Beyond patriarchy … to equality
Updated: Jul 8, 2020
Some of the hidden rules that pervade evangelical church culture can only truly be explained by considering them a product of patriarchy. These rules are perpetuated by the community of faith rather than originating in the faith itself. I will look at the following five areas:
Maleness of God
1) Dress code
Most evangelical Christians probably don’t think of their church as having a dress code, since historically these churches have been defined in opposition to the formal expectations of more traditional churches. Nevertheless, an unspoken dress code must be adhered to avoid complaint from members of the congregation.
Men: You can wear anything as long as your genitalia and upper thighs are covered. Shorts of any length? Topless in the sunshine? Homer Simpson boxers covering half a bum crack above low slung jeans? All fine.
Women: You must cover everything from 2 inches below the neck to 2 inches above the knees. Crop top? Shorts? The slightest hint of cleavage? All of these are immoral, distracting and immodest.
Men, the story goes, will be turned on by looking at women wearing these clothes and caused to lust, which is of course a sin. The responsibility for this lust would be on the woman because it was she who ‘caused him to sin’. Men are unable to control their enormous libidos, eyes and penises. Women, on the other hand are totally unsexual creatures with no desires of their own, so they will not be turned on by the clothing choices of men.
I joke about this only because I find it unbelievably tragic. Women are left in a state of anxiety about their appearance, wanting to look nice in order to one day meet someone but not too nice so as to cause someone to sin. Men, on the other hand, are expected to have a never ending desire for sex-on-demand, and are encouraged to not take responsibility for any behaviour that might make a woman uncomfortable. The dress code in these churches is just one quiet way in which the women in evangelical churches are monitored, first by their male leaders and then by the whole community.
2) Female sexuality
Maybe it is this same belief that women have no sexuality (not just no sexual orientation but no sexual dimension) that leads to the intense taboo around female masturbation.
Unlike in many other contexts, sexuality is not particularly taboo in most evangelical churches. Between the ages of 11 and 22…
I participated in eight church ‘discussions’ about the importance of not having sex or doing anything sexual before marriage.
I sat through two sermons about the importance of not watching any porn, one to the youth group (aged 11-18), and one to the main congregation (aged 18-95).
I attended a church ‘student weekend away’ in which all the boys were given a talk about masturbation – being aware of how much they are masturbating and what they get out of it.
I attended a ‘pastoral training course’ in which a session was devoted to ensuring everybody knew that, “Masturbation, in men at least, is perfectly normal”
On the other hand during this time,
I read two ‘testimonies’ (stories Christians tell about how they became a Christian and how their life changed because of it) in church newspapers, in which a women were ‘healed from masturbation’ when they became a Christian.
I was lent a book for Christian women that recorded a collection of stories about women who had been prayed for and stopped masturbating.
Given that there is literally no mention of either male or female masturbation in the Bible, surely this taboo around female sexuality, with its sweeping condemnation of self-touching, is just another example of the tendrils of patriarchy getting into the quietest corners of our society, ensuring that women’s lives are controlled down to the last detail.
Likewise, it can only reasonably be assumed that it is patriarchy that is responsible for the extension of the rule of sexual abstinence outside of marriage beyond penis-in-vagina sex to all forms of sexual touching, fantasising or desiring. Tina Schermer Sellers, a professor of sex therapy, describes the effects of these strict rules on the young Christians she came across: “Because desire is as naturally human as breathing, these teachings only encouraged youth to hide what they felt or did from those around them and to condemn themselves for feeling things they were supposedly wrong for feeling” (2017:11).
Sellers recounts, “A further tragedy for many of the earnest young Christians was that their aversion to desire did not lift when they got married. Many young men and women developed significant sexual dysfunction and chronic low desire issues that persisted well into their marriages” (2017:11).
Even within this tragedy, however, it is evident that men and women have not been not equally affected. Rather the unequal understanding of the libido means that it is generally women who have been on their guard against the sexual advances of ‘dangerous men’ for most of their lifetimes, which can contribute to their enjoyment of sex being hindered in the future:
“…Having been silenced for so many years by a sex-negative culture, a Christian woman is likely to bring more emotional baggage into the bedroom than a non-Christian would,” Sellers explains, “Thanks to the church, she’d be likely to have spent years turning off her sexual desire, and thanks to pop culture, she’s been treated as an object by the media and by men in general” (2017:18).
These ‘purity’ rules cannot be explained by a straight-forward Bible reading, in which there is little consensus around what a healthy sexuality might look like. Rather they are another way in which control is exercised over the evangelical congregation. While Christian faith need not be inherently patriarchal, the evangelical church has allowed itself to become a channel through which patriarchal power can flow, perpetuating the control of women in society by male-dominated systems.
Evangelical churches generally have one male church leader who is in charge of the church, as well as a leadership team who have a range of responsibilities. The leadership team may be either all men or all men and their wives, since these women are seen to be ‘under the authority’ of their husband. Though some evangelical churches will allow single women on the leadership team, very few, if any, allow a woman to be the main leader.
Leadership positions in some evangelical churches are not applied for, they are appointed by those already in authority. In essence, ‘You don’t choose to be a church leader; church leadership chooses you.’ Church leaders ‘raise up future leaders’ i.e. take them under their wing and train them, because they ‘discern’ (i.e. hear God telling them) that an individual is right for the position. Unsurprisingly, it is primarily in men that male-dominated leadership teams see potential, and even then it is the men most similar to themselves – generally extraverted men with loud voices and strong opinions. These men grow up being told that they are leaders, so they flourish in church as well as often also at work and in other spheres of life, and all without needing to ever seriously question their beliefs.
This, then, is another reason why such a high level of control is necessary in such churches. If somebody has got to a position of church leadership without needing to face any real challenges to their beliefs and practices, then the whole structure of their life is resting on an unstable foundation. Perhaps this can go some way to explaining the otherwise illogical fierceness that questioning patriarchy within churches generally elicits. For some church leaders, questioning any of the teachings of the leader is tantamount to ‘leading the flock astray’. For others it is only the questioning of male primacy that brings about such extreme responses. If women are equal to men in their ability to lead, then their own innate dominance, and thus identity, is called into question.
5) Maleness of God
1) All denominations are clear about their belief that God is ‘beyond gender’.
2) The Bible refers to God as ‘he’ for various reasons:
One reason is historical. Back when gods and goddesses were seen as belonging to a land and each nation had their own, the main god of Israel was YHWH, the creator god. (Despite being forbidden to worship Asherah, one of the goddesses of the Canaanites, many still believed her to be YHWH’s wife.) When the Israelites were thrown out of their land by the Babylonians and Assyrians, living as they were in a strange land they expanded their understanding of YHWH to include the realisation that in fact he was also there with them; that in fact he was omnipresent, everywhere. ‘he’ became ‘He’, as Jews moved from monolatry (worship of one god only) to monotheism (belief in one God only). The use of the male pronoun to refer to God carries with it thousands of years of story and history.
A second reason is philosophical. Early Christians followed Greek tradition in teaching that ‘the female is a misbegotten male’; in essence that men were superior to women. This belief, coupled with the understanding that “God is a being than which none greater can be imagined”, means that was logical that God would be referred to with the male pronoun. If either of these beliefs is rejected, it becomes less logical.
3) Within the Bible, God is depicted in many various different ways, imaging God from all different angles to help us get a better picture e.g. rock, breath, mother-hen, teacher etc. It is agreed that all imagined pictures of God are only metaphor and not description, since God is beyond human understanding.
In evangelical churches – and many others, God is only referred to with male pronouns and it is the images of God as ‘father’, ‘lord’ (the Greek and Latin also mean ‘master’, the word used by a slave to their owner), and ‘king’ that are most commonly used. The excuse that ‘we only have gendered pronouns’ is not good enough. In this entire series of blog posts I have not used a single pronoun to refer to God. It’s not difficult. As Mary Daly famously wrote in 1973, “If God is male, then male is God”. God, in these churches, is the ultimate patriarch, protecting men from the unruly feminists. While most men are happy with the theory that God is beyond gender, attempt to integrate this belief into church practices and you will discover quickly that the maleness of God is one of the key tenets of evangelical Christianity.
For many men in our society, dominance is the hallmark of maleness. For those men that grow up with this implicit belief, threats to their dominance will lead to intense shame which can manifest in breakdowns, depression, anger, anxiety and/or violence. Given this cultural background, to allow the possibility that the Divine is equally female as male; to allow the possibility that women can lead equally; to allow the possibility that the voice of God may come equally through a woman; all of these come dangerously close to the possibility of ’emasculation’. For many church leaders, it is not only their jobs but their very identity that is under threat by the suggestion of equality.
Instead of allowing the tenets of feminism with its equal freedoms for men and for women into the evangelical churches, patriarchy has not only been left unchecked, it has been welcomed in, fed, given the run of the house and sent out into the world stronger than before. This is a house that I am leaving, in favour of one that sees me, as a woman, as made in the image of God, just as men are also made in the image of God.
Not all women want to lead, just as not all men want to lead. However, I was designed to be ambitious. It always has been, and still is, a part of my nature. I refuse to silence my ambition anymore. I will no longer be squashed in to subservience. I will go to a church where God is at least sometimes depicted as a woman; where the ‘vicar’ who speaks on God’s behalf (‘vicar’iously) may be a woman; and where I am encouraged to think of myself as a leader, as a woman, just as God is also Woman.
 Patriarchy: the way that throughout history, dominance, maleness and ‘normal’ have been equated, to the overall detriment of men and women. So much of our normal language, expectations and behaviours have been shaped within this framework, that it is very difficult to get beyond.