Why Rhetoric Matters: The Power of Words to Liberate or Manipulate Gender Norms

It’s hard to explain to people who don’t study rhetoric why it’s important or for that matter what rhetoric is.  A basic definition is that rhetoric is the art of discourse. It is the study of speech. Words are powerful tools. They support ideology, stir passion and anger, and most importantly fuel action. We study the words of the present and the past to learn from our triumphs and our failures. A society

Benjamin Titus Roberts

that does not learn from its mistakes is a society that is guaranteed to continue repeating the same missteps. Perhaps this why I’ve turned much of my research to rhetorical history. As I’ve studied the rhetoric of today’s Christian patriarchy movement I came to realize the very same ideology that is spouted today in support of male-headship is the same arguments made a century ago. Yet, in reality, these arguments go back more than a century. They go back to the early church when Christians were trying to discern how they should  organize, led others and share the gospel.

As Benjamin Titus Roberts, the founder of the Free Methodist Church, said at the 1890 Free Methodist General Conference:

It is a very hard thing to speak to men’s prejudices. They are stronger than the sense of justice. They are stronger than the love of truth, even in many good men. We can hardly estimate the power of prejudice, and yet I think as Christian men we ought to conquer our prejudices and adhere to truth however it may be in conflict with our training….The scripture that is generally used by those who oppose the equal rights of women in the church is, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection; but I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over a man, but to be in silence.” I Timothy 2:11. “Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak.” I Cor. 14:34. Now Mr. President, these passages do not stand in the way of this resolution, for as church in common with all other churches, we refuse to accept these passages in their literal application. Women is placed by our law, under great disabilities, and not as great in the United States as in England, but still we have inherited these prejudices. I say Mr. President, that the burden of proof lies with those who dispute the resolution. The presumption is that they were in favor of equality of rights, and when a person comes and claims that there is no justice or equality or rights they should show why it is not so. The burden of proof does not life with me but with those who object to the resolution.if you will go back to the beginning you will find that in the beginning God made woman in perfect equality with man. In Genesis 1:26: “And God said let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion.” The dominion he gave was common dominion. In Genesis 2:18 it says, “And the Lord God said, It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” The word here translated “a helpmeet” denoted perfect equality.

Even though Roberts rightly points to prejudices as why we cannot listen, consider and accept a theology of Biblical equality, many of his fellow Free Methodists still refused to believe him.  The excuse given was that Roberts could read the New Testament in Greek and much of his arguments were based on the original language the New Testament was written in. Since many of the delegates could not read Greek they chose to believe only what they saw in their English translation of Scripture, and they refused to consider, as Roberts urged them to, the cultural and historic factors that influenced the writing of passages such as I Corinthians 14:34 and I Timothy 2:11.

Ignorance won out as individuals refused to read, learn, grow and challenge themselves to consider a different Biblical perspective. Wilson Hogue, a Free Methodist delegate at the 1890 Conference and future Free Methodist Bishop, illustrates the inability to listen and consider an alternative perspective:

I maintain, Mr. President, that ordinarily marriage is a disqualification for the general work of ministry on the part of woman, as it is not a disqualification on the part of man. If woman is to be ordained she must be ordained to all the functions of the public ministry, and this makes her eligible to positions in our conferences, to be pastors of the churches and to fill the official positions to which ecclesiastical ordination makes men eligible; but if she be married and according to God’s pre-ordained arrangement, living honestly and faithful in the marriage relation she must rear children, guide her house and occupy herself at least to a large extent with domestic cares and responsibilities. Living in this relation and fulfilling the duties that pertain to wifehood and motherhood she must of necessity from time to time be physically disqualified from public duties and at other times confined within the regular domestic cares., that would have interfered with performing the full duties of a Christian minister. There may be exceptional cases in which this principle does not apply, but we are not discussing this question in relation to exceptional cases, but rather as to its general bearing and application.

Granted he made this speech at the 1894 General Conference, after Roberts death, but even at the 1890 conference Hogue vehemently opposed women’s ordination and Biblical equality.

So, why does it matter if one person believes in male-headship and another believes in egalitarianism?  What harm can rhetoric really cause? After all many Christians who support male-headship practice what is commonly called “soft complementarianism.” Essentially meaning they preach male-headship but in how they live out their marriage they rarely if ever enforce the husband’s will over the wife’s.

The danger lies in the verbal support of male-headship and too often only male-headship is taught as the Biblical model to marriage and egalitarianism is completely left out of church Sunday school classes and worship services. Too few women serve in visible leadership roles in many denominations. A church that only has male ushers, a male pastor and a male worship leader doesn’t present a visible image that women are valued in the church. A church that never preaches a sermon against domestic violence and tells women that they have to obey their husbands “no matter what” is setting up a dangerous precedent. I’ve heard Christians tell me that if a husband is abusive the wife must pray and submit more to him. Eventually that will change him. Words are powerful and the damage inflicted emotionally, spiritually and sometimes physically on a woman left in this situation is beyond reproach.

Catherine Clark Kroeger, Nancy Nason Clark, and Barbara Fisher-Townsend (2011) published Beyond Abuse in the Christian Home: Raising Voices for Change which discusses how the pastors surveyed for their book believe one out of every five couples in their congregations are violent. Yet, only eight percent of pastors feel equipped to address domestic abuse. When Christian women were surveyed for the book ninety five percent of them had never heard a sermon about domestic abuse and how to deal with it Biblically, and many women who would fit the category of “abused woman” did not feel the category applied to them. The evangelical community’s lack of response to the issue of both physical and emotional abuse has created a culture where abusers can hide behind theology and manipulate Biblical passages to justify their actions.

We have not learned from the past. The same debates continue; the same justifications exist. Yet, we can become more aware of what we are saying and how our words endorse a theology that prevents open dialogue about crucial issues of gender and faith. We don’t have to always agree. I’m not asking for everyone to become an egalitarian. Although, I wish I could. All I am asking for is that we seriously consider our phrasing, our dogmatic stances and the power our words hold to liberate or manipulate.

One thought on “Why Rhetoric Matters: The Power of Words to Liberate or Manipulate Gender Norms

  1. I, too, am working for women’s equality in my church. I am a Baptist, and have been diligently working to help women see for themselves what this teaching against women means, and to stand up and to speak up against complementarian views. I am egalitarian, as you are. I blog. On March 28 2012 (Galatians 3:28) there will be a Prayer Walk for women’s equality. I would love for you and your women to step outside your homes and pray for equality for women in our churches. In April there will be a conference on women’s equality in Houston Texas. We are spreading the word, but we need to connect with each other. Please contact me. I want to help, and be part of this great movement for women’s equality that is taking place.

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