by Lindsey Painter

Recently, the hashtag #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear surfaced on Twitter and quickly went viral. Women seemed to come out of the woodwork to share the harmful messages the church sends only to women, and to call the church to do better.

The hashtag was so popular because it points out a major problem in the wider Christian church: namely, sexism. The Christian church is made up of a majority of women. Yet, women are consistently given, from a very young age, messages about our inferiority within Christianity. These messages come through in the Adventist church as well.

Let’s take a look at some samples from this controversial hashtag and see what they have to tell us about what Christian women are hearing.

“It’s not that we think women are inferior, it’s just that women are called to be submissive to men.” #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear

“Your greatest calling is to be a wife and mother.” #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear

“The Bible says that women are easily deceived and that’s why they need a man to lead them.” #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear

“You are improperly discerning God’s call. He would never call a woman.” #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear

“Why yes, we affirm women preaching at our church! Can you come and speak to our church about being a woman/being a mom/being a wife?” #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear

One of the messages women get from Christianity is what is popularly called the “complementarian” approach to marriage relationships. It is explained as men and women being equal to each other but with different roles. Men’s roles are to work outside the home and earn money, and women are to stay home to raise children and keep house. The man is the head of the household, with Christ as his head.

There are a number of problems with this model. For one thing, not all relationships work like that. Even if we set aside all relationships that aren’t heteronormative, men and women are not all alike. Some men love to take a commanding leader role and some do not. Some women love to be servant-helpers and some do not. We know as a church that it is important to find our spiritual gifts and exercise them according to our strengths. So why do we expect that every man and woman will want to fall into their traditional roles in the home, even if those roles don’t match their gifts?

“If you stay with your abuser, you might bring him to the Lord.” #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear

“If you want to cause your Christian brothers to stumble, you could wear that… but it’s your choice.” #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear

“Pray for God to make you a better wife so that your husband doesn’t get angry with you anymore.” #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear

How can men be so spiritually superior that women must be submissive to them, and simultaneously not in control of their own sexual impulses? Aren’t men insulted by the insinuation that they aren’t able to control their own bodies?

Another message that comes across is that women are responsible for the wandering eyes and hands of the men around them. This one is especially sinister. It comes up frequently in discussions on modesty. If you wear that, you’ll cause your Christian brother to stumble. In other words, I am responsible for the thoughts of the men around me.

This attitude can be especially harmful to little girls. It teaches them to be ashamed of their bodies. Even before they hit puberty they are taught shame. I know grown women who won’t look at their naked body in a mirror because of the power of shame. The lie that girls and women are responsible for men’s thoughts doesn’t just harm women. It harms men too. It teaches them to blame others for their own transgressions. It is opposite from the message of personal responsibility that Jesus teaches.

But it gets worse when to comes to abuse. Women are told to stay in abusive marriages because the man is the head of the household. Or because she may bring him to God if she prays enough. Or because divorce is wrong. Girls molested by church leaders are asked what they wore, or if they somehow communicated a sexual message through their clothing or actions.

How can men be spiritually superior, enough that women must be submissive to them, and simultaneously not in control of their own sexual impulses? It makes no sense. Aren’t men insulted by the insinuation that they aren’t able to control their own bodies? That they are animals in need of women to protect them by covering our bodies so they won’t be tempted? I’m not a man, but I feel like I would be really insulted if someone implied that about me.

“If you’re not a virgin, what will you have to offer your husband?” #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear

“If you give your body away before marriage, no good Christian man will want you anymore.” #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear

“Your virginity is like a precious vase. If it’s broken, you have no gift to give him on your wedding night.” #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear

A message women often receive from Christianity is that the only valuable thing they have to offer a spouse is sexual purity. I like to think that I have way more to offer my husband than my virginity. Like maybe, I’m a cool person to be around. I add value to his life. I’m smart and creative, and we share a life together. A life that has little to do with my virginity when I said the words “I do” on my wedding day. Reducing my value as a woman to my virginity on my wedding day is the height of objectification. It means my value as a woman is entirely as a sexual object, “unblemished” for that one day.

There are many reasons why a woman might not be a virgin. I could list them, but they really aren’t the point. Whether a woman was raped or whether she did something the church doesn’t approve of, the message is that her value is gone. This one arbitrary, irreversible thing has made her worthless. How can anyone possibly believe that message is in harmony with the radical love of Jesus? Sermons comparing women to used tissue and chewed gum are incredibly harmful to these women. They are in our churches, seeking God, and are being compared to chewed gum? And why does it seem that these messages of purity apply exclusively to women? Young men get the purity speech too, but less pointedly the message that their worth is dependent upon their keeping it.

“The women’s issue is not a primary issue that concerns the church.” #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear

Many deny that there is a problem with sexism in the church. It is sometimes hard to see the problem if it doesn’t directly affect you. But the viral nature of this hashtag, and the number of women saying this resonates with them, should give deniers pause. If women’s issues aren’t a concern of the church, then they should be. Because when over half the church is treated with disrespect, that is a church problem.

The church has a long way to go when it comes to women. Let’s use this hashtag as an opportunity to think about, and address some of these problems. Let’s recognize, as a church family, that women deserve to be treated as full people, equal to men. Let’s start sending messages of affirmation and empowerment. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the hashtag #Thingsonlychristianwomenhear was attached to words reminding us of women’s great value to God and our church family?

Lindsey Painter is a writer and mother of two. She’s married to Jimmy Painter, a pastor from Northern California.

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