The Common Good

Religion, Scripture, and the Value of Women

The third edition of the Shriver Report, a media initiative spearheaded by Maria Shriver to call public attention to women’s evolving role in the home, workplace, and society, was released this month.

Gender equality wordcloud, mypokcik / Shutterstock.com
Gender equality wordcloud, mypokcik / Shutterstock.com

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With a large body of articles, research, polls, data, and personal stories, the report assesses the unique needs, pressures, and realities women face. Contributors within the faith, health, academic, economic, and political communities are represented, coupled with intentional cultural and social diversity. This gives the Shriver Report a richness of deep and thoughtful voices. The aim is to strike up provocative, meaningful, national conversations on how progressive policies can be better directed to advance gender equality in the United States.

One of the most eye-catching article headlines for me in reading the report was “ Are Women Devalued by Religions?” In the article, sister Joan Chittister remarks on how our assumptions about religion influence our actions, and how the outworking of our actions shapes the norms and policies we guide our lives by. Unfortunately, these assumed beliefs can lead to commonly accepted views that completely distort what God has to say about women.

Through her many examples, Chittister makes us keenly aware that “religion’s power to determine human reality and public morality in every arena has a long and troublesome history.” However, I’d like to qualify that statement a little more, rephrasing the sentence to read “the manipulation of religious teaching and its subsequent power to determine human reality and public morality … has a long and troublesome history.” It’s not religion per se, but it’s how humans have (mis)interpreted it that has served to undermine many Scriptural teachings, one of them being the status of women.

It’s a sad truth that God’s intention — with male and female equally made in the imago dei in Genesis 1 — has been co-opted by many in the church to relegate women to a “helpmate” to her superior Adam. For those who stand to gain from the perpetuation of this negative status quo, it has become socially and morally expedient to limit women’s voices in leadership. Whatever the insidious reasons to keep this patriarchal hierarchy intact, the result has been an undue burden on hundreds of millions of women throughout history, and, even worse, a denial of God’s original declaration and intent of women as co-equals of men.

If this puzzle was played out as an equation, it would look something like this:

Jesus’ view: men = women

Many in the church’s view: men > women

When I think back to myself as a middle-school student in my church youth group, I knew that math didn’t add up. I grew up in a church that did not support equal rights for women. Of course, those words were never spoken, but in practice, sexism was rampant. Women could not preach, for example — unless they were pastoring in the mission field overseas, which somehow made female leadership okay — nor could they hold a pastoral role or serve as church elders.

The repercussions of this teaching really struck me as a young teen in youth group. The girls were consistently singled out and reprimanded, while a “boys will be boys” attitude was tolerated by the youth leaders. That was the time I knew I was joining the multitude ranks of “those who have been hurt by the church.” And it did really hurt.

Thankfully, by the grace of God, I had enough conviction at 13 years old to know I couldn’t abandon my faith or angrily leave the church altogether. Somehow, deep down, I just knew that I knew that specific teaching about women was not okay — that it was not in line with the teachings of Jesus. I never blamed or doubted God. What hurt me was the manifestation of a sinful assumption. That assumption had unfolded in our church philosophy. Whether the congregation knew it, that assumption had become a part of our identity and shaped our worldview.

Warped and distorted, such views have severely limited women in their roles in the church and in the home. Many Christian women carry this weight around, unsure of how to use the gifts God has given them. Often, they believe the lie themselves. Sadly, women have walked away from the church, never knowing the truth Jesus speaks about them. The truth is the Holy Spirit does not discriminate on the basis of gender what gifts are given to each person. Both men and women can preach, teach, and serve in the children’s ministry.

Chittister got it right when noting that “not only does what our churches, mosques, synagogues, and faith communities teach and do about women become the morality of the land — what they do not say or do on behalf of women condones what becomes the immorality of the land.”

God, the founder of my Christian faith, does not undermine God’s own teaching. To deny women are equal is to deny what God has said is equal. It is people who are undermining religion, not religion undermining women or other people groups.

Faulty religious interpretations have long defined and confined women’s places in society. It is my hope and prayer that the church can be one of the vehicles at the forefront of remedying past and present wounds of our nation’s systemic gender inequality. If we get back to the heart of God, we find women as fully whole and just as human as men. We are not “equal with some stipulations.” We are not “equal, but …” We just are equal. Period.

Anna Hall is campaigns assistant for Sojourners.

Image: Gender equality wordcloud, mypokcik / Shutterstock.com

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