Sexism has been both the most and least discussed issue in the American church. On one hand, many churches have addressed the sexist notion that prevents women from Christian leadership, and feminist biblical scholars have challenged the interpretation of scripture that has promoted male supremacy. On the other hand, the church has been silent on the issue of domestic violence and abuse within the church. Many preachers have shamed women for wanting to leave abusive relationships and have protected male perpetrators of domestic violence at the expense of their wives and children.
Like racism, sexism remains an intractable issue in our society. The church is one of the major pillars of our society and at its best, can serve as a place of liberation against racism and sexism but too often serves as the greatest agent of the two. Just as colorblindness plagues the church in regards to racism, the promotion and maintenance of male supremacy enslaves the American church to sexism. To challenge the sexism and male supremacy within the church we must recognize it’s existence and persistence. Below are 5 ways that sexism enslaves the American church:
1. Objectification: The church loves to condemn the prevalence of sexual promiscuity in our society and how it is having a bad impact on the youth. Many Christians blame and protest against rap music for objectifying women; yet many preachers and church leaders womanize in ways that would make the most sexually explicit rap lyrics look clean. There are men in the church who prey on vulnerable newly-converted Christian women and treat them like a piece of meat. There are pastors who treat their wives like property and discourage women from independent thinking and living. Even Christian men who refrain from sexually objectifying women are guilty of viewing their wives and other women in their community as property.
2. Domestic Violence: Domestic Violence is a silent but severe issue in the church. It happens frequently but is discussed scarcely. Many women who face domestic violence are in relationships with men who are powerful and influential in the church, whether it be a preacher or an elder. As a result, the voices and cries of abused women are ignored and shunned. They feel pressured to stay in abusive marriages and are shamed and humiliated by friends and family if they rebel. Abusive men are supported and celebrated by their community because they can censor their wives cries for help by threatening them or asserting their influence in the church. Furthermore, the men manipulate their wives by misusing scripture to suggest that the woman must stay with them regardless of the hostile treatment and are to be submissive, while they persistently abuse and cheat on their wives.
3. Women’s Roles: The bible has long been used to suggest that women are to be completely subject to men and that they are incapable of leadership. While the scriptures that appear to prohibit women from leadership positions in the church are taken out of context, men have effectively persuaded women that their primary roles are to bear children and cook in the kitchen. While there is no shame in raising children and cooking, there is an inherit sexism in suggesting that women are limited to those activities. Women who have gifts of speaking or expertise in finance are too often prevented from using their talents because they are “outside of the roles of women” in the church. This is particularly prevalent in the ultraconservative wings of the Church of Christ denomination, where women are prohibitied from doing almost anything that deviates from 1950s gender roles.
4. Women’s Liberation: Some of the strongest condemnations of feminism in American society have come from the church. Many churches see feminism as a threat to “traditional family values” and as an abomination to God. As a result, women who think differently and challenge traditional norms are seen as threats to the church and the family. While many generalized criticisms of feminism are based on pure ignorance of the nuances and diversity of the ideology, churches have been effective at programming people to abhor every element and wave of feminism.
5. Flawed Woman, Flawless Man: When churches talk about sin, including sexual sin, women are too often blamed for their promiscuity and “weak nature” while men are seen as agents of God’s mission. Men are encouraged to avoid sexual temptation from women, as if men are never perpetrators of sexual promiscuity. Churches condemn women who engage in prostitution, but refuse to speak out against the sex trafficking that forces women into selling sex. Preachers shame women for having children out of wedlock and getting abortions, but defend systems that create conditions that make abortion desirable or sympathize with men who harass and rape women. Women are labeled as agents of the devil while men are celebrated as gifts from God.
These sexist elements in the church mirror the society we live in and while many pastors preach tirelessly about the importance of being nonconformists in our world, the reality is that the church has conformed to society’s mores and folkways in regards to gender roles. The church has mislabeled these traditions as “biblical” and “godly” and a result, many women have been oppressed and censored in the name of God. There are many churches that have been challenging the sexist practices in and outside of the church for decades and more and more Christian communities are recognizing and repenting of the sins of the past. This is encouraging and exciting and it is time for the Christian community as a whole to reject the idol of sexism that enslaves churches nationally and globally.