The idea that men should be 'heads' and women should 'submit' to them is alive and well in many churches. It is called complementarian theology. The spectrum of possibilities for women within this interpretation of the Bible is narrow. Subtle and not-so-subtle cues absorbed from childhood – what to wear, appropriate body language – are Biblical Femininity 101. Cobbled together with verses from Proverbs 31 to Ephesians, with the underlying Genesis warning that Eve kind of blew it for us all, the perfect Christian female template emerges. She is nurturing, passive, quiet, home-loving, family-focused, covered up, rampantly fertile and put on the earth to support a man. She will be handed over by her father to her husband with no expectation of independence.
For this Christian woman, fulfilment of destiny lies only one way. There may be education, even the whisper of a career, but if all goes to plan, a neat transition into her True Calling will seamlessly follow: marriage, motherhood and home-making. Even the mildest complementarian teaching appears to value this above anything else a woman could do with her life. Church teaching and culture does little to challenge it. It is modelled on predominantly-male speaking platforms and spelled out in books and in online forums.
Lately the stakes seem to have got higher. Recent resurgence of strongly complementarian teaching suggests society and civilisation itself are at risk if men don't rise up to God-given dominance in their personal relationships. Only through being 'heads of the home' with submissive wives and children will the wider world see what God is really about. Not just in relation to marriage, but as a microcosm of how God intended the world to be. Presumably the influence will be on other men – women being indisposed with housework and childcare – who will be drawn to the idea of a domesticated wife and a chance to have authority in a society that seems to have moved on from the old ways of doing things.
With such specific roles for women, what is the answer for those who don't fit? The numbers – approximately two-thirds of western Churchgoers are female – suggest a lack of eligible leading men (emergency polygamy still a matter for Synod). This leaves a growing number of single women overdressed (because modesty) and unaddressed. Women, whether or not they have a faith, who aren't married with children are viewed as a suspicious bunch. They're regarded as "not having the natural duties and labours of wives and mother, have to carve out artificial and painfully-sought occupations for themselves; who, in place of completing, sweetening, and embellishing the existence of others, are compelled to lead an independent and incomplete existence of their own." That's quoted directly from the stage of four major Christian festivals just last year (kidding – it's from 1862, but the sentiment remains). Transplanted to the modern church, little has changed. Yes, in theory, the good book tells us we're 'one in Christ' but many believe it's all going to Gehenna in a go-cart without a male-dominated hierarchy and women safely help-meeting away.
This limiting of the lives and callings of women is deeply saddening, and extrapolated to a patriarchal utopia at the far end of the theological scale, is potentially hugely damaging. Not only are women groomed for just two things from myriad possible callings, we're often blamed for damaging the faith simply by existing in Christian spaces. A study showing 'More women believe in God than men' was interpreted by some as "Now look what you made us do, with your making church a horrid place to be just by turning up and being womany. Even making us believe God isn't real." The traditionalist bishop who is to be commissioned without being touched by archbishops who have touched the only woman bishop in the CofE (yes, touched her. With their hands. Entirely appropriately. Spiritually. In a church service) sends a sadly dehumanising message to womenfolk everywhere. The diminishing of women has existed from the days of the early Church Fathers – Augustine, Jerome et al – but persists today. Influential complementarian John Piper states that neither man nor woman is superior or more capable yet God wants man to lead. Just because.
A recent post by a New York pastor on '10 women a Christian man shouldn't marry' led a baffled atheist responder to conclude the writer believed the "perfect woman should have two skills: sit down and shut up" and was warning men not to "be attracted to a woman who saw herself as more than a subservient baby-factory." This interpretation of the Bible doesn't honour women or God or humanity. It lacks grace and love while claiming both. But in the 'Biblical Marriage' camp (aka complementarianism) a battle is perceived. War metaphors are common. Such objections can be dismissed as the gulf between the faithful and faithless in an ever darkening age, and any objection seen as persecution or the spread of a permissive and godless society.
Where does this leave us? The women who aren't married or mothers? The women who are but who are gifted and called to many other things? What of Christian women working in tough overseas environments or adopting children as single parents? The risks of continuing to marginalise women are high. 'Feminisation' of the church is blamed for driving men away (despite centuries of dominant male leadership) suggesting female = bad. As a single woman, I fall between the cracks of much church culture and the debate raging about whether women should be out and about or at home submitting to their menfolk doesn't apply to me. Many couples committed to an egalitarian reading of the Bible don't relate either. Church risks becoming a place where limitations are placed on growing numbers of faithful believers with unhappy consequences. Such entrenched interpretations surely diminish us all.