Amid a Sex Abuse Crisis, a New Conservative Christian Vision for Womanhood?
By Jonathan Merritt
Religion News Service
December 7, 2017
In times of cultural crisis, societies have no choice but to enter a period of rethinking.
America has crossed the rubicon with the recent tidal wave of sex abuse scandals. Dozens of influential men have lost their jobs and reputations due to their offensive, predatory, and often illegal behaviors. These allegations have torn down the facade of respectability these men had carefully constructed, but they’ve also unmasked the lies some have believed for too long.
We can no longer pretend that sexism is a thing of the past. Or that powerful men can be trusted to behave with decorum and respect in the workplace. Or that women are safe and protected in our “enlightened” age. Amid this cultural crisis, religious communities must now enter a period of rethinking.
Julie Roys, a popular conservative Christian radio show host, believes that this must include a critical discussion about popular notions of womanhood. In her book, “Redeeming the Feminine Soul: God’s Surprising Vision for Womanhood,” she rejects the “feminist distortion” and “fundamentalist caricature” of womanhood. I’ve known Roys for years, and while we often disagree, I’ve always found her to be fair-minded and thoughtful. So I decided to invite her to share her vision for womanhood with the “On Faith and Culture” audience.
RNS: We’ve experienced a wave of sexual abuse and harassment scandals in recent days. Is this the result of a distorted view of womanhood?
JR: Absolutely. Clearly the scandals reveal a perverse view of women as mere objects of sexual gratification, rather than persons made in the image of God. But I don’t think anyone is surprised by that. This kind of objectification by men has been going on ever since the Fall.
What’s surprising is the fact that women, despite decades of feminism, felt they had no recourse and had to endure the abuse. It’s also disturbing that women, when faced with the choice, were willing to trade their dignity for jobs.
I can’t help but wonder if feminism contributed to this crisis, convincing women to place inordinate value on their careers and advancement, but a shockingly low value on their own bodies and sexuality. It’s telling that Gloria Steinem in the nineties publicly supported accused sexual predator, Bill Clinton, rather than his alleged victims. By doing so, she communicated that political gain is ultimate; women and their dignity are expendable.
RNS: Many conservative Christians believe that women should be quiet and submissive to their husbands and male leaders. Some say this kind of theology creates fertile soil for abuse and harassment. What say you?
JR: I think the inordinate value placed on sex roles and submission of women in conservative circles often betrays an underlying misogyny and a complete misunderstanding of the reason God created male and female.
God didn’t create male and female so one sex could dominate the other, and each could function according to rigid gender-specific roles. God created male and female to reveal the mystery of Trinitarian life and love through the union of husband and wife (Genesis 1:27 and 2:24), and to reveal the loving and sacrificial way Christ relates to the church (Ephesians 5:31-32).
Though hierarchy and submission exist within the Trinity, it’s not the dominant feature. Love is. Similarly, Christ doesn’t lead His church in some heavy-handed, top-down manner; instead He sacrificially provides for her. Many conservatives have lost sight of this bigger picture and reduced God’s beautiful design to authoritarianism. This error, and the misogyny that sometimes fuels it, definitely creates a fertile soil for abuse.
RNS: How do some conservative Christians misunderstand womanhood, and why do you reject the “fundamentalist caricature?”
JY: Conservatives, perhaps reacting to society’s dismantling of sexual difference, sometimes present a vision of womanhood that’s uni-dimensionally feminine. They uphold an idealized “Proverbs 31 Woman” who’s meek and mild, making women like me, who possess a healthy dose of masculine traits, feel like misfits.
But C.S. Lewis once said, “There ought spiritually to be a man in every woman and a woman in every man.” By this, Lewis was not advocating for androgyny. He was simply saying that healthy men and women should possess some balance of masculine and feminine virtues in degrees appropriate to their particular sex. A woman with no masculine virtues, for example, is sickly passive, and a man with no feminine virtues is warlike.
Our vision of womanhood (and manhood) needs to reflect the complexity of our Creator in whose image we are made. God, holding all that is true and good within Himself, possesses both masculine and feminine qualities and so should we.
RNS: You say that feminists distort womanhood. How so?
JR: Feminism is rife with a kind of stealth misogyny. Misogyny literally means hatred of women, and in its overt form, often manifests as men abusing or demeaning women. But stealth misogyny is the hatred or devaluing of what’s uniquely female or feminine, and ironically, it’s a hallmark of feminism.
Betty Friedan, who launched second-wave feminism, saw femininity as a vice, not a virtue, writing that it made “women a target and a victim of the sexual sell.” She also harbored a shockingly low view of motherhood, comparing those who dream of being of being housewives to the “millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps.”
Sadly, feminism tried to solve overt misogyny by embracing stealth misogyny – by dying to all that’s feminine and becoming, as Gloria Steinem declared, “the men we wanted to marry.” But God didn’t make women to be men. And becoming like them requires us to die to something essential within ourselves.
RNS: But men haven’t done a great job protecting women and promoting women’s interests. Feminists have championed women’s causes, haven’t they? At least to some extent?
JR: Yes and no. Certainly, first-wave feminists achieved important gains for women like the right to vote, own property, and pursue higher education. But those early feminists, unlike their successors, didn’t win those gains at the expense of womanhood or the unborn.
No doubt, second-wave feminism helped achieve gains like greater parity in pay and more job opportunities for women. But considering the movement’s almost fanatical promotion of abortion and its devaluation of motherhood, looking for gains is like trying to find a silver lining in the eugenics movement. Similarly, when I consider how third-wave feminism has encouraged women to prostitute themselves in the hookup culture, I’m sickened by the devastation the movement has caused.
On a hopeful note, though, there are some groups uniting secular feminists and Christian conservatives for common causes like ending human trafficking or blocking trans legislation that erase women’s civil rights. These efforts perhaps will offer some redemption of the movement.
RNS: What do you mean when you say women are destroying themselves?
JR: Most Christian women have embraced one of two reductionist visions of womanhood. The fundamentalist vision denies women’s full humanity and gifting, and requires them to deny authentic aspects of their calling. As a woman with strong leadership and teaching gifts, I definitely experienced this in the church. To fit the mold I was given, I had to pretend those aspects of myself didn’t exist, and it was soul-crushing.
On the other hand, the feminist vision denies the good and beautiful differences between men and women, and requires women to deny what’s uniquely feminine about them. Feminist Christians claim that men and women are functional equivalents, and say that our roles are completely interchangeable. To fit this mold, women often die to essential parts of themselves like their maternal instinct, or intuitive and emotional nature.
Women in both camps are languishing and what they desperately need is a vision of womanhood that affirms both their full humanity and their uniqueness.
RNS: It seems pretty clear now that powerful men–at least certain kinds of them–are destroying women, no?
JR: Absolutely. This is a perspective I share with feminists. We do not disagree on the problem. We disagree on the solution.
When sin entered the world, it perverted the unity and mutuality between men and women. In Genesis 3:16, it says that the woman would desire her husband, but he would “rule over” her. In other words, women would seek a lover and a companion, but instead get a ruler and oppressor. We’re seeing this in spades right now.
Barack Obama suggested this week that the way to solve this problem is to replace male leaders with women since men are “having some problems.” That’s essentially the same solution Christian feminists suggest: abolish male leadership.
I suggest the solution isn’t to fire male leaders; it’s to redeem them. Because of the cross, men can be liberated from their sinful tendency to oppress women, and instead serve women the way God intended. That’s what’s crucially needed today.
RNS: You’ve worked for Moody Radio and other conservative Christian institutions. Have you ever experienced sexual harassment or abuse of any kind in these organizations?
JR: No, I haven’t. Though I certainly have experienced being overlooked or dismissed because I am a woman, I have never had anyone in a Christian organization treat me in a sexually inappropriate way. However, I did experience sexual harassment when I worked in secular news.
In my first job as a TV reporter for a CBS affiliate, I remember that the office for the cameramen was filled wall-to-wall with pin-ups of naked women. Occasionally, I would have to enter that office to talk to someone, and it was painfully awkward and degrading.
Also, when I worked as a newswriter for a TV station in Chicago, there was a sports anchor who reveled in telling off-color jokes in front of me because I was the lone Christian in the newsroom. He’d also make comments about how Christians never have sex and would often try to massage my back and shoulders. It was awful.
RNS: Do you think that sexual abuse and harassment crisis is a problem in the church as well?
JR: I know it is. I have a friend who was sexually harassed and abused at Bob Jones University and was interviewed as part of the independent investigation there three years ago. Her story made me simultaneously sick, sad, and infuriated.
There also are hundreds of women sharing their stories of abuse as part of the #churchtoo campaign on Twitter right now. Their accounts are heartbreaking. What’s especially sad are the reports that Christian leaders sometimes blamed assault victims for their abuse, and claimed that reporting abuse would damage the cause of Christ. That’s so wrong.
Wherever you have men and women tainted by the fall, you will have abuse, and you will also have people trying to cover it up. The church, unfortunately, is not immune.
RNS: Do you think a reckoning is coming?
JR: Certainly for Bob Jones University, a reckoning came. The findings of the investigation there were brutal, suggesting that the school responded abysmally to many students who were victims of abuse. The school has formally apologized to victims, and changed its policy on how it handles disclosure of abuse, but I’m sure it is still feeling the effects of what happened there.
What comes of the #churchtoo campaign remains to be seen. As far as I know, no formal charges have resulted from it. And I think unless that happens, it may build awareness, but not much more than that. I’d like to see it lead to substantive change.
But the root cause of abuse and harassment is misogyny. And this is something that the church has largely ignored, and at times perpetuated. I’m hoping my book will spark discussion in the church among men and women about ways we’ve all hated or devalued what women uniquely possess.
RNS: How can the church and religious leaders respond to the sexual abuse crisis we’re experiencing in culture?
JR: Churches and Christian institutions can begin by reviewing their policy concerning how they respond to sex abuse and harassment allegations (or creating a policy if they don’t have it). All allegations need to be taken seriously and reported to proper authorities. And victims should never be shamed, but offered care and support.
Christian leaders also need to resist the urge to minimize or cover up sin. Unconfessed sin will only spread and fester and cause more destruction. Plus, burying sin is antithetical to the Gospel. Scripture says if we confess our sin, we will be forgiven and cleansed; if we don’t, we stand condemned.
Beyond that, these organizations need to be proactive. Seek to address the porn problem within your church or organization, for example. Porn is epidemic in the church and there’s no way a man who regularly consumes porn can have a proper view of women. Also, interview the women. Do they feel safe, valued and honored?