It has been said that we’re living through a reckoning with sexual harassment – both at work, community and in wider society. We have witnessed one powerful man after another become outed as predators across professional and charity sectors. This reckoning, with sex as a tool of male power, has also generated questions about complicity: Who watched and did nothing, and who enabled such bold behaviour?
But, if we’re honest, the complicity is broader; such men are physically acting out the power structure in which they know they live, maybe the brothers should ask themselves what role do they play in creating that structure? A truth to remember is that we still live in a male-coded society, and you can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male. Maybe it’s time to change the structure or, at the very least, draw attention to such an unjust structure.
Let’s pause for a moment to ask the question: How do you recognise female leadership, and how have we learned to look at the women who exercise power – or at least try to? What are the cultural underpinnings of the misogyny in your workplace or the church? Put another way, what are the words and images we associate with women who have authority? Are the terms loaded with subjective or sexual reference?
I’ve spent my life in a society that, by various measures, devalues and dismisses women. Of course there are a few institutions that buck the trend but, in the main, our collective history is full of examples where women have been marginalised and silenced. Alas, much of the world’s regions are rooted in misogynist views.
Masculinity can operate like other power dynamics. At times, it can plant itself into the centre, and shoves anything coded as ‘feminine’ to the edges. In order for the power imbalances between women and men to be redressed, the underlying structures – and dynamics that produce them – must be comprehensively addressed. Hidden and invisible power structures (unseen social norms that favour one gender over another) need to be identified and challenged if we want things to change.
Around the world, there are many values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and practices that support male dominance, weaken women’s sense of self-worth, and validate violence against women and girls. Such damaging social norms are perhaps the most insidious barriers, because they shape what we believe to be ‘normal’.
Church structures and, at times, religious texts have often been a key factor in replicating damaging gendered social norms at local, national and global levels. They are the source of many of our values and beliefs that, in turn, give rise to attitudes and behaviours, which are then formalised and condoned in our laws and policies. To date, the breadth and depth of their interventions need more vision, visibility and action. We want and need more in church leadership to speak to this area of life; it’s for leaders to consider the many ways in which we’ve organised ourselves around misogyny – particularly in our churches, in our families and as individuals. Maybe then we can mount a Christian response that is shaped by our experience and witness of Christ Jesus.
This is no doubt hard to imagine but, having read the experience of women in church who have been systematically abused, it is an uncomfortable reality. In this context, I find myself asking the question: How do our cultural traditions influence our religious practices and behaviour?
In Genesis, the creation stories are an evocative narration of creation, in which all that exists is utterly dependent on God. The story of creation in Genesis 2 is often used to argue not only that humanity exists in opposites, but also that one form of humanity (males) is superior to another (females). However, the creation story in Genesis may also be understood as expressing the idea that the most important difference exists between God and creation, not between male and female. Creation depends on God, and this is the primary theological relationship concerning creation. Another starting point for reflections can be the position of equality (Genesis 1:27), in that God created everyone equally. God also calls humanity equally in a shared vocation of stewardship to care for God’s ongoing creation.
The communion is called to live and work in Christ, to address injustices and oppression, and to create transformed realities and communities of good life, with gender relations that nurture and lead to the flourishing of all human beings. Being in communion entails sharing a spiritual journey, nurtured by the Gospel of God’s grace. To be in Christ implies that, although our differences remain, they have diverse meanings: our differences are gifts—one is not better than the other. Difference does not have to lead to inequality.
Given that women make up the majority of church congregations, these things should concern the churches. Now is the time for people of faith and their leaders to offer a prophetic voice and pastoral commitment to the women and young girls in our churches, as well as a willingness to counter the violence and misogyny in our society.
This is could be our Matthew 25 moment, the Gospel text where Jesus says: “How you treat the most vulnerable is how you treat Me”. It’s a moment where we can re-examine our policy and practices concerning women.
Here are three things you can do to ensure women are equally valued in your church:
- Support the empowerment of women as a key strategy toward ending sexual harassment and gender-based violence
- Actively promote the involvement of Men’s ministries, reflecting on models of transformed masculinities
- Address systemic and structural practices in church that create barriers to the full participation of women in leadership and at levels of decision-making