Male Supremacy: Examining a Distortion in the Anglican Church

Male Supremacy: Examining a Distortion in the Anglican Church May 30, 2023

Male Supremacy / GAFCON
GAFCon: Where are the female bishops? /

At the recent 2023 Global Anglican Futures Convention (GAFCon), Anglican clergy from around the world decried the Anglican Communion’s acceptance of LGBTQ+ practices as denigrating the authority of Scripture. Yet GAFCon’s censure of other Anglicans for dismissing Scripture seems absurd when you consider that GAFCon is dominated by male clergy, many of whom abuse Scripture to justify excluding women from clerical leadership. In fact, GAFCon’s 2019 report on Women in the Episcopate sanctions male supremacy by advising against the consecration of female bishops.

How can Anglicans speak authoritatively and compellingly on issues of gender and sexuality when we simultaneously distort scripture to sanctify female submission, in a similar way that scripture was distorted to sanctify slavery?

Let’s not be naïve. Satan isn’t just stalking those “other” Anglicans. He stalks our churches. He deceives our leaders so that they work in service to male supremacy, rather than Christ’s supremacy.

This idolatry has devastating human consequences.

The poison of male supremacy has plagued us since the Fall. As an ideology that ultimately privileges men over women, it opens the floodgates for abuse, marginalization, and dysfunction that belong to a fallen world, not the world that Christ has redeemed.

Male Supremacy: The Devil’s Highway

Clergy who hold these distorted views on gender relations are bound to act upon them in ways that cause harm to the church. They may not see the harm because they will read male supremacy into Scripture and mistake it for God’s will. Naturally, they gravitate toward those, professionally and socially, who are likeminded, who affirm them, and who re-enforce this mindset. For example, they may seek out seminaries where such views are tolerated, even celebrated. Of course, we all tend to surround ourselves with those like us and seek communities where we fit in; there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. The problem is that when what unifies us is something destructive, that destructive thing gets reinforced.

Sexism, like racism, can take many routes into the soul. Where this devil’s highway begins and how it’s constructed are different for everyone. Clergy may begin their pastoral journey with no solid opinion on the topic but fall under the influence of scholars and mentors who propagate such views. Perhaps the groundwork is laid in childhood, originating with their observance of certain behaviors in the home or formative, negative experiences of the opposite sex. These experiences can work together to become enculturating.

Whatever road patriarchy takes, once it’s paved, remediation is terribly difficult. Imagine the kind of technical and mechanical effort required to deconstruct an asphalt highway! Such are clergy entrenched in the stronghold of male supremacy. Even if they are otherwise open-minded, they will typically (and perhaps unconsciously) dismiss anyone or anything that veers from this mental pathway, or mindset.

Again, no matter where we sit on this issue – whether egalitarian or complementarian – we all experience enculturation, we are all subject, in varying degrees, to our mindsets. The problem is that complementarianism isn’t merely a benign choice on a menu of theological options. It’s not like consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation, or infant baptism vs. believers’ baptism. It’s a gender ideology that causes real harm to women. As Rev. Dr. Jennifer Bashaw writes:

“In addition to discouraging women like me from the ministry and creating sometimes abusive imbalances in marriage, [complementarianism] is leading to sexual and spiritual abuse. The result of male headship and male leadership in churches is that women do not have power or authority—their voices are not heard. The report that came out about Southern Baptist ministers’ sexual abuse of congregants (and the churches who covered it up) provides a tragic example of what happens when men hold ultimate control and are not held accountable.”

Perhaps more importantly, she also explains how an egalitarian framework is better at building people, marriages, families, and churches that better reflect God’s image – and his gifting:

“Egalitarians understand that marriage should be a partnership and roles within the family should be determined by gifting or by mutual agreement, not by gender. They also realize that having women in church leadership is vital; it allows women to exercise their ministerial giftings, ensuring a balance of power and a representation of all people made in God’s image. Most importantly, egalitarian leadership protects women who are vulnerable to the harm caused by the patriarchal systems and sexist views in our culture.”

Cognitive Distortion

Yet complementarian theology continues to thrive, despite the damage done, at least partly because mindsets are not easily changed. The problem of mindsets has been documented and described in various professional fields. For example, at the Central Intelligence Agency, there is the classic Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, by Richards J. Heuer Jr., who warns that we must be vigilant of our own biases:

“A mind-set is, in essence, a distillation of all that analysts think they know about a subject. It forms a lens through which they perceive the world, and once formed, it resists change…relevant information is discounted, misinterpreted, ignored, rejected, or overlooked because it fails to fit a prevailing mental model. The disadvantage of a mind-set is that it can color our perception to the extent that…when faced with a major paradigm shift, analysts who know the most about a subject have the most to unlearn.” (5, 66)

What a sobering thought. Heuer himself wrote the book partly in response to studies of intelligence failures that led to unnecessary losses of human life. These post-mortem assessments identified that “bad information” usually wasn’t to blame; rather, analysts had failed to properly interpret the available information due to mindset bias. It’s vital for CIA analysts to recognize internal biases that mis(shape) their thinking, and develop tools that facilitate objectivity, so that they can provide better, truer analysis to policymakers. If you are able to visit the CIA, you will see this scripture emblazoned on a wall near the entrance: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

Indeed, as Heuer notes, the implications of the psychology of intelligence analysis transcend the world of intelligence. Consider religion. In Biblical studies, the “lens” he refers to is analogous to the hermeneutic framework, which strongly impacts your exegesis, or analysis, of the Bible. Concerning gender roles, the “paradigm shift” is the emancipation of women in the past 100 years, along with the recognition that women are not inferior to men. Complementarians accept that principle, at least superficially; yet, rather than support women entering church positions that were historically denied them based on a bad anthropology, complementarians developed new ideas, such as “headship,” to justify the continued exclusion of women from clerical leadership. Will G. Witt, an Anglican theologian and professor at the Anglican seminary, Trinity School for Ministry, explains in Icons of Christ how these church traditions are misperceived and reconstructed:

“Historically, there is a single argument that was used in the church against the ordaining of women: women could not be ordained to the ministry…because of an inherent ontological defect. Because of a lack of intelligence, or a tendency to irrationality or emotional instability, a greater susceptibility to temptation, or an inherent incapacity to lead, women were held to be inferior to men, and thus were not eligible for ordination. Moreover, this argument was used to exclude women not only from clerical ministry, but from all positions of leadership over men, and largely to confine women to the domestic sphere (21)….In affirming the equality of women, the church has abandoned the historic reasons that women were not ordained. In that light, the church needs to address the question of whether it should continue a practice that was based on a faulty anthropology. Rather than abandon the practice, however, current opponents of women’s ordination have discovered new arguments (or reasons) to explain why women cannot be ordained (35)….A tradition [of not ordaining women] is only as good as the reasons behind it. The same tradition done for different reasons is not the same tradition, but a new tradition.” (20)

A Hermeneutic of Male Supremacy

Just as in the intelligence community, Biblical analysis or exegesis that is incorrect because it derives from a distorted hermeneutic can cause immense harm.

I am reminded of the importance of mentors in shaping our views. In 2003, during my senior year of college at Sewanee, I completed an independent study on Women in the Pauline Epistles with the Rev. Dr. Christopher Bryan at the School of Theology. My first discussion with Dr. Bryan, an Oxford-educated Anglican priest and scholar, was to permanently impact my perception of gender in the Bible. When I despaired to him that women in Genesis were second in creation – in other words, the obvious inferior party – he seemed amused.

In Genesis, he said, the order of creation is such that what comes next is privileged over what comes before. God calls his creation good, but he only calls it very good after he creates woman. We tend to privilege what is first over what is last, but the text itself actually inverts our value perception of order. Therefore, using creation order to subvert women’s position vis-a-vis man is terribly ironic. Dr. Bryan laughed and quipped that if creation order truly has any bearing on male/female hierarchy, then this hierarchy is quite the other way around!

His astute observation invites the obvious question: why are some Christians reading a male/female hierarchy into the creation narrative at all?

Because some Christians are so preoccupied with male authority that they determine male “preeminence” from creation order. Yet this conclusion requires dismissing how the text itself presents the meaning of order. Moreover, it seems profoundly significant that the first actual mention of male supremacy in Genesis occurs after the Fall and is presented by God, in no uncertain terms, as a bad result of the Fall. Complementarians either find some dubious way to neutralize this point or mistake God’s description of the bad for its prescription. I recall listening to a podcast featuring complementarian Andreas Kostenberger, who complained that egalitarians focus too much on Genesis at the expense of the Gospels. I do not dismiss the Gospels, but since Genesis is foundational for our understanding of male/female relationships, gender, and sexuality – let’s not let the tail wag the dog! Moreover, select passages from Paul’s epistles have, like Genesis, been subject to a “complementarian treatment” that doesn’t stand up to scholarly scrutiny.

Towards a Better Hermeneutic

Dr. Bryan didn’t just give me a new lens through which to see Scripture; he proved to me that the complementarian lens actually distorts Scriptural truth. In our first meeting together, in just a few seconds, he effortlessly exposed the flimsiness of complementarian exegesis. How had I not seen the obvious? I had a feeling that God couldn’t have created women to be submissive to men – at the risk of sounding cliché, that just didn’t seem right to me in the overall milieu of Scripture – but I was hamstrung by a certain way of seeing these Biblical texts, hobbled by a distorted vision. Dr. Bryan broke open the reality for me. I had no idea the extent of the rabbit hole in which distorted hermeneutics had fostered distorted exegesis, serving to legitimize distorted views of gender relations that purport to honor – but actually dishonor – God.

It was like in the movie The Matrix when Morpheus, Neo’s mentor, explains to him that the world he’s living in is not real; it’s a simulation, a “false reality” called the Matrix. Everything, he explains, even Neo’s perception of his own body, is just a digital projection, a “prison” for his mind that keeps him and everyone else from seeing the real world. Neo had known something wasn’t right, but he had no idea the situation was so bad, he could not have imagined how far the rabbit hole went, and he couldn’t free himself from that false world until his mentor illustrated to him just how fake it was. To that end, Morpheus offers Neo a red pill that will show him the real world – but warns there’s no going back. You can watch this iconic scene from the film, just a two-minute clip, here:



After Neo takes the red pill from Morpheus, he awakes to reality and sees for himself that the world he thought he was living in was a complete sham. In a similar way, I understood the travesty of biblical womanhood after Dr. Bryan gave me another way of seeing Biblical texts.

In the film, Neo’s awakening is quite dramatic, a modern version of Plato’s allegory of the cave. When Neo’s eyes open, he sees that he’s trapped in a liquid-filled chamber. Peering outside of his chamber, he observes thousands of other people unknowingly trapped, asleep in their own chambers, while in their minds they live out a simulation of reality in the Matrix, tricked into thinking they’re free. There are hoses entering Neo’s body that connect him to the chamber and ultimately to a central power node, sucking his energy (and that of others) to feed the creator of the Matrix, which deceives and dominates humanity. Neo struggles to free himself. It’s helpful to watch his “waking up” scene as a dramatized metaphor for how ideologies of male/white supremacy can hold you captive, alter your perspective of reality, “feed the beast,” and form part of a larger ecosystem that is very difficult to escape once you’re hooked in:

When Morpheus and his band rescue Neo, he’s weak and cannot even walk. His muscles have atrophied because he’s never really used them. He enters a period of convalescence, under Morpheus’ careful supervision, that restores his basic functioning. After training with Morpheus, he’s stronger than ever.

My period of study with Dr. Bryan was a time of learning and healing from destructive biases that had tormented me, distorted my vision, and stymied, if not destroyed, my faith. I emerged from the experience spiritually stronger, freer, and more joyful.

When we fail to account for the bias we bring to the Bible, we can obscure what the text is actually saying. We can get trapped in a false reality and unknowingly “feed the beast,” all the while feeling that we are doing God’s will. We all bring our biases to the text, but Dr. Bryan helped me see the Bible on different terms, freed from the yoke of a male supremacist ideology that threatened to misshape my understanding of God, God’s Word, and myself.

What My Dad Taught Me

What we learn in our early years, for better or for worse, can be very formative. Before Bryan, the other significant influence on my thinking was my dad, a recently retired organist/choirmaster who was also an incredible spiritual leader. When I was a little girl, our Episcopal church got caught up in a fundamentalist wave. I knew little about it, but my dad feared that the Sunday School agenda might soon include creationism, i.e., the idea that God literally created the world in seven days, that humans were literally formed from the earth and not through evolution, etc. So he went to our local library, checked out a National Geographic VHS tape on human evolution, and had me watch it with him. He explained that the Bible was true but that people sometimes misunderstand what it means.

The video was mesmerizing. I was amazed at the way God used the natural processes of creation to fulfill his design for human beings. Yet I was sad that other Christians felt like they had to pit the Bible against science. Now, over 30 years later, I lament that Christians pit the Bible against women. This latter deceit is far worse than the former, but my faith is secure. Dad taught me that the Church can be very wrong about what Scripture says on certain topics without being wrong about Jesus or the general authority of Scripture.

I learned both faith and skepticism at a young age. That paradoxical fusion continues to influence my experience in Christian community, where I am a wary sentinel. I’ve been overwhelming blessed by the Church, but I’ve also seen ignorance, misunderstanding, and prejudice lifted up as “holy”. I’m familiar with these devil’s snares, I’ve been hurt by them, so I watch for them. And I’m seeing an assault on women in the Anglican church, carried out under the guise of holiness by Anglican leadership.

Escaping the Prison of Male Supremacy

Given the pervasive problem of mindsets, it’s justifiable to ask: how can I be secure in my own (egalitarian) convictions? The need for self-examination is constant and universal – especially when you hold strong convictions on a controversial subject – but everything is not relative. Some Biblical interpretations are better than others regardless of hermeneutics. Perhaps the biggest red flag indicator to pay attention to is this: are you using God’s Word to justify the exercise of power by one group over another, based on gender, race, or class?  While I’m not immune to being deceived myself, my answer to this question is a resounding no. If your answer is yes, you have much to answer for.

I’ve also seen the Holy Spirit break through the morass of deception on this issue with shocking and convicting clarity, giving people in the church words of power and dreams that warn, guide, and encourage.

I began this post criticizing Anglican clergy and will end it on a more hopeful note, by commending an Anglican priest. Last year, I attended a Zoom meeting on barriers to spiritual discernment led by this priest. During the meeting, a few women started talking about how men sometimes dismissed women’s emotions as sources of truth. I wasn’t surprised by these comments – the “women are too emotional” trope is familiar to me – but the priest said something interesting in response. He spoke one word into the silence that followed: patriarchy. I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t just condemn the behavior; he named the stronghold.

I can almost hear Morpheus saying, “The Patriarchy is everywhere. It is all around us. … A prison for your mind.”

Bring on the red pills.

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