Christian women hear all kinds of things. Some are positive and life-affirming, some most definitely are not. This week many voices came together on a spontaneous Twitter hashtag to share what had been said to them in churches, Bible colleges, job interviews, and other situations where being Christian and a woman came with expectations.
Posting on the #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear hashtag, women reported judgments on their calling to ministry, parenting, sexuality, bodies, roles in church and marriage, work, behaviour, and intelligence. Did I miss anything?
'So you want to get more involved in church, have you thought about children's ministry?' wrote a UK theology student of her experiences.
'What do we call you then? Vicaress? Priestess?' wrote British vicar Kate Wharton.
The tag brought together experiences from UK and US Christianity, after being started as a throwaway thought by author Sarah Bessey. Angry objections followed, with rumours of threats, which seem to be almost compulsory in any event of women speaking up online about any negative experience. The more mild–mannered objections came in the shape of hand- wringing about unity. Why draw attention to all the bad, asked one man, let's focus on the good and the truth (but not that truth, OK ladies? Be reasonable).
Meanwhile, author Eric Metaxas was deeply saddened by the departure of Fox TV presenter Bill O'Reilly who had parted ways with Fox 'by mutual agreement' after reports of sexual harassment dating back decades. But only after advertisers began to boycott his show. Becoming financial kryptonite for employers (who also parted ways with chairman Roger Ailes last year after similar allegations emerged) is often the trigger for change. Mr O'Reilly had activities lined up to keep him busy, including a photo opportunity with the Pope and attending to climbing sales of his latest book, Old School, about family values and the importance of decency; sales had seen a boost around the time allegations of his alleged predatory behaviour towards women had become public.
Metaxas bemoaned his exit, feeling the airwaves would be poorer for what he described as 'fairness, boldness & radical commonsense', a view in itself controversial (O'Reilly has also lost custody of his children over domestic violence claims). When challenged that the same man had left over the scandal of subjecting women to years of degradation he replied this was 'perhaps the saddest part'. Perhaps.
The cognitive dissonance with which the elements of the conservative Church and political culture can separate the theory and the practice of their figureheads and institutions rolls on. Write a book about how women shouldn't be objectified while being accused of objectifying women? No problem. Speak out about why harassing women is a crime and a disgrace? Hey, you're messing with the unity and possibly – one man suggested – connected to a cabal of paid left-wing agitators trying to bring down the Christian faith.
Men will mourn the removal of other men from public life as more of a tragedy than the harm those men have done to women, and they will ask women to be quiet about the harm done to them. This is finally starting to be confronted in conservative circles. 'Why Are So Many Evangelicals Condoning Sexual Assault?' asked a starkly-titled, effectively-argued piece by The Gospel Coalition's editor Joe Carter in November 2016, just after American evangelicals were being credited with promoting Donald Trump to power. Conservative women like professor and author Karen Swallow Prior are increasingly challenging themselves and others in their circles to understand the reality of this disconnect.
For some, the Christian faith in its true form is under threat and pesky women are the reason. This was apparent in the latest post from American pastor John Piper, who responded to the concerns of 'a soon-to-be pastor in the UK' who was worried for his future employment prospects in a land of egalitarian embrace (yes, still the UK). 'Is male headship a lost cause?' was the question asked and answered with reassurance. Of course male headship wasn't going anywhere, responded Pastor John, because it was what God wanted, it was reflective of men's and women's true nature, it prevented the disobedience of women preaching and being pastors when only men truly could, and should complementarianism cease it would be a sign God had stopped loving humanity. It was that fundamental.
Should women be welcomed as pastors, which was the main concern of the piece, it would be reflective of End Times tribulations. He cited verses from Matthew 24, and equated holding on to male headship as the equivalent of not growing cold, and enduring to the end in order to be saved. John Piper is no small-time figure with a niche audience. He is a writer and preacher with almost a million Twitter followers (his tweet shortly after posting his article asked: 'There's nothing beautiful about a sharp mind in the service of a hard heart. With every shrewd assessment are you moving towards helpfulness?' Which is a really great question, and possibly rhetorical).
And here we come full circle. Many of the things Piper specified are many of the #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear because many people, particularly men, still believe them. 'It's not that we think women are inferior, it's just that women are called to be submissive to men' wrote one tweeter, echoing the arguments in Piper's post. In this worldview men are in charge, valued for their contributions to Christian and political thought and discourse, and women incidental as supporters, as God intended.
While John Piper and others like him hold to their interpretation of Scripture, women will be hearing many similar things for years to come. Social media allows these views to be heard more widely – in both directions - and for those of differing opinions to see the impact of their words. Too often what Christian women hear is that they are not wanted or valued. Read through the positive words on the #ThingsChristianWomenShouldHear hashtag that appeared in response to the original, but be aware that this is a conversation between very different worlds of Christian thought and it will continue to roll on.
Vicky Walker is a writer and speaker, among other things. She is author of 'Do I have to be good all the time?' and is currently writing a book on how to navigate Christian culture's teaching on dating, relationships and marriage