Do Black Women Matter to the Black Church?

Do Black Women Matter to the Black Church?

Award-winning gospel singer James Fortune’s recent conviction for domestic violence points to a larger problem of patriarchy within the black church.

James Fortune performing in Maryland, January 2013 (Aberdeen Proving Ground / Flickr)

Two-time Grammy-Award-nominated gospel singer James Fortune physically assaulted a member of his family again. Yes, again.

First it was his son. This time it was his wife.

On Tuesday, March 8, 2015, Fortune plead guilty to a third-degree felony charge of assault on a family member. He was sentenced to five days in jail and five years probation. He is also required to complete 175 hours of community service and a batterer’s intervention program. And, according to the court order, he must stay away from his wife. The previous incident of assault happened in 2002 when Fortune allegedly doused his four-year-old stepson with scalding water for misbehaving at school, leaving him with burns over 40 percent of his body. Fortune called it a form of discipline.

Fortune’s high-profile case offers a glimpse into a much larger problem: many black churches support a social, political, and economic structure that values masculinity over femininity and presupposes men as the prima facie heads of households. Put bluntly, many black churches are patriarchal.

Let’s look at a few recent examples of how patriarchy has reared its ugly head in black American Christianity.

In 2007 Prophetess Juanita Bynum said former husband Bishop Thomas W. Weeks III physically assaulted her in the parking lot of an Atlanta hotel. A police officer responding to the incident said of Bynum: “She was bruised up and battered. She had purple bruising around her neck and upper torso.” Prominent voices in black churches responded to the incident by painting Prophetess Bynum’s subsequent behavior as disingenuous. They suggested that she was trying to capitalize on the incident—characterizing an abused woman’s response to physical assault as an opportunity for financial gain. This ugly reaction shows how, even when a woman opens up about being physically assaulted, many in the world of black Christendom will view their stories with skepticism and condescension.

Yet that is not the only way patriarchy shows itself in black churches. In 2008, current Real Housewives of Potomac star Gizelle Bryant filed for divorce from Baltimore megachurch pastor and community activist Jamal Bryant, citing infidelity and abuse. Bryant later preached a homophobic, misogynistic sermon wherein he said that too many men in the church were “sanctified sissies” before proclaiming, “These hoes ain’t loyal.” This was received with thunderous applause.

Many powerful men in the world of black American Christianity are accused of predatory sexual behavior, but few are held accountable. Too often the destructive sexual exploits of powerful black men are overlooked and explained away while black women, if they want to remain members in these churches, are forced to endure an environment that normalizes sexual harassment by way of inappropriate touching, wandering eyes, and treatment like second-class citizens.

There are pulpits in black churches, some of them evangelical and in the South, where black women cannot preach. There are too many churches that refuse to ordain a black woman for ministry. Black women are the backbone of black churches, but they have historically been excluded from positions of leadership over men. Their job was to serve men—and not much has changed.

Too many black pastors decry racism and economic injustice while supporting ecclesiastical policies grounded in patriarchy. And it’s no justification when clergy and laity use the Bible to support patriarchal positions. The text has been used to defend all kinds of evils, including white supremacy, from the days of slavery to the present. (Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, himself described slavery as “established by decree of Almighty God” and “sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments. . . .”)

Moreover, a careful reading of the Bible runs against the kind of patriarchy preached or tacitly endorsed in many black churches. Paul uses masculine language in 1 Timothy 3:1–2 when he says “if a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work” and “a bishop then must be . . . the husband of one wife” (New King James Version). These passages appear to endorse marginalizing women in the church, but that is a misreading of the text. Paul is expressing his personal preference in this pericope, a preference shaped by the viciously patriarchal culture of his time. Furthermore, many scholars argue that Paul was addressing an issue specific to the congregation that received the letter. In any case, we misread the text if we infer that all women are precluded from working in ministry.

This culture of patriarchy in many black churches puts women and children in a compromised position. It relegates women to praying grandmothers, ushers, and secretaries—roles that are critical to maintaining the culture of the church, but considered marginal in its operation. This culture meanwhile confines children to roles of entertainment, good for Easter speeches and children’s chorale selections on youth Sundays, but worthy of neither respect nor, often times, civility. What’s more, the youth who consistently see women in positions of powerlessness and children in positions of vulnerability will likely either maintain these traditions of patriarchy or eventually leave the church all together upon entering adulthood.

We must examine the various roles people play in ecclesiastical bodies and take seriously the importance of each.  We must treat women as equal partners with equal opportunities, and we must create environments that don’t permit masculinity to destroy the safety of places and people upon which we rely in times of danger. Until then, cases like those of James Fortune and Juanita Bynam will continue, and black churches will exist at the mercy of their own patriarchy.

Lawrence Ware is an Oklahoma State University Division of Institutional Diversity Fellow. He teaches in OSU’s philosophy department and is the Diversity Coordinator for its Ethics Center. An advisor to Democratic Left and contributing editor at RS: The Religious Left, he has also been a commentator on race and politics for the Huffington Post Live, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and PRI’s Flashpoint. He is an ordained minister in the Progressive Baptist Convention. Find him on Twitter @law_ware.

Lauren Whiteman is an Assistant Director of Student Life and Coordinator for African American Student Programs and Services at the University of Oklahoma. She serves as the advisor for African American Student Life, the Black Student Association, the National Pan-Hellenic Council, and OU Unheard. Lauren’s work focuses on the miseducation of Black and African American students in higher education, advocacy, and student development.