The Church’s Trouble With Women

If anything has been made clear to me this month, it’s this: Christianity has a gender problem.

First there was the kerfuffle over John Piper’s comments about the “masculine feel” of Christianity. The fact there even was a kerfuffle over them is encouraging, but let’s face it: John Piper’s influence far exceeds 100 angry blogs’.

Then there was the craziness over President Obama’s effort to make sure all women covered by a health insurance plan have access to free contraception – an important goal because access to birth control is a constitutionally protected right, it has health value beyond its stated purpose, and its stated purpose is far preferable to unplanned pregnancy, 30 percent of which end in abortions.

Well-intentioned people can disagree about whether the initial proposal was a good idea – it would not have forced a single Catholic to use birth control, so the reaction to it seemed a tad overwrought to me, especially since many states already had the exact same mandate without religious institutions falling into the abyss – but the compromise worked out by the Obama administration exempted religious-affiliated hospitals and universities while requiring insurance companies to provide it for free in those cases. Issue solved, right?

Well, no.

The bishops want every Catholic employer everywhere to be able to opt out of the contraception mandate, but this is another example of Christian leadership evincing a position that oppresses women – one clearly not supported by the women affected by that position.

This is the problem with hierarchalism in our church. My wife and I have three children; I’ve been an eyewitness to three full-term pregnancies and three labors, each with their own unique challenges and difficulties. I know as well as any man how hard it is to carry a baby to term and deliver it. Which still means I know just about nothing about being pregnant or having a baby. 

The much-ballyhooed figure is this: 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control. Even assuming that number is a little high (it’s actually 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women who are able but not actively trying to have children, so nuns, the elderly and the pregnant, among others, are not included), it indicates yet another divorce between the assumptions of the men who run our churches and the women whose fealty they demand.

It seems wrong to me that a group of celibate men should call the shots on reproductive health for sexually active women, so let’s see what the women think.

Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke:

It has been heartbreaking frankly to see women’s health treated as a political football in the national media, while around my campus I instead see the faces of the women affected by this policy. Everyday I hear from another woman who has suffered from the lack of contraception coverage. … Contraception can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school. … Forty percent of students at Georgetown Law told us they suffer financially as a result.

In the worst cases, women who need this med for other medical reasons suffer dire conseuences. My friend has polycystic ovarian syndrome and has to take birth control to prevent ovarian cysts. In theory, her prescription should have been covered by Georgetown insurance because it is not intended to prevent pregnancy. At many schools, it still wouldn’t be covered. … But these exceptions, when they exist, are ineffective. Because when you let university administrators or other employers, rather than women and their doctors, dictate whose medical needs are good enough and whose are not, a woman’s health takes a back seat to a bureaucracy focused on policing her.”

Carol Howard Merritt, pastor of Western Presbyterian Church:

There are many reasons to support the use of contraception. It can help teenagers avoid the cycle of poverty. It allows women to plan their educations and careers. It can help with overpopulation and strain on our environment. Contraception helps a myriad of medical conditions.

This week has been dominated by religious voices speaking out against contraception. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise since Christianity has been controlled by men for over 2,000 years, and there has been a strong belief in both Catholic and Protestant traditions that women were created solely for childbirth. But there are way too many voices, speaking in the name of God, who target health services for women, and especially poor women.

As people of faith, we need to make our voices on behalf of women clear.

I believe in religious freedom. I believe that Muslim women should be allowed to wear a burka if that is her choice. I believe that a Catholic woman should not use contraception if that is her choice. But I resent the loud and constant religious voice that threatens the rights of women.

There is another voice. We aren’t hearing it much in this national dialogue, but there are women and men of faith who believe that women are created for more than bearing children. We support contraception and women’s healthcare.

God is concerned with the health of women. God cares about teenagers who end up in a lifetime of poverty. Jesus healed the bleeding woman two thousand years ago, and I think if he walked the streets today, he just might hand her a packet of pink pills.

This gets at the unfortunate cycle of dependance created by Christian policies on subjects that have little to do with what should be the core of our message.

Many Christians are on record opposing. We oppose birth control. We oppose sex ed in schools. We oppose abortions. But what do we support? How does this trio of opposition work itself out in the lives of the people Jesus cared about? Lack of birth control – and an absence of discussion about it – lead to unintended pregnancy, and a significant number of unplanned pregnancies end in abortion. Our oppositions, well-meaning though they may be, lead to more poverty, more abortions, more heartache and heartbreak for the poor.

In the meantime, the message of Jesus is sublimated to our message of puritanism, and our eagerness to play the victim distracts us from focusing on those in our society who are the true victims.

As Fred Clark put it:

When I tell people that I am a Christian, I’d like their first thought to be that this has something to do with Jesus and love, rather than having them say to me, “Oh, so that means you’re opposed to well-woman visits, screening for gestational diabetes, HPV testing, STD counseling, HIV testing and counseling, breastfeeding support and supplies, contraception, and screening and counseling for domestic violence, right?”

4 thoughts on “The Church’s Trouble With Women”

  1. This is an excellent post. I’ve felt a little weird with this birth control mess. Last year, my son was stillborn and they think the only things that saved my life were being in good shape pre-pregnancy and getting to the hospital in time because I bled so much. I had an eight unit transfusion. Not pregnant, I weigh 105 pounds so you can imagine how awful it was–more than half my blood. Apparently, I have a better than 60% chance of losing another baby and dying if I try again so my husband and I are adopting. I take birth control because it controls my polycystic ovary symptoms and now I also take it so I can be here for my daughter as she grows. I shouldn’t *have* to walk around telling people all this. And I don’t have to, in reality, but I feel it needs to be said, to break the silence (of everything from infant death to grief) and to show people that women who take birth control are not simply promiscuous, selfish, and/or denying the will of God. Although, you know what? Even if I were, I still kind of think it’s not really anyone’s business–that’s a bit tongue in cheek but true because I’m just belligerent like that.

  2. I am thankful that Churches of Christ have no singular voice on this issue. My wife uses birth control, just like her mother did before her. It has never been an issue in either of our families, both of which could be described as fairly mainstream C of C. Similarly, at Abilene Christian University (where we both attended), it is assumed that a woman will go on birth control shortly before marriage for the explicit purpose of preventing pregnancy. Furthermore, it is a commonplace experience to meet a student who is taking birth control pills for some other purpose than preventing pregnancy who is open and unembarrassed about it. Is ACU an oasis of enlightenment? Maybe so. Not matter what, I am tempted to just put my head in the sand when I head about issues like this and the whole John Piper deal and to be glad that these people don’t represent my specific tradition.

    I am also thankful that Churches of Christ have largely steered clear of the “Evangelical” label. Although I would certainly describe myself as an evangelical Christian (notice the lowercase “e”), I am happy to not be a part of a movement that has nearly made itself inextricably linked with right wing causes. But I think we should make this point clear. There is not a consensus in the Evangelical world regarding contraception. The weight of opinion among both leaders and the laity is in favor. This new emphasis, I’m afraid, is a political move. Birth control has become an Obama thing, and therefore a bad one.

    Check out John Piper in this video – . As much as I can’t stand the fact that he seems to think the world needs to know his opinion on everything, I found his thoughts on birth control to be profound. Many will disagree with him still, but I think he serves as a good example that there is diversity to be found all throughout the Christian world.

    So Piper isn’t against birth control, and neither are most of his fellow Evangelicals. Neither are mainline Protestants. I guess the Reformation still has some work left to do…

    I am thankful that I am a part of a tradition that, when at its best, leaves room for the work of the Holy Spirit in the consciences of congregations and individuals on issues such as this.

  3. >As Fred Clark put it,

    “When I tell people that I am a Christian, I’d like their first thought to be that this has something to do with Jesus and love, rather than having them say to me,

    Oh, so that means you’re opposed to well-woman visits, screening for gestational diabetes,
    HPV testing, STD counseling, HIV testing and counseling, breastfeeding support and supplies,
    contraception, and screening and counseling for domestic violence, right?’”<

    ANYONE would prefer this not to be the reaction, but if this is someone's reaction to hearing you're a Christian, it says as more about the person's bigotry, ignorance, and gullibility than it does about Christianity. And there's nothing wrong about pointing out that fact. Imagine how racist it would sound if someone learned a person was black, and the response was "Oh, so what means you’re opposed to getting a job, welfare reform, etc." I'm not saying that the analogy is exact, but the point is Christians don't have to go on defense every time someone starts spouting stereotypes that are really just easy-to-attack straw-man positions.

    Explain to such rubes that Christians are a diverse bunch and don't always agree about every issue, but we should never distort or dilute Christ's message. He told the woman who was about to be stoned that he did not condemn her, but he also told her to stop living as she had been. He expressed forgiveness for her not meeting the ideal, but he didn't deny that there is an ideal–or apologize for it.

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