How to… put women in our rightful place

How to… put women in our rightful place

Picture for a moment an infant’s baptism in your church. The congregation swells with far-flung family and friends and among those in attendance is the young woman invited to be the infant’s godmother. She has but dim memories of coming to church, and dimmer still are her memories of what she learned. She never saw what church had to do with her – or what she could have to do with it. Yet as the baptismal service begins, a statement catches her attention: “God calls us to fullness of life.” What on earth could that mean? What could it mean for her?

Tara Martin reflects on how the church can model gender equality.

To be called to fullness of life is to use all the gifts and passions you possess to fulfil the role in God’s plan that he designed specifically for you. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:4, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.” Verse 12 continues “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.” Our core belief in Church Mission Society is that all God’s people are called to join in mission, and our core purpose is to set people free to put that call into action within the body of Christ that is the church. What roles the church may offer the would-be godmother, however, have a tendency to centre on her gender rather than her gifts.

Historically, the church has served as a patriarchal institution that rendered women invisible, or at the very least marginalised them. Certain callings and gifts were ascribed to certain genders. Consequently, women traditionally occupied silent roles of service that were essentially extensions of their domestic duties. With women now in every level of church leadership, it cannot be denied that things have changed. Yet it would not take many conversations with women, nor glances around a church, to discover that sexist stereotypes and attitudes remain rife. Women are the flower-arrangers, the cake-makers, the tea-servers and Sunday School teachers. They sing the harmonies in worship and are there to pray with people quietly at the end of the service. Their “callings” are supportive and decorative. I do not mean to discredit the value of any of these roles – all parts of the body are vital, and those called to these ministries are a part of that body. Yet it is all too common for women to be expected to fulfil these types of roles, or for it to be assumed that only women will be called into these areas. Often, they are the only active roles available to women. But what of the women who are not called to any of these? And what of the men who are?

As the belief that men and women should be recognised and treated with equal value as fellow humans (otherwise known as feminism) proliferates through society, and movements such as #MeToo highlight the disproportionate injustices experienced by girls and women daily, the church needs to be at the forefront of change. The church needs to model that the equality and freedom we all innately crave is found only in Jesus and his plans for us. If we continue to perpetuate sexist stereotypes, we limit how far men and women can go in fulfilling their calling. We restrict them to life in measured portions rather than God-ordained fullness.

In the baptism, our young godmother will be asked to “help [the child] to take their place within the life and worship of Christ’s church”. But are we doing so for her and every individual in the church? How do we prevent gender stereotypes from stunting mission? Here are some suggestions; the first step, of course, is admitting there might be a problem.

1. Make women valuable and visible

Begin by highlighting traditionally feminine roles and acknowledging their importance – don’t take them for granted. Doing so tackles damaging stereotypes applied to men as well. Relegating supportive and creative roles to women in the background implies that men cannot be creative, caring or subservient, as that is not really masculine. Instilling value into traditionally feminine roles instils worth into traditionally feminine qualities and thus puts them in their rightful place as esteemed gifts anyone would be glad to possess.

Moreover, make sure that women are heard as well as seen. Give them access to prominent roles where they have a valid voice. This doesn’t have to be leading the service or preaching; it could be leading the prayers or actively participating on the PCC. When women speak, listen to them.

2. Challenge your assumptions

Take some time to consider what you might expect of men and women. Do you tend to associate particular traits and roles within the church with particular genders? For example, picture a drummer in the worship band and a volunteer in the creche. What is your response if the drummer were a woman, and the creche volunteer a man? There is nothing wrong with being surprised, but a problem arises if you are somewhat disturbed by the idea of a man quietly taking care of the children in the back of the service. It may be worth examining your associations and the reasoning behind them.

3. Speak life

From throwaway comments to metaphors in sermons to common misinterpretations of Scripture, the way we speak to and about women and men has incredibly powerful repercussions. They not only denote attitudes outright, but generate subliminal messages that travel far beyond the church doors. It is due to such subtexts that much of secular society views the Bible as a misogynistic text rather than one of radical inclusiveness. Often the men who have served faithfully and remarkably are those we find spring to mind quickest as our examples, yet we have a heritage of women who have changed the world too. Do we speak of Hannah More alongside William Wilberforce? Or of women who throughout the history of mission overseas have also made sacrifices and taken risks? Even the way we speak about God should be considered; if we only dwell on masculine imagery, we perpetuate a limited and unbiblical understanding of God. It is man and woman together that are made in the image of God. We must speak life and encouragement into all aspects of humanity if we are to set men and women free to put their call into action.

4. Respond with grace

Finally, what do we suggest you do if you witness or experience sexism?

Allow the Spirit to speak for you. Most importantly, do not allow it to prevent you from using the gifts God has given you. Pursue the mission you are called to, irrespective of your gender. This will be a powerful testimony and a light in the church and beyond.