Women, War and Evangelicals

Recently the U.S. military announced it had opened all combat positions to women. The announcement was met with loud opposition from some on the evangelical right who declared that "any man who would ask his wife or daughter to endure the horrors of war to protect him has missed the very core of biblical manhood" and suggested "a nation that sends its young women to fight its wars is a nation that may no longer be worth defending." [1] These responses stem from a belief that women serving in combat is a violation of God-ordained gender roles.

From my vantage point as a conservative evangelical who believes in gender equality, the uproar over "sending our daughters into battle for us" seems like an overly dramatic and late response. Women already serve in combat in at least 18 countries, and over 200,000 women are on active duty with the U.S. armed forces.

An estimated 11,000 women served in Vietnam, 40,000 women filled combat-support positions in the Persian Gulf War, and 300,000 women were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, where female soldiers were found to be vital to combat effectiveness. If God did not create women to be able to function in military environments, surely this would be self-evident by now, but that is not the case.

Consider also that less than 20% of all military roles are combat positions. Lifting the ban simply opens up the final 10% of positions that currently exclude women. The changing nature of war suggests that future conflicts will be conducted mostly through technology-driven strategies rather than hand-to-hand combat, so we are not likely to see large numbers of women on the front lines any time soon.

A post on the website of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention asserts that "forcing women into that [combat] role will not lead to more freedom but rather to less equality, more violence toward women, and a general degradation of humanity". One has to wonder how the author reaches those conclusions in light of the violence against women being perpetrated by men all around the world, both inside and outside of combat zones.

It is widely acknowledged that it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier today in modern warfare. The use of rape as a weapon of war is well documented, and 90% of war casualties are civilian, the majority being women and children. It makes no sense to deny women the opportunity to fight against such injustices in the name of protecting them.

USAID and other humanitarian organizations report that armed conflicts are escalated by a posture of "hyper-masculinity" (an increase in aggressive and misogynistic traits), and such posturing continues after a conflict ends. The integration of women in the armed forces can help to counter this unhealthy dynamic and increases the likelihood that women will have opportunities to influence the outcomes of conflict and contribute to peacemaking efforts.

The role of the military internationally is moving towards the prevention of conflict, securing of peace, and the reconstruction of countries after wars and natural disasters. Enlisted women are sorely needed to influence these complex situations, but so far their participation has been minimal. For example, less than 1% of the troops involved in UN peacekeeping missions and only 9% of negotiators at peace tables are women.

Christians regularly debate the morality of war, and I think most would agree that not sending any of our children to war would be preferable. But a case against women in the military cannot be made from the Bible.

Those who would exclude women from service use the creation narratives as a foundation for their argument, specifically the description of Eve as Adam's "helper" in Genesis 2. But this interpretation mistakenly assumes that "helper" refers to a subordinate role. The Hebrew phrase "ezer kenedgo" actually conveys the sense of a military rescue and would be better translated as "a strong rescuer" or "equal partner".

While it is true that in the Old Testament mostly men are recorded as going to war, there are enough stories of warrior-spirited women like Deborah and Jael in the book of Judges to suggest this is not the whole picture.

New Testament texts like 1 Peter 3 and Ephesians 5 are also cited to say that God intends for men to be the protectors of women and not the other way around. But these passages address marriage relationships in Greco-Roman culture, and should not be generalized to other contexts.

The book of Acts and post-biblical sources remind us that Christian women were often imprisoned and killed for their faith along with their male counterparts, and we have the unforgettable example of Joan of Arc as a Christian military leader.

It's telling when an issue that primarily affects women is framed in terms of the impact it has on men. But such a posture is a logical outcome of a theology of gender that views women as subordinate to men and discounts their autonomy. Fortunately, not all evangelicals hold this view.[2]

Christian daughters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers courageously serve their countries, not in some ill-guided attempt to rob men of their honor or to blur gender boundaries, but out of a desire to live out their Christian convictions. To refuse women the right to serve so that men can feel more "manly" seems self-serving at best and arrogant at worst.

"Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13, NIV 2011). Sacrificial love is a core principle of Christianity. No one should be excluded categorically from defending their country or fighting for justice based on their gender.


[1] Quotes from The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and The Gospel Coalition can be found here and here.

[2] An egalitarian theology of gender believes that the Bible teaches gender complementarity without male hierarchy and is held by mostly by denominations of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition as well as some mainstream branches of Christianity.