I still remember my first experience of being told I couldn’t do something I wanted to do. I was only four years old and my Sunday School teacher asked us to go around the room and share what we wanted to be when we grew up. Without any hesitation I blurted out “I want to be a pastor.” My teacher, who was warm and friendly, stooped down, put her arm around my shoulders and said “honey, women can’t be pastors.” I remember being utterly confused. I had always enjoyed lining my teddy bears up after church on the steps of my house, singing Bible songs, and pretending to preach sermons. This is something I liked doing and that my parents always encouraged in their own ways. Obviously, four was too young to understand the theological implications of such a bold statement – there was no possible way I could have known at the time that this has been a grey area debated over the centuries with Bible believing Christians on both sides of the fence. All I knew was that I was being told I couldn’t do something that in my very core I felt I wanted to do, that I was called to do, that I was meant to do.
Since then, I have occasionally faced discouragement as a woman in other areas and I know that I am not alone. Thus, when I was asked to write this blog for PCPJ, I opened up my Facebook by posting an open question: “To all my Christian Women friends, what are you tired of hearing?” The results poured in and surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly) nearly everyone said the same things but in different ways. I also took this offline by asking Christian and non-Christian women alike what they were tired of hearing, and I discovered that these very same issues often permeate into the lives of even those who are not religious. That is to say, culture and tradition, often overshadow the truth and sometimes churches lose sight of what is Biblical and historically accurate in favour of what has simply been passed down to them or what they have been taught without further investigation.
Although this list is not exhaustive, here are some of the most common themes that women addressed when asked this question:
- A Women’s Primary Role is that of Wife/Mother
Last year, I was looking for a new devotional to start my year right. I went into a Christian bookstore and then began perusing the women’s section. To my dismay, all the books were geared towards wives and mothers. As I am neither one of these things, I decided to reach out, again on Facebook, asking my friends if they had suggestions for a women’s devotion not geared towards this. Sadly, they all responded with no, that many of them were in the same boat. Women’s devotionals often are geared towards family life and maternal instincts, and those which aren’t are often written at a juvenile teenage level and are not intellectually stimulating.
This is a topic that I believe has been ingrained in many of us since childhood. It is assumed in most Christian settings that a woman would want to be a wife and then shortly thereafter to be a mother. It, of course, must always be in that order – not the other way around. The sooner a woman marries the better, and, of course, since divorce is not acceptable, she must be careful with her choice. Women who choose to pursue other avenues such as educational opportunities, travel, or focusing on careers, are perhaps not seen as less than, but still considered “wandering” or “filling time” until the occasion arises. Sermons are geared towards marriage and family life, small groups often focus on these areas (young adults being more for those in their early 20s creating a rift for those in their late 20s or into their 30s who are still single), and women’s ministries and retreats often also focus on these core aspects.
It is assumed that because the majority of people want this, that we may as well cater to the majority. Sadly, it is difficult to find many completely happy single women ministering who are so grounded in God and in themselves that they can minister both to those who are married and those who aren’t. In fact, one of the most hurtful things a church ever said to me about a year into serving in children’s ministry was that “they would have preferred a married women with kids.” They knew that I was single when they hired me, but for them to say this out loud during an appraisal was like an arrow piercing the heart. They were viewing a mother of kids as someone who could automatically grow their ministry, they were not realizing that being single was the very reason why I was able to give so much of myself and my time even above and beyond my job description.
I am not saying, of course, that women shouldn’t desire family life. For many women, this is precisely their dream. Of course, marriage and children does add a very special dynamic and a unique way to serve God, just as singleness also adds a special dynamic and unique way to serve God. However, marriage and family life should not be an ideal that is imposed on people. The Bible itself talks about how some are called to pursue celibacy and we all are called to serve God in whatever season we find ourselves (whether married or single). Unfortunately, time and again, singles are the ones who are often ignored or forgotten. We have all heard stories of that awkward moment at a family gathering where the question was asked “so, have you found romance? Maybe you should try online.” We also have heard well meaning family members and friends ask a newly married couple or even a couple married several years when they will start their family, and this adds shame and frustration for couples who have chosen not to have children or otherwise are unable to conceive and struggling with infertility.
To sum up: Both marriage and singlehood have their various opportunities to serve and give to the church. Both are special gifts – marriage is not heaven and singleness is not hell. Marriage is not the ultimate prize and singleness is not a consolation prize. Christian women are tired of hearing that “they should be” at a certain place in their life by a certain age. We all have different life priorities and we can serve God within those priorities. Christian women would appreciate the church at large recognizing this and the unique blessings and challenges that each life stage brings.
2, Christian Women are always “nice” and “submissive”
A few years ago I read an absolutely brilliant book called “No More Christian Nice Girl” By: Paul Coughlin. The point of the book was that “being nice instead of good hurts you and your family.” And it’s true. Christian women have been conditioned to be ladylike, even tempered, not prone to anger, never raising their voices, and in general, being willing to put everyone’s needs in front of their own. Consequently, this can cause them to stuff their own emotions and suddenly blow up at someone one day or else have a serious case of burn-out.
Although there is a Biblical discussion to be had on the topic of submission, I believe the root of the issue here is that women are basically taught that they must do as they are told without question. This is not true. Rather, true submission, must come from a place of trust, respect, and honour, rather than out of fear.
Women can be agitators. Women can and do stand up and fight against oppression, against evil, against systemic injustice and violence. Women can be trailblazers in their respective fields – whether championing for human rights, environmental protection, or lobbying various unjust policies and politics. Women can be leaders in various capacities. When a woman has a gift for leadership, for ministry, for teaching, or for courage, this should be applauded and encouraged rather than shut down. Even today in the 21st century, there are many places (both inside and outside) of the church where a woman’s voice is not being heard especially in areas dominated by men. This is not a cause for women to berate men or becoming so overpowering that they will not listen to a man. This does not need to be extreme feminism on steroids or the pushing out of men from all forms of leadership or church governance. However, this is a call for gender equality and inclusion. Both men and women are needed to compliment one another and to work together. In order for this to happen, women must choose to be good over simply being nice.
To Sum Up: Being “nice” does not mean running yourself down by always putting others’ needs above your own. If you want to do ministry well, you must practice the pause. You must rest and practice self-care. It is more important to be “good” – to stand for what is right and true, than to adopt a submissive attitude that stands back and says “it is not my place to enter in.” Christian women should be encouraged in many different areas with the focus being more on gifting and less on gender.
3. The world is a scary place/women must be protected
The Bible describes women as the “weaker sex” (1 Peter 3:7), but what exactly does this mean and is it still true today?
It is true that the world is a scary place – both for men and women. Sexual abuse and sexual violence (in a large part targeted towards women) is as high as it ever has been. Misogyny and paternalistic worldviews can sometimes lead down the path of viewing women as nothing more than childbearers or there for a man’s pleasure. So, in a way, it is true that women should take care to ensure their own safety and that men also should be careful in how they interact with a woman.
However, this does not mean that women should be tied up in bubble wrap, never attempting to leave the house and never having a life outside of her immediate family. This is a further continuance of thought #2: if a woman feels a calling towards something, she shouldn’t be treated as a child.
To Sum Up: Women are not fragile China dolls. Men and women are meant to share equal roles and responsibilities both within a marriage and outside of it. Thus, remember a woman is fully capable and fully responsible for her own decisions and actions (whether good or bad) – see it more as empowering and enabling and less about protecting and sheltering.
4. Women shouldn’t preach/lead/have authority
This one here is a huge debate, but as it is a topic that repeatedly came up when I asked this question, I would be remiss if I didn’t include it. I have been labelled a heretic before for championing that women who truly do have an anointing and calling from God towards preaching and pastoral ministry should take part. However, the point of this article is not to enter into this debate and “theological grey area.”
Instead I will say this: the Spirit is gender-blind in assigning gifts. There are women who do have gifts of leadership and pastoral ministry, and there are men who do not. However, depending on church and cultural tradition, the way these gifts may take form and shape may differ (this will be addressed in another upcoming blog).
Going back to the situation I opened this blog with of me being told as a young child I could not preach or be a pastor due to gender, I can understand now why this was told to me. I do believe women can preach, but I have many friends on the other side who disagree with this theologically and I have come to understand that regardless we can still have a close friendship. I also do respect churches which do not agree with female ministers. Nevertheless, I do believe that the situation could have been handled differently. Perhaps in these settings where women were not permitted to preach, the conversation (especially at such a young age) could have been diverted and rerouted. Perhaps instead I could have been told “that’s absolutely wonderful that you have a strong desire to serve God. Maybe in the future God will use you to bring about His message on the mission field or in teaching. You’re still so young and there are so many ways that God can use you for His glory and I can’t wait to see that unfold.” This would have ended the conversation on a positive note rather than in theological confusion.
To Sum Up: The Spirit is gender-blind when assigning various spiritual gifts (including those of leadership, pastoring, preaching, and teaching). To quote author Malcolm Webber (himself a complementarian) in his book “Women in Leadership” “If God calls a woman to be a minister, well then, she better go do it!” Women in pastoral ministry is a grey area, and this is not the place to further engage in this debate, yet, God knows what He is doing, and who He is calling. Who are we to stand in His way?
5. Working women are the demise of the family
Again, this leads back to the first point: a women’ primary role should be that of wife/mother. So, if a woman wants to be a career woman instead of staying home with her children, is that ok? My answer is: yes. It depends on the woman. Personally, I have always strove to be a homeschooling mother, yet, even I will admit it is not for everyone. When choosing the homeschooling route, a certain temperament must be present. It is also vital that in that situation both partners fully agree and concede. If only one partner fully wants it, it will flop.
That’s why I believe it is so important for couples to discuss these types of issues and find a solution that works for them. Some women dream of staying at home to raise a family, others view this as isolating. Some women crave more family time, others crave a life outside – other friends and other hobbies. Both scenarios can work well depending on the support and financial structures already in place as well as taking their spouse’s views into consideration and coming to an agreeable solution.
To Sum Up: This is a personal matter to be discussed privately between both partners. It is not a sin to stay home nor is it a sin to work. It is also to a family’s benefit if extended family and friends support either decision as the one which works best for that couple.
6. Women’s bodies cause men to sin
This is an interesting one that has perplexed me through the years. From as young as I can remember, I was taught that men are visual creatures and we shouldn’t add to this temptation by dressing immodestly. It did, however, seem to be quite a double standard as men could more or less wear whatever they wanted. I was discussing this recently with my pastor and the conclusion we reached is that this is not just a disservice to women, but also to men. To essentially say that a man is nothing more than a sleazy bag of raging hormones who cares nothing less than to oogle a woman’s body is to really discredit him. Men and women are alike in that while we cannot ignore our natural penchant for physical beauty, the majority of us are more taken and drawn in by personality and by character.
To Sum Up: This viewpoint that women should dress modestly so as not to cause a brother to stumble is outdated. Men and women are both responsible for how they dress, how they show themselves to the world, and how choose to react to temptations. Women are not asexual, men are not exclusively driven by sexual energy. A man who lusts after a woman or goes further is responsible for this regardless of how a woman dresses. Nevertheless, women can also show some discretion in what they are wearing and when as well as asking themselves why they may be drawn to more revealing clothing and their motivations behind it.
7. Anything about Eve or original sin
Down through the centuries, Eve has been used as a scapegoat towards the mistreatment of women. Eve was the one who gave into Satan’s wiles, thus she is the weaker sex, the one more likely to be deceived, the one given to emotional wiles, and the one who needs someone to look after her and protect her. Yet, society often forgets that Adam also played a part. In the garden, he did not take his natural leadership to rebuke Eve, but rather he also took part and then proceeded to blame her for everything. This is how the natural human “blame game” was born. Throughout the centuries then, we have always shied away from responsibility, not wanting anything to be “our fault” or the result of our own in-actions. Sadly, women have usually gotten the short end of this stick.
What I am hearing from women is that they are tired of being part of this perpetual blame-game for something one woman did thousands of years ago. Sin entered the world not because of Eve, but because the general human condition of both men and women is to rebel. Our hearts are bent towards evil continually. We are always out to destroy the balance of the universe, the shalom which God entrusted to us. We always think we know better. This is why some men deny women their rights and this is why some women take it too far by discounting and discrediting all men and trying to overly exert and assert themselves.
But if we all just got back to the basics, we would realize that in God’s Kingdom, men and women were (and are) meant to help and support one another. We were always meant to be mutual encouragers and mutual transformers.
To Sum Up: Eve was not the one who made sin enter the world. Sin entered because the inclination of our hearts was bent on evil and rebelliousness. Women are tired of hearing that they are at fault for something Eve did. Both men and women sin daily and are responsible for their own sins and misdeeds.
8. Well educated women scare off men
This one presented an interesting problem to me. I was 23 and in my last year of my master’s degree and taking a moment to pause. What next? I was still unmarried and still childless. I was thinking of a PhD but I was being told by men that if I did want to find a life partner this would scare him away. That men didn’t like when their woman was way more educated than them. In fact, in some churches, women are discouraged from pursuing any form of higher education at all because it is seen as worldly and detracting from her primary purpose – which of course is simply to be a wife and mother.
In my own experience, though, this is nothing less than a farce. I have dated men of very conservative cultures and all of them have encouraged my educational growth and supported my desire to take it further. A true man will be impressed and love that his woman is educated and intelligent. An insecure man will want to prove that he is the one with all the skills and abilities.
To Sum Up: The viewpoint that women shouldn’t pour themselves into higher education is backwards. Any reasonable man will applaud this in his wife, support her and be happy for her.
9. A woman is under her father then her husband’s authority (women are non-entities)
I admit that this is a concept I never fully understood. While I do believe that as children we are to honour and obey our mother and father, and I do believe Biblically that a man should lead his family, I never understood the concept of a grown woman being under her father’s authority. Does that mean a grown man is under his mother’s authority? It seems in a way as if a woman is then being treated as a non-entity or as a non-person. When a woman leaves home to pursue an adult life, she becomes responsible for her own decisions. The Bible says that children should not be responsible for their parents’ sins nor parents responsible for their children’s sins. Of course, some consideration should be taken for example when considering a life-partner. I believe that it is so important the family can accept a potential life partner or else it creates ripples right from the beginning, but the ultimate decision always belongs to the couple themselves.
To Sum Up: Personally, I have never understood this philosophy – how can a grown woman still be under her father’s authority?
10. Women should take part in children’s ministry
This last point is one that I have wrestled with as I have been on both sides of the fence – I have been the one who was asked to take part and I have also been the one who asked others to take part.
First, looking at when I was asked to take part. It seems that women are a natural target for being conscripted to help out in Sunday school and other children’s programming. It is thought that because women should be naturally maternal this is exactly what they would like to do and that all women are gifted in this area. As a result, I have served in children’s ministry for over 10 years. The problem is, that I was never particularly gifted in this area nor did I ever really have a real interest.
I have also been on the other side of the equation – being the one asking people to help out, and I also fell prey to asking teen girls and mothers primarily as they were the most likely to say yes even when they didn’t want to (again because Christian women are taught to be “nice” and not say no).
Yet, this all goes back to the original idea that women have different skill sets and abilities. It isn’t right to assume that based on someone’s gender they may want to do something or not do something. It is better to ask and include those who truly do have gifts and interests in these areas.
To Sum Up: Not all women want to be in children’s ministry, not all men want to be in property maintenance. Look for a calling and ministry fit based on natural gifting and interest rather than gender.
Looking back over the last few weeks when I was conducting this project, I have really learned a lot about how old gender stereotypes and roles still play a huge part in our churches and society. Although there were several different points raised to me, most of them all pointed towards the exact same thing – women want to be seen as individual people with unique skills and interests, not just as a gender construct. Women want to embrace a certain freedom to serve God as they have been called, rather than for the church and society to make assumptions about them. Lastly, women want the opportunity to embrace whatever stage of life they are in without undue amounts of pressure or hurtful remarks. It is not that women want to run the church and erase men, rather it is simply that they are calling out for the church to remember them and not erase their personhood. Sometimes this calling is loud, sometimes it is a quiet whisper, but always it is there – right below the surface.
Deborah Ruth-Ferber is a contributor to PCPJ.
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