The work that I do gives an urgency and poignancy to the issue of gender equality versus hierarchy. I am a systemic therapist working primarily with domestic violence. It's all well and good, and seems relatively harmless to debate gender equality when in our minds this only includes the supposed healthy majority, the, well, privileged. And let's also make clear that when we are talking in very broad terms regarding issues as broad as gender equality in a very large population such as "the church" our default is to assume the privileged majority. Married, white, middle class, even young. Does this ring true for anyone else? So typically, women in the church are assumed to be young, educated, white, healthy, married women. Is that a safe assumption?
On to the next point. I'd like to include a couple of lengthy quotes from a book that is quickly becoming one of my favorites, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination by Walter Wink. After this, I will discuss my personal response to some of these thoughts.
And both women and children are abused by some Christian men, despite the emphasis on love in the teaching of Jesus. The problem is once again structural –males must dominate women (even if some do it rather gently) if they wish to preserve male ownership of property, the family name, and political control.
There is some correlation, however, between patrilineality and sexual inequality, and matrilineality and sexual equality. Fifty-two percent of matrilenial societies are sexually equal; only 19 percent of patrilineal are. Fifty percent of matrilocal societies are sexually equal; only 21 percent of patrilocal ones are. Warefare is absent, periodic, or occasional in 50 percent of societies where sexes are equal. Where males dominate, warfare is endemic or chronic in 82 percent of societies. Fathers spend more time with infants in societies having feminine creation symbolism. In 63 percent of these societies, fathers are in frequent contact with infants. But where societies have masculine origin symbolism, fathers are, at best, only occasionally involved with infants. In 72 percent of societies with mixed masculine and feminine origin symbolism, the father is in occasional to frequent contact with infants....
For although the liberation of women was not his central focus, if we look at what Jesus preached from the perspective of a critique of domination, we see a single, unifying theme: a vision of the liberation of all humanity through the replacement of androcratic with partnership values....
Jesus overturned the most rigidly upheld mores of his time. But the Domination System proved too strong. Soon sinners were being excluded from the church, women were being squeezed out of leadership, and the wealthier, educated males were taking over authority from the poor and unschooled. The Roman Empire joined the Jewish leadership in attempting to crush this nonviolent movement of compassion and equality. From within and without, enormous pressures forced the church ineluctably toward precisely the kind of hierarchical and violence-based system that Jesus had rejected…In all this, the conquest of women went hand in hand with the exploitation of the poor, the conquest of weaker nations, and the rape of the environment.
Any time I see power struggles happening within the church, I question the motive. I question what really is at work in this debate, and when I think about women in ministry, women in leadership, the debate between complementarians (when really we mean patriarchy) and egalitarians, the mommy wars etc, I am beginning to see a fallen system at work. A system trying to control a perceived threat of chaos, the old “slippery slope”. A system where everyone is grappling for a bit of ground.
I recognize I am unable to fight this system. I recognize that I am not the one who can win this, grab more power, or gain any ground of my own effort without engaging the very system that I can’t win in. I want to engage the debates, engage the change because I see it every day. I see what is at stake because it is bruised and fearful faces. It is people who have lost sight of their personhood because a power structure took it away from them. This may sound extreme, but it is my daily experience with the work I do.
So why is it important to push for equality of women in churches? Because until we have that, we are still promoting the system at work in a society that is undergirded by violence and power and oppression. And I feel certain that is not the reality of the Kingdom that Jesus told us was near.
The women I work with and love need the Kingdom. They need freedom. And I've heard from too many of them oppressive words straight from the pulpit that kept them in abusive situations in an attempt to be obedient to the churches instruction.
And part of that is what I mentioned at the beginning of this post. It's an assumed majority of privilege. Church, the poor, the oppressed, the powerless need to know that this does not mean they are invisible.