The seventh technique used in spiritual abuse is invoking and maintaining male privilege.[i] When a group assigns only males to leadership roles it causes an imbalance of power and serves as a tool to subjugate women. It helps create strict gender roles that negatively affect both the men and the women.
Sacred texts are used, and misused, to place women in a lessor position. For example, in Christian tradition a literal reading of the story of Adam and Eve is used to demonstrate that women are fashioned from Adam’s rib and are therefore his helpmate, made for the sole purpose of reducing his loneliness and assisting him in his work. The text is further complicated by the story of Eve being deceived and eating the fruit. The story gets used to portray women as weaker, gullible, and naive.
When stories are used in this matter, it ignores the story’s context, original language, and purpose. A one sided reading ignores Adam’s culpability, or even the overall theme of how the ancient writer was explaining how humans got here and why there is suffering. The story ends up being used to justify why men are supposed to be the leaders and why women cannot; after all, a women caused the problem, so no women can be trusted. This simple view is reinforced by focusing on stories of other Biblical characters like Lot’s wife, Jezebel, Delilah, or Salome.
This kind of reading ignores many other pieces of the sacred text. Stories that show females in leadership roles are glossed over, are barely mentioned, or are covered up and ignored. For example, the Judge and prophetess Deborah is rarely mentioned. In one case, the female Junia is noted by the Apostle Paul in Romans as “noted among the apostles” has been translated as Junias (male), even though the older manuscripts have the female form of the name Junia.
These few examples are used to illustrate that how the text is used matters. Every person who approaches the text makes choices about what to focus on and what to dismiss. In healthy groups there is a balanced approach. A cautious approach is used to assure that women are not scapegoated. Care is used to acknowledge the nature of the patriarchal world of the ancient near east that was the backdrop in which the writer wrote and told their stories. There is interaction with the text and questions can be asked. One important question is whose point of view is projected in the story and whose voice is missing? How might that person tell the story?
There are consequences when a person or group decides that women are denied leadership by God, and that men are assigned to be the head of the church and family. The consequences include male entitlement, expectations about how men and women should dress and act, and for women, low self-esteem and perfectionism. It leads to very ugly problems like homophobia, rape culture, domestic violence and child abuse. It leads to blaming the victim because she (like Eve) stepped out of her assigned role; she should have been submissive; she should have been modest. It perpetuates the idea that males have a God-ordained birth right, that females are expected to hold up. It is easy to deflect blame to the person with less power.
To heal from this form of spiritual abuse, it takes moral courage. It takes courage to deconstruct and reconstruct one’s understanding and view of Scripture. It takes courage to think through the impact of what Scriptures you focus on and which ones you ignore. It takes hard work to do your own research, and can be difficult to admit past mistakes. Yes, it is painful to change beliefs, and let go of power (or powerlessness), but the reward is great.
When you expel the misogynistic view you were taught it is liberating. You can look at men and women in a new way. You can teach sons to be sensitive and vulnerable, not afraid to ask for help. You can teach your daughters to be strong and confident. Your relationship with your spouse can play off one another’s strengths and no one has to carry the burden of leadership. No one has to suppress or deny their strengths. There can be mutual respect and true cherishing, based on your love for the person and his or her qualities. Your church or sanctuary can benefit and be blessed by having leader of both sexes. Not leaders in name only, but true leaders of both genders who contribute in unique ways for the benefit of all.
[i] The author acknowledges that this topic is controversial. What is written took years of reflection and learning. Much was learned while pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree, where I had the opportunity to learn about the historical context, the biblical languages, ancient manuscripts, early church history, and was deeply immersed in the study of the Book and tradition I love.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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