From beginning to end, the Bible positions women as leaders, powerful and prolific people who the story literally would not exist without. Women direct armies, defeat prominent enemies, save communities from genocide, give birth to God, fund Jesus’ ministry, sit at his feet as disciples, and are the first witnesses and preachers of the resurrection. They are church founders and leaders, prophets and apostles. Women are co-laborers with God and men, and image bearers of God who are meant to participate in God’s work in the church and the world.
Yet in modern churches where patriarchy has found its way into the pulpit, women are easily interpreted out of relevance in the scripture and stripped of their power to liberate other women in church spaces, to lead and to be heard. The assumed and theologized inferiority of women (and to a much greater extreme, trans women) reduces women to objects for men’s use in a culture that insists on chasteness, humility and purity. Women become submissive sidekicks or to “servants” who are granted participation in the church at the whim of male leaderships but rarely, if ever, power.
The danger of patriarchy in the church is distinct from patriarchy in general. In Christian spaces, patriarchy is not seen as a social phenomenon, but as a God-given directive and order for the flourishing of society. As a result, unquestioned commitments to patriarchy create the context for the objectification, devaluing and ultimate abuse and traumatization of women.
In popular Christian culture, patriarchal leadership is the norm, not the exception.
Recently in light of the #MeToo movement, Jules Woodson came forward in a blog post disclosing her story of being sexually abused by Pastor Andy Savage in 1998. Shortly after posting, Woodson was threatened and bullied for sharing her testimony, while Savage received a standing ovation at his church when he aired his confession. This type of assumed holiness in men and posture of silencing and shaming women is the natural result of a church held up and fueled by pillars of patriarchy and the resulting toxic masculinity.
At its core, patriarchy seeks to defend, embolden, justify and ascribe power to men in general, but also power specifically over women. Much of this ideology is rooted in the theological belief that men and women have different God-given roles in marriage, the church and society and more resembles postmodern notions of gender roles than the way of Jesus.
To be fair, there are communities that fully empower, employ and embolden women to fully live out the image of God in them. But popular Christian culture, state supported politicized evangelicalism and even Biblical translations make patriarchal leadership (even in more progressive communities) the norm, not the exception.
In patriarchal church spaces, men end up playing God ― becoming appraisers and arbiters of women’s worth and using church structures and ideology to define women’s value and place. In effect, they necessitate that women must have permission from men to live their lives and to participate in spiritual life. In the institution of any social power structures, there are mechanisms that uphold them. Church patriarchy is upheld by a collective revisionist telling and interpretation of scripture, by theologizing the omni-competence of men and by sexualizing and objectifying women.
Forgiveness, grace and mercy become buzz words that abdicate men of being accountable for their actions.
It’s typical for pastors and church leaders to read the Bible in a way that promotes submission and obedience to more powerful men. If a woman is presented as a leader in the text, it’s due to the failure of men who aren’ stepping up to their God-given right to lead. Women like Mary Magdalene, Naomi and Ruth are framed as sexual objects, submissive co-laborers or child bearers and used to influence women in modern congregations to be the same.
Meanwhile, the elevation of problematic and incompetent men in the scripture is at the center of maintaining patriarchy. Christians can take a person like King David, a rapist, murderer and overall egocentric leader, and frame him as an archetype for Christ by calling his rape “adultery” or “giving into temptation” instead of what it is ― assault. By assuming that male dominance is central to God’s design, men like David are granted assumed omni-competence, holiness and leadership capacity, even when their morality doesn’t reflect God or what God is doing.
This type of reframing allows churches to then call the criminal and abusive activity of their leaders or congregants “accidents” or “sin” and not what they are ― crimes. Additionally, the church perpetuates dangerous patterns of protecting men by having its leadership deal with criminal activities rather than local authorities. Forgiveness, grace, and mercy become buzz words that abdicate men of being accountable for their actions.
Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, one of the survivors of Larry Nasser’s sexual abuse, recently said that the church was one of the least safe spaces for her to talk about what what happened to her. She claims that the church is ill-equipped and generally unaware of the damage that sexual abuse causes. Patriarchy creates this reality by belittling and reducing the sexual abuse of women in scripture while constantly protecting and elevating men as examples to follow. Women are not safe to bring their trauma and experiences of abuse and objectification to their religious communities as long as those communities are being led by men who gain their authority through revisionist, patriarchal scripture.
Toxic masculinity thrives when men’s power is protected over the safety, well-being and believed testimonies of women. As the #MeToo movement continues, it is becoming more clear that not only is the church complicit in the abuse and silencing of women, but that at its very core, its theology and practices ensure and preserve toxic and violent masculinity in the church.
Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.