For the Bible Tells Me So: Justifying Gender Discrimination Based on Biblical Text
Political conservatives often claim to base their value system on Christianity and biblically sound doctrine. This was remarkably clear when Jeff Sessions casually referenced scripture to support obeying the law “of the land” (Romans 13:1–5) in support of the zero tolerance policy separation of children from parents at the US-Mexican border. Selecting components of the Bible to support political beliefs is very common; for example a baker in Colorado refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, and a county clerk refused to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple based on her religious beliefs. Although the United Methodist Church charged Sessions for disseminating doctrine contrary to the standards of the church in his social and political role — particularly as it furthers child abuse, racial discrimination, and immorality — churches continue to leverage the Bible to support inequality within the church.
For centuries, Christianity and other major religions have upheld beliefs that condemn licensing and ordaining LGBT and/or women to high-ranking clergy roles. Despite Pope Francis’ alleged support of LGBT persons, for example, Catholics do not currently recognize LGBT persons or women as priests. While Protestant churches are more complex in their stance and practice of ordaining women and LGBT identified persons, the lack of uniformity allows individual churches to establish norms and preferences for church leaders. For instance, the United Church of Christ has recognized and ordained women since its founding in the 1950s, and ordained an openly gay minister in 1972. Southern Baptists, however, do not recognize women and LGB clergy in their denomination. The absence of an unequivocal stance has not produced greater representation of women and sexual minorities. According to the National Congregations Study, less than 12% of pastors in the US were women in 2012. Although the acceptance of gays and lesbians in Protestant churches have increased, the numbers of sexual minority clergy are relatively low.
The allowance of denominations to discriminate against ordaining women and LGBT persons to clergy is based in an inerrant or timeless and literal interpretation of texts in the Bible. Sessions’ referencing of the text in Roman ignores the immediate cultural context of the original scripture, and applies its meaning to the current unique situation in the US under the newly-minted presidency. Thus, obeying the laws of the land means exactly as its stated, instead of as a metaphor for obeying laws that promote love, a critical stance that Jesus takes throughout his ministry (e.g., see Matthew 22:36–40). Many churches adopt a similar lens when applying religious text to current events. For instance, the following verse is often used to deny women’s ordination in some denominations today: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 2:11–12, New International Version). Regarding gender representation, an inerrant, literal view of the Bible should reveal contradictions. Indeed, another verse in the New Testament states: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy…Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy,” (Acts 2: 17–18, New International Version, emphasis added). Literal and timeless interpretations of the Bible would suggest that this second verse directly contradicts the first one, granting women the right to ‘prophesy’ and speak the Word of God in the church. Cherry-picking verses that support individual beliefs demonstrates how religion and state are not fully separate as some would suggest.
In my work, I explore the career experiences of Black women clergy in Protestant churches in the US to further examine the use of societal norms in religious practice. Through life narrative interviews and observations, I find that the most active churchgoers for the Protestant faith are Black women, yet they are less likely to pastor, especially in predominately Black churches. As multiply marginalized persons, Black women encounter hetero-sexism, racism, and classism in their work lives, and the church is no exception. I find that Black clergywomen carefully navigate the tension between basing their beliefs on the Bible and challenging interpretations because their legitimacy as church leaders are bound within its pages.
For instance, Pastor Patricia of New Bethel Baptist Church in an urban city in the northeast rejects Biblical text that undermine her authority as a religious leader. Referencing Ephesians 5:22–24, she states,
I don’t believe in male-headship! I don’t care what Paul said…And, more specifically, I don’t believe in female submission.
She further asserts that as a Black woman, especially in ministry, she is unable to fully embody the traditional woman role, therefore leading her to question some Biblical texts, stating,
I don’t believe that there is some sort of ideal womanhood and ideal manhood, and I think that part of why I don’t believe it is that the ways in which Black woman in particular often get caught in the crossfire of trying to perform these intersections right? And- and Black women are never feminine enough. We’re never dainty enough. We’re never in enough need of protection. We’re never quiet enough…
In another example, Reverend Nicole of Triad Church of God in a rural area in the southeast finds that the congregation is uncomfortable with hearing from women in the pulpit. Although she works in a church with a woman pastor and all women led ministry, the churchgoers still “expect to hear from a patriarchal ear,” stating,
I preached a sermon during Seven Last Words* one year during Lent and I ‘had the nerve’ to preach from a perspective that considered Mary [Jesus’ mother]. Even though the shepherd [pastor] of this church is a woman, many still expect to hear from a patriarchal ear… If you lead from a female-empowered perspective… it’s heard differently.
Lacking representation of women in church leadership roles perpetuates inequality in multiple ways. A majority of paid positions in the church are held by the senior pastor; thus women may perform voluntary labor at the expense of pay, further contributing to a pay gap in the clergy profession.
Additionally, women experience vulnerability in church settings, including perpetuation of and inadequate response to sexual harassment and violence. Among the 28 women in my sample, more than a third experienced some form of harassment or sexual violence throughout their lives. Reverend Dya of Living Water Church in the rural northeast shared how the predominately Black church respond differently to her sermons that address gender violence as opposed to racial injustice, stating,
I think people who come here are not surprised when they hear us talk about Black Lives Matter. One week, I did a sermon on Bill Cosby during the David and Bathsheba cycle, in the lectionary [a series of sermons according to the calendar year]. And my sermon title was #TheEmptyChair. So I preached about um, you know how Bill Cosby is a rapist…so the Black Lives Matter sermons I think go over really well. The sermons about sexual violence committed by men don’t go over really well. The women in the congregation, a whole bunch of women came up to me and were like thank you so much, because there are women survivors in the congregation and they need to know that they’re being heard. But I didn’t hear it from any of my men. Not even the allies, which I thought was kind of funny.
Refusing to ordain women not only reflects patriarchcal religious interpretation, but also a workforce issue. Churches are not regulated by government policies that seek to redress past wrongs towards women of color and White women, including affirmative action and equal opportunity legislation. Therefore, congregations are allowed to make their own decisions regarding the selection and appointment of women to ministry.
Several Black clergywomen are pushing back against the dominant narrative suggesting that women cannot and should not lead churches. As early as 1989, Dr. Jacquelyn Grant developed a theological stance grounded in the lived experiences of the oppressed as a countercultural perspective on Black women’s place and role in churches. Womanist theology reconsiders and revises scripture and interpretations to liberate and empower Black women. Prominent Black clergywomen including Bishop Vashti Murphy MacKenzie, Dr. Renita Weems, Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, and others developed and taught curricula in seminaries centralizing Black women in theological conversation, discrediting dominant perspectives that gloss over inequality in clergy leadership spaces.
Presently, Dr. Neichelle Guidry, current dean of the chapel at Spelman College, is leading the charge of Black millennial clergywomen experiencing marginalization in religious spaces. She began shepreaches as a digital space to empower and equip Black millennial women for inclusive ministry. Additionally, denominations are increasingly recognizing the danger of associating with political candidates with views that do not adequately reflect Jesus’ love and teachings. The 2018 Southern Baptist convention, the largest denomination with Protestantism, had their first Black leader at this year’s conference who publicly decried their long-standing relationship with the Republican Party. We may soon see more explicit denouncing of political leaders through their religious affiliations. As it says in 1 John 3:17–18, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
Courtney McCluney is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. She is also a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity.
*The Seven Last Words refers to seven biblical expressions or saying attributed to Christ Jesus on the cross. These sayings are gathered through reading the four canonical gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Note: the names of clergywomen and churches in my dissertation are pseudonyms to maintain confidentiality of the participants.
Part of a series on the use of the Bible to justify inequality and advance social justice.