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Clothed in strength and dignity? The use and misuse of the Proverbs 31 woman

Today’s post comes from Esther Zarifi and focuses on the use and misuse of the Proverbs 31 woman. Esther completed her MA in Religions and Theology (Distinction) at the University of Manchester in 2020 and was awarded the department’s Leonard Hassé Memorial Prize for her MA Dissertation, from which this blog is drawn. Esther, formerly a Religious Studies teacher, is now Head of Curriculum for Religious Studies for the examination board, AQA.


The book of Proverbs – a collection of age-old wisdom, compiled circa the 8th – 5th centuries BCE – closes its 31 chapters with a striking poem in praise of a woman, the ʾēšet ḥayil.[1] It is debated by biblical scholars whether this woman is ‘real’ or an allegory, with some suggesting she is a metaphorical wisdom figure or composite. Either way, the woman of this ancient text has had (and is still having) a very real impact on actual women.

Fast-forward 2500 years from the scribes’ writings… and on entering ‘Proverbs 31’ into a search engine you’ll find mugs, t-shirts, keyrings, shopping bags… – ancient verses printed on to 21st century merchandise.

Rachel Held Evans describes how growing up in an evangelical subculture she got to know this ‘Proverbs 31 woman’ well. Presented as God’s ideal for women, she is a mainstay of women’s conferences and Christian bookstores.[2] While biblical ‘merch’ may not be an uncommon sight growing up in church circles, it is still rather niche to see women wearing t-shirts bearing phrases such as ‘clothed in strength and dignity,’ or ‘more precious than rubies.’ At first glance, it all seems very empowering and liberative.  

Arguably though, there is far more going on here. I’d suggest that these supposedly positive affirmations are working within the paradigm of an unmistakeably patriarchal structure.

The twenty-one verses, an acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet, present something of an A-Z of the ʾēšet ḥayil; she is the total package!The poem opens by asking, ‘A capable wife, who can find? She is far more precious than jewels’ (Proverbs 31:10, NRSV).

On the one hand, we could read this as saying she is precious and to be valued. On the other, is the woman here being given a price-tag? Is it actually rare to find a capable woman with ḥayil? Throughout the Hebrew Bible many men are afforded ḥayil for reasons such as having courage, physical strength and wealth. Christine Yoder encapsulates these descriptions by calling them ‘persons of substance’[3] and so translates ʾēšet ḥayil as ‘Woman of Substance.’ Despite the abundance of these men of substance, only thrice is ḥayil used in relation to female characters (alongside Proverbs 31, see Ruth 3:11 and Proverbs 12:4). Perhaps in the minds of the ancient sages, women with ḥayil were indeed rarer than jewels.

Following the rhetorical opening verse, the Woman of Substance in Proverbs 31 is praised for an incredible list of achievements and attributes including: hard work (v.13), buying land (v.16), strength (v.17), helping those in need (v.20), making and selling clothing (v.24), wisdom (v.26) and being God-fearing (v.30). In contrast to the frequently seen wife and/or mother motifs of ancient texts, the ʾēšet ḥayil really stands out as an industrious over-achiever.  

This woman has it all – career, family, wealth – and it is easy to see why this enigmatic figure has become an inspirational and aspirational emblem for ‘biblical womanhood.’

But, while she may be an aspirational role model, she is also perhaps an unrealistic ‘gold standard’ for women to attain and for men to seek. Proverbs’ foremost focus is, after all, cultivating wisdom in men, so this chapter still has male concerns uppermost in its mind’s eye. Notwithstanding all her activities and achievements, her husband appears in no fewer than five verses of the poem and is the only character to speak (v.29). What he does say, however, is in praise of his wife (hurrah!). But … in this praise he compares her to other women who have also ‘done excellently’ – if he said this today, he may find himself the subject of a social media storm for his ‘backhanded compliment’!

Nevertheless, this woman is active and has agency, demonstrating that women could/can hold power and authority in some spaces. The Hebrew bêtah (‘household’) in verses 21 and 27 has a feminine pronominal suffix, thus designating the house as hers. Yet, she remains anonymous with no name and no direct voice, framed in reference to her husband from the outset (vv.10-11). The woman at the heart of this biblical poem could easily be viewed as a mixed blessing; she may be a tribute to the lives and work of actual women but is still, ultimately, an objectification.[4] Hence, her role is complicit with a male-dominated system – she holds a prominent place but conveys and promotes male interests and fulfils a traditional heteronormative role.

The ʾēšet ḥayil has agency as a woman, but she is also a symbol of ‘Woman.’ These two categories – women, who are real people with varying degrees of agency within different social situations, and Woman, a symbolic construction of sex, gender and sexuality, comprised of allegory and male fantasy – can be used to examine a variety of sources.[5] Here the symbolic wise Woman of Proverbs 31 is divinely legitimated and eternal through her place in the scriptures, but she can also shape the lives of actual women up until today. Through cultural understandings of Woman, lived realities can be shaped (and vice versa), therefore the symbolic Woman can/should be reimagined and critiqued. This approach could certainly problematise not only the Proverbs 31 Woman image, but also the ways she is presented as an agent when viewed as a symbol for female empowerment.

As a popular passage of scripture, the ‘mixed blessing’ of Proverbs 31 begins to outwork itself in contemporary lives, not only in the positive affirmations of t-shirt slogans, but at times in the form of complementarianism. This theology of patriarchal subordination can be said to misuse the biblical text to fulfil its traditionalist, heteronormative aims. The wise and industrious woman here becomes a symbol of a model wife and ‘biblical Woman.’ This symbolic treatment of Woman could also manifest itself in the furthering of rape culture and its very real outworking.

It may be surprising however, that our Proverbs 31 woman is used in this way not just by Christian men seeking ideal wives, but is advocated by women themselves. Contemporary postfeminist appropriations of her are made by women using their agency to adhere, in some sense, to the patriarchal construction of Woman. On to women’s bodies, here the ideal Christian ‘capable wife’ is mapped, via the symbol of the ʾēšet ḥayil.

Evangelical celebrity pastors, such as Priscilla Shirer, guide thousands of women through the study of scripture in their books, videos, and conferences.[6] Shirer is an example of a prominent church leader who advocates a complementarian position and does not identify as ‘feminist.’ In her aptly titled book, A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence (2004), Shirer writes, ‘Satan will do everything in his power to get us to take the lead in our homes …. He wants to make us resent our husband’s position of authority so that wewill begin to usurp it. … Women need to pray for God to renew a spirit ofsubmission in their hearts.’[7]

Through blogs, books and sermons, some Christian women are encouraging a complementarian theology by their appropriation of the Proverbs 31 woman. Here they can be found to advocate a new traditionalist postfeminist ideology – caught between a contemporary, liberal rhetoric of empowerment and a neo-conservative narrative of traditional gender roles, these women exemplify the same double-entanglement found within the biblical text itself. Praised and honoured, hardworking and influential – the Woman of Substance presents an empowering image of domestic life that is called upon by women’s ministries to illustrate the liberating choice of ‘biblical womanhood.’ Thus, women agents in the end seem to conform to the male psyche’s Woman symbol. This ‘double entanglement’ means that although these female agents are free of the symbolic construction of Woman, they are also controlled by it, perhaps unconsciously, through the paradigmatic patriarchal forces of history and tradition. It seems that there is a need to continue interrogating the gender ideologies present in the biblical text and their ongoing influence on the construction of societal norms.

Readers, we must ask, what does the ‘mixed blessing’ of the Woman of Substance mean for actual women today?

References

Held Evans, Rachel. A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012.

Sered, Susan Starr. “Woman as Symbol and Women as Agents: Gendered Religious Discourses and Practices.” In Revisioning Gender, edited by Myra Marx Ferree, Judith Lorber, and Beth B. Hess, 193-221.Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1999.

Shirer, Priscilla. A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence.  Chicago: Moody, 2004.

Woods, Robert H., ed. Evangelicals and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel (Vol. 2), Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishing, 2013. 

Yoder, Christine. “The Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31.” Journal of Biblical Literature 122, no. 3 (2003): 427-447.

Yoder, Christine. Proverbs. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009. 


[1] The word pairing ʾēšet ḥayil is translated ‘capable wife’ in the NRSV, but in various other ways elsewhere: such as, ‘virtuous woman’ (KJV), ‘wife of noble character’ (NIV), ‘virtuous and capable wife’ (NLT), and ‘good woman’ (The Message)).

[2] Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, p.74.

[3] Christine Yoder, Proverbs, p.292.

[4] Christine Yoder, ‘The Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31.’ Journal of Biblical Literature 122/3 (2003): 427–447.

[5] Susan Starr Sered, ‘Woman as Symbol and Women as Agents: Gendered Religious Discourses and Practices.’ In Revisioning Gender, ed. Myra Marx Ferree et al. (1999), p.194.

[6] Kathleen Sindorf, ‘Evangelical Women’s Movements and Leaders.’ In Evangelicals and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel (Vol. 2), Robert H. Woods Jnr (2013). (See also: Mary Worthen, ‘Housewives of God,’ New York Times Magazine. Available online: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/magazine/14evangelicals-t.html; Kate Bowler, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities (2019).)

[7] Priscilla Shirer, A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence, 74

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New Book: Transgressive Devotion, by Natalie Wigg-Stevenson.

Today’s blog post is a short interview with Natalie Wigg-Stevenson (@nataliews), who has recently published Transgressive Devotion: Theology as Performance Art¸ where she articulates her vision for a new genre of theology drawing from performance art. You can find out more about her book here.  

Congratulations on your new book! What ideas emerge in the book that will be of particular interest to Shiloh readers? 

One of the faith crises I grapple with in the book is what it means to trust that God won’t harm me in the intimacy of prayer, and how much some of the most beautiful Christian traditions have drawn connections between this prayerful intimacy and sexual intimacy. So, for example, I think of how the Annunciation has shaped the Christian imagination around prayer, and how impossible it is to trust that that Mary really had the space to consent to God when the power differential is so immeasurable. It’s very easy now to interpret the Annunciation as an act of sexual violence.  And I didn’t want to take the easy/ish liberal answer of just dismissing that narrative as a false mythology or an irrelevant metaphor. But how do I stay Christian when faced with the possibility that God can so easily appear as sexually violent?

There is a strong and surprisingly mainstream sense in contemporary theology that sexual desire and desire for God are inextricably intertwined. Sarah Coakley has argued that this fact is most acutely recognized when we’re on our knees before God in prayer. People following this line of thinking seem mostly to skirt the issue of the power differential by doubling down on the idea that God is good and we have to trust ‘him’. So first, I wanted to grapple with the possibility that if we take the complexity of the Annunciation story seriously, perhaps we shouldn’t actually trust God in that moment. And then I wanted to explore the shape of what that trust should look like if we decide to consent to it.

One of the performance artworks I engage around these questions is Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, which is a very dangerous work that has frequently been interpreted as a form of sexual violence. I’ve done this to highlight how difficult these conversations can be. And while I’ve tried so hard to engage the issues with love and care so that the writing can offer something meaningful for the survivors of sexual violence, I, of course, remain in fear that my engagement might also further harm.

Tell us about yourself. How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about? 

At the scholarly level, Transgressive Devotion has grown out of fieldwork I did about 10 years ago in the church where I served as a minister. At that time, I was really interested in the relationship between what we might call everyday and academic theologies.  With this new book I wanted to complicate that nexus further by adding the dimension of theological affect. The book is written at the place where the Christian traditions have shaped what we feel about God’s presence and absence in our lives.

As I finished my doctoral work, I realized more and more that my relationship with God was shaped by too many competing parts of my ‘self’: the charismatic evangelical self that had shaped my desire for God; the self of being an ordained Southern Baptist minister; and my training as a feminist, queer, bi-racial, theologian with a disability (the markers of most of these identities being pretty invisible on the surface, which produces a whole other set of issues). But these are not modes of a religious self that can play nice with each other! And my attempts at trying to get them to play nice led to a serious faith crisis. So it’s sort of playful but also very true to say that this book is the result of no longer playing nice…on the personal level, it’s about letting all those parts of myself – and the Divine that animates each one – play naughty instead.

What are the key arguments of this book? 

The undergirding argument of the book is to show how theological fieldwork and/or personal experience has the power to rupture the kinds of theological imaginaries that our Christian traditions produce and rearrange them into something new.

The book is written as a type of performance art rather than as a scholarly argument, per se. Jacques Rancière, the aesthetic theorist, argues that art doesn’t merely represent reality to us but, rather, art ruptures and rearranges reality. In this way, our capacities to perceive that reality are transformed. Transformation becomes a mechanism for revelation in this argument. So, I argue that theology done in this mode — as a form of performance art – can use fieldwork, experience, practice, etc., to rupture and rearrange our theological imaginaries. Through our theological writing, then, we make these ‘performative utterances’ (to follow Austin’s theory of language), that invoke God or, even, write scripts for God’s own performance.

In one example, the first chapter is about the Father God being diagnosed with dementia, which circles back in the final chapter to a theological anthropology of humanity as God’s caregivers. I’m not arguing that God has dementia. I’m not arguing that God necessarily needs our care. But when I had my own faith crisis, it very much felt like God had forgotten me, and any assurances people tried to give me along the lines of, “even when you feel forgotten, God always remembers you” weren’t all that helpful to me pastorally.  Instead, I wanted to write the theological feeling of being forgotten, precisely by deploying the affective structure of the Christian traditions to do so.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book? 

It’s really easy to see the transgressive parts of the book. They’re on the surface to such a degree that they’re practically screaming in your face at times. But for me, writing it was also an intense act of devotion. So, what I want readers to take from it is that transgression and devotion aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s in their tension that I finally found my way back to God; or better, that God finally found her way back to me.

Give us one quotation from your book that you think will make readers want to go and read the rest. 

“The hyper-fragmentation and proliferation of academic theological sub-disciplines belies the fact that each one needs the goods of the others. But the solution here is not to try to integrate them back into a single discipline. Disciplinary fragmentation and incoherence do not necessarily make for inauthentic theology.” (p.9)

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Bearing the burden

Today’s post is an honest and moving piece by Stephen Pihlaja (@StephenPihlaja) and examines the personal experiential journey of purity culture as a man who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment in the USA. Stephen recounts his experience of purity culture in the Japanese church in comparison.

Stephen Pihlaja teaches and researches Language and Religion at Newman University in Birmingham, UK. His latest book Talk about Faith: how conversation and debate shape belief (Cambridge University Press) explores how changes in belief emerge from interaction between people of faith.


In the past several years, increasing critical attention has come to Evangelical Christian teaching on ‘purity’, and its particular focus on abstinence from sex before marriage. A recent New York Times article highlighted the pressures this placed on young Christians, and young women specifically, to avoid sexual expression, to keep both themselves and others free from sexual sin. Joshua Harris, the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which outlined the ideology of abstinence and pressured young Christians to consider romantic relationships only in the context of a potential marriage partner, has since denounced the book and pulled it from circulation, The Times reports — Harris himself is no longer a Christian.

Highlighted in The Times’ reporting are stories of personal experiences of the Evangelical church and of the damaging effects of its theology. These are brought to the forefront and highlighted by such figures as Blake Chastain and Chrissy Stroop. The attention in reporting about purity culture has rightly focused on the pain and trauma this teaching inflicts on young women in the church, because they bear the burden of both keeping themselves pure from sexual sin, but also not appearing as a temptation for the men in their community. The complementarian, patriarchal teaching of sexuality in these contexts sees women as subservient to men in the home and in the church, but also as responsible for sexual sin. These teachings understand sexuality in women as primarily oriented towards men — sex is what men want and it is the role of women to withhold it or give it.

The consequences of this teaching aren’t, however, limited to young women in the church. As a young man, I, too, attempted to kiss dating goodbye. Having grown up homeschooled in the USA, in a fundamentalist home in the nineties, sexuality was something that we avoided entirely — you changed the channel when the joking turned sexual, you didn’t watch movies with sex in them. My friend couldn’t watch any films for a year after he secretly saw Titanic because there was nudity in it.

At the same time, the older I got, the sexual prosperity gospel offered a way out — if you were faithful, God would bless you with an incredible sex life once you got married. In books like Every Young Man’s Battle, we were told the reward for abstinence was a kind of sexual fulfilment that couldn’t be found outside of marriage, a fulfilment that would make any part of the struggle to stay pure pale in comparison. So, I was focused on marriage, even when I was sixteen, accepting that this was the only acceptable way to express my sexuality.

In my final year in high school, I began a relationship with someone in the church youth group. Both of us had read Harris’ book and committed to dating ‘intentionally’ (as we would have said). We looked at wedding rings and discussed how big our family would be. I remember having just turned 18, asking her father, who was far less religious than I was and much more pragmatic, for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He told me it really wasn’t his decision, I could do what I wanted, but his suggestion was that I wait a year, at least. What was the rush.

The rush was, of course, sex. We were in a liminal space that no one seemed to account for in their theologies: we were supposed to be married, but we were too young to be married. Our sexual desire was from God, it was a good thing, but acting on it was not. The relationship couldn’t withstand these contradictions — we were teenagers. I exercised an unreasonable amount of authority and arrogance because it was my role — I would question how she dressed, what she did with her friends, all the while feeling the crushing guilt as our relationship grew closer and we slipped up or went too far more often. I became sick from the guilt in my first year of college — I went through a series of tests for chronic pain in my stomach and eventually, inevitably, we broke up.

Two years passed and I graduated college and felt called to the mission field. A friend of mine in the church had been asked to go to Japan to teach English at a church and was looking for someone to potentially go with him. I could go then and have an accountability partner, someone to help me avoid temptation and still serve the church. I found myself serving in a small church for a year, teaching free English lessons and leading Bible studies, which the students attended in exchange for the free English lessons.

Purity Culture in the Japanese Church

The church in Japan remains small — in the early 2000s we were told that only 1% of the population was Christian — and predominately female. The message of purity in the Japanese church that I experienced was different suddenly, much less focused on whether you were sexually impure (as there were far fewer teenagers in the churches), but more on when you would marry and start a family. The teaching in the Japanese church around this was against marriage to non-Christians, seemingly for understandable reasons: if a woman married a non-Christian, her in-laws would pressure her and the children to take part in Shinto and Buddhist religious ceremonies and eventually to leave the church.

But the churches always had a much higher number of Christian women than men. This led to a situation where Christian women were encouraged to marry and have kids (this being their primary purpose) but were unable to find Christian spouses. The ageing church leaders encouraged marriage in the same way as in the States, but with fewer options, the relationships between potential partners had one prerequisite: that you were both Christians and would have Christian kids. You could have, essentially, arranged marriages, where the basis wasn’t love or mutual attraction, but perceived fit in terms of religious belief, because what the church needed more than anything was more people.

I was oblivious to this cultural nuance and history, listening instead to the other American missionaries around me. Mostly, they were men married to American women and steeped in deeply racist and sexist understandings of Asian culture. They talked about marriage as a kind of service to the Japanese church, one which led to mutual blessings: that same sexual prosperity gospel, where if you were willing to step out and have faith to get married, God would bless you. It fit with the message I had heard in the American church, the same story: marriage was the only appropriate way to express sexuality, and marriage would bring blessings to you, because God intended it that way.

These two cultural expressions of the same purity myth touched in a predictable way — I met the woman who would become my wife and we were married within less than a year. Our first child was born ten months and seven days later. Any doubt about the success of the relationship was swallowed up in a belief about God’s will, and the truth that by doing the right thing, blessings would follow. When they did not, when both myths turned out to be wrong, the disappointment, anger, and depression stayed lodged within the relationship, affecting everything about our lives even after we had identified it as a set of irreconcilable false beliefs. You can stop believing anything, but it doesn’t stop living in you.

I, like Harris, couldn’t keep these contradictions from affecting my theology and I eventually left the faith. Now, fifteen years later, I’ve come to understand in my own life and through my research into religious discourse, how worlds of meaning are created by what you say about feelings and actions in the social world, and, more importantly, how the myths that emerge out of particular systems of power serve those systems.

Theologies do not exist in a vacuum, and religious belief which is not applicable without creating trauma in the real world needs to be rejected. The control exerted over sexual expression in the Evangelical church objectifies and shames women, erases gay and trans people, and demands that all men participate in the system without question. Everyone, including believers, benefits from its critical examination and deconstruction.


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Kissing Purity Culture Goodbye

Hannah Baylor

Today’s post is from Hannah Baylor.  Hannah Baylor is a PhD student in theology and Christian ethics at Oxford researching sexual consent and a Church of England ordinand. You can hear more about Hannah’s work here: Theology Slam: Hannah Barr on Theology and the #MeToo movement – YouTube


When people find out that I research sexual consent, it usually elicits three responses:

Ooo, that’s so important! (I think so!)

Have you seen that brilliant cup of tea video? (That cup of tea video is terrible; here is my ten-points reason why…)

Or, they tell me their story. It is an absolute privilege to be trusted with stories that have often never been told aloud; it’s a gift which I treasure.  

Being immersed in a topic consisting of painful stories, abuses of power, damaging rhetoric, and continual threats to human flourishing, is often all-consuming and it can be hard to switch off from that. But recent events have had me questioning whether it is right to want to switch off, or whether vigilance is a habit to cultivate.

I recently began to do some research into purity culture in the UK. My initial thoughts were that purity culture wasn’t such a big deal over here, compared with the US with its sub-culture of daddy-daughter balls and abstinence-only education in schools. But as people shared their stories, my illusions were shattered. I discovered friends who had signed purity pledges and wore purity rings and people who had done the True Love Waits and Pure courses. So many people had devoured I Kissed Dating Goodbye; a Coptic friend said her church had really pushed that book on its young people. Purity culture in the UK is not just for evangelicals. The more I learned, the more people shared their stories, the more I realised that purity culture makes its mark on impressionable young Christians here in the UK.[1]

Wedding Rings

And then my memories returned. The sermons where ‘promiscuous’ girls were compared with chewing gum and un-sticky Sellotape. The unhelpful notions I had about dating that I’d acquired through osmosis. The church leader who shamed me over my body and called me a stumbling block. The email I had drafted to my rector, saying I couldn’t continue to help with the youth work, because the youth leader owned and taught from The Collected Works of Soul-Destroying Purity Culture and I didn’t have the power to challenge him but I wasn’t going to collude with him either in teaching harmful ideas. And finally, the memory of a throwaway line someone said to me at theological college, which I’d disregarded at the time, but then realised it was solid gold purity culture.

Purity culture in the US signals its presence. Bells, whistles, gaudy merchandise, political fanfare – you can’t miss it! In the UK, however, purity culture has a far more insidious character. It doesn’t necessarily announce its arrival; it seeps into church teaching through more obscure ways. What I recognise as particularly damaging from my own teenage Christian experiences is when legitimate Christian teaching and purity culture ideals were taught together, making harmful ideas harder to notice and reject. This is why I was so alarmed when I realised how casually and innocuously lines from the purity culture script were spoken by those who would otherwise absolutely reject its premise.

I’m training to be a Church of England priest. I will shortly be in possession of an awkward combination of power and authority: the power of ordination as an office, the power that other people confer upon a person in a dog collar and in a pulpit, the not-really-real power that is being a curate at the bottom of the Church of England hierarchy, and the power that the Holy Spirit gifts in her wisdom. And one of the many terrifying things about that power is the potential to cause pain. The last thing I want to do with my power as a soon-to-be ordained person is to say or teach something, which is not only wrong but is abjectly harmful.

I spoke to a variety of Church of England ordinands and curates who had been raised on purity culture. Some continue to identify as evangelicals, albeit often with a long list of caveats; others have eschewed it. I asked them about the interplay between their experiences of purity culture and the power they now have as ordained, or soon-to-be ordained, ministers. There was a uniform reluctance to preach on sexual ethics generally, and often this was to do with wanting to avoid saying the wrong thing and causing someone pain and shame. Another common reflection was how narrow purity culture’s focus is, obsessing over abstinence until marriage, and how this meant the vastness of issues of dating and inter-personal relationships was overlooked. Certainly, I find myself in the corner of every church debate about sexual ethics, shouting into the void that it would be nice if sexual consent got a look in, you know, for the sake of human flourishing and all that.

One person I spoke to said what they lamented about purity culture was it presented everything as black and white; as an ethical system, it’s an attractive one, because it sets up a dichotomy between right and wrong and then unstintingly upholds it. As an ethicist, I am naturally wary of ethical systems, which present themselves as catch-all solutions. I think such systems force us to abdicate our responsibility in the ethical life and leave those with the most power unaccountable for how they wield it. Purity culture is concerned with rendering its adherents powerless and its enforcers absorbing all of the power. 

People shared their stories with me, and it was, as ever, a gift to be trusted with them.

And what no-one wanted was to cause anybody any harm.

For people like myself who grew up with purity culture spooned into our Christian diet in ways we were not always cognisant of, untangling our sexual ethics is an on-going process. I have spoken elsewhere about the need for power literacy,  particularly for those of us inhabiting roles replete with multifaceted power; this is a skill that we must never be complacent about.

Power isn’t static, but this doesn’t mean that it is necessarily unstable; in fact, the opposite is true, the more static power is, the more unstable it is. We must remain vigilant to the potency of our power and when it is accumulating, and allow ourselves to be challenged on it and to dismantle it. It also requires awareness of the things we don’t condone but which may still have shaped us, and critically interrogate our stances on certain issues to ensure that we are not perpetuating a cycle of harm and shame.

I didn’t relish being proved wrong about the prevalence of purity culture in the UK. It has been uncomfortable to reckon with my own experiences of it and to realise that I and many of my friends are not as unscathed by it as we might have originally thought. But the awareness that it has raised within me at a point where I am on the cusp of receiving a significant amount of power, is invaluable.

So, here’s to kissing purity culture goodbye and power literacy hello.


[1] I highly recommend Vicky Walker’s book Relatable: Exploring God, Love, and Connection in the Age of Choice (Malcolm Down Publishing, 2019) for empirical studies with Christians in the UK and their experiences of purity culture.

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Traumatised People are not your “Mission Field”

"Jesus Saves" street sign.

Today’s post comes from Dr Karen O’Donnell (Coordinator of Centre for Contemporary Spirituality, Sarum College) and Dr Katie Cross (Lecturer in Practical Theology, University of Aberdeen).

As theologians working in the field of trauma, we make a very conscious choice to use, as much as possible, the language of those who themselves experience trauma. This means that we usually refer to people who have experienced trauma as “trauma survivors” rather than “victims.” We also avoid language of “recovery” or “healing” because trauma survivors often say that this is not what they are doing in the aftermath of trauma. Rather, they are engaged in work of post-traumatic “remaking,” an act of creation that may last a lifetime. The language of “recovery” and “healing” has long been noted as unhelpful by trauma survivors. So, it is concerning to us to see this kind of language being used in a number of recent Christian initiatives and publications about trauma. For example, a recent initiative by the Bible Society called “Navigating Trauma” intends to provide Christian-based courses run in churches or other Christian organisations. It will “use scripture to accompany participants in their journey through the effects of trauma towards a place of peace.”

What is the use of the word “trauma” in these recent initiatives and publications intended to convey? In much of the literature surrounding these initiatives and publications, there seems to be little, if any, distinction between traumatic experiences and suffering more generally. The wide range of research, from both medical perspectives and socio-cultural perspectives, indicates that such a collapsing of experiences is unhelpful, unclear and unlikely to put people in a place that is conducive to their flourishing. People who experience trauma do not simply have an ongoing reaction to an experience of suffering. Rather, they experience rupture in specific ways, and have very particular types of reactions to internal and external stimuli. Trauma is not the same as suffering, and yet trauma is a word people have taken ownership of and used in a variety of ways. It is not our intention to gatekeep people’s experiences, or to deem who is “traumatised” and who is not. However, the hyper-flexible use of the term has negative implications for those who are experiencing traumatic-response reactions that have a dramatic impact on their lives. Given that the Bible Society indicates that anyone who is clearly experiencing an ongoing mental health crisis – as many trauma survivors may do – will be signposted to professional help, who is this course actually for? Who will actually be helped if it is not for those who are experiencing traumatic-reaction responses in real-time?

Programmes such as “Navigating Trauma” discuss what to do when people with trauma come to church. They do not address what should be done when people’s trauma comes from church. The ways in which Scripture and church practices are weaponised in spiritual abuse are largely overlooked. Our previous work in Feminist Trauma Theologies (SCM Press, 2020) highlights some of the different ways that the church can actively induce or theologically legitimise trauma. The #ChurchToo movement has drawn attention to the church’s role in harbouring and covering up sexual abuse. Too often, victims exist within a culture of blame, with their trauma ascribed to their perceived spiritual faultiness and “sinful” nature (Cross, 2020). Churches can induce trauma by exclusion, turning away minority groups on the basis of gender identity and/or sexuality (Robinson, 2020). In Ghost Ship, Azariah France-Williams highlights the trauma that Black and minority ethnic Christians face while working and worshipping in institutionally racist churches (France-Williams, 2020).

Common church practices can also be distressing for those living with complex trauma. In her book Trauma and Grace (2019), theologian Serene Jones describes an encounter with “Leah.” During a communion service in their church, something in the liturgy provokes a traumatic reaction for Leah, who physically removes herself from the church building. Later, she describes her reaction to Jones in this way:

It happens to me, sometimes. I’m listening to the pastor, thinking about God and love, when suddenly I hear or see something, and it’s as if a button gets pushed inside of me. In an instant, I’m terrified; I feel like I’m going to die or get hurt very badly. My body tells me to run away, but instead, I just freeze… It was the part about Jesus’ blood and body. There was a flash in my head, and I couldn’t tell the difference between Jesus and me, and then I saw blood everywhere, and broken body parts, and I got so afraid I just disappeared.

(Jones, p.7)

As trauma theologians, we recognise Leah’s story as one that is all too common. What is needed here is a clearer understanding that the church can often be a difficult place for traumatised people to navigate.

Because the church can be complicit in both creating and provoking trauma, the insistence that Scripture and practice are the best route to “healing” is misguided. It’s also important to note that routes to healing are not always possible in the ways that they are promised by new church trauma programmes. Many people who experience trauma will be engaged in some form of post-traumatic remaking for the rest of their lives. The process is one that is ongoing, complex, iterative, and chaotic. Part of the problem with a course like the one the Bible Society is providing is that it will last a certain number of weeks and then finish, with an expectation that something will have been accomplished in that time period. An informed understanding of trauma indicates that this is unlikely to be the case.

In much of this work, the traumatised person is referred to as a “mission field” or a “missional opportunity” for the church. In fact, this is not new language. In her 2015 book Suffering and the Heart of God, Diane Langberg writes this disturbing sentence: “I think a look at suffering humanity would lead to the realisation that trauma is perhaps the greatest mission field of the twenty-first century.” Not only is she conflating trauma and suffering too simply here but we have to question how is the term “mission” understood here? Mission is usually understood as primarily an evangelistic term – it is about sharing the gospel of Jesus with people who have not heard it and baptising and teaching new believers. Even in the context of the Church of England’s Five Marks of Mission, the third mark of “responding to human need by loving service” is subordinate to, and shaped and formed by the evangelistic nature of the first two marks (“proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” and to “teach, baptise and nurture new believers”). To view traumatised people as a “mission field” and your work with them as missional is to instrumentalise trauma and colour it with this “good news.” Rushing to a place of healing and resurrection and proclaiming hope in Jesus can be toxic and deadly when working with trauma survivors and takes no account of the lived reality of post-traumatic remaking.

Combined with the undistinguished use of the term “trauma”, this is an opportunistic approach to vulnerable people. Offering care and support, functioning in the very real and powerful role of witnesses to trauma experiences, is an act of love and compassion that needs to be genuinely trauma (not suffering) informed. It should not be an evangelistic opportunity designed to get more people through the doors of your church. Traumatised people are not your mission field.

References

Cross, Katie. ‘“I Have the Power in My Body to Make People Sin’: The Trauma of Purity Culture and the Concept of ‘Body Theodicy’” in Karen O’Donnell and Katie Cross (eds) Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective. London: SCM Press, 2020, pp.21-39.

France-Williams, A.D.A. Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England. London: SCM Press, 2020.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Second Edition). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

Langberg, Dianne. Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2015.

O’Donnell, Karen and Katie Cross (eds) Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective. London: SCM Press, 2020.

Robinson, Leah. “Women in the Pulpit: A History of Oppression and Perseverance” in O’Donnell Karen and Katie Cross (eds) Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective. London: SCM Press, 2020, pp.161-179.

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Writing Gender Justice: Alternative Icons of Women

Today’s post is an interview with Hilary Willett (she/her) who fights for gender justice by writing icons and reclaiming the lives of biblical women.

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

My name is Hilary. I’m from Christchurch, New Zealand and currently living in Auckland. I’m studying to be an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Auckland.

What have you been doing and what are you working on?

I completed a Masters of Theology in 2018, looking at feminism and the Bible. This was a pivotal point in my faith journey. Before doing this thesis, I had believed that both Christians and biblical texts had always generally been fairly supportive of women in positions of leadership. My thesis disrupted this belief and I began to realise the extent to which the Christian church has suppressed or marginalised female leadership.

After finishing my thesis, I felt a call to leadership in the Anglican Church. In 2019, I was discerned to begin training for ordination. I’m now doing a second Masters in Theology, part-time, to aid my leadership formation. In 2020, I did a course on writing icons with Libby Brookbanks, and I discovered that I loved it. So, in my spare time, I’ve been writing icons of women and have recently started selling them and accepting commissions.

Which aspects of your work might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?

Icons are considered sacred images and used in devotional ways. They are also considered to be a way of communicating orthodox theology, so instead of being “painted” they are written. Every part of an icon has theological significance: the colours used, the gestures of the subject, the gold-leaf/gilding, even the primer used to prepare the surface that will be written on. Everything in an icon has a symbolic meaning.

Traditionally, however, only men are allowed to be iconographers. This means that men have been the only ones allowed to communicate theology about the women and men represented in icons. I feel uncomfortable with this, particularly the idea that in iconography women are only being written by men. So, I started to write icons of women.

How does your work connect to activism?

I came away from my thesis on feminism and Christianity acutely aware of just how many men write the theological narrative. This dominance prevents women from writing themselves and leads to significant theological bias. In icons, this is particularly noticeable. Women are often represented as white (even when the majority of saints depicted are not Caucasian) and delicate (rarely do women look strong or have strong gestures). Women are often dressed in white or have white head-coverings to symbolise their purity. It seems that writers of icons are very keen to uphold purity as a prime virtue in women, which then reinforces this value in individuals who use icons for prayer.

Complex biblical women, such as Jael, Hagar, Delilah, or the woman who bled for twelve years, are very rarely recorded as icons. The few icons I found of the “bleeding woman” (Matt 9:20-22; Mark 5: 25-34; Luke 8:43-38), for example, depicted her as grovelling on her knees before Christ. This representation makes this woman one-dimensional. There is little visual reference in the icon to this woman’s faith or her courage in approaching Christ, despite the customary purity taboos forbidding a woman in her position from touching a rabbi. Her active defiance of the rules and her determination to be healed demonstrate strength and conviction, but these qualities are not represented visually in the bleeding woman’s icon. This is in stark contrast to say, Peter or Paul who, despite their failings, are regularly and reliably represented in icons. They are depicted as standing upright and righteous and are often depicted in a variety of colours. For instance, in a traditional Orthodox church, there is a section of the church called the “Deisis” (prayer/supplication). Peter and Paul are almost always a part of this prominent section of the church. They are written in full colour, venerated as complex and well-rounded individuals. Mary, the pure, is often the only female regularly included in this important section of the church.

I try to correct this bias by writing women differently. I spend some time researching alternative narratives, sometimes going very much against traditional theological presentations of certain women. In writing icons, I include ‘difficult’ characters and characters that are not in scripture or “sainted” by the Church. I write women with different skin tones, different personalities, and different body shapes. I tend to avoid using white clothes for women, unless it is absolutely necessary. One occasion where I did find this necessary, was with Phoebe, the deacon. Her white alb was a part of her official, ceremonial robes that deacons wore in the church. It is necessary for a deacon to wear an alb in their leadership role. In this case, Phoebe’s white clothes felt to be more about her leadership role in the church, which I wanted to highlight, rather than about her purity as a woman.

Phoebe, the Deacon

I also try to bring out the complexity of the women who have been venerated as pure and the humanity of the women who have been marginalised. As noted above, for instance, the ‘bleeding woman’ is usually depicted grovelling before Christ. When I re-wrote her, however, she is standing upright. Christ was not in the icon, as I wanted her to stand in her own right. I re-named her the “Daughter of Faith”.

Daughter of Faith (the woman who bled for 12 years)

I try to find something commendable in each of the women I write, with the view that women are worthy of respect, even if they are complex characters and don’t live up to patriarchal stereotypes. Women do not all need to be the purest of the pure, or the fem-est of the fem, to be admirable.

Finally, I enjoy writing women in contexts that are meaningful to the person who will use the icon. When I wrote Mary as an icon, I placed her in Taranaki (Aotearoa New Zealand) because that where the person who was receiving the icon was from. It felt important that the caring presence of Mary was placed in this own person’s context, making it meaningful and relevant to the person using the icon.

Mary, Mother of God

What has been the response to your icons?

To be honest, it has been overwhelmingly positive; it really has been lovely to see how many people are connecting with these images. Occasionally, some people haven’t understood exactly what an icon is and wonder why I don’t just paint landscapes, but it has been fun explaining this to them. One thing I often try to do is explain the symbolic features of any new icon I write. I think this has helped with the response, as it gives people the tools to “read” exactly what I am “writing”. It has meant that even people who have not been all that interested in icons in the past, are really keen and interested now. It has been a great experience!

Find more of Hilary’s icons at Lumen Icons: https://lumenicons.tarotpoetry.nz/?fbclid=IwAR0IoK0FX-4No_qWeeDlUDHpv8YqUOUH_9Nbvb-64max8SIf–0ZS9ZkmN8

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Is it a duty to be beautiful?

Today’s post is by Rev Dr Judith Gretton-Dann. Judith is a priest in the Church of England, based in Oxford. She has a PhD in Physics and has previously been involved in science research. She is currently working on a Theology DPhil, looking at the technology and crafts of the Hebrew Bible. This involves seeing how the archaeological evidence and anthropological research into the technology of Bible times sheds light on metaphors, to help open up our understanding of the texts.  

Judith is passionate about congregations engaging with scripture in its fullness. She believes that scripture is relevant and important for the whole of life, not just an interesting topic of conversation for Sundays. 

Judith’s contact email is: judith.gretton-dann@kellogg.ox.ac.uk  

Be Young and Beautiful?[1]

Within certain strands of Evangelical teaching, a premium is placed on women’s looks, and an equivalence drawn between outward appearance and spiritual condition. One lengthy response to what is considered the rise of feminism within Evangelical churches is by a group called The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Titled Recovering Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood (RBMBW), the document seeks to make the expectations of behaviour for Christians bipartite, distinct and complementary, depending upon people’s gender (understood as being ‘male’ or ‘female’).  

In the course of saying that, “God gave each of us a desire for beauty… it is part of our desire for him, who is loveliness incarnate,”[2] it places the responsibility for creating beauty, both in their person and surroundings, on women.  

Beauty is described by (mostly male) preachers as something that should be aimed for, cultivated and desired by women. Whilst the preachers quite often claim to be talking about spiritual beauty, in their admonitions to women, their understanding is that physical beauty is a proof of spiritual beauty, that men will judge your spirituality by how physically beautiful you are.  

There is much advice about the right sort of clothing to wear – women must “dress attractively… but [not] dress to attract,” according to Joshua Harris.[3] And in the book Quiverful, Katherine Joyce says that single women are told they must wear feminine clothes to prove to their fathers that they are virtuous women worthy of protection. 

Harris suggests that beauty “will attract truly godly men to you,”[4] which, in turn, feeds into the idea that to be acceptable to the church, young women should be aiming for marriage. The corollary of this is that women who do not attract godly men, have somehow failed, and that their beauty is a measure of their worth before God. Additionally, these messages carry on once a woman is married: if a man has an affair, it is suggested that it is the wife’s fault for not being alluring enough.[5]

In Eve’s Revenge, Lilian Calles Barger talks about “the beauty cult” [6] and how the church has bought into this, telling women that “our duty as women is to show we care about our looks and to demonstrate this virtue by pursuing physical beauty.”[7] She states, “we’ve been so busy serving the demands of the beauty cult, we’ve muffled our more profound spiritual need,”[8] and goes on to make the important point that “how we view our bodies will affect what type of spirituality we will embrace.”[9]

It is striking, however, how the messages about beauty, and the methods of teaching on it, are at odds with most of the rest of Evangelical methodology. Generally, there is a high regard given to Scripture and to teaching being rooted within Scripture: to the importance of understanding it, explaining it, and applying it to our lives today. Yet this is not the case with messages regarding beauty. 

When it comes to female appearance, messages and injunctions about beauty are laid down as prescriptive without the same rigorous searching in or justification from Scripture. Instead, it is taken, too often, as a self-evident truth, which God would obviously ask of a woman. 

The problem with this is that there are no biblical injunctions that someone should aim to be beautiful, and indeed, the Bible is ambivalent about beauty. In Proverbs, there are comparisons between beauty, wisdom and industry, with the latter two being praised as far more worthwhile. Throughout the Old Testament, it can be seen that the consequences of possessing beauty are not unequivocally positive. 

Consider Tamar (2 Samuel 13) who is raped by her brother, and Sarai (Genesis 12 and 20), whose husband Abram is so scared for his safety on account of her desirability that he repeatedly lies and gives her away. Joseph’s beauty attracts the attention of a woman whose lies see him imprisoned (Genesis 39). Beauty cannot save Absalom (2 Samuel 14:25 and 18:14). Even David’s beauty doesn’t get him a free pass, or happy ending (from 2 Samuel 12).  

Aert de Gelder, ‘Judah and Tamar’ (c.1681), Creative Commons

The absence or presence of beauty in a person can lead to comparison, competition and division between women, rather than to building healthy relationships or community. With the story of Rachel and Leah (from Genesis 29), we see that the competition between two women, including on account of beauty, causes strife within a whole family, down the generations. The unbeautiful one is bundled off as worth less, needing to be married by trickery. Jacob cares less for Leah than he should, and shows favouritism and partiality towards Rachel, which leads to the women vying for Jacob’s attention, with more trickery and deceit, involving two more women, Bilhah and Zilpah, as slave-“wives”. The arrival of children brings more jostling for position, and the repetition of favouritism for a good-looking son, Joseph, creates yet more divisions.  

In the New Testament, meanwhile, we see that Jesus makes it clear to the Pharisees that concentrating on the outer self without doing anything on the inside is like being a whitewashed tomb (Matthew 23:27), and Paul tells women to stop fussing about their outward adornment and concentrate on the inner self instead (1 Timothy 2:9-10).  

Creative Commons image

Human beauty is not a virtue, it is a gift – and like other gifts, it can be used for good or ill, or result in good or ill consequences. It is not enough on its own and it is not the quality of greatest personal enrichment. Sometimes it is ephemeral; and, with its loss, all can be lost, if focus on beauty has been over-emphasized. There is nothing wrong with admiring or enjoying beauty – one’s own or that of others. But it should not be the reason for greater worth or privilege; it should not be regarded as a measure of inner qualities. Nor should its perceived lack become indicative of less worth, or of tardiness. 

Such assessments, moreover, have no firm biblical basis at all. Beauty is acknowledged in the Bible as desirable and insufficient in and of itself.  

The act of demanding that a woman aim to be beautiful to the exclusion or detriment of other qualities, constitutes an act of harm, even of violence, to her. Who is to decide whether any specific woman is beautiful, or beautiful enough? What are the consequences if she isn’t? What is neglected and lost when beauty becomes a preoccupation? If a woman’s social and spiritual standing, or her ethical goodness is judged by her appearance, she is set up to lose.  

Because humans are embodied, and because we interact with God in, through, and with our bodies, what we believe we are supposed to do with our bodies is a key root to understanding how we are to live as people of God. If the messages about body are different for each gender, then we have different Christianities and differently embodied expectations. And this fragments the notion that all humans – irrespective of beauty – are in the image of God.  

When the church decides that beauty is something to be considered as a goal, then extreme methods may be tried for achieving that goal, including such extreme methods as current technology will allow, without due consideration for the dangers and risks that might be involved.  

Our worth before God is not dependent upon our genes, our gifts, or our looks. We are each equally worthwhile to God, and the church messages should reflect this, rather than gendering our teaching to make us do violence to ourselves, either physically or emotionally, to fit in with other people’s notions of what we are “supposed” to look like.  

References 

L. C. Barger. Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body. Brazos Press, 2003. ISBN 9781587430404. 

J. Harris. Boy Meets Girl. Multnomah Publishers, 2005. ISBN 9781590521670. 

K. Joyce. Quiverful: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Beacon Press, 2009. ISBN 9780807010709. 

H. Peterson and D. McCormack, “Pat Robertson on cheating: Evangelist tells woman she should be grateful for husband.” Daily Mail Online, 2013. URL: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2325542/Pat-Robertson-cheating-Evangelist-tells-woman-grateful-husband.html (accessed 7 January 2021).

J. Piper and W. Grudem. RecoveringBiblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to EvangelicalFeminism.Crossway Books, [1991] 2006. 


[1] “Keep Young and Beautiful” is a catchy song with lyrics by Al Dubin and music by Harry Warren, which was performed in the 1933 film “Roman Scandals” by Eddie Cantor. It was repopularised in recent years by Annie Lennox. 

[2] Piper and Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, p.22. 

[3] Harris, Boy Meets Girl, p. 121.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Peterson and McCormack, “Pat Robertson on cheating.” 

[6] Barger, Eve’s Revenge, p.15.

[7] Ibid., 18.

[8] Ibid., 24.

[9] Ibid., 95.

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The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Book Review

Helen Paynter has written an important book, with the title The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Why You Don’t Have to Submit to Domestic Abuse and Coercive Control (Abingdon: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2020). Given the depressingly constant stream of findings of abuse in church-run settings (such as those published by IICSA, Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse) and the alarming reports of sharp increases in incidents of domestic violence during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, as addressed in urgent appeals by Women’s Aid and Jewish Women’s Aid (#AMaskWontProtectHer), this book is especially timely. 

Helen is a biblical scholar, as well as director of the Bristol-based Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. She is also a Baptist minister and a medical doctor. (The latter, while assigned to a past life, crops up in the book, including in some vivid analogies). She is, in short, very impressive and The Shiloh Project has been grateful for Helen’s support and participation over the past years.

This book is written with accessibility in mind. It is a slim volume, with fewer notes than Helen’s (also succinct – given its place in a Routledge Focus series) academic book on another violent theme: Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s Wife (Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2020, see here). Evoking a dialogue, Helen uses the direct address (‘you’) widely in this book and brings in her own experiences and encounters, too. After a succinct and thorough discussion on why, to her, the Bible is a tool and solace for the abused, not for abusers, Helen segues into practical advice: she recommends further readings and blogs, helplines and support organisations, resources for churches and for perpetrators, and she details a safety plan.

The book is both inspired by and for Christian women who have suffered, or who are suffering, domestic violence and coercive control, particularly at the hands of Christian abusers, such as their husbands, who use the Bible to justify or legitimate their actions (p.18). As Helen points out, ‘rates of abuse perpetration within church are about the same as rates in the general population’ (p.15). 

Space is given up to (sometimes lengthy) quotations from the Bible; these quotations make the case against abusers. Again and again, Helen illustrates that the Bible depicts God and Jesus as abhorring injustice and standing with the oppressed and the vulnerable. This is taken to mean that God and Jesus side with victims and survivors of abuse and abhor domestic violence and coercive control. Presumably, therefore, the primary audience is not just Christian women1 who have suffered domestic abuse but who also wish to remain in the church, or wish to reclaim the Bible that has been used against them. This book is for survivors who stay – if not in an abusive domestic sphere, or marriage – then in their faith. It is not so much for those survivors who reject and and leave their faith. When leaving their faith, they may well reject along with it the Bible, which they have come to associate with violence, coercion, humiliation and denigration. 

Helen acknowledges the church’s and some church leaders’ part both in active systemic abuse and in inaction in addressing abuse effectively (pp.88-96). She, too, remains committed to her faith, the Bible and the church, giving clear directives on how the church must change (pp.152-59). Like Ruth Everhart (whose book I have reviewed and extolled in an earlier post) Helen is determined to work with the Bible and from within the church to bring about justice.

I admire what both Ruth Everhart and Helen are doing. It is – no doubt about it – much harder to remain inside the church and make it better than to walk away. Both, moreover, don’t countenance the option of easy forgiveness. Helen makes it very clear that forgiveness, while it may be freely given, has its price (p.77-87). Also like Everhart, Helen refers to the impact of MeToo (p.142) and to church complicity in abuse and covering up abuse (pp.88-96); she, too, weaves in the words and experiences of those who have confided in her with considerable respectfulness, and she also addresses several audiences: women subjected to abuse and coercive control, people supporting them, church leaders, and perpetrators (pp.18-21, 150-162).

At various points, reading this book, I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with and admiring Helen. Foremost: her intention is, of course, entirely laudable. I can believe that this book will bring healing and comfort to many Christian women who have suffered spiritual abuse on top of other kinds of coercion, harm and violence at the hands of husbands or church leaders, weaponizing the Bible. That already makes the book worthwhile. Also, Helen’s point that atrocities described in the Bible are not ipso facto prescribed is an important one. Helen’s other book published this year, Telling Terror in Judges 19, makes this point very compellingly. With Telling Terror Helen has chosen to focus on one of the most horrifying stories in all of the Hebrew Bible. Her argument is that both the viciousness of events recounted and the outraged response to these events indicate that this brutal story is not condoning, let alone recommending, the abusiveness it depicts. In this book, too, Helen has no qualms about saying that even revered figures in the Bible sometimes do wrong – like Abraham, when he pimps out his wife (p.48). She also raises the probability that the violence done to Jesus included sexual assault (p.118). Given her audience, that’s gutsy. 

Other things piqued my admiration, too. I very much like the comparison of Hagar and Ishmael with Abraham and Isaac (pp.109-112): I had never picked up on the evident parallels. And Helen also convinced me on the point of why Jesus is persisting on writing on the ground in John 4, where the woman caught in adultery is brought before him: he is averting his gaze, so as not to shame the woman further (p.122)! Helen’s careful reading and imaginative engagement with the story world can transpire in illuminating and persuasive interpretations.

But I wasn’t persuaded by all of the book. Admittedly, this will be due in part to the book not being ‘my cup of tea’: because I’m not in the church and because I do not feel a need to redeem the Bible. I am not someone who feels that ‘Jesus understands’ (hurt, betrayal, suffering, etc pp.113-118). Don’t get me wrong: I’d rather have the Bible be used in Helen’s vein, to defend the vulnerable, than to procure abusers. But I do actually see the Bible as part of the problem. I am not certain at all, as Helen is, that ‘The Bible does not belong to abusers. And though you may hear echoes of their voices there occasionally, they are only found there to be contradicted, subverted and humbled’ (p.11). When I read John 8:31-47, I hear echoes of antisemitism, not righteous anger. To me, these words of Jesus are not ‘refreshing’ (p.98). When I read the metaphors of the early chapters in Hosea or of Ezekiel 16 and 23 (which Helen knows well, of course, but which do not feature in this book), I find God to appear very much like an abuser – as has been discussed fully by other biblical scholars.And when I read Numbers 5, where a woman suspected of adultery without any evidence, is subjected to a gruelling ritual at the Temple and where a jealous husband is explicitly exonerated of all guilt (5:31), I see an abuser who is legitimated by both God and Moses. I don’t see here that ‘women matter to God’ (p.109).

For Helen ‘The Bible can be made to say just about anything, if it is taken out of context’ (p.17). She attributes harmful readings to misinterpretation and misapplication of the Bible (p.26) and goes on to describe and detoxify widely applied texts from Paul in the light of their original setting (p.34). I consider the original context irretrievable and worry about the Bible’s impact in the present. I find the sheer range of the Bible’s contents and its possibilities for both healing and harm particularly disturbing and at the heart and centre of its enduring power and influence. I am wary of deeming this or that interpretation either ‘valid’ or ‘misapplied’: who is to say?

Helen does admit to the interpretation of the Bible being difficult. When she discusses passages of the New Testament, I have to confess to being out of my depth. Helen, too, however, who has studied these texts carefully, says, of 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, for instance, that there are ‘many opinions’ on this passage (p.44) and of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that she ‘can’t give you a definite answer… there is enough ambiguity about the interpretation of these verses that it is frankly dangerous to pin a whole theology of gender roles on to them’ (p.64). Ambiguity is also admitted elsewhere (p.66), including of the passage on divorce in Malachi (p.72). I think it is great that Helen admits to the difficulty and ambiguity of the Bible and I, again, much prefer this to the interpretations of those who make strong claims and then apply these to exerting dominance and control. But an ambiguous passage does leave a door open for multiple interpretations, including harmful ones. That, I think, is why the Bible can be so harmful.

Helen argues of Ephesians 5:22 (‘wives, submit to your own husbands…’) that this applies only to husbands who are like the Lord – who is elsewhere characterised as gentle, kind to women, ‘non-toxic’ (p.113) – and of Malachi, that ‘God does appear to hate divorce, because he cares about the protection of vulnerable women and their children’ (p.70). Sometimes that just sounds too casuistic to me, while the biblical text sounds far less benign.

I suppose, what I’d like to have seen more in this book is a cry of ‘So What If the Bible Tells Me So?!’ – a cry of outrage and protest. Instead of just admitting to ambiguity, I’d like to have seen more of ‘if people use the text in this way, they are wrong – because abuse and exploitation are wrong.’ Helen says, ‘I take the responsibility of the interpretation of the Bible very seriously. I do not believe that we can twist it and bend it to suit our purpose. Nor can we throw out the bits we don’t like’ (p.23). I disagree. First, I think we probably all – consciously or not – twist and bend the Bible. And secondly, I would say some bits of the Bible ought to be thrown out. Passages where rapists are compelled to marry the women they have raped (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), or the ‘clobber texts’ (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) used against any man who in any circumstance has sexual relations with another male and – by extension – against all homosexuals and anyone genderqueer are passages I have no hesitation in calling wrong. I am not chopping them out of the Bible but if and when I teach about them, I do point to their harmful ideologies and the consequences on real lives. I guess I prefer the Jesus Helen describes who also rejects Scripture when it is harmful (pp.120-21), the Jesus depicted as sympathetic to the woman who breaks the law of Leviticus and touches him while suffering a discharge.

I like this book and I will readily recommend it and recommend it widely. I accept that it is not really aimed at me. It is aimed particularly at women in urgent situations. And in such urgent situations, women don’t need biblical scholarship and textual quibbling: they need support and help. Helen’s book provides spiritual support and gives practical advice for finding help. It also offers clear-cut suggestions for making church communities safer, better informed and more hospitable places.  

This book is part of a growing body of resources targeting reform of churches from within. I hope it is widely read and widely used. Much good will come of it if it is. 

You can order your copy here.

  1. Helen is well aware that women can be abusers and that victims can be of multiple genders. She herself draws attention to her use of gendered language and follows this up with a justification: ‘In the UK, cis and trans men and women are subjected to domestic abuse. Abuse is perpetrated in heterosexual and gay and lesbian relationships. I understand this. Nonetheless, the vast majority of abusers are male, and the vast majority of people who report abuse are female’ (p.21). 
  2. There has been a full debate about the ‘pornoprophetics’ of these passages. Their violent potential, including for actual women, has been explored by, among others, T. D. Setel, ‘Prophets and Pornography: Female Sexual Imagery in Hosea’ (in L. M. Russell, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible,Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985, 86-95) and Renita Weems, in Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1995).
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Clergy Abuse and Women’s Vocations

Miryam Clough’s doctoral thesis and first monograph (Shame, the Church and the Regulation of Female Sexuality, Routledge 2017) focussed on Ireland’s Magdalen laundries to examine the way Christian churches have used shame to control women, to displace men’s ambivalence about sex, and to excuse men for abuse. Her second book will address the effects of clergy sexual misconduct on women’s vocations in the church.

What led you to do this work?

In 2019, I was the recipient of a visiting scholarship at St John’s Theological College in New Zealand, where I had trained as a young ordinand in the 1980s. My project was to research women’s experiences in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand since 1960. In part this was a personal quest, sparked by a conversation a few months before with a friend I had studied with when I began my first theology degree. As he and I reconnected after three decades and each of us related the key events of those intervening years, I was struck by the differences in our journeys – despite their shared starting point. He has had a long and fruitful ministry in the church; I have had a life-long vocation to ministry that I have yet to fulfil.

This conversation had taken place around the time I was invited to contribute a chapter to Letters to a Broken Church (Fife and Gilo 2019), a response to the clergy abuse crisis in the Church of England. As I pondered the events that led to me leaving New Zealand in 1988 at the end of my ordination training, and eventually putting the idea of ordination to one side, I began to reconsider the impact of clergy sexual misconduct on my life and vocation. This time however, I looked at it through two different lenses: 1) the lens of a registered health professional and educator working within strict ethical guidelines and 2) that of the mother of young women in their twenties who have bumped up against sexual harassment at university and in their jobs and careers.

As I imagined my daughters in the situations I had found myself in at their respective ages, I began to identify more fully the impact that the exploitative behaviour of much older male clergy had on my life and my vocation in the church. Imagining my daughters – whose wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment are absolute priorities for me – having to cope with the things that I encountered at their ages left me angry. Angry at the behaviour of those men and at the church which should have offered a safe environment for me as a young person and as an ordinand. Angry that the very clergy who claimed to support me in my vocation had actually grossly undermined and sabotaged it.

Having either directly encountered or been aware of a number of clergy abusers, I was suspicious of the context that produced such behaviour, and which appeared to facilitate it, or at least did nothing to address or prevent it.

On the one hand, I was incredulous that Christian priests, including fathers of daughters, would act to undermine the vocation of any young person. On the other, I was very aware that I, and many other women, had lacked the support and mentoring that most young men received from the experienced clergy responsible for their pastoral welfare and training. Given the wider hostility to women seeking leadership roles in the church at the time, this was perhaps unsurprising.

Next, I endeavoured to put myself into the shoes of the offending priests and to wonder what motivated them. I tried to imagine the sense of entitlement that would lead them to violate pastoral and sexual boundaries. Then, I mapped the code of conduct I work under as a health professional onto their actions. As I did so, my perspective – long one of self-blame and failure – shifted.  I began to see that at the very least, those clergy had acted in ways that were deeply unprofessional. I also began to consider the broader structural context of those scenarios, and this is what I determined to research. Having either directly encountered or been aware of a number of clergy abusers, I was suspicious of the context that produced such behaviour, and which appeared to facilitate it, or at least did nothing to address or prevent it.

At this point, I had not come across the body of literature on clergy sexual abuse of adult women and had no idea of its extent, assuming (despite my own experience) that most victims of clergy abuse were children and that most clergy abusers were Roman Catholic priests. I was shocked to learn that an estimated 90-95% of victims of clergy sexual abuse are female congregants (Boobal Batchelor 2013, xv). Moreover, as Richard Sipe (2007, xv) notes, the Roman Catholic Church does not have a monopoly on clergy abuse, it is just further down the track in terms of exposure.

I began my project with a broad research outline, looking at a number of issues that have affected women in the Anglican church in Aotearoa New Zealand in my lifetime. Clergy sexual abuse was not my main focus, however it kept jumping out at me. I was directed to Louise Deans’ book Whistleblower (2001) at the outset of my scholarship. Here Deans describes her experiences as an ordinand training for ministry with serial abuser Canon Rob McCullough, and outlines the protracted and traumatic process she and other clergywomen went through to seek support and redress from the church hierarchy for the abuse they experienced.[i]

Deans first made the abuse by McCullough public after it was revealed in the media that a conference of ordained Anglican women in New Zealand in 1989 had felt it necessary to offer a workshop on sexual harassment. I had left New Zealand less than a year earlier, in part in an effort to remove myself from a situation with a much older priest that I could see no other way out of. There is much in Deans’ book that resonates with my experience, both in New Zealand and more particularly later in the UK, with a priest who seemed remarkably like McCullough in character. Diana Garland (2013, 122 citing Friberg and Laaser 1998) suggests that ‘the most common offender is a man who is reasonably successful and has a combination of narcissism, sexual compulsion, and need for affirmation’.

What have you learned since beginning this research?

That I am not alone. #MeToo’s sister movement #ChurchToo demonstrates that women are all too familiar with sexual harassment from male church leaders. This is not to deny that some abusers are women or that some victims of clergy sexual abuse are adult men or children, simply that the majority of clergy abusers in reported cases are heterosexual males and the majority of victims are heterosexual females (Fortune 2013, 15).

That it was not my fault. Until this point, I had taken responsibility for what had occurred and had not considered my own experiences in the church against the concept of fiduciary duty – that is, the legal or ethical obligation of a person with a duty of care or in a professional relationship of trust to act in the best interest of their client, congregant or counselee. Nor was I aware of the now established view among experts in the field that within the implicit relationship of power that exists between a priest and a congregant, meaningful consent to a sexual relationship is not possible. A sexual relationship between a priest and a congregant is not an ‘affair’ and cannot be regarded as consensual (Fortune 2013, 15, 19).

That breaches of professional boundaries by clergy create unhealthy precedents, increase the vulnerability of victims, and pave the way for further or more serious harm (Stephens 2013, 28). I now realise that my early experiences of clergy misconduct had predisposed me to further exploitation. Furthermore, over the years I had seen and heard of a number of clergy breaching professional and sexual boundaries, while those with greater authority looked on and failed to act, effectively normalising such behaviour.

That, in the grip of clergy abuse, victims can lose their moral compass. Caught up in the dynamic of wrongdoing and shame, we do what we need to do to survive and get through. This is not what we would choose to do at healthier times in our lives. Additionally, because congregants are conditioned to respect clergy and to see them as authority figures in spiritual and moral matters, they can be easily influenced by them (Fortune 1999, xii).

That clergy abuse is isolating for victims and prevents them accessing meaningful sources of support. Lured into a ‘counselling’ relationship as an ordinand, for example, I failed to get the support I needed.

That clergy abuse often follows predictable patterns of behaviour. Clergy may groom their victims over a period of time, singling them out for special treatment, sometimes on the pretext of mentoring them in their vocation, gradually breaking down any resistance and isolating them through insisting on secrecy (Cooper-White 2013, 73-74; Fortune 1999, xi). Such coercive behaviour is ultimately as damaging as more overt forms of abuse.

Guido Reni, Susanna and the Elders, Image courtesy of Jean Louise Mazieres on Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/2eGnXfG)

What do you hope readers will take away from your research when it is published?

My own perspective shifted significantly when I began to consider my experiences through older and more objective eyes. This, together with the broader understanding of clergy sexual abuse I’ve gained during the course of my research and the support I have received for this work, has done much to heal the shame of my own experiences and the grief attached to the loss of my vocation.

It is over fifteen years since I began my doctoral research on shame. One conclusion I reached early on in that work was that having our shame stories heard with empathy can lead to healing. I have had several opportunities to share my work and to tell my story. These have been overwhelmingly positive experiences, with people affirming the importance and value of the work and listening to my personal narrative in non-judging, empathic and thoughtful ways.

The discourses of purity culture, complementarianism and male headship facilitate clergy abuse, which is a systemic issue.

Having said that, I have been somewhat selective about my audiences and my experience to date is that resistance comes from those (including women) who operate within more hierarchical and masculinist frameworks. Indeed, the evidence is strong that these are the structures which facilitate abuse in the first place. The discourses of purity culture, complementarianism and male headship facilitate clergy abuse, which is a systemic issue. This will not change without a significant degree of honest conversation, and a willingness to engage with the voices of survivors and to address the structural inequities within the churches – including those perpetuated by masculinist and misogynist interpretations of scripture and tradition.

As with any situation that is propelled or sustained by shame and secrecy, clergy sexual abuse will only stop if those affected by it speak out. For this reason, I work with autoethnographic and narrative research methods. Autoethnography situates the researcher in their research context as an active participant rather than a so-called ‘objective’ observer, resists theoretical abstractions and places value on the way individuals and groups find meaning. It is an apt methodological approach to challenging social and interpersonal phenomena where more conventional methods may serve to reinscribe oppression.

My hope in contributing to the increasing body of literature on clergy abuse through telling my own story and creating a space for other women to tell theirs, is that churches will achieve a greater understanding of the dynamics of abuse, and of the impact it has on women’s vocations in the church. In turn, engagement with this issue may lead to churches and seminaries finding healthier ways to speak about sex and power, to more effective screening of prospective clergy, and to more compassionate, honest, thoughtful, and effective ways of managing clergy abuse when it arises.

Feature image “Can You Hear Me Now? #MeToo” by alecperkins on Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/23BStNh)

References:

Boobal Batchelor, Valli ed. ‘Editor’s Introduction’ in When Pastors Prey. Geneva. World Council of Churches Publishing. Xv-xix.

Cooper-White, Pamela. 2013. ‘Clergy Sexual Abuse of Adults’ in Valli Boobal Batchelor ed. When Pastors Prey. Geneva. World Council of Churches Publishing. 58-81.

Deans, Louise. 2001. Whistleblower. Abuse of Power in the Church, A New Zealand Story. Auckland. Tandem Press.

Fife, Janet and Gilo, eds. 2019. Letters to a Broken Church. London. Ekklesia.

Fortune, Marie. 2013. ‘Sexual Abuse by Religious Leaders’ in Valli Boobal Batchelor ed. When Pastors Prey. Geneva. World Council of Churches Publishing. 14-21.

Fortune, Marie. 1999. ‘Foreword’ in Nancy Werking Poling ed. Victim to Survivor. Women Recovering from Clergy Sexual Abuse. Cleveland, Ohio. United Church Press. ix-xvi.

Garland, Diana. 2013. ‘Don’t Call it an Affair: Understanding and Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct with Adults’ in Claire M. Renzetti and Sandra Yocum eds. Clergy Sexual Abuse: Social Science Perspectives. Boston. Northeastern University Press. 118-143.

Sipe, A. W. Richard. 2007. ‘Introduction’ in A. Shupe, Spoils of the Kingdom. Clergy Misconduct and Religious Community. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Xv-xxvii.


[i] Deans does not name McCullough in her book, however he was subsequently identified in legal proceedings. TVNZ. 2003. ‘Church to pay out for sex abuse’. Thursday March 06. http://tvnz.co.nz/content/173269/4202557/article.html, accessed 24.09.2020

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Leaving a high-control faith behind – an auto-ethnographic account

by Heather Ransom

Heather Ransom is a PhD student at Edge Hill University. She is currently researching the effects of religious ostracism when leaving the Jehovah’s Witness religion. Specifically, she is exploring the impact on identity, self-esteem and belonging, as well as wider detriments to mental health and wellbeing.

Leaving a high-control faith behind – An auto-ethnographic account

Note: All scriptures quoted are from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, as used by Jehovah’s Witnesses (the JW version of the Bible)

My relationship with the Bible started in infancy. My mother, a perfect example of Jehovah’s Witness (JWs) recruitment, was a doorstep convert when she was 22 years old. Consequently, myself and my siblings were raised in a strict, Bible-based religious environment, with ‘the meetings’ (church) three times a week. We also had an active preaching schedule every Saturday morning (door knocking). My father did not convert, despite my mother’s dominant personality, which meant we came from what was described as a ‘divided household’.

My early life of ‘inculcation’ (Deuteronomy 6:6,7) into the JW faith included a plethora of images of paradise (Psalms 37:10,11), interspersed with those of death and destruction as described in the Bible. Zechariah 14:12 remains dominant in my mind. Here, the destruction of the ungodly is described:

their flesh will rot away while they stand on their feet, their eyes will rot away in their sockets, and their tongues will rot away in their mouths.

Scriptures such as this one, and the powerful imagery used in the literature to convey Armageddon, had a significant impact on my young mind, and kept me in fear for many years. Interestingly, the only mention of Armageddon in the Bible is in Revelation 16:16, yet it forms one of the main tenets of the JW faith. Believing that the world was full of wickedness, and that the JWs are the one true faith, I was taught that soon ‘Jehovah’ (the vocalisation of the Hebrew tetragrammaton YHWH together with the vowels of the Hebrew word for ‘LORD’ that is pronounced) would annihilate all those who do not believe, and as long as I stayed faithful, I would live forever in paradise.

After decades of devout membership, and for many reasons, I decided to leave the JWs. The maltreatment I experienced from the elders (church leaders), which felt both spiritually and psychologically abusive, made me start to question the love that is supposed to mark true Christians (John 13:34,35). I started to analyse critically, the shunning doctrine, and could not align this with the tenets of scripture regarding love (Love never fails – 1 Corinthians 13:8), judging (Stop judging, that you may not be judged – Matthew 7:1-5), forgiveness (If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you – Matthew 6: 14,15) and imperfection (We all stumble many times – James 3:2). It seemed to me that when a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ is at their lowest ebb, disfellowshipping them (being forced to leave – similar to excommunication) for their ‘sins’ and, in doing so, depriving them of the assistance they need is akin to depriving a sick person of their medication

Described as a loving arrangement, JWs are required to shun those who have been disfellowshipped. This has a two-fold purpose: (1) to protect the congregation from the influence of the defector, and (2) to motivate the ex-member to return to the fold. However, more recently, former JWs who had left voluntarily (as I did), have also reported experiencing shunning from their family and friends.

Consequently, JWs are considered a high-cost group  (Scheitle & Adamczyk, 2010) as exiting, whether forced (disfellowshipped) or voluntary, typically has negative consequences. These might include, amongst others, loss of supportive ties, challenges to self-perceptions and psychological distress. The adverse effects of ostracism are well-established within the wider psychological literature (Case & Williams, 2004; Wesselmann & Williams, 2017; Williams, 2001; Williams, 2007). Although there has been diminutive research amongst former JWs, leaving religiously exclusive groups generally has been associated with diminished wellbeing; in addition, ostracism (religious shunning), amongst other things, has been identified as a barrier to exit (Scheitle & Adamczyk, 2010).

As I traversed my own journey upon leaving the JWs, it became apparent that leaving experiences and outcomes were not the same. I wanted to explore if there were differences in wellbeing between those who had been disfellowshipped compared to those who had left voluntarily. I also aimed to examine the impact of forming alternative social support following religious exit. For example, social media groups set up by former JWs may act as a buffer against the effects of shunning, by allowing former members to build new relationships. Finally, I wanted to assess whether earlier socialisation into the JWs (being born and raised JW), as opposed to adult conversion, may differentially affect the process of identity transition post-exit.

Leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses

The Bible retains a significant influence within Christian religions, and although modernity has meant that some Christian faiths have adopted modern concepts, such as female priests/vicars, more fundamentalist Christian religions have not. This is perhaps, in part, due to scriptures such as 1 Timothy 2:11, 12 where the apostle Paul states:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but she is to remain silent.

Similarly, other Bible verses paint the woman as inferior in intellect. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 states that if a woman wants to learn something, she must ask her husband at home, as it would be a disgraceful thing for a woman to speak in the congregation. Further, submission to the male is encouraged in passages which urge women to have deep respect, a quiet and mild spirit, and to be subject to their husbands. Indeed, the scriptures relate that Sarah referred to her husband Abraham as ‘Lord’ (1 Peter 3:6), and although there are some positive female references in the Bible (for example, the prophetess Deborah), derogatory figures are often portrayed as female. The great harlot of Revelation 18:1 for example, and the nation of Israel, referred to as an unfaithful wife in Ezekiel 16, with the entire chapter peppered with references to prostitution. Similarly, the book of Jeremiah chapters 2-5 describes Israel as a woman trained in wickedness, stained with the blood of the innocent (2:33, 34), and having the brazen look of a wife who commits prostitution (3:3).

In light of this less-than-positive view of women often portrayed in the Bible, it could be postulated that attitudes in some fundamentalist-style religions who adhere closely to the scriptures remain archaic in nature. Indeed, the qualitative data I have recorded as part of my doctoral thesis offers some support for the notion that fundamentalist organisations, such as the JWs, may mean women are not taken seriously when it comes to issues such as domestic violence and misogyny. For example, one participant was prevented from reporting domestic violence to the authorities, because of the ‘reproach it would bring upon Jehovah’s name, and to the congregation’. This respondent was ‘disfellowshipped’ from the congregation for talking about the abuse, rather than keeping silent, and thus cut off from all her social support.

Being disfellowshipped from the JWs is a serious matter. Congregants are not permitted to talk to disfellowshipped ones; therefore, anyone disfellowshipped is effectively silenced. There are many reasons for which a JW can be disfellowshipped, these include, but are not limited to: sex before marriage (fornication), sex outside of marriage (adultery), all forms of homosexuality, viewing pornography, smoking tobacco, drug taking and gambling. Other JWs leave the religion of their own free will because they find the way of life restrictive, or have experienced what they perceive as unjust treatment. Nevertheless, despite the method of exit, former JWs typically report religious ostracism from their family, friends and the congregation in general.

In conclusion, although ostracism is well-researched, religious ostracism remains a harmful phenomenon in contemporary society, the effects of which are under-explored. By studying religious ostracism, and recognising its harmful effects, including exploring the factors which may affect outcomes, attempts may be made to offer further support to those who transition out of high cost religions such as the JWs.

References

Case, T. I., & Williams, K. D. (2004). Ostracism : A metaphor for death. New York : Guilford Press.

Scheitle, C. P., & Adamczyk, A. (2010). High-cost religion, religious switching, and health. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications. doi:10.1177/0022146510378236

Wesselmann, E. D., & Williams, K. D. (2017). ‘Social life and social death: Inclusion, ostracism, and rejection in groups’. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 20(5), 693-706. doi:10.1177/1368430217708861

Williams, K. D. (2001a). Ostracism : The power of silence. New York: Guilford Press.

Williams, K. D. (2007). ‘Ostracism: The kiss of social death’. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1(1), 236-247. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2007.00004.x

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