In Our House as Well

Thus far at Challenging Tertullian, we’ve looked at the reality of male privilege primarily in the culture at large. That is, I’ve shined the spotlight on sectors of American society such as the political world and the economic arena. But, at its core, this is a blog that examines the phenomenon of male privilege from a Christian perspective. So, with this post, it’s time to take a look at the American church.

On February 4, 1985, in its Religion section, TIME Magazine published an article provocatively entitled “Women: Second Class Citizens?” The article critiqued the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of women, particularly its lack of women in the priesthood. Here’s a quote, from a woman named Maryann Cunningham:

“There was a time when the church sanctioned slavery and cheerfully burned heretics, and the patriarchal church still does not see that there is anything to be sorry for in its treatment of women.”

Strong words. But, and here’s the kicker, true words.

Fast forward 27 years to last week, when it was reported that the Church of England voted to NOT ordain women as bishops, effectively retaining a cap on the available leadership roles for women in the Anglican communion. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury lamented the vote because of its negative effect on the mission of the church, saying:

“We have, as a result of yesterday, undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society.”

Let me just come out and say this plainly:

Male privilege is firmly and tragically entrenched in the offices and pulpits of the American church.

In other words, we’re not just talking about a problem in the larger culture. It’s in our house as well. Indeed, in the clerical (church leadership) world in particular, male privilege continues to thrive. Think about it. How many titled female leaders do you know?!?

Let’s talk statistics. Here’s the word from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research:

“Seminary remains by and large a male profession. Twice as many men as women completed the Masters in Divinity degree, the most popular of the programs, in 2005, according to ATS (The Association of Theological Schools) figures.”

To this Barna adds:

“From the early 1990s through 1999 just 5% of the Senior Pastors of Protestant churches were female. Since that time the proportion has slowly but steadily risen, doubling to 10% in 2009.”

Doubling is terrific, but it’s still just 1 in 10.

In her book A Church of Her Own pastor and professor Sarah Sentilles describes in detail, through the use of numerous stories (including her own), how difficult it is for women to gain access to a pastoral role in a mainline Christian denomination. Here’s her verdict:

“All of [the largely negative experiences of women trying to get ordained] revealed the failure of churches to celebrate and support women in ministry and betrayed a deep misogyny alive and well in most Christian denominations.”

Can you feel the effect of privilege?!?

I love the depiction of the first church from Acts 2:42-47. What an image of what the church could be!

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

In this text I see a community that is growing in faith (42-43), growing in fellowship (44-47) and growing in number (47). I realize that this church was established in the context of a patriarchal culture, but in the passage I don’t see  a place for institutional patriarchy. Or misogyny. Or “second class citizens” of any kind. On the contrary, according to Luke, it’s just a beautiful community full of “they.”

It’s time to build a church where everyone flourishes.

There is a whole lot more to talk about here, and we’ll get there. My purpose in this post is simply to chronicle the reality of the male privilege that lurks in our churches. In coming posts, I’ll describe the situation with more depth, and I’ll explore both questions and answers.

What about you? How do you see male privilege living in the American church?

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