Women, inequality and the Church
The evidence is in: inequality, fixed gender roles and patriarchal teachings can help create church environments where abuse of women can thrive.
On this page
Some of the church’s historical teaching, particularly around sex and gender roles, has been significant in enhancing the status of women. Human sacrifice, sexual slavery, and female infanticide practiced by many world cultures came to an end through Christian efforts. Indeed, the historical recognition of women as fully-fledged human beings came from the biblical doctrine of the Imago Dei (Genesis 1:26-28) which affirms the intrinsic dignity of all people regardless of gender or social status.
However, much historical and contemporary church teaching on gender has also been unhelpful, and has perpetuated male entitlement and female inequality.
Some of the dialogue around domestic and family violence reflects problematic assumptions about what it means to be a biblical man or woman. 1 Where there is a belief that ‘manhood’ requires men to be powerful, authoritative, assertive, and in control, and women to be nurturing and submissive - these attitudes can hinder men and endanger women.
Questions to think about
What ideas about gender do members of your community hold that contribute to abusive interpersonal relationships?
What does it mean to be a ‘real man’? Is it appearing strong, controlling your emotions and being in charge? Or is it about being compassionate, nurturing and willing to help?
Women and gender roles in the Bible
In the earliest pages of the Bible, we read that God created humans – male and female – in his own image (Genesis 1:27). Both sexes have been commissioned to participate in his mission in the world and both are equally valuable. In Genesis, ‘woman’ shares the same substance and nature as ‘man’, and is equal to and distinct from him (Genesis 2:18, 23). Through the creation account and the wisdom and prophetic literature in the Bible, we see a picture of women as highly valued representatives of life, wisdom, sustenance and strength (Proverbs 3:18, 8:7, 10, 14, 15, 16:22, 20).
In the first century Roman world, women were seen as the property of men – ideally subservient daughters and wives, and certainly not suited for public life. In this context, Jesus’ interactions with women showed respect and value that was radically counter-cultural.
He touched, healed and restored a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years and was ceremonially unclean (Matthew 9:18–26; Mark 5:21–43, Luke 8:40–56). He came to the defence of women whose sexual reputations were called into question (Luke 7:36–50). And in particular, women played a critical role in Jesus’ ministry. Luke names a number of Jesus’ women followers/disciples “who provided for [Jesus and the Twelve] out of their resources” (Luke 8:3). The first evangelist we read about in the gospels was a woman (John 4) and the first witnesses to the resurrection were women. 2
While the degree to which we can and should separate ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ is contested amongst different Christian communities, at a basic level, we can all acknowledge that ‘gender roles’ – that is, ways of living out one’s biological sex – are socially, culturally and historically shaped.
The way ancient culture informs very traditional gender roles is evident in the Bible. For example, there is Esther who as a young unmarried woman in the Persian City of Susa in 460 B.C. was chosen for King Xerxes harem and underwent a traditionally feminine program of beauty treatments. Or King David who performed the traditionally masculine role of a shepherd in 900BC Bethlehem, and would have experienced long, gruelling days exposed to the elements.
Acknowledging that gender roles are to a greater or lesser extent culturally and historically contingent helps us examine our ideas about modern day gender roles more critically. We tend to speak of women as gentle and relational, and men as decisive initiative-takers. Yet descriptions of men and women in the Bible do not conform to these stereotypes.
Paul’s instructions to husbands in Ephesians 5 focuses on the responsibility to ‘nourish’ and ‘cherish’ wives – terms which are often associated with traditional femininity. Paul’s description of his own ministry portrayed the gentleness of a nursing mother (1 Thessalonians 2:7) and the encouragement of a father (1 Thessalonians 2:11). Paul's approach is so relational that he says that he shared not only the gospel, but his whole life with them.
Similarly, women in the Bible are often described in ways that are today more commonly associated with men. In the gospel accounts of the resurrection, it is the women who take the initiative to go to the tomb, and who are the first to see the risen Jesus. Both Deborah and Miriam are called to help lead Israel (Judges 4-5, Micah 6:4). Sheerah and the daughters of Shallum help rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 7:24, Nehemiah 3:12) .
And rather than being the special domain of one gender, qualities like gentleness, kindness, a spirit of power, and love and self-control should characterise all Christians (2 Timothy 1:7; Galatians 5:22-23).
Questions to think about
As you reflect on the way the Bible presents men and women throughout salvation history, consider: are your ideas about the roles of men or women too rigid or prescriptive?
Explore this further
- Megan Powell du Toit discusses gender and cultural constructs
- Marg Mowczko on the so-called feminine virtues in scripture
- Marg Mowczko also writes on the real biblical roles for women
- Christianity Today explores the unique barriers evangelical women face
- Bronwen Speedie writes about surprising men of the Old Testament
- Ashley Easter describes how Jesus is an abuse survivor too
Gender dynamics in the church
A significant body of research now shows that the most significant drivers of violence against women are the unequal distribution of power and resources between men and women, and an adherence to rigidly defined gender roles. In many churches, equal dignity and personhood for women when compared with men has not yet been achieved and patriarchal structures place women at greater risk of abuse.
Psychologist Kylie Pidgeon explains how this can occur in churches: 3
- Women are less able than men to receive pastoral care by a minister of their own gender, by virtue of most ministers being men. This is especially important when the issues are specific to women, such as pregnancy, childbirth or sexual issues.
- Topics specific to women are either neglected in preaching, or are handled clumsily by a male preacher due to lack of familiarity. This leads to the congregation being less educated and biblically informed about women’s issues. Even with women’s events, the majority of preaching heard is from men.
- Single women experience even greater barriers to receiving pastoral care from all-male leadership teams, due to necessary propriety.
- Women have fewer visible role models and mentors in areas of spiritual formation, resulting in slowed maturity and growth.
- The issues that affect women are either not prioritised or are removed entirely from the church’s agenda by men in positions of leadership.
- A culture of male-ness forms and is perpetually led from the front.
- ‘Women’s ministries’ are developed as special interest ministries, rather than as mainstream.
- Women, who are equally gifted in leadership, preaching and teaching as men, are denied the same opportunities to express and develop their gifts (even if only to female audiences).
- Women have less input into decisions regarding the spiritual direction of the church than men have, resulting in feeling marginalized and voiceless.
Questions to consider
Do any of these parallel dynamics between hierarchical doctrines of submission and the undermining of women operate in your church?
Explore this further
- Read our resources on gender inequality and its impact on domestic violence here.
- To read about women’s experiences in the church, see this summary of disappointing stories of gender bias in Christian communities.
- Ashley Easter on how patriarchy hurts everyone.