World Christianity 10: Women and Men

Continuing discussion of Philip Jenkins’ fascinating book, The New Faces of Christianity: believing the Bible in the Global South.

Chapter 7 of Philip Jenkins is ‘Women and Men’

Another terrific thought-provoking chapter – this time on the role of women within Global South Christianity.

Jenkins argues here that the impact of Christianity on women’s lives is impressive – across the board from educated intellectuals to ordinary women.

The big idea here is that Christianity is a liberating force for women with socially progressive and even revolutionary implications.

Now before unpacking evidence for such a view, Jenkins does give space to acknowledge that all too often Christianity takes forms that are anything but liberating for women. Korea is an example of where the Confucian ideal of the ‘good woman, submissive, pious and unquestioning’ is taken as prescribed by the Bible.

The famous Pauline passages, that continue to cause debate in the West, are commonly used to limit women’s roles and reinforce cultures that are already patriarchal in character. Motherhood and domesticity are prized and taught, often with the exaltation of bearing male children.

Yet, says Jenkins, such attitudes are being seriously challenged by African and Asian feminist reading of the Bible, especially in how they interpret biblical texts like Ruth, Esther and Mary’s Magnificat.

Yes at times this takes on a fairly radical intellectual tinge with overtly political overtones. But Jenkins argues at grassroots level, among the poor in Africa and Asia “the rise of Christianity has, in an amazingly short time, effected dramatic changes in gender attitudes.”

Jenkins puts it memorably:

“leaving women to pursue domestic piety through Bible reading is like forbidding a restive population to carry weapons, while giving them unrestricted access to gasoline and matches.”

The Bible is a radical and dangerous text which challenges conventional cultural stereotypes of women:

How?

– An emphasis on faithful monogamous marriage in cultures that prize male sexual promiscuity.

– Biblical concepts of masculinity radically challenging ‘male machismo’ – such as the duty of the man to love his wife as Christ loved the church in Ephesians 5.

– An emphasis on charismatic gifting opening up ministry to women as the Spirit alights on whomever he wills. This ‘gender blind’ Spirit enables women to preach, prophesy, evangelise, and heal. Africa particularly has a vibrant tradition of women prophets.

– Jesus himself:

  • for example the story of the women suffering with bleeding in Luke 8 is not interpreted as just a sad medical condition, it means she is ritually unclean. Jesus breaks blood taboos and affirms women who are often relegated to the background because of menstruation or pregnancy.
  • Jesus’ many parables and actions of spiritual inclusion of outsiders including the Samaritan woman at the well and the inclusion of women like Rahab and Tamar in his family tree. Such inclusion is profoundly radical in societies where women are imprisoned by cultural restrictions.

– Challenging the practice of female circumcision as it is discovered that the Bible does not endorse such a ritual.

– Affirming women’s sexuality as in the Song of Songs (instead of seeing it as something shameful)

– Resisting the sexual exploitation of women as made in the image of God

– The Bible gives ‘permission’ for women to talk about and previously taboo subjects like rape, incest, abuse and AIDS, at last allowing space for stories to be heard.

– The Bible’s teaching to honour widows seems a historical curiosity to a Western reader but in the Global South is it a matter of life and death. Since property belongs to the man, a widow can find herself and her children stripped of possessions and livelihood after her husband’s death. In some African societies she must have intercourse with her husband’s brother to excise spirits. In other societies she is treated like the ‘living dead’ under a curse. Widows in such cultures need protection, inclusion and inheritance rights. Here, a story like that of Boaz caring for and protecting Ruth by marrying her speaks powerfully of an alternative hope for the widow.

Repeatedly reading this book, you are struck by the sheer freshness, revolutionary power and good news of the Bible as it challenges and undermines negative and destructive cultural beliefs towards women.

And this chapter raises questions about Christianity here in Ireland, esp the evangelical variety.

How would you describe attitudes to women within Irish evangelicalism? What has been your experience (especially if you are a woman). Is the church challenging negative cultural attitudes to women by following through on the Bible’s affirmation, liberation and inclusion of women?

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4 thoughts on “World Christianity 10: Women and Men

  1. Wow! This is inspiring Patrick and challenging. My experience with OM worldwide has underlined what you have said about women in the Global south. (In fact, our co-workers in India, including leading theologians are challenging those of us working in the west for not practicing the radical Biblical teaching about the role of women.)

    Bear in mind that I’m up in the wilds of Donegal, but my experience so far within Irish churches (and to some extent the wider scene) is that Irish church life remains significantly male dominated in terms of leadership, preaching, key roles and influence. I’ve found it difficult to identify women who are willing to write opinion pieces for VOX and have been surprised at how few women are involved in discussions (e.g. Civil Partnerships Bill conversation) etc.

    This is a significant issue and as a woman, I find it challenging to write about because I’m automatically considered to have an ‘agenda’. Are there men in Ireland who are willing to tackle the issue and open the debate on our behalf?

  2. Thanks Ruth. Can’t disagree with your observations.

    There remains I think a big gap between (for example) the numbers of gifted women taking courses in IBI (who are just as gifted academically / spiritually and in Christian character as the men) and how that follows through to active participation in leadership, key roles and influence in Irish churches.

    Part of the issue of course is that evangelicals don’t have a magisterium! The picture is mixed – there are some churches / traditions that are intentionally encouraging of women using their gifts (and I do think there needs, as you say, to be an active support of women otherwise the status quo prevails). But the majority picture, IMHO, is of limited roles and opportunities.

    Even leaving aside the complementarian vs egalitarian debates – which now essentially reduce down to whether women should teach / lead within a leadership team headed by a man or can there be a woman as ‘the’ leader / pastor – I suspect there is a whole lot of cultural conditioning where women are just expected to fit into certain roles.

    It is here evangelicals are not evangelical enough, The Bible actually says a whole lot that is very clear about the gifts of the Spirit and how all are called and gifted for ministry. It should be evangelicals who are leading the way in affirming women in ministry. But too often they are the ones who opt for unbiblical fixed gender roles and un-thought-out restrictions on the roles of women in the New Covenant Community.

  3. Wow… I find this picture of the issue in the global south fascinating. Isn’t it funny how clearly other cultures see things that the church in the west thinks its got all neatly tied up and never needs to revisit?

    After all my blogs on the subject, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t take you up on the invite to share my experience on things like this…!

    Hmmm… good question – is the church challenging negative cultural attitudes to women?

    My first instinct is that many women (particularly in the evangelical church) don’t actually realise the ways in which they are treated/viewed are negative. Or that their faith would have anything to say about it. We’re so used to the general feeling of shame/fear on the periphery of our hearts, we’ve told ourselves that’s just how it is and trained ourselves not to notice anymore.

    Also, if a women feels as ‘at home’, as affirmed and as accepted in the culture/workplace as any man etc I know that some feel differently as soon as they step foot in a church.

    In particular, humour is used to belittle women and normalise the negative attitudes towards them and their capabilities/gifts. After playing the guitar in church I was once told ‘you’re not bad… for a girl’. Hilarious. Any argument we make against humour, we just look like spoilsports and sourpusses and are forced back into the cage.

    Recently I attended a leadership retreat with 9 other women and 10 men. 2/10 male leaders were unmarried, 2/10 female leaders were married. It made me wonder (recognising there’s a higher percentage of women in the church in general anyway) if there’s something going on in the church that encourages women in leadership positions on one hand but on the other it somehow exudes the sense that the qualities of leadership in a woman are unattractive/undesirable/threatening as characteristics for a wife?

    Yep, I sympathise with Ruth too – knowing that any comment I make as a woman can oftentimes be regarded as ‘too emotional’ or too ‘agenda-driven’, or worse – too ‘burn-your-bra-bitter’.

    The good news is that yes, there are a few men out there stepping up to fight for their sisters in Christ 🙂

  4. Thanks Mysmallcorner. And thanks too for your excellent blogs on this issue! I think you have identified some of the key issues – the use of humour and the dismissal of women as ‘too emotional’ are things I have experienced. I’ve also found many women who simply accept that in church they are less free than they are in the workplace, etc.

    Patrick also makes an important point. Unless people are actively working to change the situation, the status quo will remain. I do not think there are sufficient men willing to see women released to their full potential within the church – although I do know a few.

    Thanks for engaging on this issue!

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