“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10
In the Western tradition I come from, we often separate the physical from spiritual realms and individualize our faith practices. Oppression, then, is viewed as having physical causes. And spiritual attacks are seen as events that happen to individuals, not groups.
But I believe that the thief of abundant life in John 10 is more strategic than that.
In corporate jargon, you might say the enemy attacks the Kingdom “at scale”. He targets mindsets, behaviors, and conditions that sabotage entire groups of people. After all, stifling human potential is a way to strike against the glory of God.
This is why I see the issue of gender equality not only in physical, but also in spiritual terms.
When I say gender equality, I am talking about the biblical truth that men and women are created equally in the image of God, reflecting his nature and characteristics, with equal invitation to walk in relationship with God and join his redemptive work in this world.
In the Kingdom of God, God’s image is reflected equally in women and men. But what better way to do high-volume damage than distort the truth about those who bear God’s image?
It is actually a pretty ingenious tactic to play up male prominence and importance and downplay female significance and influence. Through politics, culture, and at times even the Church, the enemy has used a strategy for centuries to dull women’s brilliant reflection of God: he has stifled God-given dreams and destroyed flourishing. How? He has done this by erecting and fortifying barriers against girls and women – half of all humankind.
My Own Battle
I have felt this even in my own life of middle-class privilege.
I grew up in a conservative Christian environment where few women in our circle worked, much less led, outside the home. Early messages I interpreted from my faith community reinforced a singular calling for women and a range of divinely appointed vocations for men. When I started out as a young professional, I was confused. I wondered if it was worldly and wrong for me to live out my leadership gift instead of marrying and staying home.
I also wrongly believed that I couldn’t possibly lead and be a mother at the same time, which meant we were married for years before I was ready to have children. This was until I internalized the idea that God never limited women to being wives and mothers alone. He also never made ministry binary, only in the home or only outside it.
Over the years, I struggled to live calling in the workplace: People mistook me for administrative support again. As a young leader before becoming a mom, a male colleague told me I needed to go have children. I was excluded from male networking circles. Critiqued and gossiped about by women. Subject to managed opportunity. And more than once, I had to directly ask for equitable treatment.
Impact of the Attack
My experiences are micro-examples of the subtle but successful distractions that affect women’s ability to flourish in their God-given purposes. They stung and interrupted my focus for a time. Now, they help fuel a much larger motivation to build communities where all women and girls can flourish.
Every day, hundreds of millions of women around the world face far more overt and crippling challenges than the ones I faced: Extreme poverty, discrimination, abuse, and exploitation present obstacles to basic survival and make flourishing impossible. We know that:
- Women own less than 20% of the world’s land yet produce the majority of the world’s food, and are the most impacted by climate change.
- 60% of people experiencing chronic hunger are women and girls.
- 1 in 3 women worldwide will experience violence in their lifetime.
Subtly or overtly, the enemy sows confusion, self-doubt, and obstacles to disrupt the worth and work of all the Kingdom’s potential citizens.
Fortunately, the scripture doesn’t stop at the story of the thief’s attack. That second part of John 10:10 reminds us that Jesus came to bring abundant and full life. He came to make all things right again, for everyone.
God through Jesus has extended an invitation we can choose to accept and in turn, extend to others. The systems that perpetuate poverty and injustice, that cloud the image of God in people, can continue or change with us.
So where do we start?
Know the truth and be set free. The truth here is that women are equally made in the image of God, created for healthy partnership with men. In Jesus, there is no distinction of worth between male and female. We are equally part of the body of Christ, with good works prepared in advance for each to do. Additionally, God’s story of redemption is written with women as essential protagonists. This is true for Jesus’ birth, at the revelation of his ministry, in illustrations to teach his ways, to announce who he was to others, and even to discover and proclaim his resurrection. God used women to intimately embody and declare the good news.
- Recognize the tactics. The challenges women face in the US and globally – whether at home, in society or in ministry – are not only material. They are spiritual in nature. Therefore to overcome them, we must speak truth and pray for breakthrough. We’re not wrestling with things of this world.
- Advance with grace and humility. Nothing is gained by militancy. Such behavior does not reflect God’s image and nature. Whether you’re a woman ready to advocate for gender equality or a man advocating for women, the way forward isn’t condemnation. Rather, the path becomes clearer by shining the light of truth and spurring others to love and good deeds.
- Do the hard work. As many are doing now on the topic of race, parts of the Church still haven’t done the work on gender equality. That only compounds the issue of racial equality if half of that community is doubly disadvantaged. (Incidentally, fully embracing the same biblical truth reconciles gender and race issues!) Faith communities should prayerfully consider scripture, repent, confess and partner in seeking change.
- Persevere in challenging systems. Standing for truth isn’t only when it is convenient and accepted by the faith masses. The work can’t stop at merely knowing the good that must be done. Followers of Jesus are called to declare truth in word and deed as Jesus did. Systems can be challenged and over time changed by new examples, teaching, advocating, and committing prayer, talent and other resources.
- Invest wisely in change. Economic poverty and pervasive injustice have a spiritual root cause. To reduce poverty or injustice to only economic or social factors is to divide realms that can’t be separated. As well, for change to be sustainable, it must engage belief systems. Invest in work that recognizes, tackles and supports root cause – spiritual – change as well as physical.
Join God, Join Together
The pursuit of all forms of biblical justice, including gender equality, is holy work. Calling forth and making way for the image of God to be fully reflected in others is sacred. It is to stand with God, believe his truth from creation, accept his invitation for redemption, and be used by his Spirit to reconcile all things. It is to join in a God-sized discipleship adventure!
We exist to partner with you and other members of the Church to do just that – to accompany discipleship journeys that lead to human flourishing.
May we join you? Will you join us?
Emily Sarmiento is the CEO of Tearfund USA.
Tearfund USA partners with churches and communities to help women experience healing after trauma, partner with men to end violence against women, and access economic opportunities and lift their families out of poverty for good. Join us today.