HOW BAD CAN IT BE? The Current State of Gender Relations in the Church

Dawn French in BBC's "The Vicar of Dibley." Image credit:

by Laura Coulter

In the morning of the 21st century, it is difficult for some to believe that institutionalized discrimination against women remains prevalent in many U.S. churches. "From where I sit," says Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, "and from the reports I get from people in Christian colleges and seminaries and churches around the nation, it is clear that in some churches and in some denominations the pain of women is excruciating. There are places where women are viewed as second-class citizens, put on this earth to gratify the needs and desires of men – they're seen as a social-service industry to men." The impact, she says, is that "women are not viewed as made in the image of God. This is a theological and social tragedy, and a complete waste of the gifts God gives the church."

This distorted perspective of women is not limited to any particular church following. Although she won't assign blame for sexism to specific denominations, Haddad notes that "there is a preponderance of suffering in certain denominations, although there are certain churches within those denominations that are making progress. There are cases of intense suffering, but where the suffering is the greatest, there are the greatest stories of victory."

Although sexist attitudes exist throughout the country, it is possible to isolate geographical areas where the pervasive attitude toward gender egalitarianism is one of hostility. According to Haddad, the South is one such area, although bright spots are scattered across its landscape, in such locales as Atlanta, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia. In other areas, such as the West Coast, the church has become passive and detached in regard to the message of equality. Haddad characterizes this complacency as a potentially dangerous enemy:

"If you're not vigilant in working toward your goals, you risk sliding backward. This is the nature of being fallen. It's easy to say, 'There are no problems in my church,' but then you have to ask, 'Where are the women in top positions of leadership?'"

Pastors and elder boards must ultimately be supportive of the move toward egalitarian teaching in order for the shift to be successful; by the same token, a rigidly traditionalist church leadership can quell any popular swell toward greater gender equality. "There are isolated churches within egalitarian denominations that are very repressive to women," Ms. Haddad points out. This depends greatly, she asserts, on the leadership of that specific church.

Overall, however, Haddad is optimistic, citing the growing list of egalitarians who currently head up seminaries. Even Alvera Michaelsen, one of the original founders of Christians for Biblical Equality, who is currently in her 80s, admits that she is "astonished by how much progress we've made; I never thought I'd live to see this."

Although statistics noting the total number of Protestant clergywomen are unavailable, the Association of Theological Schools has reported that an increasing number of women are seeking Master of Divinity degrees. Their numbers have multiplied almost seven times in 30 years, up to 32 percent in 2002. According to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the percentage of its ordained female clergy doubled from 1991 to 2003, to 16 percent.

Biblical egalitarians the world over remain convinced that this is a God-led movement. "This ship is turning, although it is turning slowly," affirms Haddad. "The bow is moving more quickly than the stern, but the ship is turning."

(Read "Men, Women, and Biblical Equality," a statement from Christians for Biblical Equality available in 30 languages.

The above article appeared in the May/June issue of PRISM Magazine, accompanying the feature "Using the 'F' Word: The Pursuit of Gender Equality in the Church" by Laura Coulter. Other articles in that issue include the cover story on domestic violence in the church and a profile of a ministry that helps abuse victims build a life for themselves outside of the abusive relationship. 


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