Churches are anti-women. If my time at university taught me anything, this is one of the prevailing ideas about Christianity.
It's a statement that's so common it's not even argued. To outsiders, churches are hothouses of stifling tradition, dished out by dominant men and accepted by wide-eyed women. It's a culture that's viewed as stuck in the 1950s.
And sometimes, the Church still plays into this stereotype. We all agree that we should be kind and Christ-like to one another, but when it comes to sexism, there is a sense of awkwardness and distrust. We are worried that we will veer into hatefulness toward men, or un-Christian models of family.
Questions start arising such as: Is it wrong to not have children? To pursue a career only? What's wrong with being a wife and mother, and are we demeaning this role by saying we want 'more'? Should women be teachers in the Church? And feminism is seen, at best, as a political movement that should be put in its proper context, and at worst, an insidious bug that's undermining Christian families and God's will for his people.
I have observed many times Christian men speaking in ways where they unwittingly align themselves with boys' club attitudes or viewing women as objects or as potential wives, rather than as dignified sisters in Christ. And every female I know – Christian or not – has experienced hurt from sexism of some kind, whether inside the Church or outside of it, or both.
Our world today
It's a terrible reality that women are regularly demeaned, sexually harassed, abused and even killed by men – right here on our doorstep. Statistics suggest more than a million women in Australia have experienced sexual or physical assault by their partner or ex-partner since the age of 15.
So it's sad when discussions of sexism or feminism are met with discomfort from Christians. Gender issues are issues we all need to examine – and too often we don't, perhaps because they seem too political or controversial. Maybe they even seem unimportant compared to other issues faced in the world.
While the world sees the Church as backward and conservative on gender issues, Jesus paints a different story. When you look at how Jesus related to women, it was with dignity and respect. Think of Mary Magdalene, or the woman caught in adultery, or Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, or the Samaritan woman.
The Jesus we know from the Bible wasn't one who ignored the needs of women, or disgraced them, but rather one who met them where they were (however sinfully they were living) and spoke truth to them. This is the same as how we are to relate to one another.
We live in a fallen world, and that means wrong actions and attitudes are an everyday reality. This includes how we relate to ourselves and others based on their gender, and we don't always do the right thing. Both women and men are guilty of demeaning one another, of letting relationships colour our views of others and of not showing grace and love.
In Galatians chapter 3 verses 27-28, we're told, "For all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
In other words, Jesus' sacrifice has made us all equals.
As Christians, we need to be vigilant to examine ourselves and our attitudes towards those who are different from us, including the opposite gender. While recognising our different roles and callings, and submitting ourselves to Christ's authority, we also need to remember the dignity, grace and love we ought to show to one another as human beings made in the image of God.
As 1 Corinthians chapter 12 says, we can't say to different parts of the body of Christ that they don't belong because of our differences. This is not only because the world is watching – but because it's what God has told us to do.
Lastly, we need an outward focus on gender issues, and to follow the example of Christ in helping the powerless. We have a horrifying domestic violence issue here in Australia – and that's not even to mention the terror that women face in other parts of the world.
We need to be educated (here's one place to start: http://au.reachout.com/what-is-domestic-violence), to help where we can financially and prayerfully, and to keep our eyes open for those who may be suffering in front of us.
We have a responsibility to speak out, to act, to reflect the love Jesus has for all people – women included – and to show this to the world.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional and has a background in editing. She lives in Melbourne.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed here: http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html