When Churches Colonize Femininity

I’ve had a decent amount of conversations recently with men and women of color who are members of majority white churches. These men and women are deeply discouraged in their contexts and feel like they do not truly belong. Many majority white culture churches have a serious issue when it comes to caring for minorities in their congregations. There is a tendency in these churches of discipling minorities into white cultural expressions. This practice is most clearly seen in regards to how minorities, in white churches, are discipled into concepts of femininity and masculinity. For this article, I’d like to focus on how this issue primarily affects women of color. The paradigm for femininity in most (if not all) majority culture churches is the model of the “white soft-spoken woman.” She has with her certain traits that are referred to as marks of piety when in reality they are elements white culture. It’s not that “soft-spokenness” is inherently “white” but the version of it that is expected to expressed is often an idealized version of a white woman, typically akin to a white southern woman from the antebellum era. Men of color are told that this is the kind of woman they are to pursue if they desire a godly woman and be considered relationally wise. Women of color are told that this is what they must be and that they are godly to whatever degree they reflect this image and immature to whatever degree they don’t. If they are opinionated, they are considered ungodly. Expressive or “loud”, ungodly. The list just goes on and on.

What ends up happening in this scenario is that women of color who have various personality types or cultural expressions that are contrary to this white paradigm are placed on the sidelines as being poor potential wives. They are considered to be lacking femininity. Men of color, in their desire to fit into the majority culture context, pursue white women who fit the paradigm. The problem is that they pursue only white women and view white women as the standard that they are to compare all women to. Women of color (especially black) feel abandoned by their men and ultimately begin to feel inherently ugly and spiritually inferior as they are made to feel like they do not fit the biblical paradigm for womanhood. In reality, they are being judged according to a cultural standard, but they aren’t told this. This leads to deep trauma in the hearts and lives of women of color. [see my YouTube lecture on Racialized Trauma and the church for more on this, link below]

Now, I do not want you to misunderstand my words. I am not criticizing interracial marriages. My grandmother and grandfather were an interracial couple who sacrificed and risked everything together, and I am tremendously thankful for my multi-ethnic heritage. I am simply critiquing certain motivations behind certain marital pursuits that ultimately lead to extremely challenging marriages in the future if not dealt with early on. There are absolutely black and white couples who are abounding in love and do not fit the structure that I am presenting here. I am not talking about those people. I am sure that there will be people who will seek to misrepresent my words but nonetheless, I want to make my critique clear. Again, I praise God for interracial marriages. I fully support interracial marriages. I believe interracial marriages are a wonderful way to demonstrate the beauty of the Gospel. What I am criticizing is the paradigm that people of color are forced to adopt in many white church contexts that cause them to consider themselves and their own cultural expressions as inferior. I am speaking to A paradigm that all women are often forced into that is deeply crippling and hurtful for those that don’t measure up.

I spoke to a young man recently who I know personally and have invested years into discipling. He is a godly younger brother who I love deeply and treasure as a friend. I noticed that this young man had a tendency of only pursuing white women ever since he joined a majority culture church context. For various reasons that will remain unspoken, I decided to speak with this brother and investigate whether or not he had bought into this paradigm. I began asking him some questions. These were the final questions I asked him:

Me: Who would you consider more feminine, Taylor Swift or Lauryn Hill?
Him: Taylor Swift
Me: Who would you consider more feminine, the white antebellum southern woman with the soft and meek voice or the slave woman working in the field picking cotton in rags?
Him: The White Southern woman.

He immediately began to see what he was doing. It was a huge moment for him as he began to realize that he had been psychologically and theologically colonized to consider white superior. Specifically, white expressions of femininity superior to feminine qualities expressed by women of color. Even though his own mother and sisters were women of color. As I have helped women of color work through this; they come to feel a great sense of freedom in recognizing that their cultural expressions and personality dynamics are not in and of themselves ungodly. Rather, they are unique qualities that God desires for his glory. God’s glory is displayed through diversity in feminine expression. The problem with many majority white culture churches is that they have a static concept of femininity and masculinity that is often built upon paradigms established more by their own predominant culture than biblical text.

For example: many churches consider Football to be inherently masculine. Football is not inherently masculine; it is a sport that can be played by women without them compromising their femininity and so the sport is not inherently masculine. The problem is that churches are filtering masculinity through a cultural lens. Here is another example. For many churches, being nurturing and gentle are considered feminine traits. How can these be feminine traits when Jesus and Paul both refer to themselves as nurturing (Matthew 23:37, I Thessalonians 2:7) and gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit?
The colonization of femininity and masculinity are only a few of many examples of Internalized racialization and how it can be traumatic for people of color. For women of color, it can leave them deeply discouraged in their singleness and also feeling like they can never measure up to the Bible’s expectation of piety when in actuality, they are being compared to a cultural paradigm and not a biblical one. Of course this doesn’t just affect singles but married sisters as well. For men of color; it cultivates in them a deeply entrenched feeling of self-rejection. They feel like they need whiteness in order to belong and since whiteness is not inherent with them, they pursue it through marriage. When I do pre-marriage counseling, this is an issue I absolutely discuss with an interracial couple to make sure motivations are correct. This dynamic being present does not mean a couple shouldn’t get married. It’s quite possible for one of the members in the couple struggles with this and yet still be deeply in love. This issue may just be an issue that needs to be worked through on a deep level as they pursue marriage and before they enter into a covenant.

This issue is one of the reasons why it is so critical for churches to have men of color in the pastorate who do not primarily identify with the majority culture. A pastor of color who has embraced the majority culture will often not recognize the distinctions necessary to discern whether or not a sister of color is in need of gracious correction or zealous encouragement. He may also lack understanding regarding cultural dynamics of minority men in the congregation and can assume that cultural differences are actually issues of sin rather than cultural or ethnic expression. He will lack a grasp of ethnic cultures and likely have a category of femininity that is less Bible and more the prioritization of whiteness which he has adopted. In other words, If a black pastor primarily identifies with the majority culture, he will likely have the same white paradigm for discerning femininity that white pastors have. With that, he will hurt and devastate a lot of godly women who simply don’t measure up to an unbiblical standard. Due to him being himself a person of color, the hurt can be a lot deeper. In my view, having a minority pastor who identifies with the majority culture can be more harmful to a diverse body than having none at all. Ethnic representation does not exist in eldership unless there is cultural representation and not just a diversity of skin color.

There are also white women in churches who don’t measure up to this feminine paradigm who also struggle deeply. Sisters who feel unwanted and spiritually inferior to other white women. These women are women my wife and I have personally discipled and have had to encourage. The issue was that they didn’t fit into the majority culture’s perceptions of femininity and so they were seen as immature or lacking femininity despite them being solid women of God. Overall, I have met with black, Hispanic (Colombian, Mexican, Dominican, etc.), Asian (Korean, Vietnamese, etc.), Eastern European, the Caribbean, white, and middle eastern men and women regarding this issue. All of these people, from all kinds of different backgrounds, have expressed the same struggle. They just haven’t been able to put their finger on what it is they don’t measure up to. With that said, and from my experience, black women are the ones who have experienced the intensity of feminine bias the worst. God intends for his church to reflect his glory through the beauty of unity in diversity. We do not do God any favors when we seek to dumb down the complexity of His bride. God is pleased with with the the diversity of feminine and masculine expression that exists within his Body. He also receives glory in the ways that both of these categories are static. Faithful Christians must search the scriptures and not their culture as they seek to develop understanding concerning Biblical manhood and womanhood. Searching the culture answers on these things will not yield conformity to Christ, but rather conformity to the image with the most power and influence.

 

You can follow me on Twitter @KyleJamesHoward. Also, check out my podcast “Coram Deo Podcast” which focuses on issues concerning Biblical Counseling and Practical Theology. You can search for podcast on any major podcast catcher, listen on the web here, follow updates @CoramDeoPodcast, or just click the artwork below.

About Kyle James Howard

My name is Kyle, I am married to my “high-school sweetheart” and we have 3 children. I have a 7 year-old daughter (Hadassah), a 2 year-old son (Jonah), and 1 year old (Kesed). I am 32 years old and I am currently a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I have an Associates degree in Biblical & Theological Studies, A B.S. in Biblical Counseling, and I am finishing up an Advanced M. Div in Historical Theology. Click on the "About Me" link at the top of my home page to read my full testimony.

8 Responses to “When Churches Colonize Femininity”

  1. Great blog post.

    You’ve touched on a real problem in the church, especially the white church. It puts women in a box: They must meet cultural norms of being meek, quiet, a bit helpless, and deferential. And men have been taught to look for waifs to rescue, rather than a partner to help carry the responsibility.

    Churches claim to care about family and marriage, but only if you fit the pastor’s personal vision of how men and women ought to be, which is often polarized into hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine. However in the rest of the world, for example in the workplace, a well-balanced person is considered most attractive.

    No wonder so many single men and women in the church cannot find someone.

  2. Thank you for being brave and honest. Forgive me, if I am restating a previous comment. I have not read the thread in its entirety.

    The awareness you speck of must also take root in the heart of minority women of all races, whom marry for reasons that reflect a subconscious internalized racialization paradigm.

    I am married to a “white” man, and have not experienced, acceptance by the church because of our marriage.

    I perceive, I have experience little excepted by “white” women in the church MY AGE. I have had many spiritual mom’s love on me, who are in their 70s who are “white.”

    But, “white” sisters in the church MY AGE, seem to be a challenge for me to cultivate relationships with.

    I personally, have started my own work to a deeper awareness to my subconscious motivates for marrying my husband.

    What I find is a different person at the time we meet. When compared to who I am today. I scarcely recognize that person.

    This work is hard.

    I believe the motives behind these choices are Love and Belonging at whatever cost.

    The Love we have for our self, reflect Gods Love for us. Funneling that love into a marriage covenant is the work the LORD does within us.

    Our church covenant, our community covenant, and the churches covenant with its people, I believe is the work of our lives.

    These covenants take faithless people and forces them to keep faith.

    We cannot always know our motives, in the here and now, in time and space. As only God can truly revel and knows the heart of man.

  3. Thank you for bringing this subject to our attention. I want to suggest another way to shift this type of thinking that was not mentioned. Vote in women of color as pastors. What better way to show women of color as being equally as Spirit filled than to allow them to lead the church spiritually.

    • Thank you for sharing your thought. I do think Woman ordination is a very different issue than the one expressed in this article. I am calling for the church to root its view of femininity in the Bible and not culture. I believe that following same logic would lead to a reaffirmation that the Bible explicitly reserves the role of pastor for men, and that it is culture (specifically the advent of feminism) that has sought to overrule divine revelation. I do absolutely believe that here is a need for churches to affirm women teachers as gifts to the church and even have women excercise their gift of teaching. I think many churches lack a faithful understanding of women in ministry. I would not go as far to open the pastorate up to women, because I don’t believe that is my place. I believe God has the right to order the offices of his church however he sees fit, and he has chosen men to fill a specific office. I believe this is primarily due to what the office represents. The pastoral office is representative of Christ (who is a man). Pastors are undershepherds as Christ is the chief shepherd. I beiliebe that the Pastorate is reflective of Christ and in that, reserved for men. So, absolutely! Raising up women in leadership is an excellent way of demonstrating their value in the church! Allowing women opportunities to teach is also a great means of doing this. I don’t believe the Pastorate is an office that needs to be compromised in order for women to be treated as equal and granted platforms. I believe in both!

      Thanks again!

    • I’m disappointed to hear that you are not taking into account the connection between sexism and racism.

      Egalitarian theology which supports women as full equals, with the same Holy Spirit power to fullfil any spiritual role in Christ is quite biblical.

      I don’t believe you will be able to overcome racism in the church if you do not also overcome sexism for our sisters. Racism and sexism go hand in hand as they are both fruits of the patriarchy.

      So many “biblical” pro racism arguments are the same ones the church uses to subject women. For example “equal but separate” race segregation and “equal but different roles” sex segregation. The same passages used to justify slavery are the same chapters used out of context to keep women from full equality in Christ.

      I highly recommend this thoughtful article from my friend Leah. http://jorymicah.com/to-my-black-complementarian-family-by-leah-ross/

      • Thank you for sharing your thoughts Ashley! Sadly, I believe Jory Micah has already made it clear that she rejects orthodox Christianity. She is not simply egalitarian, she is heretical. It’s unfortunate that you believe I am pro-sexism. I think that is an untrue statement. I fully embrace equality between the sexes. I do not think God reserving an office for men has anything to do with gender segregation or inequality. I understand that there are certain people like Micah who want people to believe that, by hey also want people rejecting the Trinity and various other orthodox doctrines of the faith. As I said in my response to you, I am fully behind Women teaching and women leadership. I believe women should have authority in the church. I’m Baptist, which means I am a Congregationalist, and so to me the Pastorate isn’t the top position of authority in the church. I believe the congregation itself is the chief authority in the church. So, to me, women in the church absolutely have equal authority in a church if they are a member. Pastors submit to the authority of their congregants. They serve at the behest of the congregation. So, yes the Pastorate is made up of men, by office, but the Pastorate isn’t about authority. I know this may be a very different understanding of church than what you are used to but it’s not uncommon in history. Again, as a Congregationalist, the congregation (men and women) are the chief authority in the church. The office of Pastor is an office in which a congregation elects men to lead, but those men are under the authority of the congregation. So, sisters in the church have every right To correct and rebuke their elders. They have every right tell their elders of a desire they have regarding the direction of the church and the pastor must receive their word with authority. Congregations should raise up sisters to roles of axtive leadership as well. I don’t believe the office of Pastorate, but I fully support female leadership in the church.

  4. Mattie Greathouse June 8, 2017 at 10:46 pm

    I sincerely agree with your perspective here and very much appreciate your candor in expressing it. As a white woman who tends to fit the mold, I’ve felt that pressure on African-American members of majority-white congregations, but could not articulate as clearly as you have here. Many issues that people assume are spiritual are, in fact, cultural expectations. I also think that America, and especially the churches here, have not understood the profound and far-reaching affects slavery has had and continues to have in every aspect of our lives. Until we are able to understand it, and repent sincerely, we will remain divided and stunted spiritually.

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