“Women’s worship should be inaudible, while men’s should be audible.” He was in the middle of a tirade on how God had an “order” and men were on top, women were on bottom. Women were to submit to men in everything, they were easily deceived and should cover up lest men be tempted to lust after them. I had grown up with similar teachings, and it was not the first time I had heard words just like it. For years, I struggled to accept words like it, but I knew the cost of rising above them. If I, as a woman, wouldn’t submit to the men in my life, I would be upsetting “God’s order,” and there was a real chance that I could be cast out of my faith community.
But this time, as this man degraded us with his words, I looked around the room and saw that other women mirrored the grief and rage that I felt. 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 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 in the middle of a tirade about women’s proper place, a man’s need for respect, and 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.”
He sounded just like the pastors I had grown up with who supported the idea that women were there to respect, serve, and meet men’s sexual desires. It was not just my pastors teaching this, it was evangelical authors like Emerson Eggerich’s whose book, Love and Respect, is all about these ideas.
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. The result is a fertile 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.” If sexual abuse is due to power differentials, then a theology that promotes enormous power differentials between men and women (i.e., barring women from leading/teaching positions, telling women to submit while telling men to always be in control) is priming the ground for abuse.
The Bible tells us we can judge a tree by its fruit. And the truth is we can taste and see the fruit of patriarchal theology, and my friends, it is rotten. So what do we do in response to this?
I’d like to take our cue from Jesus and Mary 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. Like Jesus, I think we should be challenging the idea that women belong in any one place or any one role. We should be encouraging them to take up space, join tables from which they’ve been excluded, have their voice heard, and believe in their own capabilities.
For me, this looks like hosting a podcast called Faith and Feminism that challenges the gender norms so often prescribed by the church and advocating for equality within our faith spaces. I’ve written a book, Women Rising: Learning to Listen, Reclaiming Our Voice, that also challenges these assumptions.
Dear reader, I do not know you or your story, but I believe we have a Biblical template for resisting patriarchy. Across the Bible we see women bound by patriarchal gender norms and pushing past them to do what is more important: Esther disobeyed her husband 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 people to do the same? To decry injustice from within our pews and without–to use our voice on behalf of women everywhere?
May we be like Mary, and have Jesus say “You have chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from you.”
Meghan Tschanz is an author, speaker, and former missionary who is passionate about empowering women and reclaiming feminism for the Christian faith. She’s the author of Women Rising, host of the Faith and Feminism podcast, and an avid traveler. She and her husband, Dustin, live in northeast Georgia.