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.
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, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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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