The Common Good

In the Image of God: Sex, Power, and ‘Masculine Christianity’

Most of us are too familiar with this story: an Upper Midwestern Baptist minister claims that “God made Christianity to have a masculine feel [and] ordained for the church a masculine ministry.” Or a Reformed Christian pastor mocks the appointment of the first female head of the Episcopal Church, comparing her to a “fluffy baby bunny rabbit.” Or a Southern Baptist megachurch pastor in California says physical abuse by one’s spouse is not a reason for divorce. Or numerous young evangelical ministers brag about their hot wives in tight leather pants.

A woman stands alone on the stairs. Photo courtesy Kati Neudert/shutterstock.com

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Fewer of us are familiar with this story: Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon. Tamar protests her brother’s advances, citing the social code of Israel, his reputation, and her shame, to no avail. Their brother Absalom commands her to keep quiet, and their father, the great King David, turns a blind eye.

What do these contemporary statements above, delivered into cultural megaphones with conviction and certainty, have to do with the Old Testament rape and silencing of Tamar? The difficult answer is, quite a lot. The narrative dominance of these stories rests on power and control, which — whether intentional or not — speaks volumes about whom the church serves and what the church values.

In short, the stories that fail to treat women seriously are the kinds of narratives that lead to manipulation, devaluation, and sexual abuse of these very women.

There is too often a shameful culture of silence around rape and abuse in the church. But equally pressing is the confusion or silence in many evangelical communities around the pattern-forming behaviors that lead to it. For men and women alike, this brand of silence has roots in a sexualized view of women, and is given context in a power narrative that is built to protect and perpetuate male dominance in the church.

This kind of silence is incompatible with valuing women as made in the image of God.

In the American church today, men hold a significant proportion of narrative power. Though twice as many women as men join discipleship activities and greatly outnumber men in church attendance, a significant majority of men still hold the highest positions of leadership across denominations. Of course, if not from the pulpit, women may speak out in other forums (increasingly, for example, through publishing or online platforms, as notable evangelical women are doing). But it does not require rejecting a complementarian view of gender to recognize that the predominance of men in church leadership makes power a gendered issue for the church.

And the church’s unsettled relationship with gender and sex in the context of power does contribute to an ugly storyline that too often crops up in this framework: that a woman’s value is inextricably tied up in her sexuality.

The consequences of this view was starkly articulated last week by Elizabeth Smart, a Mormon from Utah who was kidnapped at age 14 and sexually assaulted during her 9-month captivity. She spoke of her hesitancy to flee her captors in damning terms for our faith communities’ discussions of purity.

"I was raised in a very religious household — one that taught that sex was something special that only happened between a husband and wife who love each other,” Smart said.

She continued: 

“So for that first rape, I felt crushed. Who could want me now? I felt so dirty and so filthy. If you can imagine the most special thing being taken away from you and feeling that — not that that was your only value in life, but something that devalued you — can you imagine turning around and going back into a society where you're no longer of value, where you're no longer as good as everybody else?"

The church's emphasis on young women, but not necessarily young men, remaining “pure” for their future spouse creates a double bind, Victoria Ferguson, founder of Kindred Moxie, a faith-based domestic violence advocacy network in Atlanta, Ga., said — one where women carry the burden of responsibility for sexual purity but have no power over the consequence.

“We are told every day, ‘boys will be boys. Your obligation is to not be raped.’ As if this is what just men do,’” she said.

This approach, Ferguson said, uncomfortably mirrors the broader cultural approach to rape and victim-blame.

“You don’t see the media discussing the impact or magnitude of intimate partner violence,” Ferguson said. “We are giving the perpetrators attention without accountability. We ask, ‘Why is she still with him? Not: ‘Why did he do that to her?’”

In the realm of sexuality and sexual violence, the media and the church share at least one frustrating commonality: the dominant voices are male, and their prominent focus and value judgments are directed at females.

“It’s the hyper-masculine kinds of comments that get the most publicity,” said Rev. Sharyl Marshall Dixon, associate pastor at the Presbyterian Church of Deep Run in Perkasie, Pa. “They’re louder and meaner, and make better stories. But they’re not making my job any easier.”

Donna Schaper, senior minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City, agreed.

“Nuns and Protestant women are also very much faith leaders. But the megaphone is captured by white Protestant men,” she said. “We need to say out loud whose voices are not being heard — and give women hope that they might be heard.”

Overt or systematic sexism and abuse is easy enough to name and denounce. What is more troubling is when sexism is perpetuated in the same breath as healing and empowerment. It is important to note, for example, that controversial megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll has in fact spoken out repeatedly on the specter of sexual abuse in church. On an issue shrouded in such silence, his outspokenness is commendable.

Unfortunately, Driscoll’s consistently demeaning language towards women makes his narrative on sexual abuse precarious. If anything, it makes his sentiments all the more harmful and open to misappropriation. How can a young man learn to properly respect a woman when his pastor insists that women are unfit for leading the church “because they are more gullible and easier to deceive than men?” How can young women learn true, self-respecting empowerment when their teacher compares an enslaved child-bride, Esther, to a sexy contender on The Bachelor (one who “allows men to cater to her needs, lands a really rich guy…and wows with an amazing night in bed”) — and calls her “simply a person without any character until her own neck is on the line?"

And what does it mean when otherwise-thoughtful and respected church leaders like John Piper and Rick Warren’s Saddleback co-pastor Tom Holladay insist that women have no right to leave their abusive marriages?

How can young men learn to not abuse women when they are simultaneously being modeled the behaviors that lead to it?

For those trying to foster a culture of respectful men, the trend among such male leaders toward masculine swagger and gender prescriptiveness is worrisome, and too closely mirrors the crisis of power at play in abuse.

“[Rape] is not about short skirts,” Schaper said. “It’s about fear of powerlessness. It’s a crisis of masculinity and social control.”

“Where I hear people crying out from abuse — it’s just so sad,” Marshall Dixon added. “That’s not the Jesus I find in scripture or preach on Sunday morning. Where are you finding that?”

In reality, “we, men included, are confronting a terrible despair,” Schaper concluded. “[Outbursts of violence] would not happen if boys and men could feel effective. We need to help men find a healthy power.”

How can we create better narratives in our faith communities?

Jackson Katz, Founder and Director of MVP Strategies, echoed Ferguson’s calls to shift the focus on sexual abuse back to those in power.

“We have to ask a different set of questions,” Katz said, adding:

“Not about women, but men. Include things like: Why do so many adult men sexually abuse little girls and little boys? Why do we hear over and over again about scandals erupting in major institutions like the church? And what is the role of the various institutions in our society that are helping produce abusive men at pandemic rates? Once we start asking those questions, then we can talk about how we can be transformative.”

And indeed, the ongoing media coverage of clerical abuse of children helps shift the narrative to the perpetrators, and, equally critically, to sexual abuse as a power act.

As people of faith, the stories we tell have spiritual and physical consequences. In order to salvage the good messages of church leaders like Driscoll, Piper, and Holladay from the ugly, marginalizing power dynamics, a richer vision of women as made in the image of God is desperately needed.

In looking at progress made for women’s voices in the church, “We’re maybe 25 miles down a 100-mile road,” Schaper said. “The change ahead may be slow, or it may be radically transformative. I’m just not sure yet.”

This is the second in a Sojourners series on sexual violence in Christian communities. 

Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. Find her on Twitter @chwoodiwiss.

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