Navigating through a sexist religious environment


I am a female born to Pentecostal parents. We were a big family and against the odds, my parents raised me in a quite gender-neutral way: We did not have strict gender roles. My parents had problems showing vulnerable emotions, like excitement or sadness, and I often felt shamed for those feelings. Because of all that, it was a culture shock when I grew up and started to go to school and get to know people. The way other girls behaved was odd to me. I was not used to perform femininity, and not only that, but I had also been taught toxic masculinity. From my early childhood I experienced the pressure to convert others to Christianity – Who else would, if I wouldn’t? So, I preached to my classmates and became even more socially excluded. Things got even more confusing in the church environment, where gender roles are often a huge issue.

As a pre-teen, the growing pressure from society itself to turn into a stereotypical teenage woman who is focused on her appearance and guys, added to the pressure from the church to be a pure virgin who listens to authorities and is eagerly waiting to submit to her future husband, caused me to despise femininity altogether. Many Bible verses and the teachings about them hurt me deeply: how I, as a woman, was always just a supporting character in every story, even in my own life. Majority of the stories in the Bible had male characters in center of them and the female ones were shortly passing. I was being taught that the man was the head of the household, and the woman was… well they never said what the woman was as it didn’t matter. Main thing was that a wife should submit, be a weaker link, be a weaker vessel and so on. Just weaker anything in comparison to the man. Independently, without comparison, there did not exist a role for a woman.

Another issue for me was that the Pentecostal church teaches that the Bible is the highest authority, God’s word, and God is same yesterday and today. Which then would mean the God who gave commands in the Old Testament would be the same God I was worshipping, even though the rules would have changed after Jesus – and I did not understand why God would rule women to be second class citizens in any circumstances. It was taught that if you just pray with open mind for God to guide you in reading the Bible, you would be guided by the Holy Spirit to understand what the verses mean, but the understanding I gained was not enough for me.

Everyone around me acted like there was a supernatural dimension to life. Everyone was experiencing the Holy Spirit -highs, and when I didn’t, I was treated like I was not a mature Christian in the same way as others. When someone had plenty of supernatural experiences such as getting visions from God, they were treated as mature Christians. I saw many women using this as a tool to gain authority and power in the community, since the normal positions of leaderships were open to them only in theory. The prophets used to go from person to person in small groups and tell them what God wants to say to them, and if they had nothing to say to me, it felt like God would have ignored me.

The standard was to give 110 percentage to God and to somehow live in His guidance continuously. Everything was always up to me: if I did not lead the life of a super-Christian, filled with miracles and people converting to Christianity, it was because I did not seek God enough and I was not mature enough in Christ. Even though it was often emphasized in preaching that lack of feelings did not equate lack of faith, in practice the people who had the most amazing supernatural experiences and who were the most charismatic were given active positions in the church. Eventually, I decided that the lack of these spiritual experiences did not make me a second class-Christian and it was not good enough reason to see a person as a listener instead of a teacher. The decision did not remove the fact that I was left feeling like an outsider when everyone else around me had communal experiences of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

I joined a small devotional group within the Pentecostal church where we were studying the Bible, singing and praying. Although it helped me to develop social skills, I got plenty of negative experiences through the social circles from there. The attitude of the people there was that sooner or later I would humble myself in front of the fact that I am (just) a woman: destined to be slave to one’s emotions and unable to be logical, and after that I would be in peace with myself. It was not said aloud, but it was rather sneers and condescending smiles, when I was voicing opinions or not following the advice I got from men of higher authority, thus being stubborn and not in peace with
my femininity.

My private issues were being brought up in conversations with the community group leaders without my consent or initiative, in the name of being a disciple of the authorities of the community group. I did not consent to the status of being a disciple either, since I did not see myself as having any less knowledge in religious matters than those who led the group nor in need of their guidance since they were not something I aimed to be. Grown men were asking me about who I dated, telling me vague reasons why I should not date who I dated, and asking questions about my sexual life – if I had had sex, when, and with who. I got told the typical things: My shorts are too revealing; a
woman is like a diamond that should be covered. I was asked to bring cake for a man “because you are a woman and women should serve men” and I heard teaching on how women should always
“give” sex to their husband whenever the man wants it. Some of these incidents happened inside the community group and some of them in the same circles but outside of the services.

The pressure between my conscience and the Pentecostal perspective on gender roles grew too large. I left my city to study and at the same time I left the Pentecostal church and joined the
Lutheran one. I started to publicly express my feminist stand, which is simply that one’s sex should not determine one’s role in life. I am still tangled in religious circles which often includes misogynist and conservative people but at least I have learned three important things: First, our conscience is the final thing we have as our moral compass, and it should not be repressed under any religious norms or authority. Second, religion should be treated more like a toolbox, from which you take the tools that are good and beneficial, and leave the bad and useless ones. Third, it should be more important to discuss if the values that are being taught are good, rather than how
biblically accurate they are or how historically correct the source for them is.

– Lilith

Published 10.2.2022