Women, Theology, and the Evangelical Gender Ghetto

James W. McCarty III has written a great post about the absence of female voices in the theological blogosphere. (His title is pretty awesome, too: Stop, Collaborate and Listen :-D) His conclusions are applicable to just about every area of life and ministry:

Listen to women. And listen in a way in which you can learn from them. Seriously… And don’t argue with them right away… Listen deeply. Meditate upon those things that don’t resonate with your experience and give them a charitable interpretation. Think about the questions that women ask which you never think to ask. Take those questions seriously and recognize your need to learn from women to answer them.

Seriously? I think several books could be written about the issues raised in that paragraph. As fond as some branches of Christianity have become of vamping on the differences between men and women, there still seems be little acknowledgement that the “female” way of seeing the world could ever be helpful or instructive outside female circles.

Why is that?

First, men often forget to ask women for input. It’s not an intentional slight–men are just used to being “the only people in the board room,” and women are used to functioning in a male-dominated society.

This is unfortunate, because the experiences, perspectives, and ideas women bring to the table are an invaluable and often overlooked resource. From important theological issues (like Dr. Arloa Sutter’s incredible explanation of God’s compassion), to the ins and outs of daily ministry (like suggesting that the all-male elder board shouldn’t be the only people offering prayer after the service, since many women aren’t comfortable opening up to men, much less having their hands laid on them!), it just makes sense to tap into female wisdom, insight, and experience. Unfortunately, most of us are so used to the status quo that we don’t realize what we’re missing out on.

On the other hand, there are people who believe this sort of female influence should be extremely limited–that female influence may, in fact, be destructive to the church in general, and men in particular. Words like “feminization” are bandied about, the ancient practice of Eve-blaming/shaming is deployed (women are more easily deceived than men, women are too emotional/irrational to lead well, putting women up front might make men check out, or fall into lust), and the instructions the Apostle Paul gave some of the early churches regarding women are universalized, despite biblical evidence that Paul himself didn’t always adhere to them.

What’s more, biblical examples of godly female leaders like Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla and Junia are “effeminated” (men have a word for it–why shouldn’t we?), either ignored or squeezed into the narrow mold of “acceptable female behavior.” For instance, a women’s study Bible I own has a devotional about Deborah titled “Homemaker and Soldier.” Homemaker and soldier? Seriously? The Bible describes Deborah as a prophetess, a judge, a leader of Israel–NOT as a homemaker (or a soldier, for that matter). But Deborah is a little too strong for our tastes–too pushy, too self-assured, too influential, too powerful. We celebrate male leaders with those characeristics, but have an uncouth word to describe women who exhibit those qualities. We prefer Little Debbies–soft, sweet women who conform to precise specifications.

What do you think? Have you seen these issues at play in your circles? How can we do a better job of seeking out, valuing, and including marginalized voices?

14 Responses to Women, Theology, and the Evangelical Gender Ghetto

  1. Nessa November 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

    I fist-pumped at this blog entry. My run of the mill evangelical church allows women to be pastors, elders, etc., but my own issue is that there is so much that is gender-divided without reason. All retreats are single-sex retreats. The only people who work in the nursery are women. All sermons and group meetings about male-female relationships emphasize 50s-era gender roles for both husband and wife, and pretend such things are biblical. We love our church, otherwise, but my husband and I simply don’t perform gender the way they do. Think of the journey: after marriage, Christians go from child-teen-singles unisex groups to deeply segregated gender groups. And you know the drill: women do the crafty, cooky, emotional movie things, while men get to go camping, hiking, fishing… My husband and I just want to swap places. Think they’d appreciate it?

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

      “My husband and I simply don’t perform gender the way they do.”

      EXCELLENT point! It’s sad when we think we have to act in a certain contrived way to be “feminine” or “masculine”–God made me female, and that’s that–there’s nothing I can do to diminish or enhance my femaleness.

      I actually really enjoy single-sex events (partially because they’re a place where women can be themselves and excercise leadership without fear), and believe they have their place. However, I know that the church tends to skew way farther in that direction than many people prefer. The “fluffy” aspect of some of these events, and lack of theologically trained women, plays into some of the problems as well. I hope that this will change in time.

  2. Michal November 29, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    As a dude, I don’t like at all that women are pushed down. In my opinion, that was never God’s design. Men AND women were created to lead. They lead in different ways, yes, but they still lead. It was women who helped me most with my faith and understanding the grace and love of God, not absentee/dominating men, and women who encouraged me to pursue my passions for ministry and the written word

    About Paul, I’ve heard it both ways,, and I still am undecided what he really meant. My church does not allow women to be pastors, but they still have a wide range of leadership in music, accounting, counseling, and writing/design. Without them, the church would not even survive. Yes, I am thankful for the opposite gender, and think that they deserve a place along with men.

    That’s a .02 from a man, and I know I am not the only man that feels that way.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 29, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

      Thanks Michal! Regarding Paul, it has always seemed to me that he was pretty darn feminist for his day (a Pharisee not only talking with women–GENTILE women!–but calling them his friends, co-workers and benefactors?), and I have heard that he is credited with writing the first egalitarian statement in human history: Galatians 3:28. I haven’t researched it enough to know if that is true or not–if Galatians 3:28 was truly the first–but there’s no doubt that modern Westerners, the recipients of that legacy, tend to forget what a radical, absolutely earth-shaking idea that was in the first century.
      So I’m going with Paul the feminist. 😀 In any case, he seems to talk more easily and authentically to and about women than most of his NT bretheren.

  3. Tim November 29, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    Well said, Jen. Have I mentioned that Deborah is one of my favorites? I’d love to sit down with her and talk judge stuff.

  4. Laura M. November 29, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    Thanks for this post! I have facebook and twitter shared it.

    Women reflect the image of God too…our voice needs to be heard AND SOUGHT by the men of the church. Male church leaders, if you are not seeking the input of women – then you put us in a very difficult position. If women in the church do speak up, too often they are seen as upstarts, presumptuous, etc. So often I feel between a rock and a hard place. My options are: 1) say nothing -or- 2) speak up and get a bad reputation. Sigh.

    And as you hint at the end, we need to seek out the voices of other marginalized people too.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong November 29, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

      I think you’re right, Laura. I was incredibly blessed in that my parents always encouraged me to ask questions and share my thoughts (even when their friends thought I was a presumptuous little snot), and my teachers welcomed and encouraged my questions and comments too–I was a TOTAL Hermione Granger! But many women, especially, have not been so lucky.
      Personally, whenever somebody in a church situation warns me about a controlling, bossy lady (and they do), I just assume that women is a born leader who lashes out in frustration because her gifts and competencies are being trivialized, and try to respond by giving them lots of room to lead, and refusing to be offended. It works surprisingly well. I mean, when the only thing a born leader is allowed to be in charge of is the placement of silk plants, people shouldn’t be surprised when a civil war erupts over someone moving the ficus. Seriously. Give them bigger, better jobs, then step back and let them do them.
      And yes, you’re totally right about the hint at the end. :-) My friend Natasha Robinson is doing a series on that over at her blog:

  5. Melody Harrison Hanson November 30, 2012 at 8:14 am #

    Jenny: I love your heart and what you are saying – the challenge to listen to the women in your life, church, etc.

    This is along the lines of what I have been saying about my experience in the church; I’ve been thinking about the lack of presence and example of women in the Church on Sundays, and at my church in particular which is soft complementarian, women are most often spectators — the audience, the bystanders, the recipients and beneficiaries.

    But I also know that women do need to break ground into the theological world, graduate study and biblical studies, and yet as I read about women’s experiences (around the internet, like Tony Jones’ feed at this week asking “Where are the Women?”) they become frustrated about NOT BEING LISTENED TO. This will take a long time overcoming the calcified and entrenched power structures already in place in the church.

    I’ve done some wring about these things: “The Voice of the Feminine” as well as something on my blog: “When our Traditions are Calcified into Orthodoxy”

    I don’t know if I contribute to the solutions in my writing but rather express my own frustration with the state of things. I deeply appreciate your writing on this subject.

    • Jenny Rae Armstrong December 2, 2012 at 11:40 am #

      Thanks Melody! Your comment (and the post that you wrote) stirred the pot in my mind even more, and partially inspired the post I just wrote on my fears. That’s why I didn’t respond earlier–something in what you wrote (I’m not sure what, exactly) got my thoughts swirling, and I needed some time to collect them, analyze them, and understand them. THIS is part of why these conversations are so needed!


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