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Amid a sex abuse crisis, a new conservative Christian vision for womanhood?

(Image: "Trois Femmes" via Pom Angers - courtesy of Flickr creative commons -

In times of cultural crisis, societies have no choice but to enter a period of rethinking.

America has crossed the rubicon with the recent tidal wave of sex abuse scandals. Dozens of influential men have lost their jobs and reputations due to their offensive, predatory, and often illegal behaviors. These allegations have torn down the facade of respectability these men had carefully constructed, but they’ve also unmasked the lies some have believed for too long.

We can no longer pretend that sexism is a thing of the past. Or that powerful men can be trusted to behave with decorum and respect in the workplace. Or that women are safe and protected in our “enlightened” age.  Amid this cultural crisis, religious communities must now enter a period of rethinking.

Julie Roys, a popular conservative Christian radio show host, believes that this must include a critical discussion about popular notions of womanhood. In her book, “Redeeming the Feminine Soul: God’s Surprising Vision for Womanhood,” she rejects the “feminist distortion” and “fundamentalist caricature” of womanhood. I’ve known Roys for years, and while we often disagree, I’ve always found her to be fair-minded and thoughtful. So I decided to invite her to share her vision for womanhood with the “On Faith and Culture” audience.

RNS: We’ve experienced a wave of sexual abuse and harassment scandals in recent days. Is this the result of a distorted view of womanhood?

JR: Absolutely. Clearly the scandals reveal a perverse view of women as mere objects of sexual gratification, rather than persons made in the image of God. But I don’t think anyone is surprised by that. This kind of objectification by men has been going on ever since the Fall.

What’s surprising is the fact that women, despite decades of feminism, felt they had no recourse and had to endure the abuse. It’s also disturbing that women, when faced with the choice, were willing to trade their dignity for jobs.

I can’t help but wonder if feminism contributed to this crisis, convincing women to place inordinate value on their careers and advancement, but a shockingly low value on their own bodies and sexuality. It’s telling that Gloria Steinem in the nineties publicly supported accused sexual predator, Bill Clinton, rather than his alleged victims. By doing so, she communicated that political gain is ultimate; women and their dignity are expendable.

RNS: Many conservative Christians believe that women should be quiet and submissive to their husbands and male leaders. Some say this kind of theology creates fertile soil for abuse and harassment. What say you?

JR: I think the inordinate value placed on sex roles and submission of women in conservative circles often betrays an underlying misogyny and a complete misunderstanding of the reason God created male and female.

God didn’t create male and female so one sex could dominate the other, and each could function according to rigid gender-specific roles. God created male and female to reveal the mystery of Trinitarian life and love through the union of husband and wife (Genesis 1:27 and 2:24), and to reveal the loving and sacrificial way Christ relates to the church (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Though hierarchy and submission exist within the Trinity, it’s not the dominant feature. Love is. Similarly, Christ doesn’t lead His church in some heavy-handed, top-down manner; instead He sacrificially provides for her. Many conservatives have lost sight of this bigger picture and reduced God’s beautiful design to authoritarianism. This error, and the misogyny that sometimes fuels it, definitely creates a fertile soil for abuse.

RNS: How do some conservative Christians misunderstand womanhood, and why do you reject the “fundamentalist caricature?”

JY: Conservatives, perhaps reacting to society’s dismantling of sexual difference, sometimes present a vision of womanhood that’s uni-dimensionally feminine. They uphold an idealized “Proverbs 31 Woman” who’s meek and mild, making women like me, who possess a healthy dose of masculine traits, feel like misfits.

But C.S. Lewis once said, “There ought spiritually to be a man in every woman and a woman in every man.” By this, Lewis was not advocating for androgyny. He was simply saying that healthy men and women should possess some balance of masculine and feminine virtues in degrees appropriate to their particular sex. A woman with no masculine virtues, for example, is sickly passive, and a man with no feminine virtues is warlike.

Our vision of womanhood (and manhood) needs to reflect the complexity of our Creator in whose image we are made. God, holding all that is true and good within Himself, possesses both masculine and feminine qualities and so should we.

RNS: You say that feminists distort womanhood. How so?

JR: Feminism is rife with a kind of stealth misogyny. Misogyny literally means hatred of women, and in its overt form, often manifests as men abusing or demeaning women. But stealth misogyny is the hatred or devaluing of what’s uniquely female or feminine, and ironically, it’s a hallmark of feminism.

Betty Friedan, who launched second-wave feminism, saw femininity as a vice, not a virtue, writing that it made “women a target and a victim of the sexual sell.” She also harbored a shockingly low view of motherhood, comparing those who dream of being of being housewives to the “millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps.”

Sadly, feminism tried to solve overt misogyny by embracing stealth misogyny – by dying to all that’s feminine and becoming, as Gloria Steinem declared, “the men we wanted to marry.” But God didn’t make women to be men. And becoming like them requires us to die to something essential within ourselves.

RNS: But men haven’t done a great job protecting women and promoting women’s interests. Feminists have championed women’s causes, haven’t they? At least to some extent?

JR: Yes and no. Certainly, first-wave feminists achieved important gains for women like the right to vote, own property, and pursue higher education. But those early feminists, unlike their successors, didn’t win those gains at the expense of womanhood or the unborn.

No doubt, second-wave feminism helped achieve gains like greater parity in pay and more job opportunities for women. But considering the movement’s almost fanatical promotion of abortion and its devaluation of motherhood, looking for gains is like trying to find a silver lining in the eugenics movement. Similarly, when I consider how third-wave feminism has encouraged women to prostitute themselves in the hookup culture, I’m sickened by the devastation the movement has caused.

On a hopeful note, though, there are some groups uniting secular feminists and Christian conservatives for common causes like ending human trafficking or blocking trans legislation that erase women’s civil rights. These efforts perhaps will offer some redemption of the movement.

RNS: What do you mean when you say women are destroying themselves?

JR: Most Christian women have embraced one of two reductionist visions of womanhood. The fundamentalist vision denies women’s full humanity and gifting, and requires them to deny authentic aspects of their calling. As a woman with strong leadership and teaching gifts, I definitely experienced this in the church. To fit the mold I was given, I had to pretend those aspects of myself didn’t exist, and it was soul-crushing.

On the other hand, the feminist vision denies the good and beautiful differences between men and women, and requires women to deny what’s uniquely feminine about them. Feminist Christians claim that men and women are functional equivalents, and say that our roles are completely interchangeable. To fit this mold, women often die to essential parts of themselves like their maternal instinct, or intuitive and emotional nature.

Women in both camps are languishing and what they desperately need is a vision of womanhood that affirms both their full humanity and their uniqueness.

RNS: It seems pretty clear now that powerful men–at least certain kinds of them–are destroying women, no?

JR: Absolutely. This is a perspective I share with feminists. We do not disagree on the problem. We disagree on the solution.

When sin entered the world, it perverted the unity and mutuality between men and women. In Genesis 3:16, it says that the woman would desire her husband, but he would “rule over” her. In other words, women would seek a lover and a companion, but instead get a ruler and oppressor. We’re seeing this in spades right now.

Barack Obama suggested this week that the way to solve this problem is to replace male leaders with women since men are “having some problems.” That’s essentially the same solution Christian feminists suggest: abolish male leadership.

I suggest the solution isn’t to fire male leaders; it’s to redeem them. Because of the cross, men can be liberated from their sinful tendency to oppress women, and instead serve women the way God intended. That’s what’s crucially needed today.

RNS: You’ve worked for Moody Radio and other conservative Christian institutions. Have you ever experienced sexual harassment or abuse of any kind in these organizations?

JR: No, I haven’t. Though I certainly have experienced being overlooked or dismissed because I am a woman, I have never had anyone in a Christian organization treat me in a sexually inappropriate way. However, I did experience sexual harassment when I worked in secular news.

In my first job as a TV reporter for a CBS affiliate, I remember that the office for the cameramen was filled wall-to-wall with pin-ups of naked women. Occasionally, I would have to enter that office to talk to someone, and it was painfully awkward and degrading.

Also, when I worked as a newswriter for a TV station in Chicago, there was a sports anchor who reveled in telling off-color jokes in front of me because I was the lone Christian in the newsroom. He’d also make comments about how Christians never have sex and would often try to massage my back and shoulders. It was awful.


RNS: Do you think that sexual abuse and harassment crisis is a problem in the church as well? 

JR: I know it is. I have a friend who was sexually harassed and abused at Bob Jones University and was interviewed as part of the independent investigation there three years ago. Her story made me simultaneously sick, sad, and infuriated.

There also are hundreds of women sharing their stories of abuse as part of the #churchtoo campaign on Twitter right now. Their accounts are heartbreaking. What’s especially sad are the reports that Christian leaders sometimes blamed assault victims for their abuse, and claimed that reporting abuse would damage the cause of Christ. That’s so wrong.

Wherever you have men and women tainted by the fall, you will have abuse, and you will also have people trying to cover it up. The church, unfortunately, is not immune.

RNS: Do you think a reckoning is coming?

JR: Certainly for Bob Jones University, a reckoning came. The findings of the investigation there were brutal, suggesting that the school responded abysmally to many students who were victims of abuse. The school has formally apologized to victims, and changed its policy on how it handles disclosure of abuse, but I’m sure it is still feeling the effects of what happened there.

What comes of the #churchtoo campaign remains to be seen. As far as I know, no formal charges have resulted from it. And I think unless that happens, it may build awareness, but not much more than that. I’d like to see it lead to substantive change.

But the root cause of abuse and harassment is misogyny. And this is something that the church has largely ignored, and at times perpetuated. I’m hoping my book will spark discussion in the church among men and women about ways we’ve all hated or devalued what women uniquely possess.

RNS: How can the church and religious leaders respond to the sexual abuse crisis we’re experiencing in culture?

JR: Churches and Christian institutions can begin by reviewing their policy concerning how they respond to sex abuse and harassment allegations (or creating a policy if they don’t have it). All allegations need to be taken seriously and reported to proper authorities. And victims should never be shamed, but offered care and support.

Christian leaders also need to resist the urge to minimize or cover up sin. Unconfessed sin will only spread and fester and cause more destruction. Plus, burying sin is antithetical to the Gospel. Scripture says if we confess our sin, we will be forgiven and cleansed; if we don’t, we stand condemned.

Beyond that, these organizations need to be proactive. Seek to address the porn problem within your church or organization, for example. Porn is epidemic in the church and there’s no way a man who regularly consumes porn can have a proper view of women. Also, interview the women. Do they feel safe, valued and honored?


About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • You can follow Christ, and be blessed, or you can follow “feminism” and not.
    “God created male and female to reveal the mystery of Trinitarian life and love through the union of husband and wife” Absolutely, Christ was submissive to the Father:

    John 6:38
    Verse Concepts
    “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.

    John 8:49
    Verse Concepts
    Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me.

    John 15:10
    Verse Concepts
    “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s
    commandments and abide in His love.

    Now, you can believe those who want to refute this reality and “emancipate” women, as Christ gives us all a choice, or you can believe God, who knows what is best for one and has not declared wrong for women.
    For those with no husband, women are under their dad’s “umbrella” of safety.
    Also, women are to submit to no man but their husbands – a fallacy this website pushes.

  • Some of this I’m repeating from a prior Roys column, with changes:
    Roys’ view of Proverbs 31 is way off. The woman (known in Judaism as the Eishet Chayil, the Woman of Valor) is described as pretty much in charge of everything. She’s running the household, she’s making charitable donations, she’s purchasing real estate, food, making clothes, she teaches with kindness and wisdom. Idealized and perfectly put together, absolutely. Mild and meek? Definitely not.
    One reason porn often but not always leads to a skewed view of women is bad sex education. Men should understand, in learning that women are not simply objects of sexual gratification, that real-life sex is far from a fantasy portrayal.

  • On what grounds does Ms Roy claim to know Yahweh’s will or desire? The Bible is notoriously contradictory and can be used to support nearly any theological or political argument one cares to make, so it is hardly a reliable source for understanding the will of the infinite (assuming, of course, that the infinite has a will, which seems a rather odd thing for something that is the alpha and omega).

  • This clap trap is why woman will remain subjected to hateful, spiteful, dangerous, and illegal male misogyny in many Christian churches. Bob Jones University, Brigham Young, and other bastions of male privilege will never change, merely make a show of it.
    “For those with no husband, women are under their dad’s “umbrella” of safety. ” …read “How to run a cult.”

  • Women submissive to men:

    And speaking of God’s design, let’s go to our next point: their design. And here to support what he has just said come these two wonderful verses, 13 and 14. Here is the root of the role of a woman in the design of God. Verse 13, “For Adam was first formed, then Eve.” Now, that is so clear. Woman’s place was ordained in the order of the creation. Adam was made first and then woman. First, prōtos, first in rank, chief. He is ish; she is isha, in the Hebrew. In 1 Corinthians chapter 11 verse 8, “For the man is not of the woman but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man.” And that’s why she ought to recognize his authority. In creation, God made man first. Now, keep this in mind: man was made for God and woman was made for man. Eve was made for Adam. She was made to be his helper. Genesis 2:18 to 25, she is his glory. Man is the glory of God; woman is the glory of man. She is made to be the helper of man. She is to follow his lead, live in his provision, find safety in his strength, and protection in his courage. A tendency to follow was built into Eve until the Fall, and then came the curse, and in that curse the tendency to rule and then the conflict. J MacArthur

  • “RNS: What do you mean when you say women are destroying themselves?”

    This response indicates the duality women often face in the work place which is still a bastion of male culture and norms. If women are to retain and express their “femininity” as the response suggests, there is little acknowledgement that those same female qualities cited are considered deficits in the work place where cold calculating business devoid of any emotional inclinations is expected and considered “professional”. Emotional in this context is not your typical emotions, but is the nurturing, caring, ethically driven, aspects of femininity. The mere design/traditional culture of any work force is ingrained with the male perspective of how one does any job and therefore if a woman is to survive let alone succeed she is forced to “play” by those rules. If not, and she want to express those feminine qualities she is penalized. Perhaps when work environments, and business models have developed beyond the gender identities/cultures that dominate, people (male and female) will get to the point where expressing our unique gender gifts will be allowed and not deemed unprofessional.

  • FEMA camps are for people needing safe respite while restarting their lives.
    Christianity afflicted authoritarians deserve their own little hegemony, or theocracy, on a remote South Pacific atoll.

  • Christianity afflicted authoritarians deserve their own little hegemony
    hmmm……that’s odd. I’m thinking they thought they had one.

  • Very decent and fair of you here, brother Jonathan Merritt – commendable, indeed – for giving this publicity to sister Julie Roys as “a new conservative Christian vision for womanhood”.

    Which reminds me of an old but classic Beatles tune. Remember this line from their single, “We Can Work It Out”, released in 1965? (Yikes, 52 years ago – was I even born yet? Let me ask my mom.) I dedicate this song to you, ‘bruh!

    “Think of what you’re saying / You can get it wrong and still you think that it’s alright / Think of what I’m saying / We can work it out and get it straight, or say goodnight / We can work it out / We can work it out”

  • I’m referring to the “idealized Proverbs 31 Woman” promoted in some churches, who I agree bears little resemblance to the woman in Scripture.

  • Unlike Jonathan I find JR thoughtless and I disagree with everything she says. There wasn’t a “fall”. Rather the event she refers to was the point in human history when ‘Eve’ asked ‘Adam’ “Why am I?”, the question of meaning that gave birth to humanity. ‘Adams’ try to answer her question began the unnatural activity that leads directly to current sexual abuse, our religious interpretations of life and inequity, among other sources of the fatal conflict that is destroying us..

  • Hollywood just commissioned me to write a screenplay based on ideas stolen from your statement just now. Here goes Oscar time, I can feel it coming:

    EVE (simply asking ADAMS, PLURAL): Why am I?

    ADAMS, PLURAL: (No response. Just do her some “sexual abuse” then and until the time of this dramatization at the film studio. Followed by doing “religious interpretations of life and inequity”. Ending with doing that “fatal conflict that is destroying us”.)

    Fast forward. Oscar time now in Hollywood. I won, yaay!

    HpO: Thank you, thank you. I couldn’t have done this play without Doug Barr. Where is he? Stand up, Doug Barr. You know, to be honest, I still don’t know how to dramatize what he said at RNS. Especially right after EVE asking ADAMS, Why am I? I thought of, Duh. But you know …

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