As a Christian, I've sat in a number of different churches over the years, from Catholic to non-denominational, and I’ve had the privilege of experiencing many different preaching styles. And although I have had many pleasant experiences with many different (mostly male) pastors, the unfortunate truth is that most of them became pleasant only after I decided to ignore the overarching sexism of the preacher’s sermon.
When I began to fully embrace my Christian faith in my teens and early 20s, I listened to pastors attentively. I listened as preachers made sexist jokes about their wives -— how they talked too much, or were indecisive, or any other stereotype wrongfully applied to women — and encouraged women to “learn in quietness and full submission.” I knew there was something wrong with the way the leaders of the Church speak about women and gender. It made — and still makes — me angry, but it also inspired me to learn.
Christianity is based on the belief that God sent his son, Jesus, to live a perfect life and die on a cross as repayment for the past, present and future sins of all humanity. There is nothing sexist or anti-feminist about that. Jesus treated all people equally and he was not one to stereotype or demean; he lived his life like a true feminist.
So, given all this, the sexist and stereotypical comments pastors make do not fit the values of Christianity. In fact, these comments represent the exact opposite — the patriarchal culture from which they stem. And I'm sure our spiritual leaders don't mean to offend. I think that, sometimes, their sexism is unintentional, though it's harmful nonetheless. But it proves one thing: We have allowed patriarchy to permeate the Christian community worldwide like a disease, and have even been its biggest advocate.
This is evident in the language leaders use in church. During a majority of the many services I’ve attended in my lifetime, preachers generally spoke about the potential of men — the leaders they are called to be and the good they are called to bring to the world. However, when it comes to women, in my experience, preachers often talk about what we should be and what we shouldn’t do, rather than recognizing who we are. This teaches young girls that they are to be what society or their local pastor calls them to be, and further perpetuates the belief among adult Christian women that we are not capable of living and succeeding independently.
Like many Christians, I've heard many anti-feminist things in church . Here are a few:
1. "Ladies, [Insert Statement Involving Men and/or Children Here]"
In my experience, when pastors speak of men, or generalize about the Church, they often speak of encouraging things like bright futures and being a valued member of God’s kingdom. But most of the time, when pastors mention women, their statements include or relate to men and/or children in some way. When pastors have mentioned the women of the congregation particularly, it has usually been followed by a bit of unsolicited advice about how to attract a husband or our supposed predestined roles as mothers — as though we are not valuable apart from men and children.
For example, one particular pastor I’ve seen preach multiple times — I've even watched his sermons online — has a lot of advice for women. In one particular sermon, he encouraged women to not wear makeup.
“You woke up and you were sitting in the mirror and you put on all of this makeup and all of this stuff because somebody lied to you and told you you weren’t pretty as is. Stop sitting in the mirror for two hours trying to fix what was never broken,” the pastor said boldly. “He’s looking for somebody that’s the actual you, not the projected you,” the pastor continued — the “he” the pastor referred to is a non-existent, future significant other. “Take some of that stuff off. I promise you, not only will he find you but you’ll find yourself. Because you are beautiful, God created you that way.”
The pastor could have simply made his point of encouraging women to accept and love ourselves. I’m sure he meant no harm. However, his statements were rife with sexism, whether he was aware of it or not. To imply that we would do anything for the sole attention of men illustrates the pastor’s assumption that everything women do is for the attention of men. Patriarchy and sexism have led to the silly belief that women are always on the prowl for a mate — and will do whatever is necessary to find one.
And his view of why women wear makeup and “all of this stuff” stemmed from an internalized belief that women are desperate for male attention. His implication that women wear makeup to attract men is sexist and promotes patriarchy, because of the simple fact that it’s not always the case. Some women like makeup because — get this — we simply like makeup. This is damaging to bring up during a sermon because it both marginalizes the women in the congregation who wear makeup, and also ignores the harmful, unrealistic beauty standards of our culture.
2. "Cover Up! Dress Modestly!"
A friend recently told me about a negative experience she had in church at the age of 13:
“I wore a pair of shorts to church. It was summer and they were the only pair of bottoms I had on me,” she explained to me. “A meeting was set forth to discuss the dress code I was to follow in order to continue attending. My 13-year-old legs were ‘distracting the men of the church from the message,’ so I had to follow a dress code of dress pants or very nice ‘church dresses,’ which I couldn’t afford.” Unfortunately, many women have experienced similar situations in church. Pastors and other church leaders often seem eager to demonize women for our bodies — one thing Jesus never did.
In her classic book Ain’t I a Woman: Back Women and Feminism, bell hooks detailed where this practice originated in early American history: “In fundamentalist Christian teaching, woman was portrayed as an evil temptress … Sexual lust originated with her and men were merely the victims of her wanton power,” hooks wrote, noting that white men were socialized to regard women as their “moral downfall.” “White male religious teachers taught that woman was an inherently sinful creature … Appointing themselves the agents of God, they became the judges and overseers of woman’s virtue.” Of course, now this practice stretches far beyond “white male religious leaders.”
There is nothing wrong with encouraging modesty. But in Christianity, and in society in general, we encourage women to be modest in word, deed and dress — but do not do the same to men. The word "modest" is synonymous with "humble." And every Christian, man and woman, is called to be humble in word and deed. But it seems that when we speak of modesty, it usually refers to a women's clothing. We demonize and condemn women’s sexuality, which proves that our perception of modesty is clouded by our moralistic view of sexuality.
3. "Ladies, Your Husband Will Find You"
Proverbs 18:22 says “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” This scripture is feminist because it declares that women are a treasure and bring good to the relationship we are part of. It promotes the truth that women and men are of equal weight and significance.
In my experience, many pastors have not promoted this as truth. When pastors recite this verse, it is usually followed by yet another piece of unsolicited advice on just how women are to be “found” by their prospective husbands — as pastors usually assume that every women is desperate to be married.
In a particular service I attended a few years ago, the preacher recited Proverbs 18:22 and proceeded to instruct the women in the congregation on what they should do while they “waited” for their “future husbands” — as if the women had nothing better to do than wait on a significant other who may or may not exist.
“While you’re waiting, learn to cook and learn to clean. Read books on parenting so you’ll be ready when you have his children,” the preacher said. “Study how to be quiet and gentle so you won’t cause any strife in your marriage.”
This preacher’s statement illustrates his obviously internalized belief that women were created solely for the purpose of being wives and mothers. That is anti-feminist, of course. We are not called to not conform to societal roles or expectations; instead, as Christians, we are to follow and adhere to who God calls us to be as individuals that make up a whole community. Some women are not meant to be wives and mothers. Some men are not meant to be husbands and fathers. God’s plan is different for everyone.
Confining people to archaic gender roles and expectations severely limits the Church, because it discourages women from reaching our full potential. We need women to feel free to become pastors, doctors, artists, activists, mothers, fathers, builders, bakers, lawyers, or anything else. When we allow women to live in their individual purpose, we share and promote the love of God.
4. Sexist Stories About Wives and Children
In an attempt to connect with the congregation on a personal level, many pastors begin their sermons with anecdotes they intend to be comical. Sometimes their stories are funny — but not when women and/or children are the butt of the joke.
One pastor who I’ve seen preach many times often tells stories about his wife and children and the congregation erupts in laughter — he's considered so funny that he even sometimes bills himself as a Christian comedian.
During one particular sermon, the pastor spoke of instances when he arrived home from work tired. Intending his story to be funny, the pastor spoke of how his wife “always” tries to hold conversations when he arrived home when he just wanted to sit on the couch and watch television with a cold beverage.
He recalled an apparent conversation he had with his wife during one of those incidents, saying, “Just walk around naked, that’s all I need!” As usual, the congregation laughed and so did he.
But the preacher's story reduced his wife to a sexual object, made it seem that his relationship with his wife is dependent on how he feels and what he wants at any given moment. Perhaps he meant no harm and perhaps he wouldn’t dream of treating his wife that way. However, as a respected leader, pastors must pay close attention to what they say, because we hold spiritual leaders in high esteem. It’s simple: when preachers make sexist comments, the congregation believes it is OK to make them as well.
The language we use and normalize in church — and anywhere else for that matter — sets the tone for what is OK. We should never give the impression that sexism and the oppression of women is acceptable.
If You Witness Sexism At Church, Say Something
Of course, the instances I've noted could be viewed as extreme examples. Usually, anti-feminism in the Church — and in life — comes motr subtly. Anti-feminism can be found in a pastor's simple instruction, like, "wives, please take your kids down to 'children's church.' " It can be found in the way the congregation stares at a woman who may be wearing just a little too much makeup for their liking. It can be found in the simple fact that a majority of the leaders in most churches are men. Sexism and anti-feminism has permeated the Church and our culture to such a degree that it is viewed as normal.
There are many ways to handle this. If a church has been severely harmful and oppressive to women, I'd leave as soon as I possibly could. However, if I left every church that has slighted me in some way, I'd never go to another service again. And, for me, not attending church is not an option.
With that, I have been to dozens of churches, and, to my pleasant surprise, I have found a few that promote equality and shun sexism. Although they may be a bit difficult to find, they do exist. Unfortunately, not everyone has the privilege of picking up and heading to a new place to find a new church whenever they please. So, I believe the best course of action is to not be silent.
It's important to remember that no leader is beyond reproach. We should be able to meet with our pastors and express our concerns. Most of the time, a sexist person doesn't know that they are sexist; sometimes they need someone to point it out to them. If a Church leader is not open to hearing what we have to say about sexism, then that illustrates that their leadership may not be as Godly as they would like to portray it to be.
Images: Antoine Braxton/Tell-A-Vision Films, Giphy