“Woman was merely man’s helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God but as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God…” — Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, Early Church Father (354–430)
“The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes. — Martin Luther, Father of the Protestant Reformation (1483–1546)
Misogyny. The history of the Christian Church is laden with patriarchal mores and sexist practices.
How did it all start?
As the Early Church struggled under the weight of a powerful Roman Empire, it was increasingly a source of refuge for the weak, the poor, the victimised, women, slaves and all at the mercy of a broken society. It was a place for those ignored in society to come together and worship and pursue peace and succour.
Yet as the church grew in might, it absorbed the influence of the cultural context and began to take compromising stances to fit in more. This is the story of the vast majority of human systems: economics, science, religion, and politics. The cultural context engulfs the foundational beliefs — notably here, there is a distinct and resounding patriarchal influence and the Church is no exception.
In fact, at the time of the early church, Roman law vested enormous power (Patria Potestas, literally: “the rule of the fathers”) in the husband over his “family” including his wife. This power was originally absolute and included the power of life and death. A first-century writer recounts the story of a man beating his wife to death because she drank some wine; his neighbours approved.
Every step of the way, from Augustine’s seminal writings to Martin Luther’s revolution to internet era sermons, the Church, governed by Christian men has borrowed a patriarchal and misogynistic lens in its approach to God and interpretation of religious texts. It has then wielded these interpretations as tools to promote the subjugation of women.
Where are we today?
Nigerian church practices and culture are the very antithesis of what Christ stood for and the very embodiment of the metaphorical Pharisee: an arrogant, hypocritical, know-it-all unwilling to weigh evidence or pursue truth but obsessed with the expression of power and dominance.
The church continues to not listen to women or allow them minister as pastors (some churches allow women minister but you will be hard pressed to find one that allows a woman the full responsibility to pastor/custody the whole congregation). They take it further and wear a patriarchal lens while reading the bible; protect men pastors at the expense of women; and often relegate women to “after-men” congregants. This is consistent with Old Testament language that put men first, using only terms like “sons of Abraham”. But Jesus introduced the phrase “daughter of Abraham” to the Christian’s parlance: in Christian writer, Sarah Bessey’s words, this “[gives] her a place to stand alongside the sons, especially the ones snarling with their sense of ownership and exclusivity over it all, watching.” Yet, the Church has worked tirelessly over the millennia to undo this work. Christian women have been speaking against this for years: asking, begging, demanding for a voice only to have the doors constantly shut in their faces.
The call of love is to listen, to empathise with the trampled upon and in the spirit of David, to stand together with the victimised in the resistance against power and tyranny. A lot of this in the church should be stopping and preventing the abuse of women; listening to women, and helping to empower women. The Church is pivotal in society and wields a lot of power and influence — it most definitely should be the last place women should feel like second-class citizens.
Sexual assault and harassment of women
There is a rampant problem of church leaders abusing the authority they have over their congregants — notably women. The church often feels a need to hide this, silence women and act as if all is well in an attempt to not bring “shame” and “embarrassment”. This is not useful, is counterproductive and continually fosters a culture that oppresses women. Often times, shame and embarrassment are indeed called for to right wrongs — the church is in plenty need of public penitence.
This is especially apparent in the more recent and widespread case of COZA’s Pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo against Busola Dakolo. All the church leadership responses have been abysmal at best:
- The COZA church: they give Fatoyinbo a cosmetic leave of absence and he is back at the pulpit just a few weeks later.
- The wider church community: just a handful of pastors offered any public condemnation or critique. CAN (Christian Association of Nigeria) went as far as sending its Abuja leadership to the COZA church to speak in favour of Fatoyinbo and against Dakolo: “we are in support of your Pastor and we stand by him.” Wow, take a step back and ask: WWJD?
- Pastor Adeboye: taking the time to offer remedies in the form of advice on how men can avoid phantom false rape allegations. There was room to encourage women who have similar abusive experiences to come out and speak up, to offer counselling, to unequivocally reprimand men who partake in such acts. Nada. Because God forbid the Church takes a moment to listen to, believe or advocate for women.
Wives and husbands
Christian men need to abandon and move on from their obsession with headship. To borrow from the influential Christian feminist writer, Rachel Held Evans: “In every case, ‘wives submit to your husbands’ appears in the same context as ‘slaves obey your masters.’ And yet I’m constantly told we need to consider context & culture with the latter but not the former. Just as the New Testament household codes should not be used to reinforce slavery; they should not be used to reinforce patriarchy.” (Link is my own insertion).
Sharyn Dowd, an Associate Professor of Religion at Baylor University notes that the early writers “advocated this system not because God had revealed it as the divine will for Christian homes, but because it was the only stable and respectable system anyone knew about. It was the best the culture had to offer.”
The entire shtick of men as head of the home is entirely outdated and leads to the propagation of a lot of suffering for women. Church weddings, sermons and worst of all — wedding sermons — continue to focus on women and wives as home makers, and unburnt sacrificial lambs. Are we in first century Palestine?! Continuously asking this of women, literally kills them. There is unending pressure on women to preserve marriages and make self-detrimental sacrifices to sustain them. This is the kind of culture that fosters domestic violence with increasing emphasis on “forgive” and no sense of “justice”. Not every time, women forgive; sometimes, men be jailed. Not every time, stay for the kids; sometimes, divorce. We shouldn’t have to explain to church leaders why domestic violence is a no go and how it shouldn’t be condoned at all, yet here we are.
I can’t put it better than Sarah.
“The lack of women among the twelve disciples isn’t prescriptive or a precedent for exclusion of women any more than the choice of twelve Jewish men excludes Gentile men from leadership.”
— Sarah Bessey
But the church should go above and beyond. It should listen to the voices of women about their experiences and about how they want to be loved and should take active positive steps to correct: women do the majority of unpaid (often childrearing) work, women are most affected by poverty, women are most shamed for and affected by unprotected sex, fornication and adultery. Where is the voice of the church in moving the needle on fixing these? Where is the voice of the church in regards to women scholarships, legislating for women in courts, saving women from abuse in marriages, job creation targeted at women, loans and businesses targeted at women. Heck, can the bar be set at: don’t promote or cover up the rape and abuse of women. The church fails women again and again.
Perhaps the Christian church should start taking a cue from its Christ who: defended the adulterous woman, spoke to a foreign woman when it was considered a defiling act, befriended and loved women, empathised with women (Jesus cried!), honoured women (Jesus started his miracle ministry at the behest of his mother), made women the crowning voice of his testimony (women were weak testifiers under Roman law but were the first testifiers of the Risen Christ). It should be noted that a lot of these were in fact done to chastise sexist behaviour and beliefs of even the disciples.
Of course, often times we are even willing to ask Christ to do more — he is God, after all, the Church claims. But the entire point of the legacy he has bequeathed the Church in every aspect of life is to further that which he started and that is the listening to and loving of our women neighbours. The Church, church leaders, church men — wake up!
To end with some more Rachel Evans:
“Women should not have to pry equality from the grip of Christian men. For those who follow Jesus, authority should be surrendered — and shared — willingly, with the humility and love of Jesus.”
That’s all (Christian) women demand.