Subtly objectifying women in the church … and “subjectifying” men?

Last week I blogged some of my thoughts about whether I should call myself a feminist and what that means to me as a Christian. In my church experience, issues of gender inequality are usually subtle rather than overt, and therefore easier to dismiss as trivial. But they are still reasonably commonplace.

I wanted to follow up with a couple of specific examples. These are not necessarily the strongest or best (worst?) examples I’ve seen, just two things I’ve come across recently in my own experience as well as read other people’s blogs about. What I’m noticing is that sometimes the Christian leaders who speak out against harms in our culture are still operating from some of the same underlying assumptions, probably without even realising it.

The first example is a trend of usually young, male pastors making comments about their “smoking hot wife.” (See this great post by Jayson Bradley).

This is said publicly, either from the platform in church or on social media. I understand that it is intended as a compliment to their wives, one I would have no problem with them making to her privately. But when said publicly it makes me wince. Because to the women listening, it reinforces the idea that they are valuable primarily for their sexual desirability … and not much else.

I also wonder what message it is intended to send to the men listening. It could be heard as a boast, “Look at me, how good must I be to have ‘scored’ a wife this sexy?” Does that really have anything to do with your credibility as a minister of the gospel? Or worse, it could be heard as an invitation, “Check out my wife!” Really? You want all the teenage boys in your church to be thinking about how sexy your wife is? Is that helpful for anyone?

The second, more concerning, trend is the refusal of some male pastors (again, usually young) to mentor or counsel women. Any women. Ever. (See this great post by Jenny Rae Armstrong).

Again, I can understand something of the intention. They want to avoid being put in a compromising situation; they want to be “above reproach.” But again, the message they are sending to women is that we are all temptresses. That the only thing that matters about our personhood is our sexuality, and that we can’t be trusted with it.

Simultaneously, it sounds like they are suggesting that men can’t control themselves. That they are incapable of viewing a woman as anything other than a potential sex partner. (Now maybe that’s true of some of the teenage boys posting on the internet, but godly Christian pastors? Really?) In no other profession would it be acceptable to have a blanket rule refusing to meet with people because of their gender.

If these pastors do genuinely have a sex addition or are struggling with lust in a particular case then they absolutely need to get some help. But this should never be a rule which then becomes an excuse as to why women can’t be taught, mentored or encouraged, or even serve on church staff or boards. (Unfortunately, that still happens.) I’d want I remind them that Jesus didn’t say, “If a woman causes you to look at her lustfully, remove her from your sight.” He said, “If your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out.” (Matt 5:29) He placed the responsibility exactly where it should be!

In both of these situations, silly or well-intentioned as they might sometimes be, what I see happening is an underlying assumption which objectifies women. Let me explain. When women are “objectified,” they are treated as though they are objects. An object, basic English grammar tell us, does not act but is only ever acted upon. This term is usually used in the context of sexual objectification, meaning women are viewed or valued purely for their sexual desirability to the male subject. This means all the other things that make up an individual human being – their intellect, their dreams, their character, their will – are irrelevant. Women are thus treated as less than human; less than who they actually are. That’s not the good news of the gospel and it’s certainly not how Jesus treated women. That’s a problem.

But here’s my other question to those pastors. Aren’t they also “subjectifying” men, if I can make up a word? Aren’t they making men only sexual subjects, who can do nothing else but view women sexually, lust, or be tempted? Aren’t they then also reducing men to one thing, ignoring their character, intelligence, decision-making ability, self-control, wisdom and integrity? By implying that men “can’t help themselves” or are just “boys being boys,” aren’t we then reducing them to a caricature of the full humanity they too were created with? And doesn’t that also run the risk of contributing to the problems we face in our culture rather than addressing them?

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5 thoughts on “Subtly objectifying women in the church … and “subjectifying” men?

  1. Yes, definitely! I reckon this is one of the things recent feminists have tried to address, calling men to be better than the stereotype. In Christian terms, you’d talk about calling men to live up to their image-ness.

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  2. When it comes to mentoring,why do you presume it is the man with the problem? Women can be just as guilty of having no boundaries in their relationships. I have been married and been faithful to my wife for 18 years, and am shocked how many women have not respected this. Some of these women who are even married themselves! That is why all pastors need boundaries. What you are talking about, is the lack of strong female leaders to do the mentoring. Stop blaming the blokes for having boundaries and start promoting women as pastors.

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    1. Hi Tim, thanks for commenting. I’m not presuming men have a problem – I said *if* they do they should get help. But having “boundaries” is one thing; it’s when those boundaries become blanket rules that discriminate that we have a problem. (And who’s to say that a man couldn’t come on to a male pastor in the same way? Appropriate boundaries should cover both situations not assume the “danger” with women is insurmountable.)
      I’m absolutely all for more women pastors, but I still don’t agree that only women should mentor other women and men other men. In many churches the only pastor is a man, and it is part of his vocation and calling to raise up leaders and encourage his flock – he needs to find a way to do this that treats women as whole persons, even if it’s hard work!

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  3. Agree with all that you have said Melinda. One aspect that you might consider however, is the fear that many men live with – especially Pastors, but also male teachers, counsellors etc, is that of being accused of doing something (usually sexual) that is inappropriate or improper. Mud sticks, whether the accusation is true or not – and it only has to happen once. It can ruin careers, families and reputations. This prospect terrifies many good men and often makes them overly cautious I think – and women need to understand this very real fear. I hasten to stress that those of us who have these concerns KNOW that 99/100 people/situations will be perfectly fine – we just worry about the 1/100 who MIGHT be aiming to do some damage – but the protections we put in place impact all. I agree we must work on this.

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    1. Thanks Mark, and yes I’m aware of that and of course there are things wise pastors (male and female) can do to protect themselves – e.g. windows in meeting doors, having other people around. But these cases are the exceptions that should prove the rule.
      Women could be equally afraid that a man would abuse them (which is probably more common than 1/100 given the stats) but again being careful isn’t the same as treating a whole gender as if there is something wrong with them – either way!

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