Gender, Gender Equality, and The Church

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Gender, Gender Equality, and The Church” by Nantondo Hadebe

Institute for Contextual Theology, Durban, South Africa


The topic of Gender and Gender Equality in the church often raises feelings of fear because issues of Gender, when taken seriously, have the potential for radical transformation. It seems acceptable to us when gender equality is enforced in the workplace where we are witnessing more and more opportunities for women or in politics where women are occupying key cabinet posts. We do not seem to have a problem with gender equality in these places. Yet when we seek to do the same thing in the church, there is resistance. (I am aware that the church is not a homogenous unit and am taking the liberty to generalise.) There are many reasons for this resistance but I will only focus on one namely fear. The three main fears being; fear of loss; fear of change and fear of the unknown. These fears are interlinked and sequential.

Let me explain, when challenged with the issue of gender equality, the initial reaction is fear of loss which comes whenever the status quo is challenged, the feeling that “we will loose everything that we believed in”. Following closely is the fear of change which comes when people are conscientised and realise that things have to change which leads to the fear of the unknown “what will happen next?”. These are real issues and it is with this in mind that I will endeavour to treat this subject with sensitivity while remaining true to the challenges of gender analysis. Before dealing with these issues we need a clear understanding of the terms that we will be using namely gender and gender equality.


What is gender and what do we mean by gender equality? Lets start with the basics, people are born generally as either female or males and we see that through their physical characteristics. When children grow up they learn that there are different roles for females and males and that they are expected to conform to these roles. In other words one is born with their sex but it is through our cultural/church teaching that we become women and men. This then is what we call gender identity therefore gender refers to the construction of identity by our society. It is this construction that defines for us what it means to be female and male. These roles assigned by our cultures seem so natural that we are tempted to believe that “that’s how it is supposed to be”. On the surface, this keeping of women and men in their place may seem fine and some of us can point to the advantages of the situation. One of the often cited advantages is that this system makes things easy, everyone knows their place and the rules which govern the relationship between women and men are clearly set out. However when the situation is examined through the lens of gender equality we find that beneath the surface of niceness is a system that favours men at the expense of women. It is a socio-cultural system that is characterised by inequality, where power belongs to men and the male child being valued more than the girl child. This male centredness and rule by men is often referred to as patriarchy. Where there is inequality, there is injustice and injustice, as we have seen during the apartheid era, has to be confronted and overcome if there is to be justice and freedom for all. In a situation of inequality, women experience exclusion as they are kept in the margins of society or marginalized as we prefer to say it. It is this exclusion that keeps the majority of women at the margins of society and leads to a situation where they are dependent on men.


The exclusion of women from equal participation in society contributes to the oppression of women. The power of males over women is most clearly visible in all forms of violence against women. Statistics show that gender violence is a greater cause of death and disability among women aged 15-44 than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or war. Women are vulnerable to violence at every state of their lives from the time they are born to the time they die. The response of governments around the world, including South Africa has been to legislate laws to protect women and include them into the socio-economic and political life of the nation. This has happened because women themselves have been their own liberators and have dared to say “enough is enough” and have demanded justice. As women’s voices become stronger and stronger, there will be more and more changes which will result in the transformation of society where gender equality will be the norm rather than the exception.

In all of this we need to ask ourselves, where is the church and how does the church stand up to the scrutiny of gender and gender equality? In other words if we are to look at the church through the eyes of gender and gender equality what would we see? Are women in the church oppressed? Is there patriarchy in the church? How do the scriptures construct gender? These are questions we need to ask the church. I need to keep on repeating, that the church is not a homogenous unit that there are differences among the different churches but beneath the surface, one can trace the presence of gender inequality despite proclamations to the contrary.

In my attempt to answer the above questions through the lens of gender and gender equality in the church, I have divided my paper into five sections:

1. The position of women in the church – what we see in the church today
2. The portrayal of women in the Bible
3. How do we respond to the Bible
4. The challenge of violence against women
5. Taking charge of our own liberation

1. The position of women in the church – what we see in the church today

If a person who had never been to a church came into the church what would they see. (I have already made provisions for exceptions and am taking a very general and broad view). They would of course see many things but in this discussion we are interested in how they would see the roles of women and men in the church. They would see that the majority of members are women and that the majority of the leaders are men. They would be told that this situation is “God’s will” and several verses would be quoted to prove the point. These texts are then used to infer something about the characteristics of women and how these define their role in the church and society. The position of men is also constructed and supported by different texts and together the texts that refer to women and men are defined as “God’s will”. I will say more about this in the next section. Gender roles are therefore thought to be set by God and that fulfilling these assigned roles is a proof that one is a good Christian. The problems associated with this will be discussed in the section that will deal with violence against women.

One can argue that many women are not passive but have discovered for themselves, liberative texts that affirm their equal worth before God and that is why many continue to be in the church. This is a valid point and while this type of personal liberation is important it is, on its own, inadequate in dealing with the structures that maintain and perpetuate gender inequality. This strategy needs to go a step further and engage in a struggle for justice and gender equality that will transform the face of the church so that gender equality becomes intrinsic and visible in all aspects of church life, doctrine, practice and leadership.

We need to examine the root causes of gender inequality in the church. This is a huge area which is multi-faced and multidisciplinary and I won’t attempt to cover it here. Nonetheless, I will proceed by looking at one of the key sources of Christian faith which is the Bible. I am aware that I am dealing with a controversial text (Bible) that is capable of being interpreted in many different ways. For example look at the many denominations we have and the new churches that are coming up! What is interesting is that despite these many differences and contradictions, one of the enduring characteristics that seems to prevail is the existence of gender inequality. That is why we need to look at the source, the Bible, and ask, what it is that is in the Bible that has for centuries produced a male dominated church and promoted, justified and perpetuated gender inequality.

Lets turn now to the Bible, the source of our faith and belief. How do the writers of the Bible portray women and the texts that have been singled out and used to justify the oppression of women.

2. The portrayal of women in the Bible.

The Bible portrays women in different ways and I will highlight five ways that seem to contribute to gender inequality. Women are portrayed,

a. As secondary role players in God’s plan for humanity.
If we look at the heroes of the Bible, how many of us can name women and men in equal numbers? It seems that men are the key role players in the work of God on earth starting from Adam to the apostles in the New Testament. One can be forgiven for concluding that there seems to be a strong male bias that runs throughout the Bible. Most of us can argue that there are women heroines such as Deborah, Ruth, Rahab, Mary etc but the reality is that their stories and contributions are not given the same attention in sermons and teachings as their male counterparts. A good exercise is to ask the children in Sunday School to name the hero/oines of the Bible.

There are many questions that need to be asked in order to come up with a liberative agenda that will enable us to challenge this reality. Some of the ways of doing this will be discussed in the next section.

b. As “background”, so that in some cases their names are not even mentioned for example Noah’s sons are named but not their wives, Job’s wife and many more. Where their names are mentioned as in the case of Moses, their roles are not given the same attention as their husbands. We are told in Genesis that God is the God of “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and there is no mention of their wives, Sarah, Rebecca , Rachel and Leah.

This may seem like an insignificant point but when we try to understand the exclusion of women from leadership positions in the church, every instance of exclusion becomes important.

c. As embodying negative characteristics which are detrimental to men. Infamous women who are remembered for their negative effect on men such as Delilah, Jezebel, Batsheiba and Eve are consistently blamed for the “fall” of the great men of God. I am not justifying their actions, I am only pointing out that they are the ones who are blamed. It is these women’s stories that have played a bigger role in shaping the perception of women in the church than the stories of the heroines. We need to ask why and ask who stands to benefit from these negative portrayals of women.

d. As outside the character of God. Even the construction of the Person of God has a male bias. It seems as if God is male and therefore men are able to represent God as leaders in the church. I know that this comment will raise objections from the floor. I am aware that in many of our doctrines, God is not portrayed strictly as male. For some of us God is beyond gender; for some God is both male and female and for some God is spirit far beyond human definitions etc. I understand and respect all views but I want us to pause and define the God that we worship, to list down God’s characteristics and ask yourself the gender of your God.

We know that human characteristics are used to refer to God in order to help us with our understanding and to bridge the gap between us and God. It is in this portrayal of God that we need to use the lens of gender analysis and ask whether the portrayal of God favours one gender over the other or is it gender-free? I confess that I grew up thinking that God was male, everything around me and in my church experience confirmed this perception. I understood and was taught that only men can be leaders cause they can represent God best.

The issue of Jesus, a man ,representing God is crucial in this debate. One of the problems has been on emphasising the maleness of Christ over his humanity. It is the example of Jesus, his life, dedication to his community and to God as well as willingness to suffer for justice etc that we are called to emulate not his maleness. I personally like many of you find the life of Jesus an inspiration.

All I am saying is that the “maleness” argument should not be used to exclude women from leadership positions in the church and from participating in all aspects of church life.

Of course this is not the whole picture of the Bible but it highlights those aspects that have contributed to the marginalizing of women, the construction of gender and gender inequality in the church.

The second and last part of this section is to briefly look at two texts that have been used to justify the exclusion and subordination of women which is an expression of gender inequality.

What we will see is how those in power are able to select texts from the Bible to justify and maintain inequality. We saw that for example during the apartheid era i.e. how isolated verses from the Bible where used to build and support a system of oppression. We will now how the combined use of selected texts have resulted in the construction of gender roles that are oppressive to women and that keep women under the power of men. We see once again the role that power plays in the interpretation of the Bible, i.e. in what is emphasised and what is ignored.

The challenge for us who want to remain in the church and for whom the bible is a source of inspiration is how we can re-read the Bible for ourselves so that we can challenge these texts and find those themes in the bible that uphold justice, liberation and equality of all persons before God.

The next section will look at how we interpret the Bible

3. How do we respond to the Bible
There are generally three approaches that have been used by women in the struggle for equality in the church. These are as follows:

a. The first approach emphasises those texts in the Bible that uphold equality and justice and marginalizes or downplays those texts that are oppressive. For example emphasising passages like Gal 3:28 which states that before God every person is equal and ignore texts like 1 Timothy 2:11-14. The weakness of this method is that it does not directly approach or deal with those oppressive texts that have a powerful influence on women. The oppressive texts remain unchallenged.

b. The second approach emphasises a particular theme from the Bible such as liberation of nations, or liberation of women or justice. In other words it is thematic approach, it interprets the whole Bible from a particular theme e.g. liberation. One of the advantages of this method is that it draws its principles from the whole Bible rather than isolated verses/texts. However, there are two weaknesses with this approach. The first one is similar to method (a) above in that it does not directly engage with those texts that are problematic because the emphasis is on proving a particular interpretation. The other weakness of the thematic approach is that it tends to be reductionist i.e. focusing on only one aspect of God’s revelation thus excluding other equally important themes.

c. The last method is the reconstructivists method which engages the entire Bible including those difficult and problematic texts through a multidisciplinary approach which makes it possible to uncover the contributing factors in the construction of the text e.g. socio-cultural issues of that time, the ideologies etc. It is a multi-disciplinary approach that recognises that texts are not written in a vacuum but are influenced by the context in which the writers lived. What this means is that this method will look at the context of the verse, the time when it was written and the socio-economic and political conditions under which the text was written and interpreted. Through this method which includes gender analysis, the human element is brought into play in the interpretation of the Bible. This method recognises that for example the command by Paul for slaves to obey their masters, was issued in the context of acceptable slavery in his time and the belief that Christ would be coming soon. When the slave masters in America took this text to justify slavery, the slaves liberated themselves from this text by recognising the context nature of it i.e. it was never meant to be a law but a response to a particular situation from an eschatological point of view. So this opens up many possibilities for women to re-read the Bible for themselves and liberate themselves from those text that have been incorrectly used to oppress them.

3. Issue of Violence against women
As already mentioned in the beginning, violence against women is one of the many visible and experienced realities of gender inequality. It is another area that has been swept under the carpet in the church and needs to be dealt with.

The issue of violence against women is essentially a theological issue because religious beliefs play an important role in determining how religious women respond and understand domestic violence and violence against women. We need to acknowledge that there are certain belief systems within our faith that contribute to the continued violence against women and also that certain aspects of our counselling perpetuates and further victimises women affected by violence.

I want to look at some of these texts that create conditions conducive to violence against women.

a. Ephesians 5:22-24 is one of the most quoted verses in the Bible and is used to define the space of women in the home and society and is also used in counselling victims of domestic violence to remain with their partners. The experience of abuse is couched in spiritual terms so that the victim feels that they are to obey their husbands as part of their Christian duty regardless of the consequences. Its even noteworthy that the texts that refer to men’s responsibility are often kept “silent”. We need to ask why and whose interests are being served.

b. Texts or verses that glorify suffering. From Isaiah 53:7ff Christ’s submission to suffering continues to be used in the context of domestic violence, to encourage women to see their suffering as “God’s will” for them. This interpretation encourages submission to suffering as an expression of faith in God. We need to point out that there is legitimate suffering especially in the struggle for justice but there is also illegitimate suffering which robs the person who suffers of their dignity and agency. Domestic violence falls under the category of illegitimate suffering. Love is linked to unnecessary suffering, sacrifice and selflessness. We need to develop a theology around issues of suffering that does not in the process take away the dignity of the life of the person. Christ suffering should not be used in domestic violence cases – it is totally inappropriate because Christ died so that we can have life and life in abundance John 10:10. Again we see how texts are abused to serve the interests of those in power.

c. The abuse of Christian ethics. I will only cite forgiveness because it is the one that is subject to most abuse. Again Jesus’ words need to be taken together and not separate isolated texts to serve the interests of those in power. One of the teachings of Jesus which encourages us to forgive “seventy times seventy times” has been used to encourage the abused woman to keep on forgiving her abuser. However, a comprehensive study of forgiveness, not just isolated texts, will reveal that forgiveness is closely related to repentance and justice making. These three are inseparable and if applied in domestic violence cases, there would be no cheap forgiveness that perpetuates and sustains the abuse.

d. Glorification of the family or family ideology where the family as an institution takes priority over the lives of people and this is the case in domestic violence where the home has become a dangerous, unsafe place. Again texts are quoted to ensure that marriage is preserved at all cost even the death of the abused partner. This is a case where the institution takes precedence over the well being of people and could the same principle that Jesus used about the Sabbath be used here namely that “the Sabbath is meant for human-beings and not human beings for the Sabbath” i.e. preserve humanity first before the institution.


I just want to say in closing that it is the intention of this paper to make us realise that gender analysis is not a threat to the church, but a tool that can enable us to root out those aspects in our faith traditions that perpetuate the oppression, exclusion and marginalisation of women. Perhaps some of us feel that things should be left alone, but the rising incidents of violence against women is a clear sign that all is not well, that gender inequality is not a harmless practice that will disappear! Gender inequality needs to be seen for what it really is a crime against humanity and a seat for the struggle for justice. That struggle needs to happen within the church. Women’s rights are human rights.

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