Sexism in the Black Church

When I was little, my favorite church services were when women took charge. This happened only a few times a year, on the fifth Sunday of a month. But it always meant that the spirit was high and the music was good.

On one of those special Sundays, when I was 9, I first noticed something odd: The guest minister sat in regular pew seats, not in the seats at the front of the church reserved for the clergy. And she delivered the sermon from the lectern, a little wooden stand set apart from the congregation, not at the pastor’s sacred pulpit — the place whence God spoke.

As I sat in the pews next to my mother, I looked at this minister with suspicion. Was she really delivering the word of God?

I had some concerns so I took them to my pastor. I was a budding philosopher, given to inquiries about lots of random things, and he was usually patient with me. His curt response to my wondering why the guest minister was treated differently caught me off guard.

“She is a woman,” he said with a shrug.

Baffled, I asked another minister why women were not allowed to preach from the pulpit or sit in the seats for the clergy. He directed me to 1 Timothy 3:2. This verse says that a bishop, a pastor in charge of a congregation, needed to be “the husband of one wife.”

He said that “ministry was a job for men.” When women spoke, we should listen. But their words did not carry the same ontological weight as a man’s.

Even as a 9-year-old, I was disturbed by this. I couldn’t understand why a person’s gender precluded her worthiness to speak on behalf of God. Then I began to notice other ways that women were treated as inferior to men in our church.

If a young, unmarried woman got pregnant, the congregation would whisper about her until the child was born. When these young mothers returned after giving birth, many knelt at what was called a “mourner’s bench” after the sermon, to publicly apologize for indulging in sexual sins. To this day, I’ve never seen a man do the same.

I once saw a woman get asked to leave a worship service because she wore a skirt that someone judged to be too short. I’ve heard men make comments about how young women needed to dress differently because of how their bodies were developing.

And then there were the church hugs that lingered too long — like the one the singer Ariana Grande was forced to endure from Bishop Charles H. Ellis III at Aretha Franklin’s funeral in Detroit in August of 2018.

Although I was raised by a single mother and often talked to her about obstacles women faced, that Sunday service in the 1990s opened my eyes to what had been in front of me all along: Black churches are often oppressive spaces for Black women.

Of course, Black women have always known this. Delores S. Williams told us this 25 years ago when she wrote about how the Bible and theology are used to marginalize Black women in her foundational text, “Sisters in the Wilderness.”

From the pulpit, Neichelle Guidry, dean of the chapel at Spelman College, brilliantly proclaims the truth about how ecclesiastical spaces are often full of “misogynoir,” a term coined and developed by the scholar Moya Bailey and the critic Trudy to discuss the way race and gender play a role in the misogyny experienced by black women.

Yet, even with Black women leading the charge against this evil, the reality of patriarchy means many people in the Black church will not take these moral failures seriously unless they are voiced by a man who has been ordained. This is wrong and unfair. But I have been ordained, so I’m speaking up.

In my classes, speeches and sermons, I tell white people that if they fail to speak up when confronted with anti-Blackness, they are giving space to hate. I say this because I believe that white supremacy is a problem that white people must address. Yes, Black people are often forced to call out racism, but we are not responsible for it or empowered to end it. People with privilege must do that.

The same is true of patriarchy and misogynoir in the Black church. It would be morally inconsistent for me to demand that white people confront their privilege while I let Black men off the hook.

For too many of my friends, even Black men who identify as Christian, their awakening to the injustices women have long faced are linked to selfish concerns: namely, they must first have a daughter to hear what Black women have been telling us all along. If that is what’s required for change, then too many men will continue to live in a way that does harm to women.

It should not take having a daughter to stop seeing the female body primarily as an object of desire, and it should not take having a sister to fight against patriarchy and misogynoir. This is true no matter what a person believes, but it should definitely be true of those who call themselves Christians.

Not long ago, I was invited by a church to preach. I accepted the invitation without hesitation since I knew the pastor. Yet, when I told a sister in the ministry about it, she wished me well, but I sensed reservation in her voice.

“What’s up?” I asked. “Is there something I need to know about the church?”

She smiled. “I couldn’t preach there because I’m a woman.”

That day, I told the church I wouldn’t preach after all. And I decided that I would not sit in a pulpit, preach to a congregation or invite a speaker if that person or church does not see women as equals. After all, I would not want a white minister to tolerate a racist pastor, so I felt compelled to make that moral choice.

The Black church would not exist without Black women. However, for far too long, Black men have forced them to be second-class citizens. It is time for Black churches to do better. Not because it is popular right now, but because it is right.

Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University. He is also the Associate Director of the University’s Center for Africana Studies. He can be reached at: