Stop Making Women Powerless in the Name of God

by | Aug 8, 2022 | Abuse | 21 comments

Stop making women powerless in Christianity

My heart hurts when I hear stories of what happens when women (or children or men, for that matter) are made powerless.


In about a week or so we’ll be moving the blog over to a new domain, taking only the posts from 2018 with us.

I have some posts from pre-2018 that I wanted to make sure came over, so I’m rerunning some of them this summer!

Here’s an important one, about how incorrect theology can make women powerless.

So here’s me writing back in April of 2016!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

I’m on a road trip this week speaking in Alberta and Manitoba, and one of the nice things for me about flying is that I finally get to read a novel. I don’t read many novels at home; when I start a book I can’t put it down until it’s done, and that doesn’t bode well for finishing up stuff. So I tend to reserve my reading for airline flights.

I cracked open Luther and Katharina, a historical novel about the romance between Martin Luther, the leader of the Reformation, and former nun Katharina von Bora.

Luther and Katharina: a great novel which illustrates how powerlessness should never be part of the Kingdom of God.

It was riveting. Jody Hedlund made the characters come alive, and the magnitude of the issues that Luther was facing, and the weight that was on his shoulders, was immense.

But what really stayed with me was the story of Katharina’s experiences in the abbey.

In the Middle Ages it was common practice for noble families to “abandon” their daughters at convents when they were very young–5, 6, or 7. They’d give a large donation to the convent, and then the girl would be basically imprisoned there for the rest of her life. She couldn’t leave.

Daughters, you see, were expensive. They needed dowries. Much easier to give them over to the church and earn spiritual brownie points in the process.

So think of these poor little girls, torn from their families, sent to a convent from which they will never leave. Never the choice to marry. Never the choice to do anything.

But worst of all, what happens when a young woman with no outside protection lives in a place where unrelated men have full power? Priests and bishops would visit, and would often abuse the girls and the nuns. It was commonplace.

My heart is torn in two.

I can’t fathom such evil, and yet I know that this is the story of history.

Whenever girls or women have no recourse and no power, sexual abuse runs rampant.

But it’s true in other realms as well. When people live in abject poverty, they are often forced into virtual (or real) slavery, and beaten at will. The quest for freedom in Europe, and later in North America and throughout the world, was really a quest for justice–that the nobility and the clergy couldn’t beat, kill, rape, or steal from those in their power at will. That people could live in safety, and could have the assurance that if wrong was done to them, they had legal recourse.

And God’s heart is with the powerless. Just read the Old Testament prophets to see! The most common accusation he lays at the feet of those being judged is that they oppressed the poor and powerless. God doesn’t take this lightly, and He knows how rampant it is.

Whenever people have power without checks, then the powerless are abused.

It’s been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I agree with this to a certain extent. I think that there can be good and godly leaders who have major power. I believe that there were godly priests and bishops in the Middle Ages. I believe that there were even godly kings and queens, though they may have been few and far between.

But here’s the funny thing about power: those who have an urge to dominate and subjugate others will naturally gravitate to positions where they have power over others.

Most people don’t actually enjoy controlling others. Those who do often deliberately aim for it. Did joining the SS in Nazi Germany make one evil, or did evil people gravitate towards the SS because of the power the SS provided? I’m inclined to think it’s a combination of both, but that the second is likely more important. Evil gravitates to opportunities to do evil.

On the other hand, where such opportunities are much harder to come by, those who may naturally be tempted to go in that direction may never even act on that temptation. That’s why good civil government, good church structure, and good family structure matters. When we set up these institutions so that leaders have checks, balances, and accountability, and those at the bottom of the totem pole have the ability to stop something bad from happening (or at least punishing it when it does happen), then far fewer people do bad things.

Unfortunately, though, power over others is intoxicating.

Look at the megachurch pastors who are abusing their power and being caught in abuse scandals. While most rightly find this abhorrent, within humanity is the drive to hurt and dominate. We see it in Nigeria where Boko Haram kidnaps Christian girls. We see it in North Korea where the peasants starve on the whim of a megalomaniac leader. We saw it in Nazi Germany, in the slave trade, in the aboriginal schools in Canada where so many children were sexually abused. Where people have power over others, the powerless suffer immensely.

Having Power over Others Has No Place in the Kingdom of God

What scares me is that I have noticed lately that there are strands of Christianity, especially in North America, that seem to be trying to define faith in terms of “power”–that leaders (or shepherds) have power over sheep.

I believe that Matthew 20:25-28 contradicts this view:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:25-28

Many churches now require membership covenants, where upon membership you agree to be under church discipline, even if that discipline is ill-defined. Some churches have made headlines by enforcing church discipline when women try to leave abusive husbands–or leave husbands who have been charged with viewing child porn (as The Village Church did). Other churches are set up so that the pastor can’t really be questioned or removed, and some high profile pastors have had to step down in scandal lately because of their domineering management style.

(Note: Interesting that back in 2016 I was already referring to Mark Driscoll  here).

It should hardly be surprising that many leaders of Christian movements who operated in a domineering, centralized power structure have recently fallen due to sexual sin, like Bill Gothard, the now disgraced leader of a major homeschooling movement. When you set up an organization with one person at the head who cannot be questioned, is it any surprise if that person ends up abusing others?

Christianity is about servanthood. It is not about power.

I loved this tweet I saw this week:

When Christian leaders attempt to consolidate power, and then say that if people oppose them they are opposing God, that is a major red flag. Christian organizations must get away from a power structure which cannot be questioned and instead move to a model of authority with accountability where servanthood is the aim, not power. But it doesn’t end there.

What does this have to do with marriage?

Christians differ on the issue of authority in marriage. Some say that God has given the husband authority over the wife, while others say that God has called both men and women to serve each other and work to each other’s best.

I hope that we can all agree, though, that power has no place in marriage.

Power always leads to abuse. Always. When we give people power over another person while denying that person the ability or opportunity to get help or to get justice, then we open the doors for abuses of that power.

I spoke last Saturday at a one-day marriage conference. During the Q&A panel, we were asked if it is okay for an abused woman to divorce her husband, or if that is breaking a covenant. I replied that if a woman is abused, the husband has already broken the covenant. She is not the one doing so by leaving. Later on a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and thanked me for saying that. She had left an abusive marriage a decade earlier, and was now seeing a wonderful man who wanted to marry her. But she couldn’t stop the thought that she would be wrong to do so, since she was likely wrong to divorce her ex-husband. She had gone to seek marriage counseling with her mother when the abuse was at its worst, and the female counselor had told her to figure out what she was doing to provoke him, and then to stop doing that, because God took marriage vows seriously.

Her mother stood up, told the counselor that they would no longer be needing her services, and dragged her daughter out of there.

I thought we had won this battle years ago, but we haven’t.

Women are still being told that they must submit to abuse, or, like Debi Pearl says, try not to provoke an angry husband, as if the abuse is her fault. But even if a church doesn’t condone abuse, when a church says that a woman must obey her husband and must never question him, then that church is putting the husband in a place that only Jesus should have. We must all submit to Jesus’ authority, and that means that none of us should ever impose our will on another, especially another who has no way of getting justice should injustice be done.

Please, if you’re in a denomination that tells you that women must blindly follow their husbands without speaking up, remember: this may work for your marriage. You may be married to a good man. But what if your sister is not? What if your daughter marries someone who is harsh? What of the other women in your church? Let’s be clear: Power has no place in a Jesus-following church or in a Jesus-centered marriage. Power says, “my will be done”, not “Thy will be done”. And whenever we follow human’s will rather than God’s will, injustice ensues.

For the sake of the Chibok girls in Nigeria; for the memories of raped slaves in the South; for the girls who are sold on the streets in Cambodia; for the children who were raped by priests; for the young girls who were assaulted by homeschooling idols; for the girls who are married off in polygamous cults; for the young boys who are used as slaves in India; for the young women who are kept as sex slaves in the Middle East; for the beaten women and children in the West who were told to “submit”; for the memories of the women who were raped in Nanking or used as prostitutes by the Nazi army; for the many indigenous Canadian children in unmarked graves near residential schools–please. Please.

Let’s not create the conditions for any of this to happen again, especially in the name of Jesus.

We will not end abuse until we end power structures which give husbands, elders, pastors, or churches power over others.

We have the authority, as part of the priesthood of believers, to say no. Use that authority. Stop the power abuses. No more.

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Stop Making Women Powerless in the Name of God

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Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Stefanie

    Mic drop

  2. Mara R

    Another good one to move over to the new domain.

    Good message.

    Too bad the brokers of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood will dismiss you and this message as the rantings of an unredeemed and unrepentant feminist Jezebel who has no respect of God and the Bible.
    But those brokers are sold out to their gospel that gives them power in the name of God. They don’t have time for any sort of gospel that might take that power away or make them in anyway vulnerable. They love having power and control and will ignore, squash, discredit anyone that might threaten their author-a-tay.

    • Nathan

      Very harshly sarcastic. But, unfortunately, it will likely turn out to be true in some cases.

      • Jo R

        I’m going to have to disagree with this characterization, Nathan. 😕 To me it reads as straightforward conclusions based on experience and observations.

        If these observations are indeed harsh, well, whose fault is that? The observer’s, or the observed’s?

      • Mara R

        Sorry Nathan. I’m very jaded. I’ve been around this block way more times than is healthy. I’ve been accused of crazy stuff for not toeing the Evangelical Party Line.

        Left a church once because they thought I was a liberal feminist for cautioning them about assuming and vilifying feminists as these horrible evil women who wanted to murder their children and castrate men. Pointing out to them that historically it was men who pushed infanticide (Roman and other cultures) and abortion (Victorian men, and men in other cultures, who wanted to play and not commit, pushing their women to get dangerous and illegal abortions). They looked at me as though I had lobsters coming out of my ears when I questioned the over exaggerated assumptions they made about their political enemies.

        Anyway, that’s in my real life.
        In my old blog life, I had a crazy person make crazy assumptions about me because I had the nerve to point out sexism in one of their idols.

        Yeah, pretty jaded here. My apologies.

  3. Nathan

    > > But here’s the funny thing about power: those who have an urge
    > > to dominate and subjugate others will naturally gravitate to
    > > positions where they have power over others.

    Author Frank Herbert once said that it’s not that power corrupts, it’s that power attracts the corruptible.

    And in any case, a power structure that’s based primarily on gender might be more susceptible to corruption.

  4. Nathan

    Also, any church where a pastor cannot be removed, any church where you have to sign a “submission” document or any church where criticizing the leadership is counted the same as criticizing God is a huge red flag.

  5. Jane Eyre

    Tangential to the point of the post:

    “Please, if you’re in a denomination that tells you that women must blindly follow their husbands without speaking up, remember: this may work for your marriage. You may be married to a good man.”

    It goes beyond being married to a “good man.” Good men can be wrong, too, and wrong in ways that are destructive to their marriages. They are likely married to men who take their concerns so seriously that they don’t need to fight their husbands to be heard.

    “I don’t fight my husband.” Yeah sugar pie, that is because your husband listens the first time you tell him something. He isn’t going to drag you through the wringer while you ask for your needs to be valued, your perspective to be valued, or your wants to be considered. That isn’t some weird little quirk of his; it is foundational to a healthy marriage.

    Absent a husband who naturally values what his wife is telling him – if not the first time, he doesn’t let it fester – you need a culture that tells him that your needs, wants, perspective, and voice are equally important and not some nuisance in his decision making process.

  6. A2bbethany

    I noticed that the Dave Ramsey company is advertising for either a parenting or marriage expert. I can’t help Wondering how cool it’d be if Sheila or someone like her, joined their team. I do know that their mental health expert actually dismissed Dr Dobson comments about divorce and marriage.
    (Caller referenced it and he said I don’t know who he is, but here’s what I know from the data.)

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It’s funny–there was a big university recently that was trying to head hunt me to be head of their healthy relationships department, but I had no interest in moving to the U.S. But I showed it to someone else who has similar qualifications and views as me, and she got the job!

      So I hope someone with a healthy outlook gets the job there too! (Although they would need to change the whole culture at the organization around how they see women and power and abuse).

    • Boone

      Dave has been embroiled in a lawsuit over the firing of an unmarried employee that got pregnant. She was fired because she was unmarried and pregnant. I don’t know if the case is still ongoing or settled. This position sounds like it might be a result of a settlement.
      The feds will beat him like a borrowed mule over the firing of a pregnant woman for almost any reason.

      • A2bbethany

        TN is an at will state for firing, and Dave has a contract of some kind at hiring. With an expected moral living expectations clause. She knew very well that premarital sex is expected to not be happening. And getting pregnant while not married, clearly violated that. Dave has always been extremely clear about those expectations.
        While not a lawyer like Boone, I’ve grown up listening to Dave. He’s a wonderful guy who has done a lot of learning and helping of people in need.
        (And they’re not hypocritical either. He fired the most popular personality next to himself, for infidelity.)

        Personally I think their looking for one, as Dave’s career is in his last years. And Dr John is a mental health expert and frequently has those kind of questions. And he’s made it quite clear that it’s not really his area.

      • Laura

        Ken Ham, the guy who started the Creation Museum somewhere in Kentucky, requests that all of his employees are Christians who believe in “New Earth Creationism.” Basically, if you want a job there, you have to believe that the earth is no older than 6000 years old. Even if you are working at the concession stand.

  7. EOF

    So much this!

    It goes perfectly with a newsletter email I got this morning. It said in part: “To truly understand the Bible, you need more than just a surface reading of the text. Go deeper and understand the context, culture, and history of the biblical world.”

    Yes!! When will the Christian world stop looking at “plain readings” of the English Bible, most of which have been translated against women??

  8. Sarah

    Yes and amen!

  9. Nathan

    Follow up on the response to this quote
    > > “Please, if you’re in a denomination that tells you that women
    > > must blindly follow their husbands without speaking up,
    > > remember: this may work for your marriage. You may be
    > > married to a good man.”

    We’ve already noted that even good men make mistakes. But there are two other issues. First, even if you’re in such a marriage with a good man, you’re still in a servile and subservient position that you’re aren’t supposed to be in.

    Second, your husband may be good, but not all men in such a church will be. And if you’re in a church like that, you’re indirectly supporting the submission model.

  10. Zeek and Connie

    Thank you for your work and courage. My wife and I just finished the GSR and she asked me…now what, how do I stop believing the toxic teachings that I have believed? How do I get duty, shame, obligation…. And so on out of my way?

    So what’s next for her? For us? Book recommendations? I am sure some of you out there are wanting to leave that old way of thinking, how did you?


    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I just kept leaning in, and I kept reading others who were going through similar struggles! I’d tell her to listen to the Bare Marriage podcast, and just keep telling herself the truth. We’re also working on a course that should be ready in about two months, just a quick one, on how to internalize the messages of The Great Sex Rescue. So make sure you’re signed up for my email list and you’ll hear about it when it’s ready!

      • Zeek and Connie

        Thank you Sheila. Sex problems in marriage are not about sex but reveal stress fractures we can’t see…..until that are under stress. I am a teaching elder in my church and GSR will be taught. My wife and I are thinking through the dynamics of the study. We thought one large group for content and then gender based break outs for deeper more personal discussion. Thoughts?

  11. Joshua

    Very profound indeed. Marriage is meant for companionship and not to exercise authority over your spouse.


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