7 Mistakes the Church Makes In How It Views Women

Competitive skier Lindsay Vonn was recently interviewed by SELF Magazine for their latest issue (released on January 28, 2014). In that interview, Vonn spoke about her experience attending the Met Costume Gala in New York City. She spoke of many of the female celebrities in attendance at that gathering as being “skinny-fat” and that she wanted to feed them a cheeseburger. Vonn said, “It’s sexy and beautiful to be strong.”

This led me to think about how we view women and women’s bodies in America. And more specifically, it led me to ask the question, how does the church in America view women? And what mistakes do we make regarding how we view women in the church? I have much to say about this topic, but in order to keep my thoughts organized I’m going to make a list here of the 7 mistakes the church makes in how we view women. (NOTE: Many of these apply to women in sports as well.)

1. Smart women are threatening. This is true both in and out of the church. And it is not just men who feel threatened by smart women. Many women do, too. We’re threatened because we are insecure. Men are afraid of losing the power that they’ve been given for so long without having to earn it. Women are afraid of being given power that they don’t feel equipped to handle. The problem is that we are limiting our potential if we don’t utilize the gifts of everyone. Perhaps our own insecurity is a greater concern than the intelligence of others.

2. Women are a distraction to men. In the church, men have made the claim that having a woman standing up front, preaching, would cause them to lust. Men stare at a woman’s body rather than listening to her message. The mistake we make here lies in where we are placing the blame. If a man lusts, it is not the fault of the object of that lust. We can’t fault women for being who they were created to be.

3. Women aren’t tough enough. For some reason, we have this stereotype that women are fragile creatures who can’t handle extreme amounts of pressure. But after watching my wife carry and give birth to two babies, I don’t think there is anything she couldn’t endure. Women are far stronger than either they or we often give them credit for. We too often mistake emotion for weakness.

4. Women aren’t as authoritative as men. Therefore, women do not make good pastors, coaches, or business leaders. If you’ve ever heard a woman break out the “mom voice,” you know that women can command a pretty amazing amount of authority. The problem here is two-fold. First, we confine a woman’s authority. Patriarchy restricts a woman’s authority to certain spheres of life, and America still has remnants of patriarchy. Second, we are limited in our view of authority. Somewhere along the line, we determined that dictatorial leadership was the “best” and most authoritative form of leadership. Therefore, all of our leaders must lead in that way. It has taken us a while to learn that there are other, equally effective ways to lead. Many women, though certainly not all, tend toward a more collaborative leadership style.

5. Society determines beauty rather than God. Perhaps we could also say here that beauty determines success for women more than intelligence, experience, or expertise. In society, I see this most clearly in the music business. There are a number of female musicians who’ve made a name for themselves solely because of their looks, while some very talented women who would be considered less “attractive” have not gotten the notoriety. In the church, we should be separating ourselves from the society on this issue. We should be pushing for God’s view of beauty that sees all God’s creatures as equal. Yet I see the church time and again implicitly, and sometimes even explicitly, endorsing society’s views.

6. “Femininity” is the greatest gift women have to offer. Pope Francis recently spoke about the role of women in the church and praised their “gifts of delicacy” including a “special sensitivity and tenderness.” While many women do have these gifts, I think it minimizes the diversity of the individual. Not ALL women are delicate. Not ALL women are tender. “Feminine” is not a synonym for “female.” Women offer MANY gifts to the church and those gifts are as diverse as the individuals who possess them.

7. All women are temptresses. There is a long-standing view of Eve as a temptress and as the preeminent woman who defines all who’ve come after her. There are two problems with that assessment. First, Eve was not a temptress. She did not trick nor coerce Adam into eating the forbidden fruit. He was with her the whole time and ate by his own choice. Second, Eve’s choice may have impacted every woman (and every man for that matter), but Eve does not define every woman. Society has assimilated this view and used the concept for selfish gain (i.e. using sexuality to gain power or notoriety). This is a dangerous view that I think the church needs to speak into. And one of the best ways to do that is to lift women up based on gifts not related to sexuality or body image.

I’d love to hear from others, both those inside the church and those outside, about what you see as mistakes the church makes in how it views women. Do you agree with the ones I’ve listed? Do you have others to add? Please chime in with your thoughts and feedback.

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6 thoughts on “7 Mistakes the Church Makes In How It Views Women

  1. If I had to add one (or maybe if I had to make a list with only one entry) I’d note that perhaps the biggest mistake the Church makes with regard to women is to treat them as women first (whatever that means to person X,Y, or Z) rather than as people first. As being a particular kind of subset of the flock…and not as co-heirs with Christ. (Oh, and with men….!) It makes all the difference if you treat me as a woman first (whatever that means to you), and only then (if you ever get around to it) as a servant of our Christ. If you see me as a fellow servant, you can engage with me as I really am, and as God is already loving and using and working through me.

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    • Melissa, thank you for your comment. I totally agree. We should treat others as people first, not as whatever label we give to them. A challenging, but revolutionary proposal. 🙂

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  2. This is not an original thought, I read about it once. A woman was asked to help in the nursery, because she had children attending the nursery. She was very upset about it, she did not feel confident in caring for her own children, let alone others as well. We should be careful to assume all women can do this. This story didn’t end well, because other women made her feel so bad about her “selfishness” that she stopped going to church.

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  3. Thanks for opening up this conversation, Jeff. It’s tremendously sad that such harmful notions persist, and even worse, that people try to justify or trivialize them. From an academic standpoint, I can understand how such beliefs would have come into existence considering the extreme patriarchal rule over society, religion, and history that developed them. But in my gut, I’m just as disgusted with the men who promoted such ideology thousands of years ago as I am with those people who accept/promote/defend such beliefs now.

    “I can’t go to church with a female priest because I’ll lust after her” is the most ridiculous cop out ever. Come on, if I espoused this sentiment all I’d be doing is trying to justify my prejudice by casting myself as a victim of both biology and the ‘wicked ways of temptress women.’ Assumption: I am unable to NOT lust after EVERY woman. Assumption: If I feel lust, I am incapable of dealing with it in an appropriate manner. Assumption: I am not responsible for my feelings of lust, nor for the way I respond to them. Assumption: I am a victim of circumstances I cannot control and for which I am not responsible. There’s not a big leap to assumptions like “If a woman want’s to be a priest, she really wants people to lust after her” or “Women pastors are evil because they only want to tempt us into sin, and AT CHURCH, no less.”

    So many of the mistakes you highlight fit this same kind of model. Men want to keep hold of their position in society or micro society. The only way to do that is to cast women into the general role of inferiority, wickedness, etc. “Women are a holy vessel.” “Women must be protected, as they aren’t strong or capable enough to survive without the grace of men who keep them hidden and repressed. “Women must be protected from themselves.” “Women are too frail/fine/gentle/weak/beautiful/whatever to take care of THIS… so a man had better do it.”
    There are so many ridiculous assumptions that sit below these kinds of behaviors and beliefs. And they’ve been pounded so hard for so long that what seems to me to be an obscene bastardization and of our humanity is taken for granted, including (as you mention) by women.

    Beyond the fallacy that Eve was a temptress, we also tend to accept that EVE was weak and corrupt, when taken together, CLEARLY she is to blame for ADAM being kicked out of paradise. Following this line, all women clearly suffer from some lasting taint from this mistake, rendering WOMEN inferior to MEN. Although this and other misogynistic interpretations exist for passages throughout the bible, using them as a justification for doing whatever we want and protecting our interests at the expense others ignores the Lesson and violates the Rules. We are all, regardless of gender, imperfect. We are all, regardless of gender, supposed to love and support one another in taking up God’s calling, embracing the person we were created to be, accepting our flaws and our gifts, and pushing forward into the Light with all this in hand.

    These mistakes are certainly not limited to religion, and these beliefs stem from long before the Bible. But wherever these beliefs come from, and regardless of what we use to defend and promote them, wrong is wrong. And although for some people and in some spaces these problems are mitigated to varying extent, something big has to change in the world. I don’t know what is required, or how to even begin making a meaningful difference. But discussion is better than no discussion!

    Sorry for hijacking the comment thread with such a long post. I’m long-winded in the best of times, but that gets exacerbated when someone sparks a lot of thoughts in me! I’ll wrap up the comment now, although I’d really like to think more about the issues of women buying into these mistakes on their own, women repressing others and themselves, casting our insecurities as a yoke upon the necks of others, or any of the other interesting issues that you raised)! Ultimately, whether society, religion, men or women push a harmful belief, we’re all responsible for putting it down, and all to blame if it persists.

    Thanks again!

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    • Chris, thank you for your comment. I appreciate and share your passion for this topic. Your list of the assumptions made is spot on and they certainly lead to dangerous territory. What I think actually is true about Eve and continues to be true for all of us today is that passing the blame is much more attractive to us than actually accepting our mistakes and trying to right our wrongs. Change for something this big and systemic will take a very long time, but it has to start somewhere. Thank you for caring and thank you for continuing the discussion. Talking may be a small step, but every conversation gets us another step further.

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