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Women, the Doormat of the Church

women doormat

Repost from 2015. Edited, rewritten, and corrected.

Many years ago, I was watching the Old Time Gospel Hour on TV. At the time, the Old Time Gospel Hour was the flagship program of Thomas Road Baptist Church and Jerry Falwell.

Falwell was preaching about women and the Equal Rights Amendment.

I have never forgotten what he said:

We don’t believe in equal rights for women. We believe in superior rights for women. We believe in putting women on a pedestal.

I remember thinking, at the time, that makes a lot of sense. The Equal Rights Amendment was viewed as an attempt to blur the lines between the sexes; to make our culture unisex, which was considered by Evangelicals to be a grievous, damning sin.

The Evangelical pastors of my youth and college years taught me:

  • Women are to submit to men.
  • Women are best suited to be mothers and keepers of the home.
  • Women are emotional and men are logical.
  • Women should be discouraged from going to college because graduating from college makes it less likely that a woman will be a good mother and keeper of the home.
  • If a woman is insistent on going to college and refuses to marry the nice boy who sits behind her in church, then she should go to a Christian college. Her career choices? Pastor’s wife, single missionary, or Christian school teacher.
  • Women are not suited for intellectual endeavors.
  • Women should not be involved in making major decisions. The decision-maker in the home is the husband. The decision-makers in the church are men, and political office is reserved for men.
  • Women are to conjugally perform whenever their husbands demand it. Being tired from feeding the children, changing diapers, cleaning the house, homeschooling the children, and making sure the king of the home’s every need and whim is met, is no excuse for not joyfully having sex for three minutes before her God-fearing husband falls off to sleep. If she doesn’t put out, she is risking her husband having an adulterous affair and it will be HER fault.

The above social strictures showed up in countless sermons. Is it any wonder so many Evangelical marriages are dysfunctional; that women schooled in such an environment have difficultly functioning in the real world?

Even in my marriage, I was a typical “I am the boss, chief decision-maker, you submit to me” husband. I made ALL the decisions. For twenty years this is how we “did” marriage. Gradually, as I became more liberal in my understanding of life, I realized how hurtful this was to women in general and to my dear wife in particular.

For many years, Polly found it hard to make decisions. She told me one time that she was “afraid to make decisions because she might make a wrong decision and then you’ll be mad at me.” I said “Yep. That’s the price of admission. Making decisions means you might piss someone off.” As a supervisor where she works, she is required to make decisions that inevitably leave one or more parties unhappy. When she comes home discouraged by the response of this or that person, I remind her of what Colin Powell said about leadership:

Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.

Bit by bit, I see Polly throwing off the bondage of yesteryear, but I do wonder if she’ll ever be totally free from teachings of the past — I know I’m not.  Submit. Obey. Do what your husband says. He is the head of the home. It is hard to shake such indoctrination.

Is marriage really a partnership when only one partner decides everything? Certainly, we each have strengths and weaknesses. I am not about to enter my wife’s kitchen. First, we will all starve. Second, she is a far better cook than I will ever be in ten lifetimes. On the other hand, I pay the bills, write the checks, and manage the money.  Thanks to my business background, I am good at handling money, bills, and debt, and I am able to analyze numbers on the fly. I do what I am good at and so does Polly. Our marriage is now a partnership of equals, each doing those things that best serve the partnership. (On a funnier note, she’d rather mow the grass and I’d rather clean the house.)

There is ONE area where I refuse to relinquish control: the remote control! It’s mine, dammit. Don’t touch it. If I died today, Polly would never watch TV again because she has no clue and little interest in how the remote works. She can run a sewing machine and do all sorts of intricate stitches, but ask her to change a TV program or set up a recording and suddenly she’s the young woman wooing her man, hoping he’ll do what she wants him to.

I digress…

How did Jerry Falwell’s superior rights for women work out practically in the church?

You be the judge. Does what follows seem superior to you?

  • Women sang in the choir and did special music numbers
  • Women played the piano and organ
  • Women cleaned the church
  • Women worked in the nursery
  • Women taught children in Sunday school and Junior church
  • Women cooked food for potlucks and church meals
  • Women cleaned the church
  • Women took meals to shut-ins
  • Women did any menial work at the church that needed done

This list looks very similar to what was expected of women at home.

Women were not permitted to be pastors, deacons, elders, or teach older children. They were not allowed to teach any group of people that had adult men in it. Doing so would violate the Biblical command for a woman to never usurp the place/authority of a man. After all, God/Jesus is a man, as were the apostles.  End of discussion.

Granted, there is great improvement in some sectors of the Christian church when it comes to how women are treated.  Women can now be pastors, elders, deacons, worship leaders, etc. Women teach theology at some Christian colleges. Thanks to feminism, women have a lot more opportunities than they did years ago. But the church still has a long way to go. Vast swaths of the Evangelical church still actively practice the repression of women. They sincerely believe they are following the teachings of the Bible when they do so. If God said it . . . end of discussion. As a result, thousands of churches continue to be man-only institutions.

One church I co-pastored wouldn’t even allow women to speak in a public congregational business meeting. If they had a question, they were required to whisper the question to a man and he would ask the question. I visited a Mennonite church years ago where the women sat on one side and the men on the other. Keeping to the mantra that women should never lead, when the congregation sang, the women always started singing one note after the men. That said, the singing was spectacular.

In the early 1970s, my mother gave me an important lesson in equal rights for all. She worked as a nurse’s aide for Winebrenner Nursing Home (now Birchaven Village), a Church of God-owned facility in Findlay Ohio. Female aides were paid less than male aides because the male aides did more of the “heavy” work. However, as my mom found out, both sexes did the “heavy” work.

So my Mom, ever the crusader, sued Winebrenner in federal court. At the time, to a fifteen-year-old Evangelical teenager, her behavior seemed silly and embarrassing. There were only a few coins difference in the wages, why bother? I thought at the time. I was so embarrassed when the lawsuit story hit the front page of the newspaper, complete with my mom holding a picket sign. But she was right. Winebrenner was discriminatory in their treatment of women. My mother filed a federal lawsuit under the Title 7 provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The court agreed, and my mother won her lawsuit. While I was embarrassed while this was being aired out in public, I now see how brave my mother was; to stand up for what was right; to dare demand that women be treated equally.We still have a long way to go on the issue of equality. Women are still treated as inferior to men. The glass ceiling exists, regardless of whether troglodytes like Phyllis Schlafly can see it. Yes, things are BETTER, but we should not rest until we are a society that is blind to gender, sexual orientation, race, and religion. Utopian? Perhaps. Justice and fairness require that we press forward even when it seems failure is certain. That’s one lesson my mom taught me, one that I will never forget.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    I wish I could agree that the church has come a long way in this regard. Maybe in some cases that is true. But I am disturbed to hear about mega-churches like Mars Hill and its misogynist pastor, Mark Driscoll:
    How this troglodyte could capture the following he has just bewilders me. It’s concerning that modern day Christian women who are educated professionals can go along with such anti-progressive ideas.
    And yes, back when I attended church, I got boxed into exactly the roles Bruce describes. I was very aware at the time that I fully resented it, but I also believed the Bible taught that it had to be that way. Thank you for keeping this issue on our radar, Bruce!

  2. Avatar

    Beautifully written, Bruce. Oh, how I remember the preachers railing against the ERA! Educated women were courting hellfire. A woman’s working outside the home takes jobs from men!
    I remember thinking how awful my mom was for working outside the home. My dad said her hard-headedness and lack of submission was the cause of their fighting. GOOD GRIEF!
    I feel so badly for people who are still stuck there.

  3. Avatar

    I remember my ex-sister-in-law sharing with me her first day in a secular college. She had graduated from 12 years of Christian school 3 months earlier. She told me years ago that after her first class, she got confused about what her next class was. She said she asked her professor & he said: “kid, do whatever you want, but you can’t stay in this classroom!” She told me that she froze & nearly had a panic attack. I asked her “why?” and she said: “Steve, it was the first day in my life where I hadn’t had all of my decisions made for me!” I remember her little sister, my ex-wife, saying that after a few months there that she began to get “rebellious” & “difficult”. She told her that: “if this is what that school does to you, I’m not interested!” (Their oldest sister had graduated from there & rebelled several years earlier). The simple thing was, as my ex sister-in-law told me: “I had never tasted FREEDOM before & it was SWEET!” Her words, lol. My ex-wife went through this, as well.

    Yes, freedom is quite an amazing thing.

  4. Avatar

    We still have a long way to go, indeed. My mom was never freed from the religious servitude she was taught in the Baptist Church. She replicated her past as best she could and the pain has travelled well into the next generation.
    As for leaving the old teachings behind, I was not able to reason myself out of any of it. I have had to feel the pain all over again, from the very beginning, as far back as I can go, and only in traversing those feelings have I found relief and more distance. Only through the pain did the truth of my own life come back to me and the woo-woo passed away.
    I will always be busy with thought about religion as long as I live but the weight of the blind control has steadily lifted as the years pass.
    The Truth was a lie and I have wept my way along from that place of smiling delusions. (I think the way out is probably especially difficult for women who have suffered very special, very crushing realities of their place in church. They have to be so strong to get up and walk away.

  5. Avatar

    Oddly enough, my father was a feminist in many ways. Oh, he would have been aghast if anyone ever called him that. Feminists were women who went out demonstrating and burning their bras when they should be home tending to their families. But it didn’t make sense to him that people should be paid for the same work differently based on gender. Nor did it make sense that one partner in a marriage should submit to the other; issues of disagreement were meant to be negotiated. He didn’t think women were inherently stupid or excessively emotional. And he valued “women’s work”. Housekeeping to him was hard, honorable work, worthy of decent pay (if done for money) or at least praise and acknowledgement. Finally, nobody should expect to be waited on, least of all by a hard-working spouse. This from a guy born in 1912!

    Alas, he married an anti-feminist. Nowadays we don’t associate strict gender roles and female submission with Catholicism, but growing up before WWII, Mama got intense training in it. She was supposed to submit to Daddy. He was supposed to make decisions. If he made a decision she didn’t like, she was just supposed to live with it. In practice, this meant she played passive-aggressive games (though she had no idea she was doing that, or that it was hurtful — she was just very frustrated and dealing with it the way it had been modeled for her). But when left to make the decisions herself, as often happened, she was terrified of being wrong. If her decision didn’t please her husband, she was angry and distressed. Daddy seldom got angry or distressed; he considered incorrect decisions to be part of life and a natural consequence of not having enough data — one did a course correction and carried on. Mama considered bad decisions a personal failure.

    It was Mama who told me I couldn’t pursue a “man’s job”– engineering — and Daddy who told me that of course I could. It was Mama who told me I must vote identically to my husband, and Daddy who told me to vote my conscience. It was Mama who insisted I give my father grandchildren, and Daddy who pointed out it was my and my husband’s decision. And on and on. It was a sad situation, and Mama could never figure out why all her attempts to live a live completely defined by other people’s rules were doomed to failure. It didn’t help that her only child was a rabid feminist who challenged ***everything***. Such is life outside the bubble.

  6. Avatar
    ann bowen

    Damn. That first list sounds like the blather you’d hear at Amway meetings. Stand behind your husband and give him all your support. You just be the good little housewife that goes with to show the plan. Lordy, I never met such a materialistic bunch in my entire life. Rolls Royces, diamonds that would blind you, homes in Hailey Idaho. I could go on, but I just put on a new blouse and don’t want to vomit all over it.

    Peace and a great Father’s Day.

  7. Avatar

    Superior rights, not equal rights. I hard that crap so many times. We put our women on a pedistal; yes, so they can reach to top shelf in the cupboard and grab another can of tomatoes.

    I remember the anti- ERA preaching also. I remember asking my dad what was wrong with the equal rights. I don’t remember his answer, but I’m sure it was a Baptist party line answer.

    I’ve never subscribed to that idea. My wife still wants me to make all of the decisions; I want her to make her own. I trust her and know she would never knowingly do anything to hurt our family. She grew up ingrained with that Southern Baltist wife mentality beat into her head.

    Argh, I’m so annoyed I can’t think straight.

  8. Avatar

    My girlfriend grew up and is a recovering Evangelical Christian who, after 12 years subjugated by “Christian marriage,” her spouse and two decades immersed in the Evangelical church is still receiving messages from “friends,” who mock, ridicule and attempt to shackle her with guilt for leaving her mentally ill, verbally abusive spouse. While he never struck her, he intimidated her with violent outbursts. Her “friends” remind her that to desire to be loved and happy is petty. To desire attention and appreciation is petty and to be loved is Gods. How do I help her heal?

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Such thinking is abusive. As humans rooted deeply in the soil of life, our ultimate goal is happiness. While we will face difficulty, trial, and disappointment, we should never lose sight of the goal, happiness. Christianity offloads a happy life until the person enters a mythical heaven. And even then, happiness in heaven means the continual worship of a man, Jesus/God.

  9. Avatar

    Hi Pete, Don’t mock, ridicule or shackle her with guilt. Places like this blog offer support in allowing expression and opinion without God-judgement, without an offering plate. Those of us who have faced an upbringing like your girlfriend only need to be loved, not healed or changed. It is not your job to heal, only to love if you wish. You cannot change the past but you have today, I think. Pete, was your upbringing free of harm? If not, then have a long, hard look at what you endured. Try not to repeat the pattern, Easy, huh?

  10. Avatar

    My husband and I are also partners, even if he’s worked more outside the home. Oh, and like Polly, I like mowing the yard.

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    Your mom had guts – good for her!

    The Southern Baptist church I attended was much as you described except for a couple of things – we had a paid janitor (Mr. Hall, who was a member of the church), and women were allowed to teach teen girls or women-only Sunday school classes, but never teen boys or, God forbid, men.

    My grandma was very anti-ERA. As a teen, I asked her why the ERA was bad – she said it would destroy the family. That men needed to be in charge because of their God-given egos, and that if women were in equal positions that would weaken men’s egos and they would become drunks and not participate in society anymore. Needless to say, I thought Grandma’s explanation was BS.

  12. Avatar

    my mil was a doormat for over 50 yrs. she had a promising future that was lost in the morals of the 1950s. forced to marry because she was pregnant. they later became hardcore fundamentalists and she hated her life but stayed because she thought she couldn’t be a christian if she stood up to him. he later stole her inheritance and died w/o leaving her anything. my hubs finally saw thru all the bullshit at that point. grateful for the VA other wise mil would be living in medicaid home. also glad because we don’t have to keep her and listen to her religious rants. she still clings to all of the religious crap. cries because she can no longer go to church and her church doesn’t care enough to give her a ride. dh no longer manipulated by her into driving her. late father in law was a mean hateful person who tried to dominate everyone. it’s sad but most people feel the world is a better place w/o him. he was lonely and could not understand why people kept running away from him. it was all due to his religious addiction and forcing it on people. so sad. keep exposing this crap.

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Bruce Gerencser