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The fruit of fixed gender roles in our churches

Date published: Thursday 20 July 2017

Category(ies): Comment

I instinctively felt at the age of 15 or 16 that fixed gender roles in my church weren’t doing us any favours. By us I mean females, the whole body of Christ in the church, and ultimately God’s Kingdom.

I started to understand a year or two later that as an adult you’re responsible for forming your own views, and not just inheriting your parents’ views. It was the doctrine of ‘male headship’ that prompted me to form my first view that was contrary to what I had been taught by my church and parents. 

I have been reflecting on this week’s discussion of Julia Baird’s work for the ABC on domestic violence in church communities. My response to the article was a sinking sense of recognition of the truth of both the survivors’ stories, and the idea that inequality and teachings about male headship and submission create the environment where such abuse can thrive. I suspect my response was similar to that of many other women who’ve been involved with Christian churches for any length of time - nearly 50 years in my case.

As Baird points out, there’s strong and well-accepted evidence that fixed gender roles and inequality between the sexes increases the likelihood of abuse. Here’s how Our Watch describes it:

The belief that men and women have different roles or characteristics (whether in relationships or society in general) is known as gender stereotyping. International studies have shown time and again that belief in such stereotypes is one of the most significant predictors of violence. That is, individuals who hold such beliefs are more likely to perpetrate violence against women, and countries where gender stereotyping is more accepted have higher levels of violence against women.

Our own Baptist Care Australia policy on domestic and family violence says:

…the latest international evidence demonstrates that there are certain factors that consistently predict – or drive – higher levels of violence against women. These factors relate to gender inequality and include the condoning of violence against women, men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence, rigid gender roles and identities, and male peer relations that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women.

Our organisation's position on domestic violence is clearly set out in our policy, which naturally does not directly address any doctrinal issues, and nor should it. However, this week's media coverage raises the issue and I posted this personal blog on the topic for reflection. 

I have never experienced domestic violence or even been aware of any examples within churches I’ve attended. But I have seen the doctrines of ‘complementarianism’ (fixed gender roles) and ‘male headship’ cause significant damage to people and congregations, even in their most benign form.

There are the obvious restrictions around not being permitted to take on leadership roles, or certain leadership roles. There are subtle (and not so subtle) demonstrations that as a woman, you are a second-class citizen, and the well-meaning people responsible being completely unaware of it. As a man, you’re also restricted, not as much as a woman obviously, but the thing about fixed roles is that you’re expected to comply with those stereotypes whichever gender you belong to.

To my shame, I put up with this for far too long. The alternatives were so few, I took it as the price of being part of a church family. All family relationships require give and take after all.

Then a few years ago I found a church family made up simply of believers, free to speak up, serve others, and use their gifts as they are led by God. It was like everyone’s gender wasn’t exactly invisible, just not especially relevant. It felt so freeing after a lifetime of weekly exposure to the restrictions of the other type of church family.

I’m not going to attempt a theological challenge to complementarianism. Much better qualified people have done that, and demonstrated that there are valid alternative interpretations of the relevant passages of scripture.

As well as looking to scripture, we also have to judge the fruit of complementarian doctrine. It’s not good. Women know it, and so do some men. Unfortunately, many men can’t even see the fruit, let alone judge its wholesomeness, thanks to this doctrine still being so widely accepted in churches. Perhaps the message might get through if more attention were paid to what women have to say, and they were actually listened to and believed.

The evidence is in. Fixed gender roles and inequality help create an environment where violence (and other abuse of women) can flourish. I think it may be time that Australian Christians reassessed whether complementarianism is friend or foe.

Marcia Balzer
Executive Director