in the middle of a tirade on “God’s order” and how women should be submissive to men, silent, compliant, unseen.
It was not the first time I had heard similar things professed in the church, but it hit differently this time. He was making no effort to make it seem that he even viewed women as equal to him. In his eyes, women were made subordinate to men and demanded that we comply.
At least in the conservative church that I grew up in I had been taught that women were equal to men, just separate in role. We were told that we could not teach or preach or lead because women were easily deceived. We were taught that our primary place was in the home, caring for children, and serving and being “sexually available” to our husbands.
And for most of my adolescent and adult life, I tried to adhere to all the principles above, even when they felt grossly unfair and a violation of my dignity. But something changed in me during this man’s tirade against women. Perhaps it was his blatant misogyny. Or perhaps it was for the first time in my life I looked around the room, and saw women mirroring the grief and rage that I felt inside.
It was perhaps the first time I realized I wasn’t alone and the sweet relief that there were women like me: women who knew these teachings were wrong in their very bones but hadn’t ever been exposed to other teachings.
I didn’t know then that these teachings actually primed and contributed to the abuse of women, but I would learn. Over the next several years I dedicated myself to working with oppressed and exploited women as a missionary and found the teachings of my childhood mirrored in the most abusive situations.
At first, it was hearing stories of girls who had survived Female Genital Mutilation and noticing that in conjunction with their abuse came teachings about a girl not needing an education because her proper place was in the home. Next, it was meeting the girls and women in India who had been taken from Nepal to be sex-trafficked. I wondered if the teachings about a man’s uncontrollable need for sex had anything to do with what drove men to purchase women.
And finally, in a bar where women were sold in the Philippines, it became crystal clear to me, women were abused and oppressed because they were seen as not equal to men, and were ultimately there to serve a man’s needs.
The realization came as a man who bought trafficked women was telling me why he traveled halfway around the world to buy these women. He said, “Women here are raised right, they know how to respect men.” It was in the middle of a tirade about women’s proper place, and a man’s need for respect.
He sounded just like the pastors I had grown up with who espoused the idea the women were there to respect and serve and meet a man’s sexual desires. It was not just my pastors teaching this, it was evangelical authors like Emerson Eggerichs of Love and Respect who have written whole books about it.
Women did not exist as an entity unto their own, they were there for men. This lends itself to enormous power differentials in which women are to submit and stay silent while men are to be in control – and as a result primes the ground for abuse.
Psychoanalyst Lyn Yonack says in an article for Psychology Today that “Despite its name, sexual abuse is more about power than it is about sex. Although the touch may be sexual, the words seductive or intimidating, and the violation physical, when someone rapes, assaults, or harasses, the motivation stems from the perpetrator’s need for dominance and control.”
Is this why we see so many cases of sexual abuse take place in the church? Perhaps a male abusing his power like Ravi Zacharias are not merely one-off cases, but the natural result of a theology that gives men enormous power differentials over women.
One might think that because these gender theology teachings are so mainstream, that they must be “Biblical” right? Think again.
The Biblical Basis for this “gender role” theology is flimsy at best (check out “The Making of Biblical Womanhood” by Beth Allson Barr,) and actively refuted by Jesus himself.
One of my favorite stories that illustrates this is the story of Mary and Martha. In Luke 10, Jesus and his disciples visit the home of Mary and Martha. In the story, Martha is performing according to her gender role preparing the house, while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus.
Mary is doing something doubly offensive, because not only is she breaking with her gender role by not preparing the home – she is sitting at the feet of Jesus, something that should only happen if you intend on becoming a disciple yourself.
Seeing this transgression, Martha tells Jesus to get Mary to help her in preparations, to which Jesus responds “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
In that one line, Jesus smashes gender role theology and the idea that women “belong” in any one place and in so doing encourages Mary to function outside the bounds given to her sex.
We see this as a common refrain when we look at the Bible, women bound by patriarchal gender norms and pushing past it to do what is more important: Esther disobeyed her husband (and Pharoah) to prevent genocide, Shiprah and Puah disobeyed Pharoah’s order to save a generation of baby boys, Ruth broke with societal norms, Deborah led a nation – the list goes on and on.
If these women did right in God’s eyes and pursued justice by rising up against gender norms, don’t we have permission as women to do the same? To decry injustice from within our pews and without – to use our voice on behalf of women everywhere?
Perhaps our silence and submission are not virtues, but only go to serve an abusive system that harms us all.
May we be like Mary, and have Jesus say “You have chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from you.”