From Part 1:
“Many of our conversations about women contain some pre-conceived notions of who women are or who we think women are supposed to be. When we refuse to re-examine our core beliefs, we risk ostracizing half the church.
It’s important to understand where these core beliefs come from…”
Sexism, or “Male and Female, He Created Them Separate but Equal”
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou
The first silencing I experienced was in eleventh grade.
I had recently moved to a new town, and the church we went to found itself in the midst of a youth minister transition. I had been there a few months, and the teens were frustrated that they weren’t getting a say in who was hired. I decided on a whim to have a meeting with my youth group in which we would talk about what we wanted, write it down, and present it to the elders. I had my dad buy pizza, and I opened the meeting with a prayer. I will never forget the comment that immediately came from a boy sitting next to me. “Why are you even leading this meeting? You’re not supposed to be in charge or even pray if there are men here.” Later, I got a call from an adult thanking me for my zeal, but telling me that next time, it would be better for me to let others take the lead. That was the first of many experiences, including one in which I wasn’t allowed to speak in front of guys unless one of them said a prayer to “officially” end the devotional, and another in which I was told I was “too chatty” and to let the boys speak up in Bible class.
As I started reading and listening to the stories of my sisters, I realized mine were not isolated incidents. Society had always told me that, as a woman, my voice was not worth as much as a man’s. I would not see myself reflected in leadership positions or paid as much as my male peers, nor would I pursue the same opportunities as the men around me. I would be more at risk for violent acts committed against me, and I would struggle to be heard in business meetings and group conversations.
Well-worn texts in the Bible are often used to build the case that women must be submissive to men: in attitude, action, and identity. The teaching usually looks like this: men are intrinsically created for headship and women are intrinsically created for submission.
When we use the church to propagate the idea that women belong in a submissive role, we essentially tell women that any time they demonstrate leadership skills and “step outside the box” or anytime they are not acquiescing or submissive or silent, they are defying creation. They are defying God. Consequently, we tell men that any time they defer to their wives, daughters, sisters, or female friends, they are emasculating themselves and God is not happy.
This kind of teaching begins to strip away the autonomy a woman has to make her own choices and often puts her at a greater risk for violence and abuse.
It breeds a distorted image of Christianity—a masculine Christianity in which women “help out” but take a backseat. Women’s stories and experiences are told “in addition” to the men’s, rather than on their own merit. Women are discussed in terms of who they are in relation to men: wife, mother, single girl waiting to be married, widow, childless mother waiting for children. We don’t have the language to speak of women apart from these labels.
In church services, women rarely hear themselves reflected in the nature of God. And when you don’t see yourself represented in something as important as faith, then it is really difficult to take ownership of the whole thing. There’s a devaluing that happens, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
This is how abuse is justified. Abusers use proof texts to show why women should be subjugated, emotionally and verbally accosted, physically beaten, and sexually assaulted. We see this with issues of spousal rape, in which even one Church of Christ preacher said a wife who refuses sex is spiritually ill and in jeopardy of losing her soul.  For the most part, we get it right. But when we start using masculine language for God and submissive language for women, we start handing out excuses for abusers’ actions.
It’s a shame because feminine language for God is beautiful: Hos 11:3-4, Deut 32:18, Isa 42:14, Ps 131:2, and Luke 15:8-10 all demonstrate this.
God is not just a lion, but also a lamb. God weeps, speaks softly, gathers us up as a hen, and gives birth. These qualities, usually attributed to women, take shape in the personality of God. If we can start speaking of God with feminine adjectives and imagery, we can start to teach our girls and women that they are indeed made in the image of God and that their voice matters because God’s voice matters. This affirmation of personhood is the biggest foil to sexism.
(This is Part 2 of a multi-part series. Part 3 will examine how purity culture and how toxic teachings about modesty devalue women’s bodies.)
Kaitlin Shetler received her bachelor’s degree in social work from Harding University in 2009 and her master’s degree in social work from the University of Tennessee in 2010. She currently serves as the director of the ACCESS Ability program at Lipscomb University and is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW). Kaitlin has over twelve years experience working with at-risk populations, including survivors of domestic abuse, older adults, and the disabled. She lives in Hermitage, TN, with her brilliant husband and sweet baby girl and attends Hermitage Church of Christ, a community that has welcomed her with open arms and little to no eye rolling. Her passion is working alongside people to better the church and the world through advocacy, service, and dismantling oppressive systems. She often speaks and writes on feminism, abuse, disability, race, and sexual assault within church contexts.