Transforming African Cultural Gender Relations through Christ

Theology, it is said, arises out of the lived and shared experiences of people within their cultures. Generally speaking, in Africa south of the Sahara, the communal way of life and connectedness among clans, families and communities ensure that gender relations are not just between an individual man relating to an individual woman; gender relations transcend marital, communal and church affiliations and bonds. However, the manifestations of patriarchy in Africa and its attendant powerlessness, poverty, exclusion, exploitation and oppression of all kinds make it imperative that the African church and African Christian theologians work together to let Christ emerge in all the cultural manifestations and permutations of gender relations on the continent – at home, in church and society.

The heartlands of Christianity have shifted from Europe and North America to Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific. Andrew Walls has described this as a “massive demographic and cultural shift” (“Christian Scholarship in Africa in the Twenty-first Century,” Journal of African Christian Thought [December 2001]). Mercy Oduyoye, an African woman theologian, writes, “if the axis of Christianity has shifted south and especially to Africa, then in the next decades what happens to African Christian theology, culture and lifestyle will become the face of global Christianity” (“Claiming Our Heritage: Africa in World Christianity,” Journal of African Christian Thought [December 2009]).

While not fundamental to salvation from sin and death, gender relations are fundamental to human interaction in every sphere of life.

Men and women interacting with one another is core to the survival and sustenance of humanity. Theological thinking and resulting practice on the issue of gender relations cannot be overemphasized – it is important to discern the mind of Christ even in humankind’s fallen state, because Christ comes to redeem and to restore. Thus while not fundamental to salvation from sin and death, gender relations are fundamental to human interaction in every sphere of life. In doing theology on gender relations, therefore, it is not good enough to hold on to the perspectives of North American and European Christians alone, no matter how erudite; Christians need each other’s perspectives to clarify what the Bible actually says on women and men interacting with one another within and across cultures and to discern what God is saying and doing in the lives of women and men:

In building the new community of God’s people that forms the new temple of Christ’s body, the different converted lifestyles are equally necessary, as Paul teaches in his letter to the Ephesians. … None on their own can reach the fullness of Christ; all are needed in order to attain it (Andrew Walls, “Scholarship, Mission and Globalisation: Some Reflections on the Christian Scholarly Vocation in Africa,” Journal of African Christian Theology [December 2006])

Modern African theological scholarship emanated from an era when African Christians and scholars saw the need to respond to what they recognized and named, in the words of Kwame Bediako in Theology and Identity (Authentic, 1969), as “European value setting for the [Christian] faith.” No matter how benign the motives of Western missionaries in Africa, how they conceptualized Africa resulted in approaches that led to Europeanized manifestations of the faith on the African continent. In addition to spreading the gospel, they made every attempt to Westernize, Europeanize and “civilize” African peoples, as indicators of acceptance or otherwise of Christianity, leaving in their wake African Christians who were for a long time not sure, Bediako says, whether they were Africans, Christians or both. Issues of cultural identity at conversion and Christian living became (and still are) important for determining theological responses from African Christians attempting to live out authentic Christian lives without abandoning their cultural past and identities.

A EURO-AMERICAN AGENDA?

While the Western evangelical debate on gender relations may not arouse the same suspicions about its motives and defining features that the Western missionary movement attracted regarding Christianization, some aspects of the gender debate will have resonance for evangelical Africans who care to study carefully what is being said, particularly by the Western evangelicals who claim the egalitarian and hierarchicalist/complementarian viewpoints. However, just as the Western missionaries carried their Europeanizing tendencies into Africa without much thought of what deep ramifications this would have on Africa, so it may be that parts of the rationale given for why one holds a certain position on biblical gender equality need close examination against the backdrop of gospel-culture engagement, to ensure that this is not another phase of a Euro-American agenda-setting, albeit inadvertent, of issues that deeply concern Christians of all cultures, living everywhere.

There is a dawning realization of the limitations of theology as generally taught in the West. … Western models of theology are too small for Africa, since they arise out of the small-scaled, pared-down view of the universe that was characteristic of the European Enlightenment, with its insistence on the autonomy of the individual self and its sharp distinctions between the empirical world and the world of spirit. (Walls, “Scholarship, Mission and Globalisation”)

Of course, it is a legitimate exercise to analyze any issue of importance from one’s understanding, culture and context, but it is equally important that the centrality and the universality of the Bible and the Christian faith and its applicability to all human cultures is not undermined by setting the premise for understanding the Word and the faith on prevailing Euro-American cultural values. For example, domesticity and domestic roles have been dynamically different in their manifestations in various African cultures as compared to what pertained in 19th-century America and Europe and even what pertains currently on the African continent. Who then decides which culture’s values of motherhood and homemaking should be used to define how Christian women and men run their families in a way that is biblical? Africa, Asia and the rest of the non-Western world, where the center of gravity of Christianity has shifted, do not live in egalitarian cultures, yet the same Bible is read together with European and American Christians, and everywhere Christians wrestle with what some specific texts mean and their applicability in their peculiar circumstances or contexts. This calls for cross-cultural learning and sharing, humility and a willingness to listen to one another. Exegetical and hermeneutical scholars have brought understanding that God’s Word contains timeless, transcultural principles as well as principles and practices that are meant for specific contexts or periods, from which all God’s children can learn. What all Christians should avoid, it is humbly suggested, is the tendency to set the agenda of the faith from the lenses of our particular cultures. Because God does not “leave Himself without a witness” in any culture, all Christians can learn and share across cultures how he has revealed himself in the workings and manifestations of such and how the Gospel, Jesus Christ, comes to fulfill, redeem and transform our nature and cultures. In this way, Christ is the one who sets the agenda for the Christian faith, not our cultures or particular worldviews.

Walls’ classic statement in the chapter titled “The Ephesian Moment” in The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Orbis Books, 2002) is highly instructive in the attitude to be taken with respect to this issue:

There are two dangers. One lies in the instinctive desire to protect our own version of the Christian faith, or even to seek to establish it as the standard, normative one. The other, and perhaps the more seductive in the present condition of Western Christianity, is the postmodern option: to decide that each of the expressions and versions is equally valid and authentic, and that we are therefore each at liberty to enjoy our own in isolation from all the others.

Walls offers a solution to the present conundrum affecting the worldwide church, which in application affects both the issue of the problematic relationships between women and men and the current debate between hierarchicalists and egalitarians in the Church. He postulates,

Neither of these approaches is the Ephesian way. The Ephesian metaphors of the temple and of the body show each of the culture-specific segments as necessary to the body but as incomplete in itself. Only in Christ does completion, fullness, dwell. … None of us can reach Christ’s completeness on our own. We need each other’s vision to correct, enlarge, and focus on our own; only together are we complete in Christ.

Thus, as an African Christian, I ought to be actively conscious about the wisdom in what is being said above in order not to make normative the African culture and African Christianity’s manifestations as the only legitimate considerations for examining gender issues. The “African way” is also corrupted, or at least tainted by subtle human biases. So are the viewpoints from the Western world, no matter how genuine the attempts to communicate them. It is only Christ who can transform all our ways, and there are things in every culture that point to Christ and those that point away from Christ.

DIFFERING MANIFESTATIONS

Although Africa is predominantly patriarchal, the “housewife/homemaker” concept is a strange one in most African societies. Indeed, as Mercy Amba Oduyoye points out, it was almost completely unknown until the Western world came into contact with African people (Daughters of Anowa: African Women and Patriarchy [Orbis Books, 1995]). Western history also teaches that until the 19th century, today’s notion of the ideal family, in which fathers went out to work and mothers stayed at home to bear and raise children and do domestic chores, barely existed in Europe. Both women and men worked at home, and economic work was family-based, with all members of the family participating, until the Industrial Revolution dawned, taking men away into the so-called public sphere of work. Now both middle-class Europeans and North Americans as well as middle-class, educated Africans, especially Christians, somehow believe that the public-private dichotomized spheres of men and women’s lives – the former belonging to the public world of work, the latter to the private, domestic sphere of homemaking – is a natural, God-created order. By this standard, the biblical picture of an ideal family is handed to African Christian men and women; but for women in particular who know what it means to depend on a one-income family in African economies and the resultant deprivation and even violence, there is the need to go back to history to separate societal formulations of family based on political and socioeconomic factors from what may be depicted as the ideal family. Biblically, according to Genesis and re-echoed by Jesus, marriage is meant to be a monogamous, lifelong union between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5), but in their social arrangements for living out this covenant relationship, what does God deem ideal? Is there a specific prescription in the Bible?

African Christian and theological thought on gender relations, as well as theology and Christian thought from all parts of the world, needs to seriously consider the gospel-and-culture interaction and engagement factors in gender relations.

African women’s experience regarding equality with men is not homogenous; gender intersects with economic status, ethnicity, the urban/rural divide, migration, age, lineage affiliations and education, among other considerations. The one common experience, however, is that women and men are not considered as de facto equals in almost all African societies, although there is fluidity in perceptions depending on factors such as a woman’s economic means, level of education or the degree of acceptance of policies a particular country chooses to adopt to uplift the status of women. The expectations of spheres in roles and functions of husbands and wives as found in the West by adherents of traditionalism, for example, is fluid for many African women and men in traditional forms of marriages, even though influenced by the West and modernity. For example, motherhood is supreme among the Asante of Ghana, as is the case for the majority of African cultures, but unlike Western women, “[A] good self-sacrificing Asante mother does not stay home with her children, but goes out working hard for them,” writes Gracia Clark, who found in her research that Asantes (Christian or otherwise) consider matrilineal bonds of family stronger than marital bonds (“Mothering, Work, and Gender in Urban Asante Ideology and Practice,” American Anthropologist [December 1999]). Clark found that “such maternal work has a positive moral imperative as gender conformity and so does not threaten dominant male positioning. … Biological motherhood remains a key responsibility, but one that logically or naturally mandates income-generating work rather than personal responsibility for childcare.” While the Western traditional Christian woman places child care as a key role of a wife, the Asante woman has many options and cares for her children from within her kith and kin, because in Africa many children still have recourse to being raised by the village and not just their mothers.

The question becomes how we are truly Christ’s disciples and growing to become more like him, and this is not a one-time event – conversion is a process.

Among educated, urban, middle-class married people in Ghana, to cite another example, different models of gender interactions happen in the home – a varied mix of African customary and Western gender expectations.
Gender equality in Africa, therefore, at the base level of interaction – the African family – is in a state of flux. It ebbs and flows, intersecting with many other realities of African women’s lives and daily experiences as they interact with their male counterparts. However, African women still contend with harmful cultural norms and practices that undermine their dignity – being assigned the gatekeeping role of ensuring patriarchal continuity, being largely excluded from spaces of decision-making, having to confront legal pluralism’s negative effects and having to deal with the largest portion of the continent’s burdens of poverty and disease. Within this wider context, Christian women and men have to learn and practice what the gospel demands of them, especially in relating with each other. For what is required, the Bible asks, but to “do justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8)?

AFRICAN CHRISTIANS AND GENDER

Since the 1980s, African Christian women have shared their experiences of marginalization or inclusion in leadership and decision-making in the African church in several settings. Experiences have differed from denomination to denomination on matters of ordination, from the extremes of total exclusion to full inclusion, but inclusion in ordination also might mean ordained women not being given positions or spheres of much influence in comparison to men.

Change is brewing, however. In 1989, for example, Isabel Phiri recorded a significant change in African Christian women’s self-understanding of their position in the Malawian Presbyterian Church:

A wind of self-awareness is blowing among Christian women in Africa. African women are becoming conscious that they have been on the periphery of church and society for too long. They have accepted their sufferings in church and society as from God. They have come to the realization that sexism in the church and society is a sin. This has made them break their silence and speak out in protest. They have also realized that their strength is in the mobilization of ecumenical sisterhood organizations. … They are beginning to re-read the Bible and discover that what society and the church is today is not what is intended by the gospel. (Women, Presbyterianism and Patriarchy: Religious Experience of Chewa Women in Central Malawi [CLAIM, 1997]).

Curiously, though, it appears the women-in-church-leadership issue – as thorny as it continues to be with some denominations – is increasingly becoming moot in the current African dispensation. It is noteworthy that by practice generally, sub-Saharan African churches of independent evangelical persuasion seem to be applying Paul’s injunctions in an intriguing manner. In brief, African women, some ordained, others not, are out there in numbers, heading and running their own churches, preaching, teaching, praying, prophesying and working with the vulnerable in various urban and rural ministries. However, despite this phenomenon, both women and men (pastors or not) generally preach and teach the position that women are to be in submission to their husbands at home. Are modern African Christians conflicted about the injunctions Paul wrote? Or is it a manifestation of the reality of the African primal religious experience that gives wide space for women’s leadership and participation in worship but still maintains a modicum of male hegemony in the family and other social spaces?

CHRIST AS TRANSFORMER, CONVERTER

Christians understand that humankind’s problems originate with sin. The existence and operations of patriarchy is one such manifestation of the problem of sin and rebellion against God. In Africa, patriarchy reaches into all facets of society, particularly in issues of the existence of gender-based violence of all forms (physical, psychological, sexual, economic and social), human trafficking, child sexual exploitation, feminized poverty, conflict and ethnic wars in which women are seen as objects and commodities, exclusion from decision-making, harmful and discriminatory traditional practices, rife corruption in public spaces depriving the poor of just economic benefits (the majority of the poor being women), poor access to institutions of justice and other such issues. Going well beyond church and home and beyond the relationship between an individual man and woman, these issues confront the African – man, woman, child – on a daily basis in the crucibles of life whence individuals, families and communities have to make decisions and find resolution or alternatives that give meaning to life.

Our fallen human cultures depict the hopelessness of the human condition and at the same time offer the opportunity for God to demonstrate his grace and processes for redemption. Whether in working to abolish slavery, improve working conditions or stop human trafficking, Christ is the One who transforms (or converts) culture. Christ does not go outside of our cultures to do his transformational work – he takes people where he finds them.
In the engagement between gospel and culture, therefore, the conversion process requires deep reflection about what in our cultural past and present must pass through the prism of the gospel, in order for the light and shade of a particular value, belief, norm or practice to be discerned and applied. African theologian Kwame Bediako states:
Within every religion, there are indicators which point towards Christ, and there are indicators which point away from Christ. However, our concern is not so much with those indicators themselves, as with the human responses that are made to those indicators. (Jesus in Africa: The Christian Gospel in African History and Experience [Regnum Africa, 2000])

Thus African Christian and theological thought on gender relations, as well as theology and Christian thought from all parts of the world, needs to seriously consider the gospel-and-culture interaction and engagement factors in gender relations. This is recognizing that people will respond to issues from where they are culturally located, where theology is based on their living and shared experiences, rather than on theoretical postulations that are most unlikely to be resolved until Christ comes.

The simplest question learned in children’s Bible classes may be applicable here: “What would Jesus do?” For the Christian who lives in a largely patriarchal world and seeks to let Christ emerge in gender relations at home, church and society, the question is, how would the Gospel, Jesus, interact with that peculiar situation arising out of that peculiar cultural milieu? How can the Christian demonstrate the character of Christlikeness in that situation? The same would apply to a Christian living in a largely egalitarian culture or one caught in the transition from traditionalism to modernism. No doubt the oppressed would see and behave differently from the oppressor, and this is what calls for intervention from the church and deep reflection on what patriarchy is and how it manifests in our various cultures – African or otherwise. The church – asking itself again, “What would Christ do?” – has to gird its loins and get into the trenches to tackle cultural patriarchy in whichever way it “points away from Christ.” The church did so with the issues of slavery and racial discrimination among others.

WHY NOT PATRIARCHY?

It is thus no longer a question merely of whether we are Africans or Americans, women or men, patriarchal or egalitarian. The question becomes how we are truly Christ’s disciples and growing to become more like him, and this is not a one-time event – conversion is a process.

The Bible says that as followers of Christ, we are in this world but not of it. As Andrew Walls explains, we live both the pilgrim principle and the incarnation principle as children of God through Christ (The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith [Orbis Books, 2009]). The gospel becomes a lived experience in our hearts from the moment of personal awakening and belief in the salvation of Jesus Christ and continues through the process of conversion and in the walk of faith. Walls helps us understand the nature of conversion. It involves “the turning towards Christ of everything that is there already. So that Christ comes into the places, thoughts, relationships and world-views in which He has never lived before” (quoted in Bediako, Jesus in Africa).

The same can be said of all our cultures and the need for their conversion: that the elements of our cultural identity and whatever else we define ourselves by – such as egalitarianism or complementarianism – are all brought under the ambit of Christ’s discipleship. If Jesus is the One who alone transforms us and our cultural identities, then there is no place for cultural or gender or ethnic pride. Christ is Lord over all (Gal. 3:28).

As there are fundamental beliefs for followers of Christ that are shared and non-negotiable, so are there biblically sanctioned attitudes – transcultural and timeless – without respect to gender. These are embedded in the fruit of the Spirit of Jesus – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control (Gal. 5:22). The principle of incarnation leads to an authentic seeking by the Christian to let Christ emerge, or be incarnated, wherever one is. Christ is seen, handled and touched by the everyday attitudes and choices made by the Christian engaging with others.

THE GOSPEL’S TRANSLATABILITY

If the gospel is able to find a home in any culture because, as Walls asserts, it is infinitely translatable (Missionary Movement), then the church in its views and practices must be first transformed by the gospel as it seeks to engage with the larger culture as a witness to Christ. Then, like Christ, the church must take the radical, countercultural approach to demonstrate the mind of Christ in helping to shape the new man and the new woman in Christ who no longer live like they used to, with the old nature of domination and inflated egos on the part of men or of timidity and manipulative tendencies on the part of women. In church practice, every effort would be made to demonstrate the inclusivity Jesus demonstrated regarding the full humanity of both women and men. An egalitarian-minded church might be seen as demonstrating this inclusiveness, as women are likely to participate in all levels of ministry and activity without restriction according to spiritual gifting. In a hierarchically minded church, men in leadership would demonstrate the sensitivity of Jesus in the attention they pay to both men and women, in the gentleness with which hurting women are handled, in a constant affirmation of women’s worth and dignity – be they single, married, young or aged – and in the active attempt to nurture and include women in every activity and ministry of the church apart from teaching men in adult congregations. Biblically advanced reasons for excluding women from pastoral office or from teaching adult men would be sensitively explained to the congregation, outlining also the alternative interpretations. As Christians we must trust that Christ, the Gospel, will take women and men where he finds them and speak to them according to the categories of their cultural understanding. Invariably, the spirit and fruit of peace will characterize the inner attitude and outward demeanor of those who are being transformed by the Gospel, no matter their culture or circumstance.

This African Christian perspective on gender relations in the home, church and community is a contribution to the debate for the transformation of gender relations and promotion of gender reconciliation in the universal Christian community. It is hoped that fresh insights and understanding will continue to emerge to help women and men of God live out authentic Christian lives in continuing Christian witness to a faith that finds a home in all receptive hearts and cultures.

Angela Dwamena-Aboagye is executive director of the Ark Foundation, Ghana.

Photo: Family in a Ta Kuti village, World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr; used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.