Let’s Talk about Gender Violence (and Jesus)

A letter to the Church
(10 - 15 minute read)

When atrocities take place on a grand (or small!) scale - such as war and genocide, racism and racist systems, and the ongoing and pervasive gender violence we see, hear about and experience on a day-to-day basis - I believe it is the role of the Church to stand up against these systems, to call out the evil intrinsic in them and to offer another Way. We have something so beautiful to offer the world - the Good News of the Kingdom and all that it entails.

But I also believe that, before we can be a voice of Hope and Love in the world, we need to examine ourselves carefully to see whether there is a need to prophesy to ourselves before raising our banner to society at large. Our constant prayer of “Search me, O God and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” needs to be one which we pray corporately, and with more urgency than ever before: “search us, O God…know our heart…see if there is any offensive way in us”. 

I am writing this blogpost because I believe that we, as the Church, need to do some deep soul-searching, with honest and contrite hearts, around any offensive ways we have inside us - as a body - which might match, contribute to, or give licence to the ongoing gender violence in our society. I believe we need to do this before we can become a voice of integrity against gender violence in our broader social context. I have been wanting to write a post of this nature for a while now so, while I am certainly writing in the context of the stories which are coming more and more into the light as our sisters express their pain through social and other media, I also write from a more long-standing conviction that many of my sisters have been, and are, paying the highest price for a belief which not only spills into the Church from the patriarchy of the world, but has actually been upheld by many denominations in the belief that it is a responsible interpretation of scripture.

But to clarify why I believe we have much to see and much to repent of, I would like to start by laying a foundation to these thoughts.

Let’s talk about theology (and South Africa):
Theology, very simply defined, is what we know or believe about God’s essential nature, activity and presence in the world. I want to start this line of thought at a place we all agree. Can I start with the assumption that we all agree that we can - or should be able to - trace a clear connection between our theology and both the content and quality of our individual lifestyles? And that this also affects the quality and nature of the wider social landscape in which our theologies intersect, merge, clash or blend?

I think I can also assume that most South Africans would now acknowledge that the political systems of colonialism and Apartheid, with their accompanying social and economic plans, were rooted in an evil belief - a belief that allowed one group of people, by virtue of their specific DNA, to subjugate and rule over another group of people whose DNA differed.

As I stated at the beginning of this blogpost, when such evils have managed to wreak the kind of destruction we have seen in our societies and world, it is necessary for us, as the Church, to examine carefully whether our theology played any part in it. Yes: We can all point to the fall, the departure of humankind from God’s original plan for us and the brokenness that this state perpetuates, but it is imperative that we examine whether we have, in any way, conformed to these systems and perpetuated them inside the Church.

The devastating truth, as we now know, is that the Church during the colonial and Apartheid eras could hardly be differentiated from the rest of society - with the always notable exception of the few, to the greatest extent how we lived, how we gathered, how we worshipped, mirrored the exact divides and attitudes prevalent in the context in which we found ourselves. (Did you know there is a Slave Church in Cape Town’s city centre? How did those two words EVER come to stand next to each other? How was that ever acceptable?)

As a whole, the Church not only did not speak up against these atrocities and live a life which set us apart from these evils, but rather, many denominations decided that these issues did not fall within the ambit of preaching the “Gospel” and so did not involve themselves in standing against these systems and structures.

Alongside this group was another part of the Church which actually developed and taught theologies which drove and ratified these systems.

It is a heart-breaking and, indeed, horrifying truth that only a small part of the Church saw one group of people violating the image of the Creator in another group of people as an issue central to the Gospel, named the theologies which propped these systems up as heresy, and actively fought against the deep injustices which were fruit of this heretical root.

Let’s Talk about Roots (and Fruit):

”...Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree produce good fruit. So you will recognise them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7: 16 - 20)

When plants first begin to grow, it can be quite difficult to tell them apart. They first shoot up as a tiny bit of green, then they get to the “two-leaf stage” where many plants look exactly alike. One could be forgiven, at this stage, in thinking that a diseased or poisonous plant was a healthy one. Even when they grow to look like the plant they are meant to be, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether they will indeed bear good fruit (or even the fruit of the seed you thought you were planting!!). And even as they bear fruit and it seems offish, it takes some time to figure out whether it is the soil that the tree is planted in, or whether it is the tree itself which is producing bad fruit. But, once it is established that it is indeed the tree itself that has a diseased root or whose fruit is poisonous, there is absolutely no excuse to wait any longer before the whole tree is destroyed. 

As a gardener and a parent, if I found out that I had planted a tree with poisonous fruit, I would waste no time in yanking the thing up by the root - and I would dig down as far as I possibly could to make sure that no tiny bit of the root remained which could start germinating this plant again. I would scour the ground around where the tree had stood and make sure no baby saplings started growing from seeds which had fallen from the tree. I would certainly not wait until the tree had finished blossoming and pick all the fruit off before my children could possibly get to it. Neither would I erect signs saying the rest of the tree seemed to be OK, but not to go near the fruit. No - the whole thing would be ripped out.

Over the past 22 years (and longer than that for some), as the South African church has woken to the horror of this fruit and its heretical root, many churches have done the work of uprooting this theology entirely while others are beginning to get to the roots, recognising how far the disease has spread. Still others have a different response - scrambling to pick all the bad fruit off the tree as quickly as it reproduces. It is embarrassing that the fruit keeps coming back: shameful that we are still governed by the divides which give one group of people, by virtue of their DNA, more power in the room, more access to privilege and more opportunity for human flourishing than another group of people. So we try and pick the fruit as quickly as it appears, claiming that the good fruit will come SOON, as long as we rid the tree of its bad fruit. Sometimes I get that feeling that we even hang fake fruit on the tree and try to convince ourselves and others that this truly IS now a good tree, bearing good fruit.

We rearrange what people can see above the surface of the ground, but the tree still produces bad fruit because we are not fixing the disease, we are not destroying the root. That will take a whole lot of digging, a whole lot of getting down into the dirt, a good lot of hard work and a new planting…something a little too threatening to those who have not only tended the trees, but have set up dwelling places in its shade. 

Part of the problem, I think, is that it seems to be difficult for us to distinguish between the trunk of the tree which seems to be healthy and strong, the lovely green foliage which gives shade to those under it and the fruit that the tree eventually bears. I don’t doubt that many people who promoted slavery and Apartheid with what they thought was a biblical backing (Paul told slaves to obey their masters, remember? It was quite clear…*sarcasm font*) thought they were doing the right thing and thought they were treating “their” slaves or servants or those of other colours or classes “kindly”. I am sure many were horrified at other people for treating their slaves violently, or decried the actions of Apartheid police when they viciously beat up, tortured and killed people of colour. And I am sure that people met in their one-colour-only churches and prayed against the violence of Apartheid. And yet now we can look back and see quite clearly that even the “best” slave master had believed a demonic lie - one that allowed one group of people, by virtue of their DNA, to subjugate and rule over another group of people.   

And so,

Let’s talk about sex (and Jesus):
But I don’t actually want to talk about sex. Sex is a biological distinction based on which sex organs are visible at birth. I would rather like to talk about gender. Gender is the social meaning, significance and value which is placed on the sex you are identified as at birth. Whereas sex is a biological label (and, most often, binary), gender is a social construct. [Much like skin-colour is a result of a specific DNA combination, but race is a social construct]. This means that the understanding and expectations we have of someone, or a group of people, based on their sex organs, differs across time, culture and place and is shaped by many factors: including people’s belief systems and theology.

When Jesus began His ministry in human form, those who were women were hardly even considered to be human - pious Jewish men would pray and thank God that they were not a gentile, a slave or a woman. One can only imagine what this reflected about a woman’s place in society. A care-filled reading of scripture shows us that, through His life, ministry, works and words Jesus broke down every stereotype which dehumanised women (indeed, not just women, but any and every group of people who had been marginalised and subjugated by the religious and political powers of the day). In a way, His death and resurrection were the official inauguration of the Kingdom - one in which all people were recognised as bearing the image of the Creator and were thus beloved, holy and One with God and each other. This Kingdom restored the VERY GOODness of creation before the fall, when male and female were given the task of caring for the earth together, side-by-side, with none ruling over the other. 

This new way of being was once again confirmed at Pentecost (the birth of the Church) when Peter proclaimed the realisation of Joel’s prophecies: the pouring out of the Holy Spirit onto people of all ages, genders and classes. Paul again confirms this (and adds “ethnicity” or “race” into the list) in the “baptismal manifesto” in Galatians 3:28 when he declares, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female*, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I cannot express to you how radical this teaching of the early church was - it is difficult for us to recognise it now because its very radical nature has transformed the world over the last 2000 years in such profound ways that we can no longer imagine the context in which those words were said, written, received and read. But it is important for us to try, otherwise we miss the very richness of what Jesus lived and taught. That now, because the Kingdom of God is amongst us, no group of people can, by virtue of their DNA, birth circumstances or living conditions, lay claim to authority or leadership over another group of people different to them. Instead we are invited into the beautiful Trinitarian dance of mutual service and submission - each of us submitting to each other out of reverence for Christ. Just imagine how wonderful and beautiful this Kingdom could be as it is established wider and deeper amongst us - no wonder people were attracted to the early church and no wonder it grew in huge numbers daily. What Good News to so many people!

I can go on about this, but there are people who have already done a good lot of work explaining the full and beautiful trajectory of God’s story in the bible, as well as dealing with “the tricky verses” which seem to go against this.

So, what I would really like to do is come back to the original point of this blogpost.

Let’s talk about Gender Violence (and the Church)
When atrocities take place on a grand (or small!) scale - such as war and genocide, racism and racist systems, and the ongoing and pervasive gender violence we see, hear about and experience on a day-to-day basis - I believe it is the role of the Church to stand up against these systems, to call out the evil intrinsic in them and to offer another Way…but only after we have examined ourselves and repented of anything within ourselves (including theologies and structures) which have matched, contributed to or given licence to these evils.

I believe we need to begin with an interrogation of gender divides or hierarchies - and specifically the belief that men have been created to lead - before we can examine whether we have had a role to play in gender violence.

When it comes to gender hierarchies, the Church has once again had different responses. Many Churches have recognised that the belief that men are created to lead (and therefore that women are created to be under men’s authority) has direct roots in the same thinking that gave rise to colonialism, slavery and Apartheid: that which allows one group of people, by virtue of their DNA, to subjugate and rule over another group of people with different DNA. These churches see this as an integral issue to the Gospel of the Kingdom, and have done the hard work of pulling up the roots of this system and are beginning to see good fruit from their newly planted and beautifully tended trees.

Others still consider this issue not to be central to the Gospel and so either ignore it as an issue or gather on Sundays to pray and preach against gender violence, without fully interrogating the root of this violence.

And still others form theologies which drive and ratify gender hierarchy**.

And, much as those people who treated “their” slaves well and kindly - allowing them to build lovely churches for themselves - would have been appalled to think that they had anything to do with the violence meted out to enslaved people, many Christians cannot see the connection between the theology that males are created to rule over females and the gender violence which is so pervasive in society. (Indeed, many call us back to these hierarchical roles as a way of curing this societal disease!)

Because, let’s face it: at the first stages of growth, this belief can even look beautiful: man is made to protect, provide for and lead woman - what could be so wrong with that? The trunk looks strong and the wonderful green foliage gives shade to many. But, higher up the tree, some fruit begins to form: if a man is made to lead a woman, then men are made to lead women. Women as a whole cannot lead men as a whole - this would be unbiblical. Or women can be part of a pastoral team, but under the covering of an all-male eldership. A little further out on the branches, males stand up and walk out of a church gathering en masse when a female missionary begins her report back of her time in the field - believing this is the Godly thing to do. Higher up still, men discipline their wives when they need to be brought back into line for disobedience to their husbands. Pastors counsel women who have been abused (or “disciplined” as some call it) that they should submit to their husbands and God will reward them for their obedience….do you see where this is going?

Perhaps it is difficult to see the connection between even these full-grown fruits and the gender violence that has flooded our newsfeeds in the last few weeks. It would be a relief to believe that the more “benign” fruit of this church tree has fallen into diseased social soil and has born saplings in the outside world, and that it is the fruit on these saplings which has turned poisonous. And I do believe that the context in which this theology takes root can have an influence on just how poisonous the fruit is. But the question we need to ask ourselves is whether the Church has stood out as a peculiar group of people who are strangely different to the context in which they find themselves - a people within whom there is no trace of violence?

Here it is vital (quite literally) to note that even a cursory overview of the literature available shows that, as opposed to the Church standing out as an incontrovertible beacon of hope in a world battered by stories of domestic abuse and gender violence, the rate of domestic abuse is as high, if not higher, in homes where beliefs of gender hierarchies are adhered to than it is in broader society. On top of this, studies show that the belief of male headship and female subordination leads many church leaders to counsel women not only to stay in abusive situations, but to imply that the abuse they suffer is as a result of their insubordination and that submission will lead to different results***. As one part of the Church works towards the emancipation of women from these horrific personal and social conditions as a core outliving of the Gospel of the Kingdom, a large part of the Church still mirrors the very injustices which we are trying to eradicate.

In conclusion, while I do believe that we have particularly fertile soil for violence in our society (particularly because this root of inequality has changed so much of our soil), and that many a good and right thing can be adopted by those outside of the church and warped and used for destruction, I do not believe gender hierarchy is one of those good and right things that has merely been warped by society. I believe it goes against the original “very good”ness intended by the Creator, against the life and ministry of Jesus, against the mission of the Holy Spirit and against the call to the Church to be one body. I believe it is part of the same heretical root which produced slavery, colonialism and Apartheid… and I believe we are continuing to know it by its fruits. 

An Epilogue

I know many wonderful Christian men reading this would never DREAM of raising a hand to their wife or any woman. I also know this can feel really, really difficult to read without feeling defensive. But I also believe that our sisters are paying the highest price for this belief system and so, in the balance of things, I am OK with risking some discomfort in my brothers.
 
I will end on this note. I love and honour the impulse in men who have responded to the stories of violence against girls and women with a call to all men to stand up and protect women. I would like to suggest that this is a good start: all Christ-followers are called to protect the vulnerable, the weak and the marginalised. But our greater call is to join Christ in tearing down the dividing walls of hostility between all people and work towards a society in which each person is honoured as an image-bearer of the Creator. For now, I will humbly accept your offers of protection, and am grateful for them because we, as women, are indeed vulnerable. But please can I ask, rather than enforcing the power dynamics which are already at play by confusing your current role as protector with being in perpetual authority over us, that you join us, side-by-side, in tearing down the systems which keep us vulnerable and in need of protection - including those systems that dwell within the Church. 

By Wendy Lewin

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Footnotes:
* Just to distinguish again between sex and gender: When Paul said this, he was obviously not meaning that there would be no more distinction between our mostly-binary biological sexes - only that your biological sex, like what position you were born into, or what race of people you came from, would give you no more or no less standing in the Kingdom. That, just as gentiles were recognised as being able to receive the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit and all the spiritual gifts and Kingdom citizenship that came with it, so too were women, as were those who had been enslaved or shut out of Jewish worship by virtue of their different race.

** I use the term “gender hierarchy” intentionally. Many people use the term “complementarianism” to talk about men and women being equal in our salvation, but holding different roles in church and family life. The word “complementary” would be a good description if it referred to a system where women could occupy positions of authority in the church or home which men could not, while the reverse was true for other roles. However, men are not blocked from performing any role in church (save, perhaps, soprano?), while women are certainly barred from being pastors, teachers, or elders - depending on which church one is talking about. Men are also believed to be the natural leader at home - set in authority over their wife by virtue of their maleness alone. This, then, is not a complementary system, but rather a hierarchical one.

*** “To quantify clergy beliefs about domestic violence and divorce, a questionnaire was sent to more than five thousand Protestant ministers in the United States. A full 27 percent of the clergy who responded said that, if a wife would begin to submit to her abusive husband, God would honor her obedience and the abuse would stop (or God would give her the grace to endure the beatings).” Study quoted in https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/clergy-responses-domestic-violence

Some recommended readings:
(There are so many. These are the main ones I kept going back to in writing this, as well as some others which I read afterwards and which convinced me I wasn’t mad to be taking this on!)

“How I changed my mind about Women in Leadership” - published by Zondervan and Edited by Alan F. Johnson. I would highly recommend the whole book, but particularly - when it comes to the greater conversation around self-arrogated leadership of one group over another, a chapter by Gilbert Bilezikian entitled “Renouncing the Love of Power for the Power of Love”.

“Beyond Sex Roles - What the Bible says about a Woman’s Place in Church and Family” - Authored by Gilbert Bilezikian and published by BakerAcademic. This provides a wonderful overview on leadership itself and God’s intention around that, as well as being a key biblical exposition of particular themes and passages around women in the church and society.

The website for Christians for Biblical Equality (http://www.cbeinternational.org) has a wealth of seriously helpful resources. I was particularly encouraged by this publication (https://www.cbeinternational.org/sites/default/files/Ideas-Have-Consequences-reprint-web.pdf) in general, and both Mimi Haddad (beginning pg 9) and Alan Myatt’s (beginning pg 21) articles specifically.

 

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